Valeri Liukin, front runner for top USA Gymnastics post, is being investigated for alleged verbal and mental abuse – Pasadena Star News

The first two overdoses were accidents.

Megan Marenghi’s first two overdoses were with Klonopin, an anti-anxiety drug. She wasn’t trying to kill herself either time. She was just trying to suppress a feeling of worthlessness that she said began to feel when she trained as a young girl under Valeri Liukin at the internationally renown World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Plano, Texas.

“I just wanted to numb everything,” said Marenghi, who was then a student at the University of North Carolina.

This time was different.

This time Marenghi wanted to end everything.

Her once-promising gymnastics career ended by injury, her aspirations of becoming a doctor also dashed, Marenghi said she recalled a series of rants Liukin, an Olympic and World champion for the Soviet Union, had directed at her. And she stared at a bottle of Trazodone, an antidepressant in her apartment near the Chapel Hill campus.

“Valeri always said I was lazy, he said that I’m fat, I’m useless and I not ever going to amount to anything in life and I believed all of it,” Marenghi said in a recent interview. “I thought he was right. I amounted to nothing. Why am I still here?

“Since I’m not an Olympian, I was nothing. If I’m not going to be a doctor, I was nothing. It didn’t feel like there was another option. It was all of this if I’m not this, I am nothing.”

So Marenghi swallowed the entire bottle of pills.

“It was almost like Valeri had won,” she recalled.

Marenghi soon realized she made a mistake. She called a friend and was rushed to the hospital.later

Liukin, now 55, is the frontrunner to be named by USA Gymnastics as the women’s national team high-performance director, despite being under investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for multiple allegations of verbal and psychological abuse of young gymnasts. USA Gymnastics officials, including CEO Li Li Leung, are aware of the allegations, according to a Southern California News Group investigation.

Liukin, the father and coach of 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin, has been under investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport since at least Jan. 27, according to SafeSport emails and documents obtained by SCNG.

Leung, Stefanie Korepin, USA Gymnastics’ chief programs officer, and Annie Heffernan, the organization’s vice president for the women’s program have been aware of abuse allegations against Liukin since at least Feb. 9, according to a series of email exchanges between top USA Gymnastics officials and former WOGA gymnasts.

Multiple gymnasts allege that they were routinely berated, belittled and screamed at by Liukin, that he forced them to compete and train on broken bones or when they were ill, and they were fat-shamed daily, according to SafeSport complaints and USA Gymnastics documents and multiple interviews by SCNG. Some of the gymnasts were as young as 10 years old at the time of the alleged abuse.

“Being called fat, worthless, weak, stupid, idiot, etc. was a normal occurrence,” McKenzie Wofford, a former U.S. national team member who trained under Liukin at WOGA, wrote in a complaint filed with the U.S. Center for SafeSport. “Going into the gym, I was terrified about what was going to happen that day. While there were multiple incidents that were traumatizing.”

Liukin regularly forced gymnasts to run on a treadmill or in the Texas summer heat in sweatsuits if he deemed them overweight even though some of the girls weighed less than 80 pounds at age 14, 15 or 16, according to SafeSport complaints and interviews.

A WOGA gymnast was allegedly forced by Liukin to work out even though she had just completed doctor-ordered bed rest after an eating disorder left her heart weak.

Marenghi said in an interview that she witnessed Liukin “drag (Nastia Liukin) into his office and scream at her. She would come out bawling her eyes out.”

She also alleges she saw Liukin push his daughter “up against the wall.”

Valeri Liukin did not respond to an email detailing the allegations presented in this article or multiple phone messages.

Nastia Liukin did not respond to an email requesting comment. Multiple attempts to reach her by telephone were unsuccessful.

One of the most alarming charges against Liukin stems from an alleged incident during a 2011 U.S. national team training camp at the Karolyi Ranch in remote Central Texas.

Wofford, 15 at the time, became “extremely sick” shortly after arriving at the complex, a U.S. Olympic Training Center, owned and operated by Martha Karolyi, the U.S. national coordinator through the 2004 to 2016 Olympic cycles, and her husband Bela, also a former U.S. national team coordinator and Olympic team coach for the U.S. and Romania.

