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Penn State Athletics responds to allegations of coaching misconduct in women’s gymnastics and women's ice hockey programs

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Wieght of the Whistle

Penn State Athletics has not initiated a new investigation into the alleged mistreatment of athletes by women’s gymnastics coaches Jeff and Rachelle Thompson, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said.

Within the past two months, The Daily Collegian has reported on separate sets of allegations against the Thompsons and women’s ice hockey coach Josh Brandwene.

Several former gymnasts said the Thompsons forced them to train through injuries, encouraged them to lose as much weight as possible and emotionally abused them. A current gymnast, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of repercussions, said this behavior continues to this day.

Several former hockey players said Brandwene would suddenly stop playing them without giving them a reason why, belittle their accomplishments and go weeks at a time without talking to or looking at them.

Both the Thompsons and Brandwene have declined to comment.

In an interview with the Collegian on Thursday, Barbour said she and the athletic department had previously been aware of all allegations made against the Thompsons in the Collegian’s article, and had spent a long time looking into the allegations.

While the article did not lead to a new investigation into the Thompsons’ alleged behavior, the athletic department is in the process of its annual post-season evaluation of the coaches. That evaluation includes the exit interviews of graduating gymnasts, a survey for the entire team and discussions with support personnel.

In regards to the allegations regarding women’s ice hockey, Barbour said a review of Brandwene is being conducted outside of intercollegiate athletics.

“We obviously now have had two situations that have played out in the Collegian,” Barbour said. “But we deal everyday with [athletics issues], not unlike a family or a team, or frankly, any business or enterprise.”

Barbour said she has received both positive and negative feedback in regards to the Collegian’s article on the Thompsons. Barbour said the Thompsons’ former gymnasts — from both Penn State and their previous institutions — have told her Jeff and Rachelle deeply cared for their student athletes, in both the athletic and academic realms.

Barbour said she too has had similar positive experiences with the Thompsons.

“I think that both of them really get the Penn State mission, in terms of that combination of academics and athletics and character development,” Barbour said.

Much of the negative feedback Barbour received has been from alumni and former gymnasts who attended Penn State prior to the Thompsons’ hiring, she said. Those people have reacted solely to what they read in the Collegian’s article, Barbour said, not based on any personal experience.

Casey Rohrbaugh, a former Penn State gymnast who graduated in 2010, coaches gymnastics in Pennsylvania. She was not coached by the Thompsons in college; however, as an alumna, she said the allegations of abuse concern her.

Rohrbaugh said she would love to see one of the gymnasts she coaches go on to compete at her alma mater, but she will discourage that as long as Jeff and Rachelle are the coaches. She said she believes these allegations will negatively affect recruiting.

Brandi Corbett, who also graduated in 2010, said she wants to see Penn State release a public statement about the allegations with a vow to fully investigate.

Corbett and Rohrbaugh said many members of the women’s gymnastics alumni Facebook page have been sharing the article and writing letters to administrators urging them to take action.

Upon reading the allegations last week, Corbett said she felt “disappointment, if the athletic department really has heard about it and is failing to do anything.”

The articles on women’s hockey allegations have also sparked conversation among parents and others with ties to the program. Multiple parents who asked to remain anonymous said parents of hockey players have at least discussed the possibility of their daughters leaving the team if Brandwene returns as the coach next season.

The former hockey players who made allegations of emotional abuse against Brandwene to the Collegian have all since graduated from Penn State. However, multiple parents said according to their daughters, the allegations hold true today.

“It’s funny because some people say, ‘Oh, this happened four years ago, it doesn’t apply now,’ ” said a current hockey player’s mother, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that her daughter would face repercussions. “It does. It hasn’t changed. He is the same person.”

The mother said she has spoken to several other parents since the article was published, and she said they feel as though Penn State does not care about the women’s hockey program, which saddens them.

Robert Patton said the allegations of Brandwene’s “mind games” precede his tenure at Penn State, and Brandwene acted like this when he was a men’s coach as well. Patton played for Brandwene in the University of Delaware’s ACHA program from 1996-98.

At Delaware, Patton said Brandwene served as an academic advisor for his players. In spring of his junior year, Patton said he went to Brandwene and asked if he would be able to drop a class and take it in the fall in order to get a better grade.

Brandwene said Patton could drop the class without repercussions, Patton said. But next fall when Patton returned, Brandwene told him he would be unable to play because he had dropped the class. Patton said he missed much of his senior season as he rushed to finish a correspondence course that would give him enough credits to play again.

