Jessica Shuran Yu, who was born and raised in China but represented Singapore in international figure skating events, has opened up about the training abuse she and other young skaters endured from coaches in China and is now urging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to do more to protect vulnerable young athletes.
In an interview with The Guardian published on Tuesday (July 21), Ms Yu recounted the physical and verbal abuse she experienced during training, including being struck with a plastic skate guard regularly when she made mistakes, and getting kicked in the shin with such force that she still carries the scar from the incident.
Ms Yu’s interview came out on the same day that she posted her story of abuse on Instagram.
She wrote, “I was eleven years old when the physical abuse started….Sometimes he (her coach) would strike at my legs or arms without warning. On especially bad days, I would get hit more than 10 times in a row until my skin was raw.
He would also kick…. There were a few days when I was really struggling with my jumps. He would call me over and make me stand very, very close to him. Once I was close enough, he would kick me in the shin using the toe-pick of his blade. Even though I would be bleeding from his kick, I would have to turn around and continue practice without limping as to avoid angering him more.”
She went on to say that two weeks before the qualifying event for the 2018 Olympics she had broken down in the locker room because of stress. When the young athlete would not stop crying, he kicked her foot so badly that she could not jump and had to rest for two days.
“The reality is my coach injured me before the most important competition of my career. And he refused to admit it. He gaslit me. He told me I was being dramatic. He told me it wasn’t his fault, that my ankle was just acting up and he had nothing to do with it.”
And while the physical abuse “levelled off” as Ms Yu began competing as a senior, she said that the mental and verbal abuse continued. Her coach called the skaters “lazy”, “stupid”, “r*tarded”, “useless” and “fat” so loudly people could hear them being berated from another room.
She added that the diets and weight of the skaters were vigilantly watched, with some athletes developing eating disorders and even Ms Yu started binge eating.
The skater wrote that she is finally beginning to heal after over two years of retirement from competitive skating, and decided to open up about the cruel treatment she and other young athletes endured after reading about the experience of American gymnast Laurie Hernandez, and after watching the Netflix show Athlete A, which featured the sexual abuse of young gymnasts in the United States.
She wrote that it is only recently that she has come to terms with what really happened. “I never acknowledged what I went through was abuse. Only after reading Laurie Hernandez’ story was I able to start processing my past. There are many reasons it took me so long, but one of the most significant reasons is because throughout everything, I was led to believe that I deserve it.
Also, abuse of athletes is so common in China I believed it to be a ‘cultural’ thing. With recent allegations from American and British athletes, I realize it’s not just a Chinese cultural thing but a toxicity the plagues athletic sports like gymnastics and figure skating environments in which adults can easily exploit young girls with big dreams.
That is exactly why am sharing my story. I don’t want anyone to go through what I did. But I can speak up. I may not have influence of an Olympian, but I still have a voice. The (sic) Singaporean actually trained in China, I am in a unique position to discuss the culture of abuse in a place where aunt (sic) lives don’t have the same opportunities to speak.”
She told The Guardian that she hopes the IOC will be able to use its influence to help prevent abusive behaviour from coaches, given that China will be hosting the next Winter Olympics in a year and a half.
Ms Yu has also reached out to the Singapore Ice Skating Association and Singapore Safe Sport to speak up about what she experienced in order to protect other young athletes.
“There was a point in my life when the abuse made me hate the sport. I dreaded going to practice, wished for car accidents and sobbed through entire training sessions. But I know now that what I hated wasn’t skating, it was the cruelty. Young athletes should be able to love their sport without going through what I and so many others have.” —/TISG