Why women’s gymnastics is legal child abuse (2023)

“Why isn’t your hair up in a tight bun? ... Are you some kind of slut?”

“I fall off the beam and land badly, and I’m hurting. The coach unleashes a torrent of curse words, yelling at me to get up again. I wait too long. ‘Get your butt up there right now or I’ll make you wish you had.’”

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“He grabs me by the throat with both hands and lifts me into the air by my neck ... I hear him clearing his throat, followed by the sound of spitting, and feel a thick glob splat into my face.”

The latest instalment in the decades-long humanitarian scandal known as “world-class women’s gymnastics” was released in July.

A local Dutch newspaper, Noordhollands Dagblad, published several high-profile articles about gymnastics culture in the Netherlands. Anonymous gymnasts about what they had experienced during their career. About years of intimidation and humiliation, and how damaged they still are, even years later.

But the most remarkable feature in the series was with one of those spitting, striking, shouting coaches in person: former league coach Gerrit Beltman. In the interview, Beltman does something extraordinary: he admits almost everything, and offers an apology.

“The conduct I exhibited cannot be justified in any way ... I am deeply ashamed. I never deliberately intended to hit, to curse, to hurt or to humiliate ... But it did happen.”

The confession opened the floodgates to a torrent of revealing tales – about Beltman and other national team coaches. These came on top of stories that came out after Netflix released about abuse in US gymnastics. The furore led to questions in Dutch Parliament, of the training sessions for the national gymnastics team, and the establishment of an independent committee to investigate gymnastics culture in the Netherlands.

The committee will report its findings in December. It is not difficult to predict the ritual proceedings that will follow that report: a coach will resign, a board will step down, a code of conduct will be instituted. Statements will be made about a change in culture, about "rotten apples", about “that was then” and “this is now”. And in about five years, another gymnast will tell a journalist her “shocking tell-all” story of abuse.


Because child abuse isn’t an exception in women’s gymnastics – it’s the logical consequence.

Gymnastics: a machine of systematic abuse for 50 years

This may sound cynical. But gymnastics has a well-earned reputation for widespread excesses. 25 years ago, the sport was already referred to as and it’s no exaggeration. Read what generations of gymnasts have said about their sport, and the truth is self-evident: gymnastics is a machine for destruction of the lives of young women.

The titles of gymnastics autobiographies alone read like catalogues of crushed childhoods: Off Balance, Break the Fall, What Is a Girl Worth?, Leiden im Licht (Suffering in the Spotlights) and many more. The names, locations and time periods may be different, but the stories are

Why women’s gymnastics is legal child abuse (2)

Why women’s gymnastics is legal child abuse (3)

Verbal abuse: check. Humiliation: check. Isolated from the world beyond the sport: check. Parents who slide from “wanting the best for their child” to “blind ambition”: check. (“You didn’t make the Olympics team”, one parent her child, “I did.”) Deprioritising school: check. Continuing to compete with injuries and broken bones: check. And above all: an with weight, resulting in anorexia and bulimia: check, check.

Fat-shaming of gymnasts by coaches is a persistent theme pervading the sport. “Balloon”, “brick house”, “apartment complex” – real estate and the animal kingdom are popular metaphors. “Fat cow” is a favourite in all sorts of languages and variations – “pregnant cow”, “dikke koe”, “grosse vache”, “fette Kuh” – followed by various other livestock (“fat pig”) and poultry (“stuffed Christmas turkey”).

(Video) Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics

With the fat-shaming come the coping mechanisms. Hoping to get injured just to avoid training: check. Taking extra risks to increase the chance of injury: check. Self-harming to get out of training: check. And it gets worse.

Swiss gymnast fantasised about having a button she could press to end her life; US gymnast Chloe Gilliland suicide because it was “easier than giving in to what they wanted me to be”; US gymnast Jennifer Sey thought about driving into the oncoming traffic on her way to practice. And these are not isolated

Suicidal tendencies: check.

Yet the athletes seldom leave their abusive coaches. Partly because they love the sport, partly because they – and their families – have invested so much in their careers, partly because they’ve spent half their lives with their coach (and often lived with them). Leaving the coach is like leaving your family, and no child wants that. And so they continue their oppressed lives.

