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    Anna Li awarded Olympic Trials judging spot despite abuse allegations
    • March 13, 2024

    Anna Li, a former U.S. national team member and eight-time UCLA All-American, has been selected by gymnastics’ national governing body, to judge the vault at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June.

    It’s the same event that Li, while coaching at her family’s gymnastics club in suburban Chicago, screamed at and body-shamed a young gymnast who was still mourning the recent death of her grandmother.

    “Get your fat ass over the vault!” Li screamed at the girl, according to interviews and USA Gymnastics and U.S. Center for SafeSport documents. “You’re too fat to get over the vault!”

    Li, an alternate on both the 2012 Olympic Games and 2011 World Championships gold medal-winning squads, was awarded seven high-profile 2024 judging assignments including the Olympic Trials, the U.S. Championships, and a World Cup by USA Gymnastics judging selection committee in December despite being under investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport since August 2019 for physically, verbally, and emotionally abusing, bullying, body shaming and pressuring young athletes to compete and/or train while injured.

    The selection of Li by a committee that included former U.S. Olympic team coach Kelli Hill and Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 World all-around champion and currently the “technical lead” of USA Gymnastics’ high performance program, was made nearly 10 years after USA Gymnastics received the first in a series of complaints against Li in which gymnasts and their parents alleged over the ensuing decade that Li routinely abused and bullied athletes and then as a coach and judge, while under investigation by SafeSport, retaliated against and attempted to intimidate athletes, other judges, parents, and coaches and who have cooperated with the SafeSport investigation, according to interviews and USA Gymnastics and U.S. Center for SafeSport documents obtained by the Southern California News Group.

    Gymnasts who trained under Li with Legacy Elite Gymnastics in Aurora, Illinois, and their parents, are outraged by USA Gymnastics’ decision to award Li such prestigious judging assignments in the wake of the dozens of abuse allegations against her including her alleged continued misconduct while under investigation.

    “She shouldn’t be allowed to take on the assignments because of the mental and physical abuse she took part in and hurt so many athletes,” said Riley Milbrandt, a former Legacy gymnast. “She should not be allowed that privilege for how she has mistreated so many athletes. She abused me for five years and I still believe she has not learned from her mistakes as a high level coach.”

    “I don’t think she should be in the gym (in any capacity),” said Carmen Scanlon, mother of a former Legacy gymnast. “USA Gymnastics shouldn’t give her anything.”

    Jill Geer, USA Gymnastics chief of communications and marketing, said in an email that “National Governing Bodies have no visibility into any case over which the Center accepts jurisdiction.

    “NGBs also are prohibited from investigating or taking any action that in any way may interfere with a case that is being handled by the Center,” Geer continued. “Any sanctions issued by the Center must be fully enforced by NGBs, including USA Gymnastics.

    “U.S. judging assignments are selected from the small pool of U.S. judges who hold an FIG Brevet,” Geer added,  referring to gymnastics’ international governing bodies’ judge standards. “Any judge who is currently active and eligible may be selected for judging assignments, both international and domestic. All judges currently receiving assignments are fully eligible.”

    Li did not respond to a request for comment.

    Hill and Memmel did not respond to requests for comment.

    Gymnasts and parents are also critical of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, complaining about the length of its nearly five-year investigation of Li and her mother Jiani Wu, an Olympic medalist for China and former USA Gymnastics national team coach. They’re also frustrated that the center did not suspend Li and Wu or restrict their access to minor-age athletes, and that SafeSport has failed to respond to gymnasts’ and parents’ concerns and communications in a timely manner when the center has responded at all.

    “Five years is absolutely ridiculous,” Milbrandt said.

    The U.S. Center for SafeSport began its investigation of Li and Wu in August 2019 following an SCNG report detailing dozens of abuse allegations against the mother and daughter. SafeSport took over jurisdiction of the case from USA Gymnastics, which had briefly investigated Li and Wu in June and July 2019, according to USA Gymnastics and SafeSport documents.

    “We are working diligently to improve the process and provide more consistent communication,” Ju’Riese Colon, SafeSport CEO, said in a statement to SCNG. “Those efforts, as well as any to streamline and expedite resolutions, cannot compromise our commitment to fair and thorough investigations.”

    Li’s judging assignment isn’t the first time USA Gymnastics has been the subject of controversy for awarding her a high profile position. Li was selected by the USA Gymnastics Athletes Council in June 2019 to join the 10-member group that represents athletes with the governing body’s board of directors. Athletes Council members are essentially the voice of athletes with USA Gymnastics. Members of the council share concerns of athletes with the national governing body. Li’s selection came around the same time USA Gymnastics began looking into allegations against Li and Wu.

    Li resigned from the council under pressure on the eve of the USA Gymnastics Championships in August 2019. USA Gymnastics chief executive officer Li Li Leung at the same competition denied to reporters that the organization was aware of complaints against Li and Wu prior to Li being named to the Athletes Council in June 2019.

    But emails obtained by SCNG in 2019 contradict Leung’s claims.

    Mark Busby, then USA Gymnastics general counsel, and Toby R. Stark, then the organization’s director for Safe Sport confirmed in a series of September 2017 emails that USA Gymnastics had received allegations of “verbal, physical and emotional abuse” against Li and Wu.

    Multiple parents have also told SCNG that they first filed complaints about Li and Wu with USA Gymnastics in 2014.

