(Reuters) - USA Gymnastics on Tuesday named former National Basketball Association vice president Li Li Leung as its new chief executive officer to help the sport’s national governing body navigate the aftermath of a devastating sex abuse scandal.
Leung, who was a college gymnast at the University of Michigan, will take the helm of an organization that filed for bankruptcy protection in December under the weight of lawsuits filed by hundreds of women who were sexually abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar.
“It is not lost on me that this leadership position at USA Gymnastics will likely be the greatest professional and personal challenge that I will ever face,” Leung told a conference call.
“But I believe my personal experience and professional management experience give me the perspective and skills to handle this role.”
Leung, who competed in USA Gymnastics events and represented the United States at the 1988 Junior Pan Am Games, said her ultimate goal is to create an athlete-driven organization where safety is paramount.
After attending to outstanding commitments, she will begin as chief executive on March 8, based at USA Gymnastics headquarters in Indianapolis.
USA Gymnastics has been in turmoil ever since dozens of female gymnasts, including Olympic champions such as Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, came forward to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse.
“I have bled, I have sweated, I have cried alongside my teammates, alongside other gymnasts and it breaks my heart to see the state that the sport is in today and that is why I stepped forward,” said Leung. “I believe that I can create positive change in the organization.”
Over the past two years, three CEOs — Steve Penny, Kerry Perry and interim chief Mary Bono — have been forced out after being criticized for their handling of the crisis.
Bono, a former Republican congresswoman, resigned just four days into the job last October amid criticism by some top gymnasts. Leung said she felt compelled to pursue the position.
Leung, who also coached high school and college gymnastics, called this a “critical turning point” and pledged to rid the sport of opportunities for abuse to occur again.
“Today is an important step ahead for USA Gymnastics as we work to rebuild confidence, trust and to create an organization that everyone can be proud of,” she said.
Nassar was sentenced to up to 300 years in prison in two different trials in Michigan last year after more than 350 women, including Olympic champions Raisman and Jordyn Wieber, testified about abuse at his hands.
USA Gymnastics called Leung “perfectly suited” to lead the governing body during “this important time in our history” given her business skills, management experience and passion for gymnastics.
Leung said she will collaborate with the entire gymnastics community to make changes including initiatives to strengthen athlete health and safety and to build a plan for the future.
Prior to joining the NBA, Leung worked for global sports management firm Helios Partners, where she founded, built and managed the China office, starting 2005 in anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
At the NBA, her main focus was managing the league’s global priority partners.
Some gymnasts were hopeful Leung can turn things around. Others criticized the selection process as too insider-driven.
“After a string of disappointments from USAG, I am hopeful that the organization has finally selected someone sensitive to issues of safety and abuse,” former Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu told the Indianapolis Star.
"The exact same people who thought Kerry Perry and Mary Bono were good ideas hired Leung, with absolutely no input from survivors, namely the bankruptcy Creditors Committee who desperately wanted a voice in the search process," Sarah Klein, the first known victim of Nassar, said in a report here on the paper's website.
“And so, true to form, USAG hired a consummate insider with ties to the USOC. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. USAG is officially insane.”
Leung said she hoped to be judged “on our actions going forward. We will learn from the past and look to the future to heal and rebuild.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio