United States coach John Geddert, who was the US women team’s head coach at the London 2012 Olympics, has accused the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation (TTGF) of standing in the way of Thema Williams’ Olympic preparations—in an explosive exchange of emails—after the local body refused to grant permission for the national gymnast to participate in a Level 10 US meet.
Geddert, who trains Williams at his camp in Michigan and led the United States to gold at the last Olympics, warned the local gymnastics body that it was denying crucial “competitive experience” and “athlete motivation” to the Rio-bound gymnast.
The claims were made in a series of emails—dated between Thursday March 10 and Sunday March 13—which provides further acrimonious backdrop to a bizarre standoff between the TTGF and its own star athlete.
TTGF general secretary Elicia Peters-Charles, who responded to Geddert on behalf of the body’s president and COPOS Credit Union general manager David Marquez, confirmed to Wired868 that the emails were authentic but refused to comment on them.
At present, Williams, who is the TTGF’s representative for next month’s Rio 2016 Olympic Test Event, is before the body’s disciplinary committee—along with her alternate, Marisa Dick—after topless photos of the gymnasts were sent to executive members of the federation.
Peters-Charles told Wired868, in a previous interview, that Williams breached the body’s code of conduct and suggested that the TTGF had the right to send another gymnast to Rio in her place, if necessary.
On Wednesday March 16, the TTGF must submit its final choice for the Olympic Test Event or face a fine of 1,000 Swiss francs or TT$6,641. Yet, after three weeks, the body is yet to decide on Williams’ fate.
Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) political leader and trade unionist, David Abdulah, served as a mediator last Wednesday—when the TTGF Disciplinary Committee met—and he revealed that the issue was referred to the TTGF’s council, which comprises of the body’s executive and committee members.
“There was just one meeting (with the TTGF) and the recommendation was made to refer the matter back to the council,” Abdulah told Wired868. “I have not heard anything since, so it is really for the council to say what they were doing.”
Does the fact that the matter was referred to the TTGF council, Wired868 enquired, suggest Williams was deemed to have been improperly sent to the Disciplinary Committee in the first place?
“I really do not want to speak out of turn,” said Abdulah. “If the (TTGF) council were to make an announcement, I could say something after that. The council has to act first.”
Four days ago, Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee president Brian Lewis told Wired868 that he was frustrated with the slow pace of the TTGF’s disciplinary process.
But even as Lewis urged the body to act swiftly in the interest of its Rio-bound athlete, leaked emails suggested that Williams’ coach, Geddert, and the TTGF were having a spectacular disagreement about what constituted the gymnast’s best interest.
In the emails, Peters-Charles claimed to be acting on behalf of Marquez. TTGF second vice president, Ricardo Lue Shue, who was president of the body from 2008 to 2015, is also believed to be an influential member of the body.
The rest of the TTGF executive includes first vice president Akil Wattley, treasurer Susanne Babooram and Lue Shue’s wife, Donna Lue Shue, who serves as assistant treasurer.
Williams’ Olympic Games contract gives the TTGF the right to take the ultimate sanction against the athlete for performing at a meet that is not directly sanctioned by either the local body or the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG).
Athletes Agreement (Section 1.3): “I understand that my participation in gymnastics competitions, exhibitions and/or events that are not sanctioned by the TTGF, or the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) may jeopardise my eligibility to participate in competitions sanctioned by the FIG.”
Peters-Charles, in one email, suggested that the Level 10 meet was not worthy of an international athlete.
“Having spoken to the President, while we agree that it is important for our elite athletes to compete to maintain readiness,” stated the email, “we are not in agreement with them being elite athletes yet entering any competition as Level 10 athletes.
“Unfortunately, we categorically say no to Thema entering this competition as a Level 10 athlete for the aforementioned reasons.”
A TTGF executive member, who did not want to be identified, insisted Section 1.3 of the athletes’ contract meant that the gymnasts could only participate in FIG or TTGF events and not that they could compete in other events once sanctioned.
“If the federation should breach clause three,” said the source, “then Marisa should sue us and go to Rio. Because the contract would be null and void.”
Ironically, as Geddert pointed out, the TTGF allowed Williams to participate in four Level 10 competitions last year before the 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics Championship in Glasgow.
