Missouri's Kara Eaker was at the top of the gymnastics world. So why did she just retire?
The 20-year-old Grain Valley native, who trained in Blue Springs, said on social media last week that a toxic coaching environment at the University of Utah negatively affected her mental health. “The abuse often happened in individual coach-athlete meetings," she wrote.
Kara Eaker of Grain Valley, Missouri, was once one of the world’s rising gymnastics stars. On Friday, Eaker brought her career to a crashing halt.
The 20-year-old declared on social media her retirement from the sport and withdrew from her studies at the University of Utah — and from its powerhouse team known as the Red Rocks. Eaker cited “verbal and emotional abuse” within the program over the last two years.
The training environment was toxic, cruel, and unsafe, she wrote in her post, and Eaker “had been seeing a university psychologist for a year-and-a-half.”
“I’m now seeing a new provider twice a week because of suicidal and self-harm ideation, and being unable to care for myself properly,” she wrote.
Eaker’s career took off from 2017 to 2021 as a member of the heralded USA team that is still in the midst of a historic streak of team gold medals. Earlier this month, the team won its seventh consecutive team gold in Antwerp, Belgium.
The Missouri native’s Red Rocks career got off to a rousing start in 2022 as an NCAA All-American, and a 10.0 score on the balance beam in the regional final. She repeated as All-American her sophomore year, and helped the Red Rocks finish third in the NCAA championships during each of her two seasons.
Though Eaker didn’t single out any specific coach in her social media post, she said behind-the-scenes issues started at Utah under head coach Tom Farden, who took over in 2020 and succeeded legendary Red Rocks coach Megan Marsden.
“The abuse often happened in individual coach-athlete meetings," she wrote. "I would be isolated in an office with an overpowering coach, door closed, sitting quietly, hardly able to speak because of condescending, sarcastic and manipulative tactics."
Problems within the gymnastics program came to light in June, and the university hired Kansas City law firm Husch Blackwell to investigate. The university released the results of the review in September.
It concluded that, “while Farden’s actions caused some student-athletes to feel ‘increased fear of failure’ and pressure to retain athletics scholarships, he did not engage in ‘any severe, pervasive or egregious’ acts of emotional, verbal or physical abuse or harassment as defined by the SafeSport Code and NCAA regulations.”
The Red Rocks have qualified for a record-setting 47 consecutive NCAA championships and nine NCAA titles. The program’s rosters commonly boast past and future Olympians, including Grace McCallum, MyKayla Skinner and Amelie Morgan.
Eaker reacted to Utah’s investigation in her social media post on Friday.
“It is incomplete at best, and I disagree with their findings,” she wrote. “I don’t believe it has credibility, because the report omits crucial evidence and information and the few descriptions used are inaccurate.”
Eaker said that she has been diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression and anxiety-induced insomnia. In addition, she said she suffers from panic attacks, PTSD and night terrors.
The university has yet to respond to Eaker’s allegations.
Balancing a gymnastics schedule
Eaker told KCUR a few months after the 2018 world championships that she was very proud to be a member of the USA team.
“Training with the gymnasts there in Doha, also being part of the big group and being on the world stage,” she said, was a highlight of her gymnastics career.
At the time, Eaker was in the middle of a push to make the USA Olympic team. She eventually did, as an alternate in the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed a year because of the pandemic.
A quarantine compounded the delays. Eaker and USA teammate Leanne Wong, of Overland Park, Kansas, were placed in isolation after Eaker tested positive for COVID-19.
Even before achieving world-class competitor status, Eaker said balancing school and a training schedule at the GAGE Center in Blue Springs, Missouri, was a grind.
“It’s a lot of work,” Eaker said in 2019. “We definitely focus on certain things one day and certain things another, and we try to keep that balance throughout the week.”
She got up at 6 a.m. each day for school, she said, then trained each evening during the week. On Saturdays, Eaker would get up early for morning workouts. Eaker said she welcomed the chance to sleep in on Sunday, her only day off.
After the 2018 world championships in Doha, where Eaker was the youngest competitor, she made the commitment to attend the University of Utah.
Mental health in college athletics
Top collegiate programs have in recent years taken more steps toward providing mental support to supplement their multi-million-dollar training facilities. Eaker acknowledged receiving the consultation of a team psychologist in her post.
Organizations like USA Gymnastics now widely offer online mental health and sports psychology resources for coaches and parents. “Gymnastics requires a high level of mental well-being for safe and successful execution,” the governing organization acknowledges.
But Eaker’s case suggests such help isn’t a cure-all, and university programs have more ground to cover.
In Utah’s case, Husch Blackwell recommended several possible steps forward, including “a performance improvement plan for Coach Farden, including training in appropriate communication with student-athletes, leadership and emotional intelligence for interactions with student-athletes and creating a healthy team culture.”