Ask Me Anything: Li Li Leung, USA Gymnastics CEO
After The Indianapolis Star uncovered your organization’s mistreatment of young athletes in 2016, USA Gymnastics churned through three CEOs in 23 months. Yet, you decided to approach them about the role. Why?
Yes, a lot of people have asked me if I’m crazy. They’ve said “congratulations and condolences” in the same breath. But this is something that I wanted to do. I spent 15 years of my life in this sport. After that, I coached for a bit. And through that time period, I gained so much. Aside from all the physical aspects like strength, flexibility, and power, I gained friends who I call family. I gained self-confidence, leadership, discipline, and focus. I felt it was time for me to pay it forward.
At your first meeting with reporters, you said reading the news stories was like reading a memoir, and said, “I, too, to some degree, am a recovering gymnast.” What did you mean?
I had a coach who’s very well respected, and I’m still grateful to him today. Even having had that positive experience, though, I did some things that, if I could do over, I would do differently. I recall one time where I pushed myself beyond an injury that I shouldn’t have. I competed on a broken foot. My coach had no idea I was injured. I made the decision on my own. Had I had the awareness, or been given the tools to recognize that it wasn’t the right thing to do, I would have raised my hand and said, “I cannot compete this weekend.” But I didn’t.
Is that something you can do through your leadership now? Empower young gymnasts to recognize vulnerabilities and speak up about them?
Yes, absolutely. We want to roll out educational programming for all facets of our community. We want to give athletes tools to make the right decisions for their bodies, and to feel secure enough to voice their opinions.
What were your top three priorities when you came to Indianapolis?
No. 1, reaching a fair, full, and equitable resolution with the sex-abuse survivors. No. 2 is creating a safe environment for our gymnasts. And No. 3, really the umbrella priority, is to become an athlete-centric organization. That’s our ultimate goal.
In June, you announced 48 new policies resulting from an investigation. What has changed since 2016?
We listened to athletes, survivors of abuse, coaches, club owners, and parents. The policies are a direct result of their input. They offer more clarity around what behavior isn’t acceptable, the definition of misconduct, and what it will take to prevent misconduct in the future. We will hold ourselves accountable.
In December 2018, USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy. How does that impact your ability to operate and reach a settlement with survivors?
Even with the bankruptcy, we’re operating business as usual. Frankly, the filing was to give us a path to reach a full and fair, equitable resolution with the survivors. What happens when an organization files for bankruptcy is that all of the outstanding lawsuits essentially get put under one umbrella. So instead of our organization having to settle one lawsuit at a time, this allows us to settle all of them in one full, singular process.
Recently, the United States Olympic Committee took the first steps to decertify USA Gymnastics as the governing body for the sport. What happens if you’re decertified?
The decertification request from the USOC has been stayed due to the bankruptcy process. We are working hard to demonstrate why we should retain our national governing-body status. We also believe the rollout of the new policies is one more step in the right direction to demonstrate why we should remain as the NGB of gymnastics. And even if we are decertified, we can still continue operations as USA Gymnastics. Thousands of meets and competitions will still be held every year across the nation. There will still be over 160,000 gymnasts participating in the sport. It just means the organization would no longer create the selection procedures for the Olympic and World teams. But the sport itself would continue. And no 2020 Tokyo athletes would be affected by it.
Some have speculated that USA Gymnastics might move to another city in the wake of all this. Is Indy the best place for your headquarters going forward?
Yes, it is. We have no plans to make any changes in terms of location at this point. I had heard about the whole Hoosier-hospitality concept before I came here, and now I’m living it. This city has been so welcoming to me and this organization. The warmth is incredible.