“Life in prison reminded me of gymnastics,” one former elite Dutch gymnast after serving her sentence.

A sport in which the superstars are children

After their careers come to an end, some gymnasts share their nightmarish stories. There’s a ritualistic pattern to this: their memoirs cause a stir, the stir settles down, and then the cruelty resumes. The result is a tradition of abuse that’s passed down from generation to generation.

“There’s a bigger chance that you’ll end up hurt [from elite gymnastics],” the repentant former national team coach Gerrit Beltman said, “than that you won’t get hurt.”

So why does the sport keep on being cruel?

Because abuse pays off.

Or, to put it slightly differently: abuse is baked into the sport itself. The quickest route to success in gymnastics involves a direction in which some sort of abuse is virtually inevitable.

In women’s gymnastics, puberty is viewed as an inconvenient, career-ending illness

This traces back to the core problem of gymnastics: women’s gymnastics is one of the few sports in which girls can win Olympic gold and become world champions.

In fact, success for teenage girls is not just possible – it’s probable. In gymnastics, is a major advantage. Smaller bodies rotate more easily, so they can do more tricks that yield more points within a shorter time frame. And that means puberty is viewed as an inconvenient, career-ending illness. As you grow taller, wider, rounder – moving towards womanhood, in other words – you become less capable of performing the breathtaking skills it takes to win at that level.

Russian and Romanian gymnastics coaches were the first to figure this out. In the 1960s and 1970s, their early talent development schemes spat out children who could do everything their adult opponents could do – and more. The iconic gymnast of this development was Nadia Comăneci. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, she received the much-coveted highest score: a perfect ten. She was the world’s best gymnast ... at age 14.

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In almost all other sports, achieving success at such an early age is almost impossible. In team sports, you need opponents to be able to train and get better, which imposes an organisational constraint on accumulating experience. Moreover, many sports are more complex and less predictable than gymnastics, which means that it takes more time to master the discipline’s intuitions. And above all, in most other sports, bigger and older – as they do in men’s gymnastics, for example.

(Video) Why the $380 million settlement in gymnast sexual abuse suit is just a start

Not so in women’s gymnastics. As spectacular and difficult as the sport looks, in comparison to other sports it’s You can practise any time you like; the requirements are clear and constant (which makes feedback from a coach efficient); there’s no opponent. And for biomechanical reasons, being smaller – younger – is actually an advantage. Plus, from the coach’s perspective: a younger athlete usually means a more obedient athlete. She may not be practice-happy, but she practises.

This means – crudely put – that if you have enough gymnasts and fit in enough hours of training before the age of 15 or 16, you can have your champion. No wonder that women’s gymnastics is referred to as a race against the clock, a "Wettkampf gegen die Zeit" – or a race against puberty.

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This is exactly what the gymnastics world embarked on after Comăneci showed the way. The average age of successful gymnasts – as did their body height and weight. Until the 1970s, the athletes competing in women’s gymnastics were about 1.60 metres tall and weighed 60kg. Those figures plummeted rapidly from that point on: 1.54 metres and 45kg at the 1987 world championship in Rotterdam, just 1.52 metres and 43kg in 2000, and 1.53 metres and 45kg in 2008. In gymnastics, they call them pixies.

Within that group of very young gymnasts, Belgian researchers revealed in 2001, the smallest, thinnest, lightest girls were the most successful. Those results are also apparent from their birth months. In most sports, children born in January, February and March are overrepresented in selection teams. Why? Those children are just a bit bigger, stronger, more experienced compared to the younger children born in the later months of the same year.

But in women’s gymnastics? Exactly what you’d expect: it’s the exact

What happens when you try and shove 10,000 hours down the throat of one childhood

What does it all come down to? The belief that those who shove the most practice hours down the throat of a skinny, late-maturing child gymnast have the best chance of winning.

And that’s where the institutionalised abuse comes in.

