Coach relieved of duties at gym center Elite owner dismisses 'phenomenal' instructor due to report of past abuse

Elite owner dismisses 'phenomenal' instructor due to report of past abuse

When Dominica Pisani learned in July that a gymnastics coach she had training athletes at her New Milford facility, Elite Gymnastics Center, could be seen on the Internet slapping a young gymnast in Romania, she let him go.

Ms. Pisani had found the coach, Mihael Anton, to be outstanding in his training techniques since he had arrived in mid-June, but told him the incident in Romania had to be further explained before she could have him employed at her gym.

"I thought he was phenomenal as a coach when I saw him working with the girls," Ms. Pisani said. "You don't know how these coaches are until you actually see him working with the kids."

"And I was impressed with Mihael," she said. "But when I saw the video, I talked to him and it was mutually decided that he should leave until he cleared his name."

Mr. Anton could not be reached for comment.

In 2007, Mr. Anton was banned for 12 months from coaching by the Romanian Gymnastics Federation. The suspension had resulted from his slapping of a gymnast, the Federation announced in February of that year.

By 2008, Mr. Anton was coaching at a gymnasium in Newtown called Vasi's. Yet when the owner, Vasile Cioana, became aware of the video, he let him go this spring.

"He'd been here for almost a year. I knew he'd been suspended in Romania but I didn't know the circumstances until I saw that video," Mr. Cioana said Tuesday.

By mid-June, Mr. Anton was training a group of six gymnasts at Elite Gymnastics Center. They had followed him from Vasi's and Ms. Pisani had let him train the girls at her gym after being encouraged about his qualifications by one of the girl's parents, Keith Holden and Catherine Welker, of South Salem, NY.

"Three other parents came over with us to ask Dominica to let Mihael train the girls here," said Mr. Holden. "He's a phenomenal coach. We're not parents who drop their kid off in the parking lot at a gym. We're there with her and watch her train. I saw nothing that gave me concern over her safety when she was working with Mihael."

Ms. Welker had herself been a gymnast and has had their 10-year-old daughter in gymnastics training since she was 7.

"I sit in on every training session," Ms. Welker said. "I don't take anything for granted because that's my daughter's life in the coach's hands. We've been through a few gyms in the area."

"Mihael is the first coach to treat my daughter with respect, compassion and humor," she said. "His dedication to these kids is unparalleled."

Ms. Pisani's New Milford gym is a member club with USA Gymnastics, an Olympic affiliate organization that has a commitment to providing a safe environment for gymnasts. Nearly two-thirds of the gyms in the country are USA Gymnastics member clubs.

As of June, to qualify for membership, gyms must sign an agreement saying they will not hire someone deemed ineligible for membership with USA Gymnastics.

"He's not a member of our organization," Leslie King, USA Gymnastics senior director of media relations said Tuesday of Mr. Anton. "We are aware of some of the concerns surrounding him. And [we] are looking into it."

Asked if she would hire Mr. Anton if he were to pass the background screening and safety certification required by USA Gymnastics and would be cleared of the incident in Romania, she said she would have to think about if and when that occurred.

"I've seen that video," Ms. King said. "The more I think about it, I'm not convinced it wasn't doctored to make it look like he hit that girl. I don't want to see this man's professional integrity destroyed. But my commitment has always been to my students."

Contact Susan Tuz


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