John Geddert, by his own description, was a hard-driving gymnastics coach. A towering figure in the Michigan gymnastics world, he prided himself on his high standards and intensity, and pointed to his gymnasts’ successes as proof of his work.
In two dozen felony charges against Geddert unveiled on Thursday, however, the Michigan attorney general said that Geddert’s brand of coaching was a form of forced child labor. Prosecutors said he physically harmed young athletes through his training methods and terrorized them into performing through injury, for his own profit.
Geddert’s apparent suicide devastated people who hoped to hear Geddert answer to the allegations against him, which also included two sexual assault charges in which he was accused of digitally penetrating a girl between the ages of 13 and 16. His death raised questions about why the charges had been revealed before Geddert was in custody.
It also dashed hopes that Geddert would resolve lingering mysteries around Nassar. And the charges against him showed how some types of coaching are now being viewed as a form of child abuse that can also create an environment conducive to sexual assault.
“John Geddert’s escape from justice by committing suicide is traumatizing beyond words,” said Sarah Klein, a gymnast trained by Geddert and assaulted by Nassar. Klein is now an attorney working for the law firm representing many other women who have identified themselves as victims of the two men.
“Geddert was a narcissistic abuser,” Klein said.
Geddert had denied knowledge of Nassar’s crimes, and had defended his gym’s reputation in the wake of Nassar’s arrest. “I am a passionate coach who wants our gymnasts to realize their potential,” he said in May 2017, in written responses to The Wall Street Journal.
Geddert trained as a gymnast in high school and attended Central Michigan University on a gymnastics scholarship. He started coaching a high school team in his senior year and discovered it was his true passion. He began working professionally as a coach in Maryland in 1980 but returned to Michigan in 1984, hired by the Great Lakes Gym in Lansing.
Nassar, then a medical student at Michigan State University, was working his way into gymnastics as a volunteer at gyms including Great Lakes. In 1996, Geddert founded his own gym, Twistars, in Dimondale, Mich., fulfilling a dream held by many coaches. Nassar followed him there as a physician.
By the time Geddert was inducted into the regional gymnastics hall of fame in 2009, he described his gym as “a national power,” boasting of 20 gymnasts who had made national teams, 40 who had won national competitions, and $2.7 million in college scholarships — and more local glory than the other coaches in Michigan, combined.
Every Monday, for years, Nassar saw gymnasts in a back room at Twistars while parents lined the hallway outside. Nassar had become a doctor to the U.S. women’s national team. Geddert coached rising star Jordyn Wieber. When Wieber won the 2011 world all-around title, it positioned Geddert to be the head coach sent to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Dozens of women and girls later alleged, in criminal cases and civil suits, that Nassar sexually assaulted them at Twistars under the guise of performing medical treatment. And all five of the celebrated athletes who won the gold team medal at the 2012 Games, including Wieber, have identified themselves as victims of Nassar.
Many of those women and more also sued Geddert, as well as USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, for ignoring or facilitating Nassar’s abuse. Many of the lawsuits, involving hundreds of millions of dollars in legal claims, are unresolved. Some women have specifically said that Geddert would have heard them speak out about the treatments, including in 1998, the 2000s and 2011.
Geddert told the Journal in 2017: “I never received any complaints about Nassar that raised any suspicion about abuse in any way until after criminal accusations were made public.”
Only one of the charges against Geddert Thursday directly related to Nassar — a count of lying to a police officer during a violent crime investigation. Prosecutors alleged that Geddert told an officer in September 2016 that he had never heard complaints about Nassar’s treatments.
In 2015, complaints made against Nassar forced the doctor out of USA Gymnastics. When Nassar was accused publicly of sexual assault in September 2016, Geddert was among his defenders.
In November 2016, the Michigan attorney general’s office charged Nassar with the abuse of a child, the daughter of a family friend. Federal child-pornography charges followed. Nassar pleaded guilty and is serving an effective life sentence.
The accusations that led to felony charges against Geddert emerged during Nassar’s 2018 sentencing, or in lawsuits and interviews, as people tried to understand how Nassar had operated unchecked for so long.
“To John Geddert… My teammates and I spent way too many days as innocent children shaking, crying, trembling—some even trying to take their own lives because of you,” former Twistars gymnast Lindsey Lemke said in a victim statement during Nassar’s sentencing on state charges in 2018. “You don’t even know that because you couldn’t care less about us as people—as opposed to athletes who were your moneymakers.”
By early 2017, Michigan authorities began to focus on Geddert himself, people familiar with the matter told the Journal at the time.
It emerged that in 2011, a Twistars mother—who also worked at the gym with Geddert—had filed a complaint against him with Michigan State Police, alleging he had assaulted her in the gym parking lot. Geddert told the Journal in 2017 the matter had been resolved and they remained friends.
In 2013, a gymnast’s mother filed a complaint with state police alleging that Geddert pulled her daughter into a locker room and berated her—grabbing her arm, pushing her into a seat and stepping on her toes to keep her from moving. Prosecutors didn’t press charges but ordered him to complete counseling.
Geddert told The Journal in 2017 that he had “admonished a student when she continued to put herself in a dangerous position during her practice, risking a potentially paralyzing accident. I tried to cooperatively resolve the dispute and apologized to the student and I also offered to attend counseling, which I did.”
The police file in the matter also included a letter to USA Gymnastics from a former coach at Geddert’s gym who wrote that he was a “ticking time bomb,” and detailed incidents in which Geddert called a gymnast fat, made inappropriate comments, and retaliated against athletes.
Geddert said he had agreed to an “evaluation period with USA Gymnastics, during which time we focused on implementing best practices and further developing our safety awareness and training.”
USA Gymnastics suspended Geddert during Nassar’s state sentencing. The Michigan Attorney General’s office took over an investigation into him and search warrants were executed in January 2020 at his home and Twistars.
Meanwhile, the attention around Nassar triggered a cultural shift in the sport. Last year, a 2016 Olympics gymnastics coach was suspended by USA Gymnastics for eight years for causing emotional and physical harm to her athletes.
On Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office alleged “that Geddert’s treatment of young gymnasts constitutes human trafficking as he reportedly subjected his athletes to forced labor or services under extreme conditions that contributed to them suffering injuries and harm.”
“Geddert then neglected those injuries that were reported to him by the victims and used coercion, intimidation, threats and physical force to get them to perform to the standard he expected.”
That statement was released at 1:32 p.m. on Thursday, just after the attorney general’s live streamed press conference. Nessel said she understood Geddert had turned himself in for arraignment, which her office said was scheduled at 2:15 p.m. in Eaton County District Court.
Instead, Geddert’s body was found by Michigan State Police at 3:24 p.m. in a neighboring county.
A representative of the Michigan Attorney General said Friday that there had been a miscommunication, and that the office had been told that Geddert was on his way to a sheriff’s substation.
“We later found out he did not turn himself in…We had no indication that Geddert intended to flee or hurt himself or others. We had been in contact with his attorney and were assured of his cooperation,” the office said.
Geddert’s attorney, Chris Bergstrom, did not respond to requests for comment.
USA Gymnastics said that “we had hoped that news of the criminal charges being brought against John Geddert would lead to justice through the legal process. With the news of his death by suicide, we share the feelings of shock, and our thoughts are with the gymnastics community as they grapple with the complex emotions of this week’s events.”
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