UPDATE, 8:09 p.m. — UA head gymnastics coach Dana Duckworth released a statement on her Twitter account.
“I feel throughout this experience that we have all learned and are continuing to learn together. As the head coach, I am ultimately responsible for this program. There was a report made, and while I cannot get into specifics on that, I can say it resulted in many discussions, conversations and training, which have also resulted in increased awareness as well as growth personally and professionally. No one in life is exempt from mistakes, regret, heartache and challenging issues. Our core values have always been respect, integrity and class while providing an open and safe community for everyone associated with this program. We strive to learn with one another and grow with a greater understanding as we continue to foster an inclusive and unified family environment.”
UPDATE, 8:31 p.m. — Aja Sims, a former UA gymnast and volunteer assistant coach, released a statement through her Twitter account. According to Tia Kiaku, Duckworth said of Sims, “She’s not really black and she wasn’t raised black.”
A portion of Sims’ statement: “As an athlete I was treated with the upmost respect and was loved as a person, not just as a gymnast. I was always given equal opportunity as the other women who also have worn the script A on their leotard. My experiences are not indicative of everyone else’s.”
Later, Sims said, “I am proud to be a black woman and my parents raised me to not be ashamed of the color of my skin. My fiancé and I are strong confident black members of the Tuscaloosa community and have always been treated with the upmost respect. I am praying everyday for our country to become more united and realize the impact of racism, social injustices and police brutality.”
Sims’ full statement can be read in this tweet. The story continues below as it was originally published.
The University of Alabama’s gymnasts are not physically together while their program culture is being challenged, as gymnasts have yet to return to campus for voluntary workouts. But they have banded together virtually.
The UA gymnastics Twitter account released a 3-minute, 7-second video of its athletes speaking to unity and equality in its program. The video comes a day after The Tuscaloosa News published a story of former UA gymnast Tia Kiaku describing the racist conduct she experienced while in the program. One of those instances was handled by UA’s Title IX office, its Office of Equal Opportunity and its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“This group of girls is so much more than just teammates. We are family,” Jensie Givens said in the video, who was a sophomore on last season’s team. “We have each other’s backs, we protect one another and we bring everybody’s differences to the table. All together, these differences combine, we shine as one.”
Lexi Graber, a junior in 2020, said, “I am so lucky to have girls who know what it means to stand by each other, no matter the situation, and who have never given up on one another.”
Kiaku described at least one incident of a gymnast using the N-word during a practice, and felt she was forcefully distanced from the team after team meetings in which she tried to address the issue with her teammates.
The incident that drew the attention of University leadership was one with assistant coach Bill Lorenz, who approached Kiaku and the two other black gymnasts on the team, who were all performing the same drill, and asked, “What is this, the back of the bus?”
Lorenz released a statement to The Tuscaloosa News on Wednesday in which he said, “What was intended to be a lighthearted comment ended up having an offensive impact, and I regret that. It hurts me that I hurt anyone. I care so much about this team and our student-athletes, and I believe they know that.”
Both of the black gymnasts who were also subjects of that comment, Makarri Doggette and Sania Mitchell, were featured in the video posted Thursday afternoon.
“I am so grateful that I can walk into a gym knowing that I am valued, loved and respected by the people around me,” Doggette said.
Mitchell was the final player featured in the video and the one who spoke the most.
“Every single person — whether it be gymnasts, coach or staff member — every single person loves and respects each other like family,” Mitchell said. “And that’s not just something we say to try to make us look good or uphold an image. We mean that, and we actively carry it out. We don’t just tell each other, we show each other through our actions. We laugh together, we cry together and we work hard together.
“We all come from different backgrounds and we all have different opinions and different feelings, but we value that. We embrace our differences and we learn from them. No, we’re not perfect, but when we do have issues or when we do make mistakes, we handle it up front. We talk about it, we forgive, we learn and we grow, and we end up closer and stronger because of it.
“So with that being said, my team and I are strong, and whatever problems we face, we work through them together. I am an Alabama gymnast, and I am proud to be a student at The University of Alabama.”
The video ended with the same statement UA released to The Tuscaloosa News on Wednesday, which was attributed to UA’s gymnasts.
“We can think of no better term to describe Alabama Gymnastics than, ‘One heart.’ This is a group of amazing individuals with varying backgrounds that come together to form an incredibly special team. We stand by each other, and we love each other. None of us are perfect. We’ve all made mistakes, and we continue to learn from each other every day. We support one another, from our teammates to our coaches to our support staff, and we are proud to be student-athletes at The University of Alabama.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson