‘Most days I cried:’ Sydney Olympian was scared of coaches
THE coach's voice was menacing and dangerous.
Her fingernails dug into the girl's bicep.
"You better hit this or you have no future," she whispered in her ear.
Trudy McIntosh broke free from the grip and stepped onto the matt, into the spotlight.
She was 16 years old.
It was her Olympic debut.
Eleven years earlier in Geelong a different coach - McIntosh's first gymnastics mentor - presented her with a plaque that read 'future Olympian'.
"(From that moment) I was like 'I'm going to the Olympics and that's it', and I guess I never had the option in my head of not doing it," she recalls.
She loved her teammates, and relished the hard work and discipline it took to excel.
Her loving parents supported her passion. ceding some control of her life to the coaches who had the expertise to make her dreams come true.
It paid off when she won two gold, a silver and bronze medal at the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games just two months after her 14th birthday in 1998.
But now, at the age of 36 with two children of her own, McIntosh looks back and can see the culture at the top of her sport was rotten.
The coaching was militant, the training brutal, especially for athletes so young.
"I was at gym more than I was around my parents. I was around the coaches more than my parents," she says.
"The five years lead up to Sydney (Olympics) most days I cried because it was too demanding.
"We were training 37 hours a week plus school, trying to be a normal kid.
"Going into Sydney we had a lot of pressure on us because we were a really strong group, but it was led by fear not encouragement.
"We weren't told it was a great opportunity. We were told 'you're going to do well or it's going to look bad on us', and that's what ended up happening; we didn't do well, and we didn't get medals.
"So my memory of that is the coaches yelling at us saying we weren't good enough, which happened every day.
"We weren't allowed to talk about that at the time. But now, with everything else going on in gymnastics around the world, we can see this was a culture that actually damages children.
"As an adult, I have to deal with what happened to me as a child and it's challenging some days … wondering why I feel like I have to be perfect all the time."
When McIntosh talks about developments in gymnastics "around the world", she points to the Netflix documentary Athlete A, which highlighted shocking examples of sexual, physical and emotional abuse against her contemporaries on the USA team.
In the wake of those revelations Gymnastics Australia engaged the Human Rights Commission to investigate its past, including interviewing past athletes such as McIntosh, while a group of elite competitors teamed up in a potential legal action against the sport's governing body.
While McIntosh does not allege anything illegal happened to on the Australian team, she now believes herself and the other child athletes did not get the care they deserved.
She wants to share happy memories of the Sydney Olympics, but her immediate recollections are all traumatic.
"I would be lying to say it was a positive experience," she says.
"It should've been a celebration of all the hard work we had put into it. It should've been our showcase, our time to shine. But it was a pressure cooker that exploded."
The morning before she competed - and before her coach grabbed her arm and threatened her - McIntosh remembers being shamed at a weigh-in.
"Weight was always an issue, and I remember my coach telling me (that morning) I'd put on weight and I was too heavy," she recalls.
"I don't know what the affect of that was supposed to have on a person.
"Why would an adult have to say that? Does that motivate anyone?
"But at the time you just go 'OK, yeah' and move on.
"The day of the competition was pretty bad.
"I competed OK but it was a really bad feeling (on the team), so afterwards I kind of just was grateful it was over, and we snuck out as gymnasts and ate McDonalds, which we weren't allowed to do."
It was only in those rare moments that the team escaped its coaches that she enjoyed herself.
With effort, she finds the happier memories, like winning a prize in the athletes' village for having the best decorated villa, swapping badges with athletes from other countries, and the closing ceremony; "the first time I'd ever been out really to a concert."
McIntosh was Australia's best gymnastics performer at Sydney, but drifted from the sport into careers where she felt her skills and personality were celebrated.
"After gymnastics I had the opportunity to represent Australia at aerial skiing which was a very different environment," she explains.
"Then I was at Cirque du Soleil, which was the whole reward for working hard as a gymnast.
"I'd always thought the Olympics was the goal. But when I got to the Olympics it was just a sorrow, it was a sadness, it was a disappointment.
"Then I realised when I was at Cirque; this was it, that's what it was all for, that's why I worked so hard."
The other upside was that Cirque introduced her to her future husband, Danish tumbler Lars Kristensen.
With their two children, Annabell, 6, and Jens Peter, 1, the family now lives in Coffs Harbour.
Despite her pedigree, Annabell's gymnastics skills are apparently limited, and her mum is more than happy with that.
"You'd think we'd have talented kids, but thankfully that's not the case," McIntosh laughs.
"Annabell has fun at gymnastics, she's not great at it."
Originally published as 'Most days I cried:' Geelong Olympian scared of coaches