Take injuries, for instance. Serious gymnasts get seriously injured all the time. But because the sport is literally a race against the clock, you have to practise and keep competing through them. As a general rule, if you miss one week of gymnastics training, you need two weeks to catch up.

Then there is the obsessive dieting. Many gymnasts report eating precious little, even during training camps. What they do eat, they chase from their bodies with laxatives and diuretics. The is twofold: living up to the aesthetic standards of judges and postponing the dire illness called menarche and its career-ending symptoms of feminine curves.

Jennifer Sey summed both points up in this one paragraph in her brilliant memoir Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. “Just one year after having gone to [a famous gymnastics training centre], one broken ankle, two black eyes, one eating disorder, untold boxes of laxatives, a few broken fingers, and splintered shins, I was the second-best gymnast in the country.”

Many gymnasts report eating precious little, even during training camps. What they do eat, they chase from their bodies with laxatives and diuretics

And the isolation and humiliation? Because of the severe time constraints, coaches compel gymnasts to absolute obedience. "It was the psychology of war", a repentant complicit gymnastics dad told journalist Joan Ryan. "Stripping people of their egos so they can go out and kill somebody."

In her memoir Leiden im Licht (Suffering in the Spotlights), Swiss gymnast Ariella Kaeslin recounts how the former national team coach Eric Demay made his gymnasts kiss him on the cheek before every session. When they made some random mistake in practice, he would have them self-shame themselves.

Demay: “You’re stupid.”

Gymnast: “Yes, I’m stupid.”

Demay: “Say it again.”

Gymnast: “I’m stupid.”

(Video) 'Beaten and starved': Stars allege abuse at heart of British Gymnastics | ITV News

Who wants to live like this, you ask? No one. Except if you love gymnastics, you’ve invested most of your life trying to excel at it, and you don’t know anything else. You’re basically doing in Plato’s cave – an effect some coaches even consciously set out to achieve.

“We are so scared that athletes ... will see things in life that may be more attractive and make them want to quit,” a coach told Froukje Smits in 2014. “That is why the doors of the gym are closed and athletes are not allowed to participate in anything else. What if they find a sport they like better? Or they have a boyfriend or girlfriend outside of sport and they don’t want to do gymnastics any more?”

The result: many gymnasts lead depressing, monotonous, isolated lives, leading to psychological damage that persists long after their careers are over.

Abuse isn’t a bug of women’s gymnastics, it’s a feature.

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Gymnasts could have a normal life, but that’s just too costly

Just to be clear: you don’t have to be a child to win in women’s gymnastics.

Actual full-grown women have won medals in women’s gymnastics. In fact, some observers point to a healthy ageing among the gymnast population. Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers won the gold medal on bar in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 at the “ripe old age” of 24. And Simone Biles, America’s latest gymnastics darling, is the red-hot favourite for the all-around gold medal at the Tokyo Games at age 23.

Gymnasts like these show that the rise of the pixie is not a law of nature, but a social construct, critics say – merely a narrative that the gymnastics community has come to believe in. Gymnasts can be like wine, growing better with age, that story just needs to be told more often.

But here’s the thing: even if extreme youth isn’t a requirement to win, it isn’t an impediment either. You can win when you’re 15 years old. And that’s a problem. Because if it can be done, it will be done. This logic explains why coaches do the things they do, even if they find their own behaviour reprehensible – as the anonymous coaches admitted to Dutch researchers.

Scandals seem to slide right off gymnastics

This is why the sport seems to be resistant to change, no matter how scandalous the offences, or how well intentioned its occasional reformers.

In her excellent The End of the Perfect 10, Dvora Meyers contrasts the old, harsh school of gymnastics coaching with a “new wave” of US gymnastics coaches. Figuring prominently in this brave new world of more humane gymnastics: coaches Maggie Haney and Kim Zmeskal.

They stress how the gymnastics world of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes – Joan Ryan’s 1995 that convincingly argued that women’s gymnastics is “legal child abuse” – is a thing of the distant past. Meyers’s account of the new wave, published in 2016, is understandable. Because even the arc of the gymnastics universe bends towards justice, right? Haney and Zmeskal certainly make a compelling case.