Williams’ performance at that World Championship was a record for a Trinidad and Tobago gymnast, as she finished 59th overall and 18 places higher than national teammate and current alternate, Marisa Dick. And, in so doing, the former Tots and Tumblers gymnast qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympic Test Event.
“This is the same request that was honored last year where we participated in four Level 10 competitions,” stated Geddert, “as a part of the training plan that produced very satisfying results at the 2015 World Championships…
“Your federation does not know my athlete nor what she needs in terms of the preparation process. It seems a better role would be to support our efforts rather than stand in the way.”
The TTGF source countered that Williams, as an international athlete, would be dropping a level to participate in the meet proposed by Geddert.
And what about the fact that she participated in four Level 10 meets last year?
“She had not qualified for the Olympic Test Event then,” said the TTGF council member. “She is an elite international athlete now.”
In fact, Williams competed in her first World Championship in 2011 and had been a senior elite international athlete for nearly five years.
Geddert, in his emails, argued that the proposed Level 10 meet was meant to fill a “gaping hole” in the TTGF’s own outlined preparation for the Olympic event while it was the most cost effective alternative available to her.
And he urged Marquez and Peters-Charles to reconsider their stance in the interest of their own Trinidad and Tobago athlete.
“Our alternative at this point is do nothing for the next 5 weeks,” stated Geddert, who steered the United States to gold at the London 2012 Olympics. “Is nothing better than putting the performances in front of judges? (…) No coach wants to go untested for 5 weeks prior to a major event!
“(…) It seems the (TTGF) decision is based on some extreme misconception that Level 10 gymnastics is ‘unworthy’ of elite participation.
“This is misguided information when in fact a good majority of our top Level 10s in the USA would be considered elites in many countries of the world. Likewise many elites from around the world would be considered Level 10s in the USA…
“In Thema’s financial situation she can not afford to jump on a plane and attend an adequate number of FIG competitions around the world. She has limited financial support…
“Would it be nice to schedule meets abroad? Absolutely? But fiscal responsibility must prevail and thus JO competitions serve a very valuable purpose.”
Geddert claimed also that Williams would benefit mentally from competing alongside her teammates at the meet since: “even the most driven and dedicate athlete can tire of the same ole routine.”
Peters-Charles’ responses, in the emails forwarded by an anonymous source, were vague as to the body’s reason for denying Williams.
In one letter, the TTGF general secretary claimed unspecified lingering “concerns.”
“At this juncture, we do have some concerns about this request,” stated Peters-Charles, “and look forward to you replying to the email sent by (Gymnastics for All committee member) Sarah Lambert to you on the January 2016 report which you submitted, since the questions contained therein were never addressed by you.”
Geddert claimed to be mystified by the suggestion.
“I am not sure what email you are referring to (from) Sarah Lambert,” stated Geddert. “I have checked my email and spam and do not find any emails from her (dating) January 2016 to present. I have been very diligent with my responses to the requests of the (TTGF).
“I fully understand that a professional response time is part of the responsibilities but have struggled getting the same courtesy from some members of the (TTGF). If you could have her send her questions I would be more than happy to answer them to the best of my ability.”
It is uncertain whether Peters-Charles ever sent the aforementioned questions to Geddert.
“The bottom line for considering this request (to participate at the Level 10 meet),” stated the Michigan-based coach, “should be ‘would competing in this competition in any way lessen Thema chances for success at the test event?’ The answer is NO.
“‘Would competing in this competition serve as an advantage for Thema?’ The answer is YES. Then why deny the opportunity?”
However, the TTGF source insisted that the local body would not “make an exception” for Williams to participate at the event, since, in the official’s opinion, it would be unethical to do so and open the board up to legal action from Dick.
In one email, Peters-Charles warned Geddert and Williams that there may be consequences if they did not follow instructions.
“Note carefully if you should do otherwise,” stated the TTGF general secretary, “it come be deemed a fundamental breach of the athlete’s contract.”
Meanwhile, the deadline nears for the TTGF to announce its representative for the Olympic Test Event.
According to Abdulah, it has been five days since a recommendation was made for the matter to be moved from the Disciplinary Committee to the TTGF Council. He does not know what has happened since.
On Sunday night, the First Citizens Bank held its annual Sports Foundation Awards ceremony. The TTGF applied for the Jeffrey Stollmeyer Award in the Small Category but lost out to the Chess Association.
