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If the healing process were a marathon, USA Gymnastics is at the first mile marker

With Simone Biles in Kansas City for the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, the sport tries to move forward from horrors of the past without ever forgetting. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

KANSAS CITY -- The beauty, grace and power that make up the spectacle of gymnastics coexist with the specter of sexual abuse that has soiled the sport. So how does USA Gymnastics, which has gone through the symbolic equivalent of a nuclear meltdown as an organization with the revelation of the Larry Nassar scandal, really celebrate its national championship this week? Especially considering that so much still seems radioactive?

There's no easy answer. The performances part is supposed to be the heart of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships here at Sprint Center, with stars Simone Biles for the women and Sam Mikulak for the men each seeking a sixth title at this event. Can the actual gymnastics eclipse the ever-present cloud over USA Gymnastics? Not really.

But it probably shouldn't. There's still a lot of cleaning up and healing to do, a reputation to be restored and trust to be re-established. This is a very long-term rebuild.

Li Li Leung, the president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, spent about 45 minutes with the media here talking about why she took this job, the attempt to move forward despite the tenuous status of the organization, her concern for and support of the survivors of abuse of any kind, the need for transparency in everything from team selections to investigations, and her vow that she is in this for the long haul.

"People have said 'Congratulations' and 'Condolences' in the same breath," said Leung, who was hired in February. "But I, basically, I tell them I feel like I'm one of the luckiest people on this planet."

Well, that's certainly optimism.

She'll need that. Leung is the third person to follow Steve Penny, the head of USA Gymnastics from 2005 to 2017 who resigned in the wake of the Nassar scandal and was arrested this past October on charges of tampering with evidence.

His immediate successor, Kerry Perry, resigned this past September after nine months on the job and intense criticism that she was not responsive to the massive culture change the organization needed. Then her successor, Mary Bono, was on the job less than a week before she, too, resigned.

Leung, a former gymnast herself, has had her own missteps since taking over. Including her statement in April that Nassar also had examined her but hadn't assaulted her because her coach was present. Leung quickly apologized, as several of the survivors said assaults sometimes took place even in the presence of others. But it was more damage done.

Leung acknowledged that she isn't always going to get everything right. But she said that her commitment to helping USA Gymnastics recover, and even thrive, is in line with wanting the very best for competitors past, present and future.

"I felt like it was time for me to give back to the sport," said Leung, who previously worked for the NBA. "I understand the past couple years have been unsettling, at best. I watched it all happen from afar ... I said, 'I cannot sit back and not do anything about this.' So I threw my hat into the ring.

"This is an amazing opportunity to positively impact the lives of young boys and girls for generations to come. And also an opportunity to shape a sport that I love and has shaped me, as well."

It's less than a year out from the start of the Tokyo Olympics, where the U.S. women will be defending their team victory, and Biles her gold medals in all-around, floor exercise and vault. She begins competition Friday night in Kansas City, and is the athlete everyone is here to see.

Meeting with the media on Wednesday, though, Biles made it poignantly clear how much she struggles with the lingering aftermath of the abuse she said she suffered. And also with the cover-ups, failures and missteps by USA Gymnastics that have been revealed ever since the Nassar scandal was initially reported to the general public three years ago this week in The Indianapolis Star.

That was just before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games started, and since then the avalanche of accusations of sexual assault by physician Nassar -- in his role with USA Gymnastics and at Michigan State -- became widespread knowledge. Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison in 2018, with accusations that dated back to at least the early 1990s.

Anger, frustration, distrust, grief, disillusionment -- they are understandable emotions of the survivors. USA Gymnastics is in bankruptcy court as it strives to deal with the many lawsuits filed by Nassar victims, and the organization also still has to prove to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee that it deserves to remain the sport's governing body.

Furthermore, reports of other types of abuse by coaches are a continuing issue that USA Gymnastics faces. This week, former national team member Anna Li resigned from the organization's athletes' council because of allegations that she and her mother, Jiani Wu, have been verbally, emotionally and physically abusive to gymnasts they coach. They are being investigated by the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

In short, Leung is doing the equivalent of widespread repair on a ship that's trying to avoid sinking. She talked passionately Thursday about how much she still believes in the values and benefits of gymnastics, showing a short video to the media that included children first learning skills.

At the same time, she said the gymnastics community -- parents, coaches, judges, officials -- all have a shared responsibility.

"It's not just about developing a technically superior gymnast who performs well," Leung said. "But it is about developing a holistic athlete who is best set up for life even beyond the sport."

Biles and other survivors would say USA Gymnastics' inability to identify and remove a predator like Nassar for so many years has affected their lives in a severely negative way. And that's something the organization has to own.

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Simone Biles says it's hard to return to USA Gymnastics

Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles says USA Gymnastics repeatedly failed its "one job" of protecting athletes.

"All we can do at this point," Biles said, "is have faith that they'll have our backs and they'll do the right thing."

Leung voiced her support for Biles' speaking out -- but the athletes have heard this before from other USA Gymnastics officials when it turned out that support was hollow. The reality is, Leung will have to prove herself again and again.

"I think I'm in mile one of the marathon," she said. "For me, this is just the beginning."

Mikulak, solidly in the lead after the first day of the men's competition Thursday, said he's been impressed with Leung thus far.

"She seems very confident," Mikulak said. "It's a tough spot to fill, but she's made a lot of contact with me, and every conversation I've had has been positive and fun. It's hard when we still are dealing with all the issues we have with USAG, but we're almost there. We can start getting back to the normal USA Gymnastics that we remember pre-2016."

Even that comment might be not be taken well, though, considering that the "normal" organization was the one that allowed an environment where Nassar preyed on gymnasts for so long.

But this points out the fundamental conflict USA Gymnastics simply must live with daily. Moving forward can't mean just moving on. It can't return to just business as usual, because that mentality is part of what allowed this disaster to reach the proportions it did in the first place.

And, yet, the gymnastics community does want to regain a vision of the best of what it's about, at all levels. Here Thursday, fans clamored to get Biles' autograph in the Sprint Center concourse. Later, a group of youngsters yelled with delight when Mikulak posed for a selfie with them after his competition.

The dreams of new generations of gymnasts are fueled by competitions like this. It's supposed to be a showcase of talent, ambition and hard work. It is all of that, but also a reminder of horrors that existed under the surface of so many previous competitions like this.

How can USA Gymnastics balance all the bad that's occurred with hopes for the future?

"It's acknowledging what happened in the past," Leung said. "It's about learning from the past to be able to inform us in terms of how we move forward. That's where I think the balancing act is."