‘We were just children’: Canadian gymnasts speak out against culture of abuse in their sport

It’s a scene that didn’t make it into the documentary but is deeply revealing all the same.

While sitting around a backyard bonfire in their hometown of Sarnia, Ont., Abby Spadafora and Mel Hunt sound like so many other thirty-something moms.

They talk about their kids, housing prices in the area and long lost acquaintances. But when the reminiscing turns to the years they spent together training as elite athletes, the conversation takes a dark turn.

“We were just children, you know, doing a sport we love. And some people took advantage,” Abby told CTV W5.

Abby Spadafora speaks with CTV W5

Like a lot of gymnasts, Mel and Abby were not even school age when they were first introduced to the sport. By eight years of age both were training competitively at Sarnia’s then renowned Bluewater gym.

In the years that followed, they became among Canada’s top gymnasts in their respective age groups, competing internationally as members of Team Canada and dreaming of the ultimate goal: representing Canada at the Olympics.

Their head coach was a noted taskmaster, Dave Brubaker.

“He says jump, you say ‘how high,'” recalled Abby. “I was petrified when I was in there.”

Nevertheless, the girls excelled under Brubaker’s tutelage, capturing medals and countless headlines in the local papers. From the outside it appeared an ideal match: a strict though knowledgeable and caring coach, paired with talented and committed athletes. The reality of the true nature of those relationships remained a secret for years.

”Nobody knew anything,” said Mel.

Mel Hunt speaks with CTV W5

It would take nearly two decades before the truth about Brubaker’s behaviour and methods would come to light.

“I thought I was going to the grave with all of it,” said Abby.

In 2019, more than a decade after they had stopped competing, Mel and Abby were among a group of 11 gymnasts that filed a complaint against Brubaker with Gymnastics Canada.

A three-year investigative process ensued, but in the end a disciplinary committee determined 54 of their allegations were credible. Among those allegations, it was found that Brubaker had “caused an athlete to land on her head during training” … that he was “inappropriately affectionate” with an athlete and had told her he “wanted to touch her” … and that he engaged in inappropriate massaging with an athlete … including “sliding his hand under her underwear.”

Brubaker was banned for life from coaching gymnastics in Canada.

“It’s amazing,” said Abby, “all of us who have come forward and found the strength to do this. I’m so thankful.”

In coming forward, Mel and Abby have joined a growing number of voices denouncing the treatment of gymnasts by coaches, trainers and administrators.

In May 2022, a class action lawsuit was launched against Gymnastics Canada and provincial gymnastics bodies across the country alleging systemic negligence.

Five months later, in October 2022, a group called Gymnasts for Change, representing more than 500 current and former gymnasts, called for a public inquiry into what they say is the sport’s toxic culture.

For Abby, it’s simple. The coaching, the training methods, the treatment of the athletes all requires a complete overhaul. “The culture, everything. Everything has to change. Bottom up. Top down.”

‘Broken: The Toxic Culture of Canadian Gymnastics’ is a co-production between W5, TSN and Crave. You can see the W5 version Saturday at 7pm. The feature length documentary is also available now on Crave.

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