But then, fast forward four years: Haney is found guilty of severe mental abuse of Olympic gold medallist who had been her pupil since the age of six. Haney was suspended from working with gymnasts for eight years. And this August, Zmeskal too was accused of abuse by three gymnasts. They all need therapy

Almost the same happened in the Netherlands. In 2011, Dutch magazine Helden set out to celebrate the stunning success of the Dutch squad at the 2001 world championships. The gymnasts had not planned to reveal their experiences to the journalist, but just couldn’t help themselves when they started reminiscing.

In gymnastics, it’s unlikely that it’s ever just a few; it’s the whole basket, possibly even the whole orchard

They talked about the coaches’ fits of rage, bouts of verbal abuse, hitting and kicking, intimidation and bullying. Suzanne Harmes said: “It was child abuse, but everyone put up with it.” Renske Endel was more personal: “[I thought:] Dad, just drive into the water, then at least I won’t have to go to training.”

A stir was caused. New measures were instated. Progressive gyms stepped forward. One of these gyms, SV Pax, reached out to Helden in 2014. Come and look at our gym, they said. “We are here for the gymnasts, but apparently that isn’t the default elsewhere.”

Fast-forward to 2017-2018: gymnasts, coaches and parents file anonymous complaints about Pax.

(Video) Did the pursuit of excellence in gymnastics lead to bullying and abuse?

March 2019: the investigation that followed by Instituut Sportrechtspraak, a Dutch research institute specialising in sports law, reported its findings of “transgressive behaviour” at Pax.

Early May 2019: Helden three gymnastics moms about a well-known coach at Pax, who was allegedly yelling at young gymnasts and calling them “sluts”.

Late May: were raised in Parliament.

Not long after, the situation was being discussed in terms of “a few bad apples”, of “stricter rules”, of “a climate that had since improved”.

A better climate? A few bad apples? This summer, several gymnasts of abuse against the current Dutch national head coach (and father of Olympians Lieke and Sanne) Vincent Wevers. In gymnastics, it’s unlikely that it’s ever just a few; it’s the whole basket, possibly even the whole orchard.

In a system governed by even good guys turn evil if they wish to survive.

"I’m not putting my hand in the fire for any coach," the gymnastics researcher told me in a recent interview.

If we can bring a sport into this world, can we also take it out?

Clearly, a big reform, something structural, is needed. And maybe, just maybe, this time really is different.

The outrage that has emerged since the release of Athlete A in June is genuinely unprecedented. Earlier accounts could be denied as the grumblings of (Sey) or dimwitted (Ryan); now even the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport – Simone Biles – has spoken up. The hundreds of revelations by active gymnasts under the hashtag have made the culture of abuse in the sport undeniable. Cultural change may happen at last; if this doesn’t do it, then maybe nothing will.

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But even if true change does happen, will it last? History suggests it’s better to ask another question: does the outrage change the fundamentals of the sport this time around? The uncomfortable truth is: no, it doesn’t.

Jennifer Sey, too, badly wants to change gymnastics culture, but she’s pessimistic that gymnastics will change on a fundamental level. In the foreword of the recent edition of her memoirs – Chalked Up – she suggests an alternative: stopping altogether.

“The world can survive the loss of gymnastics,” she writes. “What I want is for kids not to be abused. If that happens because the culture changes, great. If that happens because the sport no longer exists because parents don’t want to send their kids to gymnastics classes anymore, fine.”

Of course, gymnastics won’t disappear altogether. But it’s understandable that she considers this an option. Something sweeping is needed. So why not – at least temporarily – scrap it from the Olympic calendar? In fact, why would the International Olympic Committee, which issued on the rights of elite child athletes in 2008, allow a sport that is so central during the Olympics to systematically and flagrantly violate those frameworks?

If this doesn’t cross the line in the sand, then why have one at all? If a sport can emerge, can it also fade away – or fade out – before it reappears again?

It was adapted from the Dutch original by correspondent Michiel de Hoog, with translations into English by Joy Phillips.

