After one coach punished the team with a set of conditioning drills that had everyone puking by the end, he was the one consoling them, telling them they were still great cheerleaders.
Militant training and coaching practices were standard at Cheer Athletics’ flagship gym in Plano, Texas, the Gerlacher sisters said. Cheer Athletics was (and still is) one of the largest and most decorated private cheerleading companies in the country; the pressure to win, to perform at the highest level, was grueling and ever-present, they said.
Jason McCartney, who had coached twin sisters Hannah and Jessica Gerlacher since they first joined the gym as kids, was their source of support amidst all that harshness.
“When one coach was being crazy, it was like ‘well at least we have this nice one’,” said Jessica Gerlacher. “He was there for us, he took care of us and he was the one to believe in us,” she said. “He was the one we went to when things were getting too crazy. And unfortunately that person was Jason McCartney.”
During a practice in 2015, Hannah fell during a high-flying stunt and hit her head. She sustained a traumatic brain injury. “I was kind of a mess for a while, and it took a bit for me to get back to where I was,” she said. “I was getting yelled at a lot.”
McCartney, as usual, was there to provide solace. “He would always say, you know, ‘it’s okay, come with me, I’ll help you feel better.’ Or, ‘do you need ice?’ Or, ‘do you need a snack’?’” Hannah said. “Then take me off somewhere and do something disgusting. There were a lot of practices like that.”
Tuegel emphasized that just like McCartney, Larry Nassar preyed upon athletes’ hunger for kindness and positive feedback to continue abusing them. “Larry was the one to get them snacks at camp. He was the one that praised them when they weren’t getting positive feedback from other coaches,” Tuegel said.
“It was like we loved and cared about this man,” Jessica said, referring to McCartney. “But we were also terrified of him.”
One of these episodes of abuse sticks out in Hannah’s memory: “The owners, they would be in the building [during practices],” she told the Observer. “One time I was sitting on Jason McCartney’s lap and making eye contact with Angela [Rogers, co-founder and owner of Cheer Athletics]. And I was just staring at her and it was just ignored, never mentioned. Like she didn’t think that was a problem, the cute 15 year-old sitting on a 40 year old man’s lap.”
“I looked at her like, ‘isn’t this a problem?’” she continued. “But it was just ignored.”
McCartney began to sexually abuse Jessica soon after Hannah’s head injury too. He initiated sexual contact while spotting them during an aerial stunt, groping them, and repeatedly forcing them to sit on his lap during practices. Nearly all of the alleged abuses detailed in the lawsuit the twins filed against McCartney and Cheer Athletics last July occurred during practices at Cheer Athletics’ Plano facility.
When the Gerlachers decided to report McCartney’s abuse to club cheerleading’s governing body, they submitted an anonymous report online as instructed.
In a statement issued after the Gerlachers filed suit in July, Cheer Athletics representatives said USASF had alerted the gym about the complaint, but they were unable to produce any corroborating evidence McCartney’s alleged sexual abuse.
According to the Gerlacher’s attorney, however, USASF never conducted any investigation into McCartney’s behavior. It remains unclear what actions Rogers or then-co owners Brad Habermel and Jody Melton took after they learned of the complaint.
Either way, they took no action to restrict McCartney’s access to minors in response, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, McCartney’s star continued rising at Cheer Athletics. He maintained his status as a highly-regarded longtime coach who had been in the competitive cheer game since it first started gaining prominence in the late 90’s. He held high status with athletes, coaches and Cheer Athletics leadership as one of the first coaches at the esteemed gym.
McCartney eventually took over ownership of the company’s Austin gym in 2015, but continued spending the bulk of his time coaching the Gerlachers’ and other teams at Cheer’s North Texas facilities, the twins said.
The Gerlachers’ attorney, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, represented several survivors of sexual abuse by former U.S. Olympics Gymnastics coach Larry Nassar. She told the Observer that USASF and Cheer Athletics’ utter lack of response to the Gerlachers’ report rises to the level of criminal negligence.
“If you know of a specific abuser, the legal obligation under Texas law is that if they know about abuse of a minor athlete, they’re mandatory reporters, even if they don’t know who the minor athlete is,” Tuegel said.
Mandatory reporting laws in Texas require anyone with “reasonable cause” to believe that a minor is possibly being sexually abused to report the situation to law enforcement within 48 hours.
Cheer Athletics isn’t alone in failing to report predatory behavior. A USA Today investigation published last year found nearly 180 people affiliated with cheerleading had faced or been convicted of charges relating to sexual abuse of minors.
Rogers is already being sued for turning a blind eye by multiple unnamed survivors of alleged sexual misconduct at the hands of Cheer Athletics coaches. “Cheer Athletics and Angela Rogers categorically deny the allegations made against them,” in response to the 2020 lawsuit.
The plaintiffs in the 2020 suit also accused Rogers of tipping off Jerry Harris, one of the stars of Netflix’s Cheer docuseries, that he was under federal investigation for producing child pornography and soliciting sex with minors, an allegation she has neither confirmed or denied in past comments.
The Gerlachers say the inaction of the other adults in the gym made recognizing that McCartney was abusing them even harder. Hannah said that when Rogers didn’t respond to seeing her on McCartney’s lap, she thought, “oh, this isn’t a bad thing, or she would’ve stopped it. It just made us more confused, the more the adults around us didn’t react to it,” she said.
Both sisters are now coaching cheer at a gym in Coppell, Texas. They say it’s their goal to shift the norms of coaching in the sport from negative to positive motivation.
“Sometimes I would take [McCartney’s] creepy perverted hugs over getting cussed out by this crazy coach. I mean it’s such a toxic environment that you kind of take the lesser of two evils,” Jessica said. “But we didn’t really realize the severity of either one.”
The Gerlachers hope that eliminating the pervasive negativity and fear-based coaching practices in the sport will make it harder for predators like McCartney to play the foil to the tougher coaching counterpart and abuse kids under the guise of care.
“If we got rid of that negative coaching, kids wouldn’t be going to certain predators for love and attention,” Hannah said.
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