“I had a stomach virus that he did not seem to care about,” Wofford wrote in her U.S. Center for SafeSport complaint, referring to Liukin. “I was having diarrhea every 30 minutes or so. I had to stop in the middle of ‘verification’ routines (for Martha Karolyi and the national team staff) to run to the bathroom. The whole time he accused me of being a wimp and faking. They checked my temperature, and I had a fever so they stuck me in the back of the gym to condition. The next day I was back at it, still had diarrhea at least every 30 minutes. He still called me a baby (because his daughter had competed on broken bones. But so did I, this was different) Then he FORCED me to show the trainer my diarrhea after I went one time in front of everyone. This was MORTIFYING.”

Since becoming USA Gymnastics’ CEO in February 2019, Leung has repeatedly stressed that an emphasis has been placed on athlete safety in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal in which the former U.S. Olympic and national team coach is alleged to have sexually assaulted as many as 500 young athletes, including at least six Olympic champions. USA Gymnastics, the sport’s Indianapolis-based national governing body, and the U.S. Olympic Committee reached a $380 million settlement with the survivors of Nassar’s abuse.

But to many, Liukin – a longtime member of the Karolyi inner circle – symbolizes the culture of abuse within American gymnastics during the Karolyi era that enabled the decades-long predatory behavior of Nassar and other U.S. Olympic and national team coaches and officials.

“After Larry Nassar, the biggest promise USA Gymnastics made was they were going to change the culture,” said Kristie Wofford, McKenzie’s mother, in an interview. “They were going to clear out who was there when Nassar was there, who was there when all of it went on.

“Valeri was dead in the middle of it and now for him to come back? I would be very concerned with Valeri bringing back the old culture of mental abuse that he put those girls through.

“It just makes no sense. It’s still all about win at any cost.”

SCNG provided USA Gymnastics a list of questions on the hiring process, the U.S. Center for SafeSport investigation, and allegations made to Leung by former gymnasts.

Jill Geer, USA Gymnastics chief communications and marketing officer, responded in a brief email.

“USA Gymnastics has neither offered nor filled the position,” she wrote. “The process is ongoing.”

The U.S. Center for SafeSport assigned an investigator to the Wofford case on Jan. 25.

Leung, Kristie Wofford said, “can’t plead that she doesn’t know about Valeri because she knows about him.”

McKenzie Wofford sent an email detailing Liukin’s alleged abuse to Leung on Feb. 9. Korepin and Heffernan were cc’d on the email that came with the subject line: “URGENT Valeri Liukin Concerns (Please Help).”

“I found out recently that this abusive, manipulative coach who recently ‘stepped down’ from his position is back coaching young gymnasts?” Wofford wrote to Leung. “How is this possible when we are wanting a new environment and change for our future generation of USAG athletes?

“What I am asking is for you to please take a look into this situation and that you immediately take action to remove Valeri from being able to potentially harm more young women which is a pattern from his past. I am currently involved in an investigation with Safe Sport about the misconduct and potential athlete abuse and policy violations regarding Valeri, and I hope bringing this to your attention will speed up the process to have him removed.”

Leung responded the following day.

“Thank you for your outreach, McKenzie. We have forwarded your letter to our Safe Sport team. I’ve cc’ed, Beckie St. John, who is our Safety and Compliance Counsel, who will follow up with you shortly with additional details. We appreciate you reaching out to us.

“Thank you,

“Li Li”

Ninety-five minutes later Wofford received an email from Jennifer Tarnowski, USA Gymnastics director of legal operations.

“Thank you for your report to USA Gymnastics regarding Valeri Liukin. The information you provided has been reviewed,” Tarnowski wrote. “Due to a conflict of interest, this matter has been referred to the U.S. Center for SafeSport.”

Marenghi also emailed Leung on Feb. 9.

“The fact that Valeri is still a part of USAG absolutely sickens me,” Marenghi wrote. “The verbal abuse I endured had a lasting impact on me, and I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy. Although the damage he has done cannot be erased, future verbal abuse can be prevented.”

The U.S. Center for SafeSport has been interviewing alleged victims and witnesses since February, according to SafeSport emails and texts.

“I am still in the process of reaching out to other parties. The next step will be to send the Notice of Allegation to Valeri,” Simone Cardosa, a U.S. Center for SafeSport, wrote in a Feb. 17 email to Wofford.

Liukin left his native Kazakhstan for Moscow as a teenager to train with the Soviet junior national team. Under the coaching of Edouard Iarov, Liukin moved up to the Soviet national team. Iarov, 69, who owns his own gym in Dallas area, was arrested in December and charged with one count of continuous sexual abuse of a child younger than 14 following a joint operation by a U.S. Marshals task force and the Dallas Police Department.

