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Two "Bluewater Survivors" say they were re-victimized by gymnastics investigation

Former Canadian Gymnastics coach Dave Brubaker arrives at the courthouse with his wife Elizabeth Brubaker in Sarnia, Ont, on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. Former gymnast Abby Spadafora and another of the 11 athletes known as the Bluewater Survivors publicly criticized the handling of their abuse complaint by Gymnastics Canada. Spadafora and the second gymnast known as Athlete B were among the 11 who lodged an abuse complaint Jan. 15, 2019 against coaches Dave and Elizabeth Brubaker.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Spowart

Abby Spadafora learned to smuggle food early in her gymnastics career.

If her well-meaning parents packed her granola bars for a trip, Spadafora would bury them deep in her suitcase like contraband, since they weren't permitted on the strict diet she said her coaches Dave and Elizabeth Brubaker had her following from the age of 13.

"I wasn't a big eater, but yeah, you learned quickly how to hide food," she said. "You would always be starving."

Spadafora and a second gymnast known as Athlete B, who are two of the 11 former gymnasts known as the Bluewater Survivors, publicly criticized the handling of their abuse investigation by Gymnastics Canada, saying Tuesday they were re-victimized by their forced silence.

"We were constantly told, 'Don't say or post anything publicly about what you are going through. Don't say or post anything about the abuse you endured, because if you do, it will be used against you in the hearing process," the two said in their statement Tuesday morning.

"So out of fear of ruining the case, we kept silent," the statement said. "We went about our everyday life while silently struggling with being put through a process from hell! One would think that the Gymnastics Canada process would protect victims. However, that process did the complete opposite by continuously re-victimizing all of us."

The 11 gymnasts — Spadafora, Melanie (Rocca) Hunt, April Nicholls, Alheli Picazo, Alysia Topol, and six others referred to as "Athletes A, B, H, I, J and K" — comprise the core group of athletes who lodged an abuse complaint Jan. 15, 2019, pushed for the third-party investigation and testified in the 2020 disciplinary procedure with Gymnastics Canada.

Spadafora, who's now 38, said she was psychologically, verbally and physically abused by both Brubakers from the age of seven, and sexually abused by Dave Brubaker.

"Personally, I didn't realize that I was sexually abused until a police officer told me (in 2017) that I was," she said.

Spadafora said she was already training 25 hours a week at the age of seven. Injuries, she said, weren't considered serious unless "you ended up in a cast." Twice a day, the gymnasts would line up to be weighed. Spadafora would covertly hang her heels off the back of the scale. Results would be posted in the coaches' office. Any weight gain meant running in garbage bags to burn it off.

A typical dinner on her strict diet was fruit, vegetables and skinless/boneless chicken.

"I don't even think I weighed 80 pounds (at 13). We were very, very tiny," she said of her teammates.

The coaches, Spadafora said, created an atmosphere of fear that saw parents barred from watching practice. Kids were told what happens in the gym stays in the gym. Any complaints from parents were met with harsher treatment at practice.

"I had wonderful parents," she said. "(But) my mom is still learning the things that happened to me that I hid from her."

Spadafora said she still carries the emotional scars from her 12 years with the Brubakers. She had an eating disorder while competing for the University of Arizona. She notes her coaches there knew nothing of the abuse she suffered. She struggles with body image issues.

"I never wear a bikini, I don't feel comfortable, I always feel like I have to cover certain parts of my body," she said.

The word "fat" is never used in her house, she said, and doesn't talk about diets in front of her six-year-old son or daughter, who's 12. She still struggles with eating in public.

"It's an ongoing battle that never fully goes away," she said.

Last week, former gymnast Amelia Cline filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against Gymnastics Canada and six provincial gymnastics federations — B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario. The proposed class of plaintiffs claim physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse while participating in programs delivered by those organizations dating back to 1978.

Spadafora told The Canadian Press she's undecided whether she'll join the class-action suit.

She and Athlete B were among the 450 signatories of a letter to Sport Canada demanding an independent third-party investigation into what they called Gymnastics Canada's "toxic culture" of abuse and silence.

Spadafora said the Brubaker investigation involved numerous interviews, and a gruelling three hours of cross-examination during the hearing.

"This was not a matter of us telling our story, this was us constantly having to prove it," she said. "They tried to rip apart the truth. I would go into a panic attack because of the hearing and being cross-examined and called a liar. It was horrendous."

"GymCan has sealed it," she added, on the results of the third-party investigation done by Lauren Bernardi. "To this day, we 11 survivors have not been allowed to see it, even though it contains our personal stories of abuse."

According to the Bluewater Survivors, so named because Brubaker was coach and director of Bluewater Gymnastics in Sarnia, Ont., a March 2021 disciplinary judgment found 54 counts of misconduct, including emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse, in the couple's capacity as coaches over multiple years, up to and including the year of Dave Brubaker's arrest in 2017.

Brubaker, who coached Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was banned for life by Gymnastics Canada last year after the internal investigation into multiple complaints. He'd been suspended in 2017 after he was arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse. He was found not guilty, but GymCan launched its own investigation after numerous complaints.

His wife Elizabeth was suspended in 2019 through 2024.

The Brubakers have denied all allegations and attempts to reach them were unsuccessful. Gymnastics Canada didn't reply to a request for comment. The Brubakers withdrew an appeal to Gymnastics Canada last month.

Spadafora, whose daughter is in dance and son plays soccer, said she still "believes sports are wonderful."

She's thankful for the chance to speak about her experience finally, particularly because during the investigation the gymnastics couldn't speak to or support each other.

"So we felt very alone," Spadafora said. "I want people to know that you're not alone, that there's people supporting you, there's people who believe you.

"Gymnastics is a beautiful sport, but it needs to change. No child in gymnastics should experience any form of abuse, and those of us who are retired and are finding the strength to speak out and now understanding that this is not right, that this is abuse, if our voices and our stories are going to help educate parents and help children be protected, it's worth it.

"I'm definitely in a better place to speak and know that I don't have to be ashamed of the things that happened to me. I was a child when these things started."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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