Former Quebec gymnasts accuse coach of sexually abusing them as minors in 1980s, '90s
WARNING: This story contains graphic language.
Three former gymnasts from Montreal have shared detailed accounts with Radio-Canada Sports of sexual abuse they say they suffered at the hands of their coach when they were minors in the 1980s and early '90s.
Michel Arsenault was relatively unknown in the gymnastics community when, at the age of 22, he joined Flipgym, a large community gym in Montreal, in 1983, although he has since made a name for himself as one of the best gymnastics coaches in Canada (one of his athletes competed at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona).
During his first year at Flipgym, gymnasts seemed to develop well under his guidance, but by his second year, things had changed.
"All of a sudden, we came to training, and we couldn't call him Michel anymore. We had to call him Mr. Arsenault," said Linda, who was one of Arsenault's students at the time.
(Except for Monique St-Arnaud, Andrée Montreuil and Nadia Thivierge, the names of the women quoted in this story have been changed to protect their identity.)
"He started throwing fits, blaming us harshly as soon as we made even the slightest mistake. There was really a drastic change in his behaviour," said another ex-gymnast, Véronique.
Monique St-Arnaud, a coach who worked with Arsenault at the time, says she started finding some of her colleague's actions strange. She says he started asking the gymnasts sexually explicit questions that raised concern.
"One of my gymnasts told me there were questions she was uneasy answering," St-Arnaud said. "[He asked] if she had erotic dreams … if she touched herself sometimes, if she had sexual fantasies. My gymnasts were between the age of 12 and 16."
With some of the gymnasts, Arsenault allegedly went further than inappropriate comments. Three ex-athletes allege he sexually assaulted them when they were minors. Radio-Canada Sports has gathered their accounts below.
Still coaching in Edmonton
In 1993, Arsenault was fired from Flipgym. The president of the gym's board at the time, Serge Jeudy, says the reasons behind his firing included: "brutality, violence, insults, mockery. Putting down athletes, physical humiliation ... appearance of physical humiliation."
Arsenault denied the accusations.
Six years prior to his firing, in 1987, Gymnastique Québec, the provincial gymnastics federation, suspended Arsenault from competition for a year for "behaviour problems towards coaches, officials," according to the federation's general manager, Serge Castonguay.
"He was allowed to teach in Quebec, in his club, but he couldn't represent Quebec as a manager or a coach," Castonguay said. "He was not allowed to manage a Quebec team in national or international competitions."
Arsenault left Quebec in 1994, settled in Alberta and got a job coaching gymnastics at a gym in Edmonton. In 2002, he and his wife opened their own gym, Champions Gymnastics, in Edmonton.
Arsenault did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story, but late Wednesday, after the publication of the French-language version of this story, his Edmonton gym sent out a press release saying it was taking the allegations seriously.
"Moving forward, Mr. Arsenault will not be involved in any activities at Champions Gymnastics and will not be allowed on our premises," the release and a notice on the gym's website said.
'He wanted me to touch him'
Isabelle, who was one of Arsenault's gymnasts in the 1980s, recalled being touched by the coach when she was a minor.
"I am reliving that moment. He touched me. He kissed me," she said. "At one point, I don't know why, I was topless. … Of course, he asked me not to tell anyone."
Isabelle alleges that when she was 15, Arsenault asked her to masturbate him.
"He wanted me to touch him," she said. "I didn't want to do anything. … He took my hand and forced me because I didn't want to do anything. We did it together. I don't know how to explain it."
Another gymnast who trained under Arsenault, Josée, gave Radio-Canada Sports a written account on condition that her identity would be protected.
"He gave an excuse about an athlete-and-coach meeting to empty himself on me, and he left me there, in his room, covered in semen. I cried, and I went home," Josée wrote.
According to the accounts of several former gymnasts, Arsenault started holding massage sessions in the dark in the dressing room. The gymnasts were paired up, but their coach also participated in the sessions with some of the athletes.
It is under those circumstances that, Linda alleges, Arsenault touched her in a sexual way. She was 14.
