Engage: ‘I still have nightmares’ – Nurse who is a survivor of abuse within gymnastics tells her story

A survivor of abuse within gymnastics says she still has nightmares about what happened to her as a child and even now feels “terrified” and “physically sick” when she smells the perfume worn by her coaches.

Former England gymnast Nicole Pavier (pictured) provided testimony to the Whyte Review into the mistreatment of athletes within the sport, which was published on Thursday.

The Review received over 400 submissions and detailed systemic physical and psychological abuse, which it said centred around British Gymnastics’ prioritising of cash and success over athlete welfare.

In a wide-ranging interview with the PA news agency, Pavier:

  • Said she had experienced abusive practices at clubs in two completely separate parts of the country
  • Said she had been forced to continue training on the bars even when her hands were bleeding through her gloves
  • Revealed she had been the victim of weight-shaming techniques and suffered from an eating disorder, which she did not fully recover from until she was in her early 20s
  • Expressed a lack of confidence in UK Sport and its chief executive Sally Munday, who she said had been “dismissive” about the extent of the problems within gymnastics
  • Called for a register to be set up allowing parents to see if coaches had ever been suspended as part of a safeguarding investigation and warned parents were being “set up for a fall” if this did not happen
  • Said she does not believe the sport is safe for children as things stand

Pavier, who is 26 and now works as a nurse, said nothing in the Whyte Review had come as a shock to her. She started out at the Bristol Hawks club before moving to the Notts Gymnastic Academy.

She said: “When I was very young there was physical abuse, forcing me to physically do skills I was terrified of doing, and then kind of dropping me from the beam and dragging me back to do the skills, or forcing me to train on stress fractures in my back when I was crying in pain and not being believed.

“I wasn’t tied to the bar but we have these things called straps that are strapped up, and I was on that bar for so long that the blood was coming through my gloves and I was forced to continue.

“I moved away from that club and moved to Nottingham and experienced a lot of psychological abuse there, gaslighting, being made to feel like I was never good enough and then a lot of extreme weight management or weight-shaming techniques.

“By the end of my career, I was medically retired with fractures in my spine and a severe eating disorder.

“I spent that last year of my career in hospital having operations and also getting treatment for an eating disorder that didn’t really sort itself out until I was 22, 23 years old.

“It still has an impact now and I still have PTSD. I have the nightmares from things that happened to me when I was a child. I have to avoid places.

“I still have weird smell responses to the perfume my coaches wore, it makes me physically sick – like I’m just that terrified still. It has a massive knock-on impact on the rest of your life.”

Pavier said she would love to advise parents to allow their children to take part in gymnastics but added: “I don’t think we’re there yet with it being safe.”

She urged British Gymnastics to provide a more open approach on safeguarding and said: “I think there should be some type of sporting register for coaches so that parents at least have the knowledge when they walk into that gym that this coach has been suspended for X amount of time because of these allegations that had to be investigated. We have to protect people a little bit.

“It’s been frustrating. I’ve seen comments on social media saying ‘I’m going to take my child to this club’, which was my old gymnastics club, and someone went ‘oh, there are lots of allegations made last year’ and the response was ‘Oh, well, none of them went to court, so it didn’t happen’. Which is obviously not the case.

“We are potentially setting families up for a fall with them not having the knowledge and the power to make those decisions.”

Pavier agrees with the Review’s finding that some of the abuse was “systemic” and criticised UK Sport chief executive Sally Munday.

“She kind of dismissed this back in 2020 as a few bad apples. Actually what the Whyte Review has shown is what we already knew – that this is systemic,” said Pavier.

“There may need to be changes in leadership there to actually kind of push through change with British Gymnastics.”

She believes a blind eye was turned to the abuse, “because success was being achieved with those techniques”.

Pavier added: “It wasn’t the priority of British Gymnastics to create a culture that was safe for (athletes). They had the financial means to be able to make improvements to safeguarding and they chose not to.”

The Gymnasts For Change group has called for action at Government level, including the introduction of mandatory reporting and an independent ombudsman for sport.

Pavier said: “That would be a massive step in making sure athletes are protected and that people in the power positions don’t have an influence over that, so people feel confident to raise concerns and that they will actually be listened to.

“It needs to go to a Government level. Because, at the end of the day, we were children and it’s child abuse.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2022, All Rights Reserved. Peter Byrne / PA.