Former gymnasts recount their experiences with Jerry Reighard amid investigation
Competing for Central Michigan's gymnastics team was a dream come true for Jodie Plescow.
She entered as a freshman in the 2015 season but took a medical redshirt for an ACL injury. She missed the entire season.
One year later, Plescow sat down for a conversation with her coach, Jerry Reighard. He told her she was overweight. In order to be a productive member of the Chippewas, Reighard, who is currently on paid administrative leave, told Plescow she needed to make a change.
"I took it to heart because I was a 19-year-old girl who just had a grown man, and someone I respected, tell me that I wasn't skinny enough," Plescow said. "So I tried my best to lose weight the healthy way."
It didn't work. She struggled to lose weight.
Plescow was recovering from an ACL injury, which impaired her ability to work out. In order to try to meet Reighard's request, Plescow began using Adderall every day. At 5-foot-5, 115 pounds as a sophomore, she took the drug to trim pounds and decrease her appetite. She consumed 60-to-100 milligrams of Adderall per day and would sweat for hours because of it. On the way home from away competitions, she said her teammates gave out their ice bags to help cool her down from the excruciating pain. On an average day, her intake included three items — Adderall, water and one apple.
"I would just hope to God I didn't get chosen for (NCAA) drug testing," Plescow said. "My teammates told me on a daily basis they were concerned for me."
Toward the end of the 2016 season, Plescow passed out in the middle of conditioning. Associate head coach Christine MacDonald and trainers were concerned, but Plescow said Reighard was not.
"Jerry stormed over and started yelling at me, telling me how ridiculous I am," Plescow said. "I didn't understand that I had a full-blown eating disorder, because I loved the way I looked."
One of Plescow's teammates reported her for not eating, which forced the coaching staff to kick her out of practice. At the time, Plescow was frustrated. Now, she realizes it was for her own good.
"I was completely blind to doing any harm to myself because Jerry was calling my 19-year-old self overweight," Plescow said. "That was just the Adderall talking."
Plescow eventually decided to quit the gymnastics team near the end of the 2016 season. She was afraid of being caught taking drugs. When Plescow met with Reighard, he already had paperwork on the table for her to sign, even though Plescow said she never told the longtime coach what the meeting was about.
"I sat in his office in tears because becoming a CMU gymnast was such a dream of mine," Plescow said.
A few weeks after she quit the team and left CMU, Reighard called Plescow to make sure there were no hard feelings between the two. The coach even invited her to visit the team. However, during that same week, Plescow's close friend on the team told her that Reighard told her former teammates something entirely different.
"He told them to stay away from me; that I was banned from campus because I was a drug abuser," Plescow said. "I have plenty of teammates that were there to witness all of this. But good luck trying to get anyone to fess up."
While Plescow is one former student-athlete willing to tell her story about Reighard publicly, others did too – positive and negative.
'I watched him give all these chances'
During the course of her four years (2014-17) as a gymnast for Reighard, student-athlete Shaila Segal said she frequently saw Reighard's generosity by giving team members multiple chances when they made mistakes.
For example, Segal said there were girls on the team that often cheated in academics. Even though Reighard knew about their cheating, Segal said he never kicked those members off his squad.
"He never kicked anyone off the team for doing something wrong. He spoke to them in a way that tried to show them, 'Hey, that wasn't right. You have to be punished for that. However, I'm going to give you another chance,'" Segal said. "I don't know how many chances he could have given people. Some people did what they wanted. They came to college with their own agenda and thought they were hot shit."
When Segal arrived in Mount Pleasant for the 2013-14 school year as a freshman, she was unable to participate due to an ankle injury and concussion. Reighard never pushed her to return to competition until she was cleared by the medical staff. During the 2015 season, Segal was treated for another concussion. Both occurred while training on the bars. She was once again unable to participate.
Because Segal is from Connecticut and wasn't participating for the Chippewas, she became homesick and nearly transferred. However, an end-of-season meeting with Reighard and other coaches changed everything.
"In my meeting, the coaches were like, 'We know you have more in you, and you can do this.' That was the only reason I stayed," Segal said. "I have always found him to be a very positive role model.
"He made it feel like home."
Segal said Reighard's religious beliefs also played a key role in his coaching, as his team prayed together before every meal and before each event.
"He gives God all the glory every day," Segal said. "I think he's just thankful to be in our lives, good or bad."
One former member of the team, whose name was redacted in Reighard's personnel file, emailed the coach to express her thanks over providing a "Christian environment" at Central Michigan.