Liukin won four individual gold medals, including the all-around, as well as a silver and bronze at the 1987 European Championships. A year later, Liukin won Olympic gold medals in Seoul in the team competition and individual horizontal bar and also picked up silver medals in the all-around and parallel bars.

He immigrated to the U.S. in 1992, settling first in New Orleans before eventually opening WOGA with Yevgeny Marchenko in Plano, an affluent suburb 20 miles north of downtown Dallas. The pair now own three WOGA gyms in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Marchenko would also later become a U.S. Olympic and national team coach and coached Carly Patterson, a WOGA athlete, to the 2004 Olympic all-around title.

Four years later Nastia Liukin won the Olympic all-around gold medal.

Valeri Liukin continued to develop Olympic and World Championship medalists including Madison Kocian, a four-time World champion, who won an Olympic gold medal in the 2016 team competition.

A month after the Rio de Janeiro Games, Liukin was named as Martha Karolyi’s replacement as U.S. national team coordinator. Less than 18 months later he stepped down against the backdrop of an increasing demand from Olympians and gymnastics fans that USA Gymnastics undergo a complete overhaul in the wake of the Nassar scandal.

“The present climate causes me, and more importantly my family, far too much stress, difficulty and uncertainty,” Liukin said in a statement at the time.

He was hired in 2018 to coach the Brazilian national team. Liukin found himself back in the center of an international controversy for comments he made in an August 2019 interview with a gymnastics website.

“It would be logical to suppose that in U.S., there’s a gymnastics boom among Black girls. Is this right?” Liukin was asked by the interviewer citing the success of Olympic all-around champions Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas.

“I don’t think it’s completely right,” Liukin responded. “But yes, gymnastics is changing. In the Code of Points, difficulty is very valued now. Of course, this suits African Americans. They’re very explosive – look at the NBA, who’s playing and jumping there?”

When Tom Forster stepped down as U.S. women’s national team high performance director in December, USA Gymnastics officials began focusing on Liukin as his replacement, according to two sources familiar with the process.

“I’m not surprised that USAG hasn’t changed at all but I’m still surprised that they’re actually going through with this,” Wofford said.

Wofford joined WOGA in 2010. She was 15.

“The first red flag was on the day we walked into the gym,” Kristie Wofford said. “McKenzie tried out at another (Dallas area) gym and I said (to Liukin) ‘McKenzie needs to take time to decide.’ And he said ‘No! if she wants to be a champion she trains here.’

“It was a little intimidating.”

Before long Kristie Wofford said she was receiving regular telephone calls from Liukin complaining that McKenzie was fat. She weighed around 80 pounds.

“There was a lot of fear in the gym,” Kristie Wofford said. “Girls were scared of him, scared to death.”

In both her complaint to the U.S, Center for SafeSport and her email to Leung, McKenzie Wofford said she witnessed Liukin “force a teammate to run on a treadmill with a sweat suit on until she lost enough weight that day to start practice.

“He forced a different teammate to leave the gym at 14 years old in the rain, who then walked home alone in Plano Texas.”

The teammate, Wofford said, was Katelyn Ohashi, later a U.S. national team member and social media sensation as an NCAA champion at UCLA. Ohashi has frequently discussed how she was fat-shamed during her club and national team career. A representative for Ohashi was contacted with an interview request.

Kristie Wofford said she witnessed gymnasts competing and training with broken bones. McKenzie Wofford competed and trained on a fractured foot and fractured tailbone, she and her parents said.

“I decided not to go to the gym anymore,” Kristie Wofford said.

John Wofford, however, continued to visit WOGA.

“There were constantly red flags,” Wofford said. “(Liukin) was coaching by intimidation. Girls were told they had to stand in the corner (facing the wall). They were told they were fat. I witnessed that all the time, pretty much every day girls were told they were fat.”

All three Woffords recalled an incident where Liukin complained to John that McKenzie had gained weight.

“I said she hadn’t, she weighed nothing,” John Wofford said.

McKenzie Wofford in both her complaint to the U.S. Center for SafeSport and her email to Leung remembered “being pulled into Valeri’s office with my father to be told how fat I was getting. Valeri proceeded to bet my dad a month’s tuition that I had gained weight. I was forced to go onto the bathroom scale with both of them to prove that my 75/80-pound 15-year-old self had not gained any weight but had in fact lost.”

Afterward, John Wofford said, Liukin “just had this look on his face, this smug look.”

Gymnasts were also under constant pressure to lose weight during U.S. national team training camps at the Karolyi Ranch, according to SafeSport and USA Gymnastics documents and interviews.

