Featured image: Olympic gymnast-turned-activist Aly Raisman competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
By Sarah McKinnis
Note: this story contains descriptions of sexual abuse, attempted suicide, and physical abuse.
“[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ittle girls don’t stay little forever,” warned Kyle Stephens, the first woman to speak at the hearing of former USA Gymnastics National Team doctor, Larry Nassar, “They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.” Her forceful message was echoed in the words of all one hundred and fifty-six women and girls who gave victim impact statements over the course of Nassar’s sentencing hearing. Empowered by the courage of Rachael Denhollander—the first woman to file a police report and speak publicly against Nassar in 2016—and by the #MeToo movement, these women were no longer going to be silenced. Denhollander’s accusations, published by the Indianapolis Star, resurfaced as Nassar’s victims began to call him out using #MeToo.
Rachael Denhollander giving her victim impact statement at Nassar’s hearing.
To date, more than 250 women and girls have accused Nassar of sexual abuse, the majority of them gymnasts who were Nassar’s patients. A doctor of osteopathic medicine, Nassar claimed to be performing osteopathic manipulation, but he repeatedly penetrated his patients and touched them underneath their clothes without wearing gloves. To those seeing him regularly for injuries, this happened hundreds of times. The heartbreaking scenes in the courtroom in Lansing, Michigan resulted from years of ignorance and negligence coming to a head, shaking the gymnastics community to its core. Nassar’s abuse dates back to 1992, and the victims included numerous elite gymnasts, including the entire 2012 Olympic Team often known as The Fierce Five.
The Fierce Five 2012 Olympic Team meeting with President Obama after winning the team gold in London.
The former national team doctor was finally outposted as women around the country started taking to Twitter, Instagram, and news outlets to tell their stories. One of the first big names in gymnastics to come out publicly was McKayla Maroney, known for her bubbly attitude, incredible vaults, and contribution to the Fierce Fives’ gold medal at the 2012 Olympic games. In a Twitter post, she revealed that the molestation started when she was only thirteen years old, and details “the scariest night of [her] life,” in which Nassar assaulted her in his hotel room during the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo. Her teammate and three-time Olympic gold medalist, Aly Raisman, opened up about her own experiences during an interview with 60 Minutes. “I was abused at the Olympics,” she revealed. More and more gymnasts began to come forward, telling their own stories. Every day there was a new accusation, a new awakening to the horror that had festered inside USA Gymnastics.
From the outside, the scope of his abuse seems nearly unfathomable: How could one man go unthwarted for so many years? From inside the exclusive community of high-level gymnastics, though, the culture of obedience is known all too well. The courtroom statements revealed the toxic culture that had allowed Nassar to remain in place for so long, functioning as the “good guy” for many elites facing endless pressure and verbal abuse from their coaches and the national team coordinator, Martha Karolyi. In an interview with NBC News, Maroney explained, “All they cared about is money and medals. It didn’t seem they cared about anything else,” referring to Martha, her husband Bela Karolyi, and the rest of USAG.
Indeed, the order of events leading up to Nassar’s sentencing certainly seems to echo the image-preserving mentality of those in charge at USAG. They waited five weeks after a coach reported suspicions of Nassar’s behavior before alerting the FBI to the situation, and did not notify anyone at Michigan State University or Twistars Gymnastics, a USAG-affiliated club in Lansing, Michigan, both places where Nassar continued to treat—and molest—patients. In her victim impact statement, fifteen-year old Emma Ann Miller tells the court that her last treatment with Nassar was at MSU Sports Medicine in August 2016, a week before he was fired. She asks of Nassar, “tell us who knew what, and when,” urging him to outline the times that USAG, MSU, and Twistars could have stopped him but did not, to help explain why the culmination of the charges against him came in January 2018, more than twenty-five years after the first known instance of his crimes.
The message coming from the women who decided to step forward was clear: the culture of abuse was embedded in elite gymnastics, and Nassar was a particularly horrific symptom. Former national team member Mattie Larson addressed Martha Karolyi during her statement in court, saying, “Did you keep Larry around because he was a good doctor, or did you really keep him around because he let us compete when we were injured and was willing to keep your secrets?” Larson’s story of abuse is one that goes beyond Nassar and implicates USAG and her coaches at the now-defunct All-Olympia Gymnastics Center. Moved to tears, she details a time she purposely hit her head on her bathtub, pretending she had slipped, so she would not have to attend a training camp at the Ranch, and describes an eating disorder she struggled with for six years.
Some of the worst abuse is epitomized by one coach in particular, whose name and notoriety repeatedly surfaced during Nassar’s trial: John Geddert. As the former owner of Twistars, he both allowed Nassar’s behavior continue—leaving him alone after practice with gymnasts on a weekly basis—and physically and verbally abused the girls in his gym. In March of 2018, CNN released an investigative report regarding concerns gymnasts had voiced about Geddert during Nassar’s hearing. It included multiple reports of Geddert ignoring his gymnasts’ injuries, and two instances where different Twistars gymnasts attempted suicide. One of them was Brittany Aragon, who was only seventeen years old when she took four Valium pills in an attempt to kill herself, something she says scared her less at the time than the thought of going back to the gym to face Geddert. Afterwards, it was Nassar who encouraged Aragon to go back to the gym, speak to Geddert, and continue training. Nassar protected Geddert and, in return, Geddert defended Nassar. McKayla Maroney recounted for NBC how she brought up Nassar’s abuse during a car ride back from training at 2011 World Championships in Tokyo, saying to those in the car that Nassar’s treatment the previous night had felt like he was fingering her. Although Geddert was the one driving the car, he did not react. Even after Nassar was fired from USAG and MSU, Geddert continued to support him, praising him for his medical prowess. The details of what went on inside Twistars should be enough to conclude that John Geddert is unfit to be coaching, or even interacting with kids. But the story of Geddert, like Nassar, is one of neglect and silence. Despite the concrete knowledge of police complaints filed against Geddert and of the injuries inflicted upon his gymnasts, Geddert wasn’t suspended by USAG until January 2018.