"Thank you for being servants for the Lord and never being afraid to speak His name," the gymnast said. "Through you, I was always able to be reminded of the reason I was on this team and the reason I am here, for Christ."
On May 16, 2005, nine years before Segal arrived at CMU, former Associate Athletic Director Marcy Weston asked Reighard to put an end to referencing religion during recruiting, coaching and training as the gymnastics coach.
"Jerry must discontinue his practice of making comments to student-athletes about his personal religious beliefs," Weston said in an evaluation report.
"Jerry will modify his behavior in accordance with said parameters."
Weston said if Reighard failed to adhere to the statement about avoiding personal religious-based comments in his coaching, it could have resulted in his non-reappointment for the next season.
When Segal was around the program from 2014-17, Reighard called his team together to pray on a plethora of occasions.
After a rough first two years due to injuries, Segal bounced back and performed in every meet as a senior in 2017. She said some teammates, unlike her, did not have the right mentality to be in college, and those players rarely believed in what Reighard told the group of gymnasts.
"Some people are just bitter because they didn't have the career they wanted," the four-year student-athlete said. "That's not Jerry's fault."
One of the complaints against Reighard that the Athletic Department is investigating is an accusation that he directed a student-athlete to lie about an injury. Segal said she had "no experience" of anything similar happening during her time on the team. In fact, Segal said the environment was "chaotic" under Reighard when she arrived. She appreciates how he turned it around.
Segal is angry about the way CMU Athletics has handled Reighard's internal investigation — from the initial announcement to the continuing silence about the complaints as the team continues to compete.
"I'm just appalled by how the school is handling this," Segal said. "With the way gymnastics is right now, it's not a time where you can let something out of the bag and not explain it."
'Best four years of my life'
Taylor Noonan was a member of Reighard's team from 2012-15. She arrived at CMU as a gymnast who was under-recruited out of high school, but Reighard gave her a chance.
Noonan was a walk-on, but she immediately found her place in the program – scoring a 9.7 or better on the beam in nine meets, including a 9.8 or better four times.
"It was the best four years of my life," Noonan said. "The fact that I had that opportunity was life changing. I blossomed, and they gave me every opportunity."
While complaints about Reighard have been publicly aired in the media and on social media, Noonan said the "culture nowadays" is a potential reason for those poor feelings. She grew up in a coaching family, which she said made her not have a "sense of entitlement" like others.
"From my perspective, we knew what our culture was there," Noonan said. "It was to work hard and be competitive. It's a lifestyle. This is a job. A lot of people feel the entitlement rather than the responsibility of being on a Division I team."
Noonan said she felt betrayed by the university and her former teammates when Reighard was placed on administrative leave. She said people that she once trusted, upset her by "slandering" Reighard behind a computer screen.
"They have all these good things to say in person, but behind the keyboard, they go hard on him," Noonan said, as she began to break down in tears.
"We were sisters. We had a family. He gave that to us."
Noonan said Reighard's house was always open for the team to hang out, and he even brought student-athletes to his lake house in the summer. He also went to church with some of them.
The four-year gymnast said, from her perspective, Reighard never did anything that broke the law.
"He has his moments, but it's a college program," Noonan said. "He has to get work done. It's sad, that's what it is. It was never illegal what he was doing. He never crossed the line. He was making a successful program."
Noonan was unable to say what Reighard might have done to upset others within the program, but she mentioned Reighard kept her elbow safe after she broke it open. Noonan wanted to stay in the bar lineup, but the coach wouldn't allow it.
Noonan said Reighard got CMU to cover her entire surgery cost for her elbow.
"He never did anything to obstruct, delay or make worse my injuries," Noonan said. "All he did was facilitate it so I could be the best for the team. That's all I can say."
Through Reighard's 35 years with CMU, he's accumulated nine Mid-American Conference regular season titles, 16 victories in the MAC Championships and nine MAC Coach of the Year awards.
He's been the catalyst for the program forming into a gymnastics team at the highest level on a national stage.
"I just hope people can understand what he did for this program," Noonan said. "I just hope that it doesn't all go shattering to the ground because of this. He changed a lot of people's lives in a good way."
Reighard's contract, which has him receiving $145,349 this year, is set to expire on April 30, 2019. A February suspension email to Reighard instructed him to cease all contact with current or former student-athletes, staff, volunteers, students and faculty. He also was told to have no contact with current or potential recruits or the media.
Reighard met with the internal investigation team at CMU on March 28 after his union representatives did not accept a date for over three weeks. He was the final member of the situation to be interviewed.
"It would terrible to see a few instances, or allegations, or whatever," Noonan said. "It would just be terrible to see (his success) all go down the drain."