    At least 15 individuals have filed formal complaints against Li and Wu with SafeSport in a case with approximately 50 witnesses. Several other gymnasts and their families have told SCNG they declined to cooperate or stopped cooperating with the investigation because of SafeSport’s lack of responsiveness or out of fear that Li would not be fair in judging gymnasts at national or regional competitions or that she would speak negatively about athletes to college coaches.

    In a February 12 email to complainants, Libby Bailey, the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s assistant director of investigations, wrote “thank you for your continued patience during the process. The Investigation Report has moved under the final phase of review and when complete you will receive a Notice Decision and the full Report.”

    But Bailey also said in the email she was not able to provide “an approximate date” when the report review would be completed.

    For several gymnasts and parents, Bailey’s email sounded strikingly familiar.

    Bailey in July 2021 wrote to former gymnasts and their parents that SafeSport was in “the process of drafting the comprehensive final report” in the Li and Wu investigation

    “We ask that you continue to be patient as we work through the information gathered in the investigation,” Bailey wrote in a July 19, 2021 email to gymnasts and parents. “We will continue to provide updates as they become available.”

    But gymnasts and parents said it has taken SafeSport up to six months to respond to emails, texts or phone calls, if investigators responded at all. Scanlon said she hasn’t heard from SafeSport officials in four years.

    “Not one thing has happened to them. Nothing,” Scanlon said of Li and Wu. “USA Gymnastics doesn’t care about the kids unless they’re at the top level. Anna has been allowed to do everything she wants despite a plethora of allegations against her. The complaints against her are so graphic in detail I don’t know how anyone can ignore them.”

    Gymnasts and their parents allege that Li disparaged gymnasts in front of their peers on a “daily basis,” regularly called girls fat, pressured injured athletes to train or compete, and threatened to make negative comments to college coaches recruiting them if they struggled in training, were unable to train or compete because of injuries or illness, or appeared in Li’s opinion overweight, according to interviews with multiple gymnasts and parents and U.S. Center for SafeSport and USA Gymnastics documents.

    Li was also selected to judge the balance beam at the Olympic Trials. It’s the same apparatus that Scanlon alleges Wu pulled her 10-year-old daughter off of by her hair to the floor when the girl didn’t perform a skill to her satisfaction.

    “Jiani yanked her off the high beam, pulled her to the ground, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to some mats and then sat on her back,” Scanlon said. “I was there. I saw it. I was stupid. I didn’t know what to do. We should have left (the club) that day. We left a month later.”

    Wu on multiple occasions pulled young gymnasts by their hair when she was dissatisfied with their training, including at least one occasion when Wu allegedly pulled a girl by her ponytail all the way to the ground, according to interviews and multiple complaints submitted to U.S. Center for SafeSport and USA Gymnastics.

    “Hair was pulled and girls were constantly body-shamed,” a parent wrote in a formal complaint to SafeSport and USA Gymnastics.

    Another parent in a complaint with SafeSport and USA Gymnastics said she witnessed “hair pulling under the guise of physical coaching.”

    Another complaint alleges a “child had tape placed over (her) mouth for 2 hours” by the coaches.

    Once Wu pushed Milbrandt while she was doing a handstand, sending her crashing into a balance beam, according to a complaint and interviews. Milbrandt was once forced to stand against the wall by herself for two hours as punishment and told she would not be coached or talked to by the coaches, according to interviews and a complaint. Wu told the other gymnasts in Milbrandt’s training group they would also be forced to stand against the wall if they spoke to their teammate, according to a SafeSport document.

    Girls were made to sit in an inflatable pool toy in the corner of the gym as punishment if Li or Wu thought they were not working hard or not making corrections, according to multiple interviews and complaints.

    Gymnasts were forced by Li and Wu to train and compete while injured, according to multiple complaints.

    “Coaches thought they were above the doctors,” one parent alleged in a complaint to SafeSport. “They told the girls that they know more than the doctors do because of the length of time they have been in the sport. They said they never needed lists from doctors, that they knew how to manage all injuries. Therapy lists were torn up and thrown in the garbage.”

    Judges who have worked with Li on judging panels or judged competitions sponsored by Legacy or involving Legacy athletes, as well as gymnasts and their parents, said they are also frustrated and outraged by SafeSport’s refusal to place Li and Wu on interim suspension despite multiple complaints that the coaches have allegedly continued to abuse and intimidate gymnasts and judges since the Center took jurisdiction over the case in 2019, according to interviews and confidential complaints filed with SafeSport.

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    Li tried to intimidate a former Legacy gymnast at an Illinois meet in March 2021, nearly two years after SafeSport began its investigation of Li and Wu, according to complaints and documents submitted to SafeSport. The gymnast and her mother have filed complaints with SafeSport alleging physical, verbal and emotional abuse by Li and Wu, according to SafeSport documents and interviews.

    SafeSport has denied multiple requests to place Li and Wu on interim suspension, according to documents and interviews.

    Under the U.S. Center for SafeSport code, “Retaliation against anyone for engaging in the Center’s processes is prohibited.”

    “Retaliation,” the code said, “includes threatening, intimidating, harassing, coercing or any other conduct that would discourage a reasonable person from engaging or participating in the Center’s processes when the Retaliation does not include good-faith actions lawfully pursued in response to a report of a Code violation.”

    The code also allows SafeSport to place individuals facing abuse allegations on interim suspension, a protective measure pending the outcome of the investigation, according to documents. Individuals placed on interim suspension can then request a hearing within 72 hours.


    ​ Orange County Register