He missed his entire regular season, but finished his course in time for the national championship tournaments, Patton said.

“I’m not going to cry about somebody hurting my feelings. In the male culture of hockey, they’re yelling at you from the time you’re a little boy,” Patton said. “My main thing is that was a total mind game and that was a total mess of his creation.”

Between the women’s hockey and gymnastics allegations at Penn State, “the concerns are very serious, and we have, I would say, come up with an action plan,” Barbour said. “I’m sure that because of the nature of not going public with a lot of things, that some elements involved in this would say, ‘Well, what action? They’re not doing anything.’ Well again, the fact that there are a lot of things we can’t talk about should not be misconstrued as we’re not doing anything.”

“As a matter of fact, to be honest with you, we’re spending a lot of time on this,” Barbour added. “Far from just waiting for summer to come and just sweeping it under the rug, we’re working with every one of our 31 programs to make sure that we can make next year better than last year was.”

The allegations made against the Thompsons do not represent the experiences of every woman who has been coached by the husband and wife. In comments left on the Collegian’s online article about the coaches, several former gymnasts came to the defense of their former coaches.

The Collegian attempted to reach out to them, but they either could not be reached or declined to comment on the record for this article.

However, a couple other women have come forward to tell their own stories of alleged mistreatment.

Cassidy Bogar was a freshman at Penn State in 2010, the first year the Thompsons coached at Penn State. During preseason that year, Bogar said she hit her head while practicing on the floor. She said she felt nauseous and was convinced she had a concussion, but Rachelle made her continue practicing anyway.

After she threw up, the trainer advised that Bogar should sit out for three weeks.

During that time, Bogar said Rachelle’s jabs about her weight continually worsened.

“Every day when I went into the gym,” Bogar said, “she would tell me ‘I hope you’re not eating because you aren’t burning any calories.’ ”

When Bogar returned for her sophomore year in August 2011, she said the treatment got worse.

She said she weighed about 132 pounds at the time, and had actually lost five pounds over the summer.

But in personal meetings, Bogar said Rachelle would demean her for being “soft,” the word the coach often used instead of “fat.”

“I can’t account for what other people were told in their meetings, but in my meetings she would basically reiterate the same thing to me every time,” Bogar said. “She would say, ‘I am 95 percent proud of you. You compete for this team. You’re wearing the leotard. But can you tell me what the five percent is and what I’m not proud of about the five percent?’ ”

“I always knew it was my weight and I would say ‘my weight,’ ” Bogar added. “And she would say, ‘Yes, if you could just lose 10 or 15 pounds, you would be an awesome gymnast but you’re just too big. That’s the only way I’m going to be 100 percent proud of you, is if you lose weight.’ ”

At team conditioning, Bogar said Rachelle would cheer on every woman besides her. Rachelle also made Bogar come in on her own for extra conditioning, Bogar said.

Bogar said she struggled with running, which is why she suspected Rachelle made her do additional treadmill workouts.

What made the workouts worse was that Bogar had recently started taking antidepressants, which made her nauseous and exhausted. Bogar wanted to stop taking them, she said, but Rachelle and the trainer encouraged Bogar to remain on them.

One day during practice, in front of the men’s and women’s team, Rachelle made Bogar run even though she felt like she was going to be sick or pass out.

“I got really nauseous and I started dry heaving,” Bogar said. “Rachelle pulled up a garbage can and she said ‘Puke and get back on. That’s what you do.’ ”

Bogar said one of her teammates started to cheer her on. Rachelle then instructed the team not to cheer.

As she alternated between running and vomiting, Bogar said a few members of the men’s team came over and whispered words of encouragement.

When Bogar told her parents about the treatment, she said they didn’t believe her at first. They thought she was embellishing or just wanted to come home.

One day in the beginning of Bogar’s sophomore year, her father, Bill, said he got a call from Jeff Thompson. During that conversation, the coach told Bill that Cassidy had been put on antidepressants.

“I stopped and said, ‘My daughter is on antidepressants,’ ” Bill Bogar said. “That set off red flags for me.”

Bill Bogar said he set up a meeting with himself, Cassidy, Associate Athletics Director Charmelle Green and the Thompsons.

Without telling anyone, Bill Bogar arrived in State College a few days before the scheduled meeting. During practice, he said he walked into the White Building and watched from a spot where the coaches could not see him.

As he looked on, Bill Bogar said his daughter got on an apparatus while Rachelle walked away, completely ignoring Cassidy. That was when he said he realized what Cassidy had been telling him was true.