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Why are females better than males at gymnastics? ›

Men typically perform tumbling passes that demand more strength. Women's routines tend to be more artistic and dance-like, sometimes telling a story, whereas a priority for men's routines is to display strength. (The women's score also includes a spot for artistry on the balance beam.)

What are the negative effects of gymnastics? ›

More serious, common gymnastics injuries include:
  • Wrist fractures.
  • Finger and hand injuries.
  • Cartilage damage.
  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears.
  • Knee and low back pain.
  • Spinal fractures and herniated discs.
  • Achilles tendon strains or tears.
  • Ankle sprains.

What is a penalty in women's gymnastics? ›

Penalties in gymnastics are taken from an athlete's execution skill. These penalties can come from a fall from an apparatus or a step out of bounds. If athletes step out of bounds either on the floor or vault, one-tenth of a point is deducted for one foot and three-tenths of a point for two feet.

What happened with USA Gymnastics? ›

USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in 2018, after Olympic bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher had filed a lawsuit and additional claims were filed on behalf of a growing number of survivors of Nassar's abuse. It has since taken more than three years to reach a settlement.

What sports do females dominate? ›

For example, football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, boxing and hockey are examples of male-dominated sports because they are thought of as being more “masculine.” On the other hand, gymnastics and figure skating are thought to be female-dominated sports because they are more “feminine.”

Why dont men do balance beams? ›

Because women generally carry their weight in their lower bodies, an apparatus like the balance beam would have been better suited for them. Men, on the other hand, (generally) have greater upper body strength, so events like the rings and high bar were more aligned with what officials believed their bodies could do.

Do gymnasts get periods? ›

Summary. Amenorrhoea is the absence of menstrual periods. Women who are elite athletes or who exercise excessively on a regular basis are at risk of developing athletic amenorrhoea. Causes are thought to include low levels of body fat and the effects of exercise-related hormones on the menstrual cycle.

Can gymnasts have babies? ›

Missing or irregular menses means the body can't produce eggs due to the lack of estrogen supply. Runners, ballet dancers, gymnasts, and swimmers usually starve themselves and end up with low body fat. Our body needs 22% body fat to ovulate and become pregnant.

Why do gymnasts stop growing? ›

This generally occurs as athletes don't realise they need to adjust their eating habits, and actually eat more, as their training increases resulting in insufficient levels of calories, calcium, and Vitamin D that are necessary for bone growth.

Why don t gymnasts do their hair? ›

The governing rules for USA Gymnastics, meanwhile, stipulate only that athletes be “well groomed” with “hair secured away from the face so as not to obscure her vision of the apparatus.”

Is nail polish a deduction in gymnastics? ›

Q Is nail polish allowed? A There is nothing in our code of points that states nail polish is not allowed. However depending on the color it could create a distraction for judges.

Why do gymnasts wear hair so tight? ›

Fans see a parade of tight braids, buns, and ponytails, for example, because hair has to be pulled away from the face lest it obstruct views of an apparatus necessary for spotting precarious landings—although there's no quantitative limit spelled out on bobby pins and elastic bands.

What did Dr Larry Nassar do to the gymnasts? ›

In 2017, Nassar pleaded guilty to abusing 10 of more than 265 women and girls who have come forward to say they were molested, NBC News reported. He is now in prison and will serve up to 175 years.

Did USA Gymnastics pay victims? ›

Larry Nassar abuse victims reach $380 million settlement with USA Gymnastics and U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. USA Gymnastics (USAG) and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) have agreed to a $380 million settlement with victims of former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar.

How much did Simone Biles get in settlement? ›

Simone Biles, Former U.S. Gymnasts Seeking over $1B from FBI over Larry Nassar Case. Roughly 90 women, including four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, seek a settlement in excess of $1 billion from the FBI over its handling of the allegations against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

Why do guys compete for a girl? ›

Men compete to amass material resources, with the goal of getting a good sex partner. Female competition includes showing off her sexual charms, offering sex at a lower price than rivals, seeking to improve her physical assets (e.g., by dieting), and use of informational warfare to sully rivals' reputations while ...

