When Verona van de Leur thinks back to the days at the turn of the century when she was one of the best gymnasts in the world, every syllable in her voice is laced with pride.
She emerged in 2001 as the leader of an unlikely Dutch gymnastics boom in a sport dominated by post-Soviet giants. At the 2002 European championships she won five medals before snatching a silver on floor at the world championships; she was named Dutch sportswoman of the year. As the Netherlands wondered what the future held for its new sporting star, nobody could have imagined it would see her homeless, then in jail, before she picked up the pieces of her life in the pornography industry.
Pride was an alien sensation to Van de Leur when she was competing. In her new autobiography, Simply Verona, she claims her parents put success over her wellbeing, pressuring her to succeed for their own gain. When she failed to finish on the podium, her mother would refuse to pick her up from the airport, forcing her to take long train rides home in tears.
In the gym, she alleges the training techniques of her coach, Frank Louter, were physically and mentally abusive. While gymnasts were forced to practise too many routines with too many injuries, she says, staff members rummaged through their bags and shamed them for the snacks they hid in lieu of proper meals.
“It’s like in the circus with the animals,” she says of the coaching methods in a phone interview. “It’s doing it the hard way. That’s how you learn. You see the documentaries on the internet with crying kids? That’s how it went with us too. If you want to be flexible, it’s hurting. That’s with weight training, that’s with conditioning, that’s with the tricks. Sometimes you break something, sometimes not and you’re lucky.”
Van de Leur was not lucky. By 2003, aged 17, her body was crumbling and her mind was vacant. Burnt out a year after her biggest successes, she found herself thinking about suicide. “I felt as if I was in a black hole,” she says. “Maybe the best thing was to quit but there was no option to quit. I tried it a few times but nobody let me.”
It would take another five years before Van de Leur found the nerve to relieve herself from that suffocating environment. What she did not expect on her retirement in 2008 was that parting from the sport would lead to a permanent familial rupture.
After she began to explore the world beyond the confines of her gym with her boyfriend, Robbie, she returned home one day to find the locks had been changed and she was no longer allowed to enter the building. She later investigated her prior earnings and learned her father had spent her money on his own personal leisure. She eventually won two lawsuits against him, the judge forcing him to pay back a total of €62,000 (around £55,000).
Van de Leur and her boyfriend were homeless for two years, sleeping in a car every night. Survival meant long afternoons collecting a few cents on the beach, eating complimentary food in supermarkets. Sometimes they would shoplift. Before helping with youth camps at gyms, she would douse herself in sample supermarket perfume. Although there was a romantic aspect to Van de Leur’s life in those days, finally free with her partner against the world, it was always tempered by the cold reality.
“When you have no food and have to shoplift, it’s crossing a line, crossing your own borders that you never thought you would do,” she says. “But to survive, you would do anything that you need.”
Their time in the wilderness and out of view ended abruptly. Van de Leur was wandering around a park one day in 2010 when she noticed a man and woman having an affair. She took photos of the pair and then confronted the woman, eventually demanding €2,000. “I was really in the lowest state you can think of,” she says. “On the street with really nothing and when this happened, she asked me if I wanted money. I said, quick-thinking: ‘Yes.’ Because I needed it.”
One night a few weeks later she was arrested by a large group of police. Initially detained for 72 days, Van de Leur was charged with blackmail and then also possession of child pornography after photos were allegedly found on a folder in her laptop. The latter charge fell apart in court after her lawyer argued several people had access to her computer.
The damage was done. A day before her trial, the press published details of the case and she watched every organisation she had links to sever ties, her life crumbling again before her eyes. “Within 24 hours everything was cancelled,” she said. “Then you have to start over. But it’s hard to actually start over if society doesn’t accept you.”
In 2011 as she was figuring out the rest of her life, she was offered a contract to do webcam pornography videos. Van de Leur says she probably would not have agreed had her financial and professional earnings not been so damaged by the court case.
“It took me a couple of weeks to think about because this one was for the public. So I talked with my boyfriend about the decision and he said: ‘Whatever you feel,’ because I’m the one sitting there and they are going to use my name … It was such a huge amount [of money]. For me, it was an opportunity to make something from my life, to build something.”
After her step into the adult entertainment world, she decided to create her own company and website, participating in adult films while hiring other models for pornographic movies. In a torrid industry, she resolved to film only with her boyfriend, to choose every bit of work for herself and to pull the plug whenever she felt uncomfortable. Her job required her also to chat daily with fans.
“It’s hard to explain because sometimes you don’t know their face, their name, and for others you know everything. You know their wife’s name, their children, where they work, where they live. Depending on how much the fan wants to share.”
As a gymnast her life was entirely dictated by the whims of the surrounding adults but she saw this as an opportunity to make money and be autonomous through the company she founded and the people she interacted with.
At the end of 2019, she stepped away from the adult film business. Now 34, her gaze has shifted, altered by the Me Too movement colliding with the Larry Nassar case and bringing to light the working conditions of gymnasts.
“Every time you hear something, there’s still a new case or someone who doesn’t speak up,” she says. “Whenever it’s possible, I’m working with [sports] federations, what they can do better to make the environment just a little safer for the kids … If I can be a person [they trust] and they want to talk to me, that’s the thing that I want to do. Be the person for them.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.