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Former Coquitlam gymnasts allege abuse in class-action lawsuit

Amelia Cline, the named plaintiff, claims she was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by two coaches at the Tri-City facility.

Warning: Details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.

Amelia Cline was a gymnast who competed at high levels in the sport for nearly 10 years.

She started at six, joined Coquitlam's Omega Gymnastics Sports Club at nine, but quit at 14 years old, alleging she and several other teammates were abused by a pair of coaches that joined the Tri-City program — sexually, physically and emotionally.

As a result, Cline and as many as 20 members thus far are suing Gymnastics Canada, Gymnastics BC and five other provincial-governing bodies, claiming lasting physical and psychological damage.

The 32-page proposed class-action lawsuit was filed today (May 11) in the Supreme Court of B.C., and makes several abuse claims between now and as far back as 1978.

"The defendants caused or contributed to the abuse of gymnasts by creating a culture and an environment where the abuse could occur, and failing to take appropriate steps to protect the athletes in their care and control, many of whom were children when the abuse took place," said the statement of claim, adding gymnastics coaches often spend long hours together in practice, training and competition.

"[...] and a coach will often exercise significant influence and control over a gymnast’s life, both inside and outside of the gym. Often times, parents of minor gymnasts are prohibited from attending practices and other gymnastics related events, leaving athletes vulnerable and in the complete care and control of their coaches and other training staff."

The lawsuit comes after dozens of current and retired gymnasts penned an open letter to Sport Canada about the maltreatment in their sport. 

"Inappropriate" contact, "yelling" and "humiliation"

The report says Cline was coached by Vladimir and Svetlana Lashin at Omega after they joined the gym in summer of 2000 for its elite-level programs "under the direction and at the request of Gymnastics Canada."

However, the claim states Cline and other athletes were allegedly abused on a daily basis and estimates up to 60 gymnasts were enrolled in elite classes. 

Cline alleges, as a result of the abuse she was subjected to during training, she continues to suffer from numerous physical and psychological harm and injuries.

The claim alleges the Lashins verbally abused Cline and others by public berating, yelling and humiliation, bullying and body shaming, as well as examples of ignoring athletes by not spotting them when in training or competition. 

Other alleged conducts listed in the legal documents include:

  • Inappropriate physical contact...
    • Having athletes run into Vladimir's arms and straddle his waist
    • Svetlana hiking athletes' suits higher on legs, hips and buttocks, revealing inner thighs and buttocks
  • Hyper extension of the knees by coaches forcibly sitting on them
  • Over conditioning and "forced" over stretching
  • Forcing athletes to perform skills while injured
  • Forcing athletes to perform skills beyond their capabilities

The most significant part of Cline's claim was her hamstring injury through forcible stretching — a common practice in the sport that "would have us in tears and in so much pain," she told The Canadian Press.

That happened when she was 12.

"[Vladimir] said something to the effect 'Oh, you're just faking.' He would often do this partnered stretch where I would be standing in front of him, he would grab my leg from behind and pull it up so I'm in a standing split," the now 32-year-old said, noting her hamstring was already sore that day.

"He grabbed my leg and more forcibly than he would have normally just yanked my leg back behind my ear. And when he did that, it snapped my hamstring and took part of my pelvis with it."

Cline said she was diagnosed with an avulsion fracture, where a small chunk of bone tears away, in her pelvis.

She ultimately quit gymnastics at 14 years old after Vladimir allegedly screamed at her following several events at the B.C. provincial championships.

The report claims Cline was "forced" to compete in vault, bars and balance beam, and kept getting injured after each difficulty, to which Vladimir allegedly said that was because she was "too heavy."

She weighed 80 pounds, the claim adds.

Coaches promoted

Cline and her parents then relayed the allegations to Gymnastics BC and the Harassment Officer with Sport BC, but the report claims they were denied.

In the years that followed, the Lashins were promoted and honoured through the Gymnastics Canada ranks.

Vladimir was the head coach for Canada's Olympic gymnastics team at the Athens 2004 summer games.

He was also assigned as the national coach and high performance director for women's artistic gymnastics from June 2009 to June 2010.

Both Vladimir and Svetlana were also named national stream coaches of the year by Gymnastics BC in 2008.

"Nightmares," "panic attacks" and "chronic" pain

Cline is also claiming she endured psychological and emotional stress stemming from the Lashins' alleged abuse.

Some of the injuries claim to include reoccurring nightmares, insomnia, panic attacks, anxiety, "involuntarily pulling out" her hair and other "harmful coping mechanisms."

Cline claims permanent physical harm such as ongoing back and neck injuries, "chronic" back and neck pain such as compression fracture and headaches, hyper-extended knees and broken fingers and toes.

The claim states she's set to continue to undergo treatment and therapies, has "suffered loss of wages" and "earning potential," and "incurred out of pocket expenses arising from or related to the abuse and injuries."

The action seeks unspecified punitive and aggravated damages for Cline on behalf of the other class members, past and future costs of health care services, and an order directing Gymnastics Canada and the provincial bodies to implement, apply and follow appropriate governance procedures to prioritize the physical and psychological health of gymnasts. 

Cassidy Janzen, another class member, trained at Omega in Coquitlam between the age of six and 11.

She left the sport after breaking her leg in a fall from the balance beam, claiming she was forced to do a skill she hadn't been landing, and her pleas for more padding on the beam went unheeded. She suffered two spiral fractures in her tibia and one in her fibula when she fell.

"From the second you walk in [the gym] they tell you to trust them blindly, basically, and they say, 'If I can say you can do something, that means you can do it,'" Janzen said. "They ran their gym through fear."

The 26-year-old recently began therapy for emotional issues she claims stemmed from that "blind trust" in a coach.

"The formative years that I was there, I learned not to stand up for myself, not to say anything that might rock the boat," she said.

"I'm a very non-confrontational person now."

None of the above allegations have been proven in court. The defendants have three weeks (21 days) to respond to the claims.

Gymnastics Canada has since issued a statement noting that while they haven't been served, the claims depict "unacceptable" behaviour and it takes the allegations "very seriously."

"As leaders in the sport of Gymnastics within Canada, we are committed to providing a safe environment for members of our sport that is accessible, inclusive, respects our participants’ personal goals and is free from all forms of maltreatment. This is a collective effort and we will continue to work with our sport partners to support Provincial Member Organizations and clubs throughout our community."

Omega Gymnastics Sports Club permanently closed in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its facility was located at 125B Glacier St. adjacent to Colony Farm Regional Park.

- with files from The Canadian Press