Penn State hires women's gymnastics coach in regime change after allegations of mistreatment

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Penn State women's gymnastics coach Sarah Brown.

Allegations against former Penn State women's gymnastics coaches Jeff and Rachelle Thompson were first reported by Erin McCarthy and her colleague, Morganne Mallon, when they were reporters for the Daily Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour announced Thursday the hiring of new head women's gymnastics coach Sarah Brown.

Brown, a two-time Big 12 Conference gymnast of the year, spent the last year as head coach at Eastern Michigan University, where she led its women's gymnastics program to the Mid-American Conference regular-season title and championship.

"Sarah is a rapidly rising star in the coaching ranks," Barbour said in a statement. "We are excited about the passion, experience and leadership she will bring in engaging with recruits and our women's gymnastics alumni."

Brown said in a statement that she was "honored and thrilled" to begin coaching at Penn State.

While Brown, a University of Missouri graduate, has no previous connection to Penn State, the announcement marks the end of a turbulent year for Penn State's women's gymnastics program. Last April, several former gymnasts came forward with allegations of mistreatment by former coaches Jeff and Rachelle Thompson.

Former gymnasts said the husband and wife coaching duo sometimes forced athletes to train through injuries, pressured them to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, and mistreated them to the point that some women developed depression and eating disorders.

Several gymnasts said they went to the Penn State athletic department with complaints, but nothing was done. The athletic department has said that any allegations against the Thompsons were properly investigated at the time.

Rachelle Thompson, then-associate head coach, resigned last summer, a month after the allegations came out. In a letter to the team, she wrote: "It has recently become increasingly difficult for me to come to work each day with my normal passion."

In February, then-head coach Jeff Thompson was fired by the university. Assistant coaches Kera Molinaro and Josh Nilson took over head coaching duties for the remainder of the season, leading the team to an 11-8 record.

The Thompsons, who had coached at Penn State since 2010, could not be reached for comment.

Alyssa DiFrancesco, a 2016 Penn State graduate and native of Kennett Square, was one of the former gymnasts who spoke out against the Thompsons last spring.

She had hoped Penn State would hire someone like Brown, an outsider who could give the program a fresh start.

Other former gymnasts declined to comment on the hiring, saying they wanted to move past what had happened to them during their time at Penn State.

While DiFrancesco said she has not heard from any Penn State officials since speaking out publicly against her former coaches, she said the firing of Jeff Thompson brought a bit of closure to her and some former teammates.

"We all had the same reaction. We at first were overwhelmed with happiness and relief. We were all like, 'Finally,' " DiFrancesco said. "And then after we got our happy out, we immediately thought, 'What about the girls' " still on the team?

After touching base with her friends still on the team and finding out they were doing well, DiFrancesco said her relief returned. However, she still takes issue with the university's response to the women's original complaints.

"With gymnastics, we don't tend to bring in much money to the university," DiFrancesco said. "I don't think they took the situation seriously."

DiFrancesco used to love gymnastics, but she said she doesn't participate much in the sport anymore. And, after the mistreatment she experienced, she said she would not allow her future children to become gymnasts.

But she often thinks about her friends still on the Penn State team. For them and future Nittany Lions gymnasts, she hopes Brown brings positive change.

"I think the [new] coaching staff needs to understand this is a college sport. It is not professional," DiFrancesco said. "I think the staff needs to be understanding and patient. They should want the same thing the girls do."

The Penn State athletic department did not respond to a request for more information regarding the specifics of the coaching search.

@ErinMcPSU