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Synchronised figure skating coach suspended for abuse back at work

The skating association suspended the coach for a year for treating skaters badly, but the club reinstated her seven weeks later.

Team Unique.
An exhibition by Team Unique, HSK's senior synchronised figure skating team. Image: Lehtikuva

A synchronised figure skating coach at the Helsinki ice skating club (HSK) has returned to her job just seven weeks into a one-year suspension ordered by the Finnish Figure Skating Association's (FFSA) disciplinary board in January for extensive abusive behaviour toward the young athletes.

In mid-January, Yle’s sport department reported that the coach, Mirjami Penttinen, had been suspended for regularly humiliating and degrading her team of synchronised skaters. According to the report, the coach had on a number of occasions also regularly used coarse language and screamed at her mentees.

In the worst cases, Penttinen's berating behaviour reportedly led to mental health problems or eating disorders of some of the skaters she was charged with nurturing. A total of 13 HSK skaters from the club's senior or junior teams told Yle about the coach's reported extensive humiliating and abusive behaviour.

The club issued an online statement about its decision to return the coach to her duties, a posting dated 9 March, saying it was partially based on giving the coach another chance.

Club cites 'Fair play'

"[Penttinen's] return will gradually take place during the 2020-21 season and the emphasis is on the senior and junior Finnish Championship teams. Penttinen has been suspended for seven weeks and the board believes that is a sufficient measure," the club wrote.

In the coach's defence, the club characterised the public backlash which she had endured during her suspension as inhumane, and also referred to a section in the Olympic Committee's 'Fair play' (Reilu peli) brochure about giving people a second chance.

In its statement, the club also noted that Penttinen had now changed her coaching style.

However, Penttinen's broader association suspension continues to be in force, meaning that she cannot train HSK’s teams in competitions organised by the FFSA.

In its own statement, the FFSA said that HSK's decision came as a complete surprise.

"Our opinion on the severity of this case has not changed. The [FFSA's] disciplinary board handed down the maximum penalty [to the coach]. Now that the club's board has reached a different opinion, we need to consider further measures," the association's chair, Laura Rautio, said in a press release.

The FFSA said it plans to discuss the matter at a meeting scheduled in two weeks. The maximum penalty the group could impose would be to kick the entire HSK club out of the association.

Top-level team

Team Unique, the HSK's senior-level synchronized skating team coached by Penttinen, won a silver medal in the Finnish Championships at the beginning of this month and is said to be prepared for the World Championships scheduled in April. However, if the club is kicked out of the union, HSK will not be able to represent Finland at that top competition.

In its statement, HSK said it wants to look to the future and help to develop figure skating in Finland.

“The board and team of coaches are working together to develop the club’s methods and coaching. We want all skaters to learn and develop in a safe environment,” the club wrote.

Parents outraged

The club’s decision to reinstate the coach has upset some parents of youths in the club.

"I am shocked about how this was handled, it is an incomprehensible decision. The club talks about new [training] methods but I have no idea about what they are," one parent who wished to remain anonymous told Yle sports.

At least one family decided to pull their kid from the club outright.

"I have given notice that we are stopping with HSK entirely. The reason is a lack of faith in the club's board - their only aim has been to allow Mirjami Penttinen to return. They have now reached their goal," another unidentified parent told Yle.

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