To watch Naomi and Ruby van Dijk practising their routines on the balance beam is to see how much they love gymnastics. But their smiles and laughter belie how this sport has treated them over the years. Only now, they say, can they love it again.
At the age of 10, the twins were chosen to train at an elite training center in Bergisch Gladbach, near Cologne. It had started well for them there, until various organizational changes left them with a coach who “didn’t want to train us.” DW is not naming the coach for legal reasons.
The situation led to a dip in their performances, causing a breakdown in the relationship. Naomi and Ruby, now 26, say they were called fat and lazy, and forced to travel to competitions alone.
“The worst thing was when he said he wouldn’t come with us because we were embarrassing him,” Ruby says. “When you’re 14 or 15, you need a coach who supports you, no matter how badly you do. He always put us down just before the competition, saying: ‘You’re too heavy, you’re embarrassing me.'”
Naomi says they were regularly berated for what the coach saw as a lack of strength. On one occasion during a bars exercise, she says “he dropped me on purpose [on my head],” to teach her a lesson.
“He pushed me two or three times to go down lower,” Naomi said. “But I knew he wasn’t holding me properly. That’s why I didn’t go any lower. And then I did under pressure, but he let go of me and said: ‘There, you see.'”
Accused of lying
Their complaints were brushed aside by the coach, who told them they were being “disrespectful.” When Naomi and Ruby took the matter to the local gymnastics association, the Rheinischer Turnerbund (RTB), they say they were accused of lying and made to feel that they were the problem.
“I still remember when I was 14, I just didn’t want to wear my gym outfit any more,” Naomi recalls, reflecting on that period. “I always thought everything about me was wrong – how I look, where I come from, what I do, how I talk, who I am. It really hurt me as a person back then.”
In an emailed statement to DW, the RTB said it has a “zero-tolerance attitude towards physical and psychological violence of any kind.”
The statement continued: “The RTB takes the allegations raised very seriously and will clarify the facts as soon as possible. The association is surprised by the allegations, as there have so far been no indications regarding [the coach’s] training methods.”
Ruby says they were ultimately given three options: “‘Either you quit, you get on with the coach, or you move to another [training] center.'”
Problems in Chemnitz
They opted for the latter and switched to the Olympic training center in Chemnitz. Despite the upheaval, the twins still harbored dreams of Olympic success and saw the move as an opportunity – but their ordeal didn’t end there.
Earlier this month, reports in German news magazine Der Spiegel uncovered wide-ranging allegations of abuse at the center. A dozen other gymnasts have come forward to accuse the head coach in Chemnitz, Gabriele Frehse, of bullying them and making them train through injuries.
The accusations follow a wave of allegations this year by gymnasts in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia. They were emboldened by the Netflix documentary “Athlete A,” which chronicles the sex abuse scandal involving Larry Nassar, the disgraced US gymnastics team doctor.
Naomi and Ruby say they probably would have kept their silence if it wasn’t for the forthright denials by Frehse, who has called the allegations against her “baseless,” claiming she had “never overstepped the mark.”
“We can definitely confirm these aren’t baseless allegations that the other girls have made,” Ruby insists. “Two or three of them were with us in Chemnitz and we witnessed how badly they were treated. We can easily say it’s not baseless.”
Frehse has been suspended pending an investigation by the German Gymnastics Federation (DTB). In a statement responding to a list of questions, the DTB said it was looking into all the allegations, including those made by Naomi and Ruby.
“It is important that the cases are independently investigated,” the DTB said. “If the investigations show that structural changes have to be made, the DTB will actively address them. We do not accept any climate of fear in our gyms.”
Parliamentarian: Allegations ‘credible’
Dagmar Freitag, head of the German parliament’s sports committee, said she found the allegations “credible” and confirmed that her committee would be scrutinizing the topic in in the new year.
“Think of the coaches, think of the medical doctors, they all have close contact with very young people,” Freitag told DW in an interview. “But to misuse that power can destroy the souls of young people and that’s not acceptable at all.”
“I’m not really surprised [about the allegations]. But in the end, I’m surprised about how our sports federations handled it. I think they could have done much more,” she added.
Competing in pain
At the time, the twins felt like they couldn’t speak up because of their reputation as troublemakers.
“All we wanted was to be accepted in the training group and just train,” Naomi says. “We didn’t want to be a nuisance. So that’s why we didn’t mention a lot of things.”
Feeling powerless and alone, Naomi and Ruby could at least count on each other for support. Other girls at the center didn’t even have that. One of Naomi’s best friends had “many psychological problems” and self-harmed. “She cut herself a lot and tried to hide it,” Naomi says.
The twins can also testify to the medical practices at the center. They say that girls were shepherded in and out of doctors’ appointments, where high-strength painkillers and injections were handed out freely without prescriptions and without the knowledge of the girls’ parents.
Ruby says she was forced to ignore her constant back pain, even though she would eventually require an operation. One of the coaches in Chemnitz told her that it was simply precompetition nerves.
“She would often tell me I was imagining the pain in my back, that I didn’t know the difference between sore muscles and real pain,” said Ruby, who was also denied access to her MRT scans. “That went on for a year and a half, and at some point I believed I was imagining it too.”
Thomas Weise, manager of the Olympic training center in Chemnitz, declined to comment on the specific allegations while the investigation is ongoing.
For all the problems they experienced, Naomi and Ruby are reluctant to single out individuals. Rather, they blame a system that concentrates power and authority in the hands of a few people who are rarely held accountable for their actions.
“I would just say there are other ways to succeed,” Ruby said. “We only think: ‘It was done that way for years.’ But that doesn’t mean it should stay like that in the future.”