Warning: This article contains content that people may find distressing
“I was taken off site, to a side area of the gymnastics space, so there were no witnesses. I was held there against my will, I was incredibly numb, shocked, just in utter disbelief.”
Michelle Kinneavy was nine years old when she was assaulted by her gymnastics coach.
She has never spoken publicly about what happened to her in the 1980s, but has waived her right to anonymity to do so now.
Decades on, her former coach, Leonard Hollis, was charged by the police, but he died in 2017 before standing trial.
Earlier this year, British Gymnastics agreed a significant settlement with Michelle following her claim for damages, but she says the letter of apology from its outgoing chief executive Jane Allen felt like “a slap in the face”.
The governing body has denied it did “anything but the right thing on this issue”, and said the legal letter was “standard practice”.
Michelle’s decision to tell her story comes after “30 years of holding the ghosts from the past”, and in light of the recent widespread allegations about mistreatment in gymnastics in Britain.
“I was so passionate about gymnastics, [it was] every girl’s little dream, I loved everything associated with it,” Michelle told BBC Sport.
But two separate assaults by Hollis during these classes not only extinguished that passion, but changed her whole life.
Michelle told her parents what had happened and they went to the police, but it was deemed there was not sufficient evidence to charge Hollis and her complaints were dismissed.
She says she became a “social pariah” and took up karate as a way of protecting herself, achieving her black belt at the age of 11. But the trauma hung over Michelle’s life for decades.
In 2015, having heard nothing more about her complaints or Hollis, she decided to find out what had happened to him by searching his name on the internet, and discovered he had been convicted of indecently assaulting a girl under the age of 14 at the same gym club.
“That was shocking to read, not surprising at all to me. I felt, almost immediately, this palpable sense of relief,” she says.
“To have it in black and white, the evidence that there was something amiss with this person, that as a child I wasn’t fantasising, it did happen, gave me the courage to move forward and seek support to progress what should have happened when it first started all those years ago.”
Michelle went back to the police and this time Hollis was charged, but died before he could stand trial.
She then pursued a claim against British Gymnastics, which concluded earlier this year with a significant settlement and a letter from Allen.
“I received a measure of apology, but I don’t know whether you can call it that,” says Michelle. “I was guided towards their safeguarding policy.
“There was no humanity coming from British Gymnastics. There was no acceptance of their part, of the failures that brought about this situation in the first place. What I wanted to see was how are we going to see that this isn’t going to happen again?
“No amount of settlement can ever make positive reparations for what I have experienced. I feel very strongly about that.”
British Gymnastics said: “It is entirely unfair to suggest that British Gymnastics did anything but the right thing on this issue. As this was a historic claim handled by legal representatives there was no personal contact with the claimant. This is standard practice for matters of this nature.
“There was a requirement for British Gymnastics to formally issue a legal letter – via solicitors – once the matter was concluded. That is the letter you cite.”
An independent review into the allegations of mistreatment and abuse within British gymnastics, conducted by Anne Whyte QC, is currently under way.
The terms of reference outline that it will look at cases since 2008, meaning Michelle’s assault is not included.
Joseph Carr, a senior solicitor at Bolt Burden Kemp who represented Michelle in her claim against British Gymnastics, said he has concerns about these “limitations”.
“There will be many, many people in Michelle’s situation with similar stories of abuse and not being believed in gymnastics, that just won’t be covered by the review,” he told BBC Sport.
“We need to be hearing from victims from the last four or five decades, as well as the current decade, because that informs the whole history and culture of the sport.”
The Met Police told BBC Sport that its records did not allow it to analyse how the case was dealt with in the 1980s but that its procedures and standards have changed considerably since then. It also offered to facilitate a meeting with Michelle and a suitable officer to provide any additional support to her.
“It took me 30 years to come to this point, 30 years of holding the ghosts from the past,” she says. “I am pleased I found the strength, finally, to move forward with this, and hence why I am not ashamed and do not need to be anonymised, because I did nothing wrong.”