“The style that went on at those camps with Valeri and the Karolyis was very belittling to these girls, girls completely afraid to eat while their coaches were there, harassed if they had too much food on their plate.”

John Wofford, following the bet, never wrote another check to WOGA because the family pulled McKenzie out of the gym shortly thereafter following the diarrhea incident at the U.S. national team training camp.

“This was abuse,” he said.

The Woffords complained to then-USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny about Liukin.

“We had several calls back and forth,” John Wofford recalled. “(Penny) openly admitted he knew and understood what was going on. He said they were taking ‘baby steps’ with Valeri, they could only do a little bit at a time politically” in terms of addressing Liukin’s coaching methods.

Penny, according to Wofford, said USA Gymnastics “was gathering data” on Liukin.

Penny also offered to send an autographed copy of Olympic champion Peter Vidmar’s autobiography. Vidmar was chairman of USA Gymnastics board of directors at the time.

“Like that would make everything OK,” Wofford said.

“I didn’t even know who he was,” McKenzie Wofford said, referring to Vidmar.

Penny in an email to SCNG said he was referring questions about his interaction with the Woffords to his attorney.

“Mr. Penny has no recollection of speaking to, meeting with, or knowing McKenzie Wofford or her parents,” Leigh Robie, Penny’s attorney, wrote in an email. “Taking ‘baby steps’ and ‘gathering data’ are not phrases Mr. Penny would use in conversations regarding such matters. If USA Gymnastics or Mr. Penny had concerns about Valeri, USA Gymnastics and he would have addressed them directly.  Mr. Penny did not offer a signed book by Peter Vidmar and would not have done so.”

In response to Robie’s email, John Wofford said, “There’s a reason his attorney responded and not him. I’m sure he also has no recollection of meeting or speaking with Valeri Liukin or Larry Nassar either.”

Liukin also called John Wofford.

“He said, ‘Let’s work this out,’” Wofford recalled.

But the Woffords were ready to move on.

Informed that the family’s decision to leave was final, Liukin said McKenzie Wofford “would never do college gymnastics, never go anywhere, was politically screwed.”

Instead, Wofford was later invited back by USA Gymnastics to a U.S. national team camp at the Karolyi Ranch. When she and her new coach pulled into the ranch, Liukin, Wofford said, was waiting for them.

“When I returned to the ranch, Valeri told my new coach how stupid she was for bringing me back there, and that he would be sure that I would never make it to college or any National team assignment and that I was blacklisted,” Wofford, who later competed for Oklahoma, wrote in both her U.S. Center for SafeSport complaint and to Leung. “I believe the words were that my coach was a ‘(expletive)’ idiot for training me.”

Wofford arrived at WOGA around the time Marenghi said she was leaving the gym after six years of what she was told the U.S. Center for SafeSport was constant ridicule, bullying and fat-shaming.

At one point, Liukin thought she would be on the U.S. national team, Marenghi said. But she tore an ACL when she was 12 and then later suffered a similar injury. Doctors said the injuries were the result of growth plate issues, Marenghi said.

“But Valeri said, ‘No, it’s because you’re overweight,’” she said.

“I was lazy and fat. Those were his two things.”

Even before the injury, Marenghi said she had been a target of Liukin’s alleged bullying.

When she was 10 or 11, Marenghi said, Liukin called her into his office.

“He said I was useless, worthless,” she said. “I would never amount to anything in life.

“This was a daily thing.

“There was a time when he called me over. He knocked on my head, not hard but said, ‘Do you hear that? It’s hollow. There’s absolutely nothing in there.’”

At one point when she was around 10 or 11 she wanted to quit.

“Valeri asked me if I wanted to be a World champion or sit on the couch and eat potato chips? It was like I had to be an Olympic champion or I had to be a doctor or I’m going to be worthless.”

By 2009 her Olympic dream “was completely gone” due to injury. But she still wanted to continue competing in hopes of landing a college scholarship.

“Then the verbal abuse just worsened,” Marenghi said. “It was a daily occurrence, talking about my weight, saying I was going to hurt my knee again because I was too fat. I was a pig, an elephant. He asked me if I swallowed a balloon?”

Marenghi left WOGA in 2010 after she said Liukin pressured her to train on what she suspected was a broken ankle.

She was struggling with a new skill, a double pike, when she injured her ankle. “It blew up to the size of a basketball,” Marenghi said. “He told me I had to keep going or I was done and I just sat there.

“Valeri said if ‘you don’t do the double pike you have to leave.’ I grabbed my stuff and left.”

Leave a Comment