Former star gymnast Kytra Hunter says racism complaints 'fell on deaf ears' at Florida

Former Florida gymnast Kytra Hunter documented her experience with racism from her teammates in emotional social media posts Friday, describing frequent use of racial slurs and stereotypes.

Now 28, Hunter said she complained to members of the coaching staff on multiple occasions but her grievances "fell on deaf ears."

Hunter is one of the most decorated gymnasts in Florida history, leading the team to three national championships as well as winning four individual NCAA titles during her time with the program from 2012 through 2015. She was also the 2015 recipient of the Honda Award as the nation's top collegiate gymnast.

She wrote she had been inspired to share her story after hearing those of many others in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died while in police custody on Memorial Day.

"When I think of my time at UF, there was a lot of good, but still I experienced racism from my own teammates," she wrote. "They said things like 'Are you going to cater fried chicken and watermelon at your wedding?' or 'We saved you a seat in the back of the bus,' or repeatedly saying the 'N-word' as if they had no idea that it should not be said. They would immediately defend their statements by explaining how they love black people like Whitney Houston or Barack Obama, as if that gave them a pass to say what they wanted.

"Those things are offensive. They are ignorant. They are racist. They would ask me specific questions about my race, and then laugh at what they considered 'jokes.'"

Hunter, who did not respond to ESPN's request for further comment, said she "constantly" shared her experiences with her coaches but was largely ignored until her senior year, when then-head coach Rhonda Faehn organized a team meeting that Hunter did not deem a success.

"[Faehn] coordinated a 'talk' with my team, but it honestly felt like another day in a classroom on a topic no one seemed to take seriously," she wrote. "It felt like they were simply checking a box so I would be quiet. After that, I received insincere 'apologies' from teammates that included statements like, 'You know I'm not a racist.' At that point, I guess all was supposed to be forgotten.

"I remember sitting in the stadium crying. Crushed. Crushed to the point I could not wait to be off the team. My days became a blur. The racial slurs did not stop. I couldn't understand why their inexcusable behavior was OK."

Faehn, who left Florida in 2015 to work for USA Gymnastics and was later dismissed because of her connection with the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, left a lengthy reply to Hunter's post on Facebook, apologizing for not taking her claims of racism seriously enough.

"I recognize that I should have been more aware," she wrote. "When this was brought to my attention, our staff immediately brought in a specialist to meet with the team to have an open and honest dialogue, education and to confront everything head on. What I heavily regret is not continuing to ask questions to reinforce the education and communication."

Hunter's mother, Kim Esprit, responded to Faehn and said the situation was so bad that she had inquired about Hunter transferring to another university.

"I recall several conversations with you (prior to the specialist's meeting) regarding the way Kytra was being treated by her teammates," Esprit wrote. "One specific call was regarding Kytra's request to be transferred because she was no longer comfortable on the team. Remember?"

Hunter's post came days after her former Gators teammate Kennedy Baker shared her experience with racism while part of the program. Baker declined an interview request from ESPN.

Jenny Rowland, the current Florida coach, said she was heartbroken to read the posts from Hunter and Baker and vowed her program would do better going forward. She took over the team following the end of the 2015 season and never worked with Hunter, but she was at the school for part of Baker's collegiate career. She said she spoke to Baker this week and called the conversation "productive, honest and important."

Following that discussion, Rowland said she organized a video conference call with her entire team in hopes of discussing the current events and developing a collective statement about helping create social change and ending racism.

"Throughout my time with the Gators, I've tried to establish relationships with all of my student-athletes, and that means the world to me," she told ESPN on Friday. "I wanted them to feel ownership of what we said [in a statement], and I felt it was important for us to have a conversation, as a team, after they had time to experience the emotions they had, and have conversations with their own families. And then we could come together as a Gator family, feel all those emotions that everybody needed to feel. Because through these difficult times, that's when a change will truly happen.

"I have to say, it will probably be one of the most impactful moments of my entire life. And I'm almost 46 years old. To see a group of young women come together and be so vulnerable and passionate and open to dialogue, and helping and educating and listening, and just so much heart, it will be a moment that I will never forget."

Following the meeting, gymnasts Sierra Alexander, Nya Reed and Trinity Thomas crafted a statement using suggestions from their teammates, and it was later posted on Twitter.

Rowland said she hopes the racism Hunter experienced will never happen again at Florida but wants her gymnasts to know they can always talk to her, and that she will continue to have biweekly individual meetings with all team members to help facilitate trust and openness.

Hunter concluded her post by asking for unity in combating racism.

"Until you've had someone talk to you with hate and racial slurs because of your skin tone, it's hard to understand what it means to be black," she wrote. "Take the time to listen, learn, and educate yourselves. This ignorance and racism needs to stop!"