Ex-Canadian gymnastics coach's sex assault trial shows sport still in flux

SARNIA, Ont. — For David Brubaker, it must have felt like a million kilometres from his moment of Olympic glory.

It was only a few years ago that he had reached the top of his profession, leading Canada's gymnastics team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

This week, the decorated coach was in a Sarnia courtroom, facing two sexual assault charges levelled by a former student.

Brubaker's trial comes at a time when the sport of gymnastics is in a seismic flux. In the U.S., Larry Nassar, the former U.S. gymnastics national team doctor who was convicted of assaulting hundreds of young gymnasts under the guise of treatment, has brought the sport to its knees. Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in jail for his crimes. And just this week, U.S. Gymnastics declared bankruptcy as it desperately tries to make a fresh start.

Here in Canada, Brubaker is one of a number of high-profile coaches currently before the courts.

Brubaker has pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual assault and one count of sexual exploitation The charges relate to alleged incidents between 2000 and 2007. The trial concluded Friday.

Justice Deborah Austin will determine whether or not Brubaker is guilty on Feb. 13. 

But this case offers another portrait of a sport we are assured has changed: scenarios that breed allegations like the kind seen in the Brubaker case are no longer tolerated.

But listening to the testimony in this case, you might wonder if that's possible. The world of elite gymnastics requires the perfect union of athletic prowess and rigid discipline. It often takes an intensive partnership with a coach that can become dependent. Former Canadian Olympic gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, who captured gold at the 2004 Athens Games, has watched this case closely. He currently runs his own gymnastics club in Calgary.

"These young women who are looking just to be validated, telling them, 'That was a good one' makes them stand up a little taller and makes their chest puff out a little bit more," Shewfelt says. "They feel like getting a compliment from the coach is like the best thing in the world. And I think that's a groomed behaviour and that's not right."

WATCH: Ex-coach defends massage techniques:

CBC Sports' Jamie Strashin has the latest from Sarnia on the sexual assault case against former Canadian gymnastics coach Dave Brubaker. 1:21

Kiss on the lips

In the case involving Brubaker, the complainant told the court, from the time she was 12, he would commonly greet her with a kiss on the lips.

He doesn't deny this.

"I think it was just out of habit … that she started to kiss me," Brubaker said, insisting the kisses were innocent. "I don't come from a kissy family, so to me it's just part of the gymnast culture. It's not something I need as a man."

One wonders if that culture still exists.

Brubaker told the court the complainant initiated the kisses after a competition in Europe.

Brubaker's wife Liz, who worked alongside her husband, testified she found nothing odd about the kisses, but acknowledged her husband kissed other students only on the cheek.

The complainant also alleged that Brubaker touched her inappropriately while treating her for persistent pain and soreness.

Brubaker also vehemently denied this. But at the same time, an expert witness told the court that treatment, often in sensitive areas, is an integral and necessary part of maintaining the body of an elite gymnast.

"It's required," said sports physiologist Ronald Weese, who also worked extensively training elite coaches, including the Brubakers.

Weese told the court that maintaining the muscles required for nuanced splits and manoeuvres is extremely important.

Is this kind of treatment any less important today?

"You can't get [to an elite level] from here without an emphasis on the small, finer details." Weese told the court.

Brubaker denies touching a former student inappropriately while treating her for persistent pain and soreness. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

Complainant lived with Brubakers

During their lengthy time as coach and student, the complainant also lived with the Brubakers. The court heard that David Brubaker took special care of her, picking her up almost daily at school before driving her home and then to practice.

On a number of occasions, it's alleged, Brubaker invited the complainant into his bedroom to join him for a nap. She alleges Brubaker would "spoon" her and tickle her belly.

He denied this ever happened.

"She required a lot of attention," Brubaker told the court during his testimony. "I did everything I could to give her what she needed to achieve her goals."

WATCH: Kyle Shewfelt reacts to allegations against Brubaker:

As a gymnastics coach, Olympic champion Kyle Shewfelt describes his shocked reaction to the allegations against former national team coach, as well as how these developments could spark change in the sport's culture. 4:03

Gymnastics officials on both sides of the border say steps have been taken to eliminate scenarios where potential allegations like these could arise from. There is a rule in place to ensure two adults are present when a child is alone. Organizations are working harder than ever to define and enforce boundaries coaches should never cross, like communicating with athletes on social media. Children are more empowered and there are more avenues to report wrongdoing, according to officials.

But we know that in sports like gymnastics, the road to the podium is achieved in solitude, often driven by a coach the athlete is willing to do anything for.

Shewfelt hopes this is all changing. He hopes the drive to be the best won't have to come with the pain we have seen recently played out in courtrooms.

"My hope is that the sport can evolve to a place where young women are given the ability to make decisions for themselves in the sport. And I think that there are a lot of clubs in this country that do provide that opportunity," Shewfelt says.

"And so I encourage parents to look for a place that allows their daughter to have a voice and allow others [to] allow their daughter to be the one driving the bus."

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