Figure skater Yu Shuran speaks out about 'systemic abuse' by coaches

Singapore figure skater Jessica Shuran Yu.
PHOTO: Instagram/_jessicayu_

Singaporean figure skater Jessica Shuran Yu, who was born, raised and trained in China, has spoken out about the verbal, mental and physical abuse she received from coaches.

In an Instagram post on Wednesday, which was timed with an interview with The Guardian where she described her treatment as “dehumanising”, Yu shared her experience.

The essay across six images, which detailed her time in China, was captioned: “My story, in response to Athlete A and Gymnast Alliance. TRIGGER WARNING: abuse, eating disorder.”

Released last month, Athlete A is the Netflix film that tells the story of US gymnast Maggie Nichols, who first reported sexual abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar that was covered up by US Gymnastics.

Many other gymnasts, including several members of their Olympic teams, came forward to report their own experience of sexual abuse by Nassar, who was jailed in 2018, and of systemic mental and physical abuse in the sport. Athletes in other federations have followed suit.

“Well, it doesn’t end with gymnastics,” the 19-year-old Yu wrote. “I remember being nine years old and asked if I was willing to do whatever it takes to get to the Olympics. I said yes. There was no way I could have understood what I was saying yes to.”

Yu then listed a catalogue of physical abuse. “I was 11 years old when the physical abuse started,” she wrote of being hit with a plastic skate guard by her coach.

“Sometimes, he would strike at my legs or arms without warning. This would happen both in the middle of practice, in front of everyone at the rink, and after practice, in secluded areas where he could yell at me and hit me even harder. On especially bad days, I would get hit more than 10 times in a row, until my skin was raw.”

Beijing-born Yu – who represented Singapore, the country of her father’s birth, at the 2017 Southeast Asian Games – also wrote that she was kicked by her coach, with incidents reaching a head when she was 14.

“It wasn’t uncommon for me to lose my balance from the impact of his boot. But that pain couldn’t compare to the incidents of this one summer, when I was 14. 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.”

Yu told of another incident at the Nebelhorn Trophy, the last qualifier for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where another kick from the coach left her unable to jump.

“I was having some blade alignment issues and I had a breakdown in the locker room due to the stress. I had my right leg propped up on my suitcase, with my foot hanging loose off the edge. My crying annoyed him. He told me to stop and when I didn’t, he got very suddenly angry and kicked my foot, causing my heel to retract. When I got on the ice 15 minutes later, I couldn’t jump with my right foot. I had to take two days off. Two days off right before Olympic qualifiers."

“I want to make it clear that I do not blame my unsuccessful attempt at qualifying for the Olympics on this incident. This is something I have thought a lot about and there were many reasons I didn’t make it. But 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.”

Yu wrote that “the physical abuse levelled off when I started competing in the seniors” but “the verbal and mental abuse was consistent” and she cannot remember a time without it.

The verbal abuse was daily, she wrote, being called “Lazy. Stupid. Ret*rded. Useless. And fat.” That criticism of her weight and diet led Yu to question her “value as an athlete” and episodes of binge eating.

“More than two years out of retirement, I am finally starting to heal. Up until recently, I never acknowledged that what I went through was abuse. In fact, I never told anyone about it,” she wrote.

“Only after reading Laurie Hernandez’s story [the Olympic gymnastic champion was subjected to years of mental and emotional abuse by her former coach] 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 deserved 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 realise it’s not just a Chinese cultural thing but a toxicity that plagues aesthetic sports like gymnastics and figure-skating environments, in which adults can easily exploit young girls with big dreams.

“I may not have the influence of an Olympian, but I still have a voice. As a Singaporean athlete who trained in China, I am in a unique position to discuss the culture of abuse in a place where athletes don’t have the same opportunities to speak up.

“At the end of the day, I still love skating. I love being on the ice. But 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.”

View this post on Instagram

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A post shared by Jessica Shuran Yu (@_jessicayu_) on Feb 19, 2018 at 5:01am PST

“Young athletes should be able to love their sport without going through what I and so many others have,” Yu wrote, urging others to share their stories.

“Just know that I stand with you. I stand with every single victim, in gymnastics, in skating, and in any other sport. I stand with every brave person who has ever told their story, before and after me. Lastly, I stand with everyone who is willing to be a part of creating safe spaces.”

The Guardian reported that Yu has contacted the Singapore Ice Skating Association and Singapore Safe Sport to detail her experiences.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.