Are there any male only sports? ›

Still, there are a few summer sports that currently only have men's divisions at the Olympic level. They include: Greco-Roman wrestling: Even though freestyle wrestling has men and women's divisions, Greco-Roman wrestling is currently open to men.

Why do male gymnasts wear footed pants? ›

For gymnastics events that require more running about, the male gymnasts wear their leotards under short athletic shorts. From this observation, it's reasonable to assume that the long stirrup pant provides a visually more streamlined appearance, but may cause drag or foot slippage on mats.

Why do gymnasts spray the uneven bars? ›

The wet stuff. Applying water to the uneven bars might seem a little counterintuitive given that things could get slippery, but it's actually there to improve a gymnast's grip on swings, handstands and dismounts.

Do female gymnasts make more than men? ›

Females earn about $4,700 more per year than male gymnasts, other things the same. There are two main contributions of this study. First, we have identified some of the key variables in a human capital wage model of gymnastic performance.

Do gymnasts wax? ›

Women gymnasts have come to resemble swimmers in their uniform lack of body hair—waxing being an unspoken mandate that has as much to do with aesthetics as with aerodynamics. (Well groomed in her appearance.)

Can gymnasts wear pads? ›

Avoid wearing pads under your leotard

Pads are not something we'd recommend wearing under your gear. Even the smallest of pads can peek out of a leotard, and there's a risk that the bright stage lights could make them visible.

At what body fat percentage does a woman lose her period? ›

Studies indicate that the body's fat content must account for 17% of the body's weight before menarche can occur and that, at age 18 years, the fat content must be at least 22% for the maintenance of regular menstrual cycles.

Can you be too fit to get pregnant? ›

It is well known that being overweight has a significant effect on your health, including negatively impacting your ability to conceive and having a healthy pregnancy. However, what you might not realize is that being too fit or too thin can also affect your chance of getting pregnant.

Do gymnasts live longer? ›

After adjusting for sex, year of birth and nationality, they found that athletes from sports with high cardiovascular intensity (such as cycling and rowing) or moderate cardiovascular intensity (such as gymnastics and tennis) had similar mortality rates compared with athletes from low cardiovascular intensity sports, ...

Can runners get pregnant? ›

For the majority of women, running won't affect their ability to get pregnant so there's no need to cut back. But it can be a tough time for goal-oriented, Type-A runners who do struggle to conceive and are told to dial back.

Do gymnasts delay puberty? ›

Growth velocity of the trunk accelerated later in the gymnasts than in control subjects, despite continuing gymnastic training. Thus gymnastics delays puberty, but puberty may eventually emerge, promoting upper body growth, which may impair gymnastic performance, forcing retirement.

Why are female gymnasts so small? ›

The shorter you are, the better you may do!

It is for a reason that gymnasts are mostly short. The shorter a gymnast is, the easier it is for them to rotate in the air or spin at high speeds. It is hard for long limbs and joints to handle intensive training.

Why do gymnasts have to be 16? ›

Age restrictions were supposedly designed not so much to level the playing field in terms of skill and physical advantages, as to protect child athletes from injury. However, critics dispute the science behind the policy and argue that the answer is to prohibit junior gymnasts from competing in senior competitions.

Why are female gymnasts so strong? ›

Not only are gymnasts therefore hitting an immense amount of muscle tissue, they're also doing it for a long period of time – what is referred to as time under tension (TUT). They don't just pull their bodyweight up onto the rings for one or two seconds.

Do female gymnasts make more than men? ›

Females earn about $4,700 more per year than male gymnasts, other things the same. There are two main contributions of this study. First, we have identified some of the key variables in a human capital wage model of gymnastic performance.

Is men's or women's gymnastics more popular? ›

Women's gymnastics is much more popular and as a result, there is much higher level of participation.

Why are male gymnasts older than female? ›

As males develop muscles and body mass that enhance their gymnastics performances it is a natural assumption this leads to a longer life in the field, barring serious injury. Men continue to compete after getting married, even after starting families. Women—not so much.


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4. Surviving U.S. Gymnastics Abuse Scandal And, Now, Advocating for Change | with, Sarah Klein
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