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"When he gave me a massage, it was OK at first, but at one point, he always had one hand going too low or on parts I didn't necessarily want," she said. "I let him for a few seconds or minutes — I can't say [how long] because I froze.
"After that, I sat down, I curled up. Each time there were massages, I would manage to pair up with another girl so that he could not touch me."
Linda alleges Arsenault touched her genitals.
Isabelle says she had a similar experience.
"I know that the treatment I was receiving, it was a really intimate treatment. Between the legs, words in my ear, it was … uncomfortable," she said.
Véronique says she remembers witnessing an event like the one Isabelle described in the gym's locker room.
"I saw Michel crouched at the level of Isabelle's waist, and he literally had his hand in her leotard, in her backside," Véronique said. "She supposedly had back problems. All of a sudden, he improvised himself as a massage therapist, a physiotherapist or a chiropractor, I don't know. But he had a hand in the front and a hand in the back. He was kind of startled, and I continued to pack my bag, and when I left, our gaze crossed."
In the 1990s, a complaint was filed with Montreal police against Arsenault, but no charges were ever laid. Police would not comment on the complaint.
A marriage proposal
At age 16, Isabelle received a love letter from Arsenault, which Radio-Canada Sports has obtained. In the letter, her coach proposed to her and asked her to marry him when she reached the age of majority. In the assessment of one handwriting expert, the letter obtained by Radio-Canada matches Arsenault's handwriting.
Andrée Montreuil, a fellow coach at the time, says Arsenault confided in her.
"He asked to meet me. I didn't know what he wanted to talk to me about. We sat down in the office. He told me he had fallen in love with a gymnast, that he had fallen in love with Isabelle," Montreuil said.
Isabelle alleges she found an extreme way to get out of training and escape her coach's stares and touches.
"I caused problems on my body to avoid making up an excuse that would have been discarded," she said. "I hurt myself. I took a spoon — no one was around — I hit my wrists and ankles until they were blue and swollen. I thought it was the only way I could avoid that person."
Humiliation a part of training
Intimidation, humiliation and demeaning comments are said to have been part of the daily routine of the young girls Arsenault trained.
"There was a day my father just arrived at the gym. [Arsenault] told me, 'You're lucky your father is there because I would have slapped you.' That is when I realized he could really do it," said Sophie, one of Arsenault's former gymnasts.
"He called me an idiot, ugly, no good," recalled another, Linda.
"A lot of verbal violence: 'You are dumb. You are stupid. You are weak.' Everything he could say to put us down, forbidding us to be nice to another gymnast," said Nadia Thivierge, who was also trained by Arsenault.
Several athletes said they experienced physical violence under Arsenault.
"I was on the balance beam. I did not want to do certain moves. I was frozen, standing up, arms in the air, and I was crying," said Nathalie, one of Arsenault's former students. "At one point, he took the beam and raised it as high as he could, shaking it, and I fell down."
Thivierge described a similar experience.
"I remember I was working on the uneven bars. It wasn't going really well, and he was making me repeat and repeat," Thivierge said. "He was verbally abusive, mean, aggressive, demanding. I got mad and thought, this is over. I wasn't coming back to the gym.
"I took my stuff to go to the locker room. He took me out of the locker room, holding me by the shoulder and the neck. I almost didn't touch the ground. I listened to him then."
Caroline said physical violence was part of her experience under Arsenault.
"We got slapped around. I got kicked in the butt, slapped in the face. I got a good kick in the butt, not a small one," she said.
Nicole, the mother of one of Arsenault's former gymnasts, said parents were excluded from the training regimen at the gym.
"He asked that we put up curtains so that parents would not see their children training," she said. "But the reasons he gave for that was that someone could spy on the coaching methods. As parents, we had access to nothing, nothing at all."
Véronique said she and other gymnasts were reluctant to discuss Arsenault's behaviour at home.
"You start speaking less and less to your parents about what is going on in the gym because you feel that would be betraying the one who is going to bring you to an Olympic podium, the one who promises you you will live your little-girl dream," she said. "You then get a conflict of loyalty between him, who is acting like a master, a god, and your parents."
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