But Geddert wasn’t the only one. Over the years, multiple people in positions of authority dismissed reports of Nassar’s abuse, unwilling to believe that such a renowned doctor could have done anything wrong. In 1997, gymnast Larissa Boyce came to Kathie Klages, former Michigan State gymnastics coach, about abusive treatments. Instead of believing Boyce, she embarrassed her; Boyce said in her testimony, “we were led to believe that we were misunderstanding a medical technique.”
This toxic culture is prevalent to some extent because of the nature of the sport, Yale gymnast Lindsay Chia explained, writing in an email to the Globalist, “We are forced to wear revealing leotards and train in close quarters to our coaches for hours on end.” She spoke from personal knowledge, saying that she had friends who had encountered similar coaches or situations, and that it’s “not just elite gymnasts” who experience this.
During her statement in the courtroom, two-time Olympian Aly Raisman said, “To believe in the future of gymnastics is to believe in change.” Raisman serves as an activist now, spreading awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault and promoting female empowerment and body positivity through her involvement in the #AerieREAL campaign and the “In Her Own Words” Sports Illustrated project. In addition, Raisman has partnered with “Darkness to Light,” an organization working to empower adults to prevent the sexual abuse of children. She has publicized their sexual abuse prevention program, personally signing certificates of everyone who completes the training. She aims to change society’s tendency to silence and criticize women, which helped created the environment in which abused gymnasts—and women and girls in general—doubted themselves and were tacitly encouraged not say anything about what was happening.
The judge for Nassar’s hearing, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, made a significant step to change this culture in the way she handled the case. She opened the courtroom to any victim who wished to speak, regardless if they were the ones pressing charges, empowering the survivors to find closure and have a voice in Nassar’s sentencing. The women who came forward were an incredibly strong force in pushing USAG and other involved parties to take accountability for the situation, and they provided a network of support for one another, many of them referencing the “army” of survivors sitting behind them in the courtroom. Initially, prosecutors reported that only 98 women wanted to make statements, but as the first testimonies were televised, shared, and talked about, more were inspired to talk about their own experiences of abuse by Nassar and confront him themselves. After the weeklong hearing, Judge Aquilina finally sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison.
The exposure of Nassar’s crimes came as a reckoning for the gymnastics community in particular. Like Raisman, many current and former, along with coaches, have advocated for a change in the abusive culture and been vocal about their support of survivors. Three UCLA gymnastics alumni—Jamie Dantzcher, Mattie Larson and Jeanette Antolin—along with Jordyn Wieber, the current volunteer assistant coach at UCLA, were abused by Nassar during their careers as elites. Oklahoma gymnast Maggie Nichols faced Nassar’s abuse as well. At their dual meet in February 2018, the UCLA and Oklahoma gymnastics teams both spoke out to honor sexual abuse survivors. The arena was filled with the color teal for sexual assault awareness: teal ribbons in both teams buns, teal shirts worn by many in the audience, and matching shirts worn by both UCLA and Oklahoma.
The push for placing athletes’ wellbeing before winning begs for a change in coaching practices by clubs across the country, an effort that has been developing in college gymnastics for a much longer time. Valorie Kondos Field—the head gymnastics coach at the University of California Los Angeles— describes in one of her blog posts how she sees college gymnastics as a safe haven for gymnasts damaged by elite gymnastics, a place, she writes, “to unearth the strength within these amazing humans after it had been suppressed and buried for so long.” From her position of power, she continually speaks out about the culture of abuse in elite gymnastics and encourages her athletes in a way that allows them to find their voices after being silenced for so long. Coming from a unique background—she was a professional ballerina but never did gymnastics—she offers a new perspective on coaching methods in gymnastics, focusing on self-expression and positive affirmations. Videos on Instagram and YouTube show the joy that UCLA brings to gymnastics, and the girls on the team attest to that in interviews and in their own posts. In a video that current senior Katelyn Ohashi created for The Players’ Tribune, she explains the happiness that college gymnastics, Kondos-Field, and the UCLA team has brought her after being emotionally broken by her elite career. Her joy is emulated in her floor routine, which has gone viral for the second year in a row. And the method of coaching has proven successful: the UCLA women’s gymnastics team won the NCAA National Championships in April of 2018. ‘Miss Val,’ as she is affectionately known, and her team prove the point Mattie Larson made in her victim impact statement: “there is another way, a healthy and supportive way, to make champions.” While gymnastics can be a brutal sport, Ohashi pointedly says in her video, “I don’t think it’s supposed to be a brutal sport.” Regardless of their organization’s actions, it is clear that the women and girls who represent the United States as gymnasts are focused on changing the sport for the better.
In Aly Raisman’s statement to Nassar, she tells him, “this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force and you are nothing.” We can only hope that by exposing the horrors that allowed such monstrous acts to take place, these resilient women have set off the reckoning that the gymnastics community needs, for the sake of all the little girls in leotards lining up to have their turn at being champions. May they be given the support they need to win both on and off the competition floor.
Sarah McKinnis is a first-year in Trumbull College.You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.