“For me as a parent, it was devastating that I didn’t believe my daughter,” Bill Bogar said. “I should have.”

That was Cassidy’s last practice with the Penn State women’s gymnastics team.

At the meeting with Green and the Thompsons, Bill Bogar said he and his daughter told them all their complaints. Rachelle only got defensive when the topic of weight came up, he said.

Penn State allowed Cassidy Bogar to remain on scholarship for the rest of the 2011-12 academic year, according to an email from Jeff Thompson to Bill Bogar obtained by The Collegian. Cassidy Bogar transferred at the end of the year.

She said her experience made a lasting impact on her body image.

“I weigh myself twice a day. I still want to be 20 pounds lighter,” Bogar said. “I still haven’t gotten the confidence to go into a gym. I don’t like wearing bathing suits in front of people. I don’t like wearing tight clothes in front of people.”

Another former gymnast, Kristin Blades, said she still has nightmares about her former coaches.

She said she wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic because Rachelle was in her dream.

Blades quit the team prior to her junior year in 2013. She said while on the team, she was forced to practice through injuries and was frequently threatened with the loss of her scholarship over personal choices she made outside of athletics or academics.

“They were people I really trusted,” she said. “I had given them so much and I did so much for them to have their approval. When they broke that trust, that stuck with me.”

Blades was warned about the Thompsons before she even began her college gymnastics career.

She was first recruited by them when they were at Auburn, but when they left for Penn State, they asked her to come with them. Blades said she received warnings from girls on the Auburn team to stay away from the Thompsons, but she ultimately decided to follow them to University Park.

She entered Penn State without a scholarship due to her original commitment to Auburn, but was offered one for her sophomore year.

Blades said that’s when the real abuse began.

That year, Blades began seeing a man whom Rachelle didn’t like. When Rachelle found out, Blades said Rachelle called her into a meeting and told her she would have to choose between her boyfriend and her scholarship.

“I completely shut down,” Blades said. “You can’t make me decide between my boyfriend and a scholarship. I had worked so hard for this, and they knew it.”

Blades said Rachelle would at one moment act like she loved her, complimenting her and playing with her hair, and then the next moment be screaming at her.

Blades had to get surgery on her elbow during her sophomore year. She said the Thompsons told her if they had known she would have had to get surgery, they never would have recruited her.

Their anger made Blades feel as though she had to push through her surgery recovery to compete. She took her brace off two weeks earlier than she was supposed to.

When she had to get elbow surgery a second time, Blades said the Thompsons made her come to practice the day after she was released from the hospital to sit in the gym and watch her teammates. She said she was berated for not cheering enough for her team.

She said because she was wearing an arm brace and couldn’t train, they made her run on the treadmill.

“When I started to cry because it was too much, they would scream at me and made me go climb the rope or push the blocks more and more until I couldn’t go anymore,” Blades said.

She said during her first year at Penn State, she continued to talk to the girls who had warned her not to follow the Thompsons to Penn State. By her sophomore year, she had stopped.

“I got to the point where I was so embarrassed that they were right that I just stopped talking to the girls at Auburn,” Blades said.

Blades said during this time, she stopped caring about school and lost a lot of weight.

Her mother, Sharon Blades, said when Kristin returned home for breaks, she noticed that her daughter was losing large amounts of her hair due to stress.

Blades said she went to Green with her complaints during her sophomore year. She said Green was very sympathetic at first, and started to visit their meets and practices to see how the Thompsons would treat the girls.

Blades said when Green was present, the Thompsons would be on their best behavior. She said her coaches had started ignoring her during practices, but when Green was there, they would be friendly and work with Blades.

“Rachelle [would] come up to me and whisper in my ear, ‘Why can’t you stand next to me? Stand next to me and act like you’re fine with it,’ ” Blades said. “ ‘If you don’t act like you’re fine, you won’t be on this team next year.’ ”

She said Green told her there was nothing she could do because she didn’t see anything wrong with the coaches. She could deal with it or leave the team.

Once she realized Green wouldn’t help her, and the Thompsons were most likely never going to allow her to compete again, Blades said she reached her breaking point and knew it was time to leave. She quit the team but remained at Penn State for her final two years.

Blades said she is still hesitant to trust people or talk about her feelings, and never likes discussing her time on the team. She’s moved across the country and doesn’t want to go anywhere near Penn State.

“I’m so happy I had those two years off the team, but it takes a big toll on you,” Blades said. “I feel like I can never get past what happened to me.”

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