The gymnastics body’s nominated Dick, rather than Williams, for the 2015 Sportswoman of the Year award.
In its profile of the athlete, the TTGF stated that: “Along with teammate, Thema Williams, Dick earned a berth in the Olympic Games test event in Rio de Janeiro.”
In truth, there is only one berth available to Trinidad and Tobago for the Test Event.
By Wednesday, the gymnastics federation must make its choice.
Leaked email from gymnastics coach John Geddert to the TTGF:
From: John Geddert
Sent: Fri, Mar 11, 2016 2:56 pm
Subject: Re: Thema Williams Request
Ms Peters-Charles and associates,
I am not sure what email you are referring to from Sarah Lambert. I have checked my email and spam and do not find any emails from her dates January 2016 to present.
I have been very diligent with my responses to the requests of the TTO. I fully understand that a professional response time is part of the responsibilities but have struggled getting the same courtesy from some members of the TTO.
If you could have her send her questions I would be more than happy to answer them to the best of my ability.
In regards to your “categorical” no to the request to provide my athlete with a well deserved and needed competitive experience, I would ask that the TTO reconsider.
It seems the decision is based on some extreme misconception that Level 10 gymnastics is “unworthy” of elite participation.
This is misguided information when in fact a good majority of our top Level 10s in the USA would be considered elites in many countries of the world. Likewise many elites from around the world would be considered Level 10s in the USA.
The talent pool is strong and provides worthy opponents for aspiring and growing elites. Many USA elites use the JO system interchangeably as a way of providing experience via convenient and cost effective opportunities.
In Thema’s financial situation she can not afford to jump on a plane and attend an adequate number of FIG competitions around the world. She has limited financial support and her current tuition and travel bill at Twistars USA is over $6,000.
Would it be nice to schedule meets abroad? Absolutely? But fiscal responsibility must prevail and thus JO competitions serve a very valuable purpose.
This is the same request that was honored last year where we participated in 4 Level 10 competitions as a part of the training plan that produced very satisfying results at the 2015 World Championships. It would seem that my plan for Thema would be considered a priority here.
Your federation does not know my athlete nor what she needs in terms of the preparation process. It seems a better role would be to support our efforts rather than stand in the way. Our alternative at this point is do nothing for the next 5 weeks.
Is nothing better than putting the performances in front of judges? Few could present a case that it is. No coach wants to go untested for 5 weeks prior to a major event!
Your proposed competitive schedule (the one I repeatedly asked for clarification and information long before anything was officially disclosed) left a gaping hole in a strategic training plan (From WOGA/GymNix to the Test Event).
You did not provide any options the fill that gap and therefore we chose the convenience and cost effective local competition.
Additionally in terms of athlete motivation, even the most driven and dedicate athlete can tire of the same ole routine. FIG competitions for Thema were basically her traveling by herself, competing alone without the support of her teammates.
She trains with a team and deserves the opportunity to compete with her training partners. She has earned the right to compete as part of a team, to contribute to a team accomplishment.
This can be stimulating for an athlete. It can add fuel to the motivational fire.
Obviously this is not a major goal, as we must keep our eye on the prize (The Test Event and Olympic Qualifications), but it certainly is worthy of mentioning.
The bottom line for considering this request should be “would competing in this competition in any way lessen Thema chances for success at the test event?” The answer is NO.
“Would competing in this competition serve as an advantage for Thema?” The answer is Yes.
Then why deny the opportunity?
If we had intended on performing lesser routines then there might be a case for this competition not serving any purpose. We fully intend on competing the same routines that she will use over the next few months. Now is the time to start ramping up.
Furthermore it seems contradictory to require participation in you National Championships, which I believe are judged under Level 10 JO Rules, where the only benefit would be self serving for the TTO. In this case the benefit is for the athlete.
I am not saying that participation in the national event is not important. I believe all national team athletes should give back to the sport that has provided them with such great opportunities but it seems a strange placement of priorities in this case.
I also understand the importance of FIG competitions. In this situation we are talking about providing the best opportunity with serious consideration given the to timing of the event, the cost factors involved, and how much the competition would impact current training (we would rather not take a week out of the gym).
If an FIG event was cost effective, and convenient we would certainly have taken that option. I ask for you to reconsider this denial of my request.
Twistars USA Gymnastics Club
2012 USA Olympic Team Head Coach
2011 USA World Team Head Coach