SAMOS 2

For my second SAMO experience, I decided to dive into the Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics case. Earlier this year, Netflix released a documentary named “Athlete A” which features the athletes who were under Nassar’s abuse. Larry Nassar was the Team USA doctor for USA Gymnastics since 1988 and was accused of sexually assaulting young athletes. The documentary explained how the investigation gained its momentum and how they held Nassar and USA Gymnastics accountable for their actions. 

Trailer for Netflix’s documentary “Athlete A”

The second the movie started, I was crying. As a Team USA athlete, the documentary hit close to home. Any athletes’ dream is to be on Team USA and to represent your country. It’s the biggest accomplishment and honor anyone is able to achieve. For those gymnasts, their dream became their worst nightmare. Their goal of being a Team USA and an Olympic gymnast was stripped away by selfish acts of abuse. As the documentary went on, the athletes and their parents explain how Nassar manipulated the children’s trust to his own disgusting advantage. The details of the assault sent shivers down my spine as these athletes’ innocence and confidence were being taken away. What really struck me was the unfairness that followed after the accusations towards Nassar and how USA Gymnastics protected the monster. Maggie Nichols, one of Nassar’s victims, proved herself worthy at many domestic meets. She stood next to Simone Biles, USA and Olympic gymnast, illustrating how talented she was. She deserved a spot on the Olympic team, but because she spoke up against USA Gymnastics and their team doctor, she was left behind as five athletes were sent to Rio, Brazil. Due to something out of her control, Nichols was looked over by USAG, resulting in her chances of being on the Olympic team to be ruined. A huge setback in Nichol’s career was caused by her speaking her truth, and as we can see now, the truth of hundreds of young ladies. After Nichols was left off the team, she stopped elite gymnastics, but later picked it up again at the University of Oklahoma.

Sofia, Caroline, and I in our Team USA jackets

“Everybody knew she [Maggie] earned that spot,” Simone Biles says on the podcast. “Everybody knew it. Even Márta. Márta knew she belonged on that team. Márta cried when she announced the team. I don’t think Maggie made the team because I think somebody had power over Márta when she selected that team. I think there were deals that were made under the table.”

Simone biles speaking on the 2016 olympic team selection

But Nichols wasn’t the only one who was holding her experience with Nassar in. According to BBC News, Nassar abused 156 athletes during his time as a team doctor. Former and current Team USA athletes stepped up to speak against Nassar. Nassar was found guilty for ten counts of sexual assault for abusing young girls under the guise of medical treatment and was sentenced to life in prison. Former USA Gymnastics President and CEO, Steve Penny, was arrested and charged with tampering with evidence as he was behind protecting Nassar. USA Gymnastics wouldn’t believe that Nassar, who was their doctor for a decade or so, was capable of such allegations. They weren’t willing to have their ideas challenged (Wheatley 1), even if it was at the cost of hundreds of young females. Their willingness to listen and to believe was completely out of the picture, and they’re to blame for each and every survivor. Furthermore, the Nassar case launched multiple investigations into USAG. The abuse of Bela and Marta Karolyi was mentioned in the film, and went into how both coaches starved and verbally abused their athletes. Terry Gray, a former USA Gymnastics coach, was arrested with 14 counts of lewdness with a child under 14. In this article, it goes into more detail on how USAG had gotten to this point and the consequences of their actions.

Next, I listened to a few episodes from NPR’s “Believed” podcast. This podcast is available on platforms like Apple Music and Spotify. “Believed” features Nassar’s victims, athletes or not, and their experience. In the first episode, hosts Lindsey Smith and Kate Wells explain how everyone perceived Nassar as the “good guy” since the 1996 Olympic Games. Nassar became the U.S Gymnastics’s top doctor and a professor of medicine at MSU. Nassar saw and protected the athletes (9:46) from the athlete’s coaches and even parents. He was the guy everyone wanted to be treated by and the guy all the athletes turned to. But this good guy spell was broken once Kyle Stephens, Amanda Thomashow, and others stood up to his abuse. 

“Gymnasts first” (8:44).

Larry nassar’s motto

In “The Basement”, Kyle Stephens explains her story with her family friend, Larry Nassar. Her parents were friends with Larry and Stephanie Nassar. During those dinners, Kyle, at the age of 6 or 7, would be joined by Nassar in the basement where he sexually assaulted her. Kyle revealed this to her parents, but in the end didn’t believe her. Kyle suffered in silence as her parents continued to be friends with Larry Nassar. 

Furthermore, Amanda Thomashow shares her experience in the episode “Gaslighting”. In this 28 minute episode, Wells and Smith integrate Amanda’s story with the police tape of Detective O’Brien and Larry Nassar. Thomashow had an old injury flare up again, leading her mother to set up an appointment with Dr. Nassar. What seemed to be a normal appointment turned into Amanda being molested. Thomashow goes into explicit detail of what Nassar did to her. Amanda complained about Nassar which led to an investigation. Detective O’Brien interrogated Nassar, but made little progress as he constantly dodged questions and bombarded her with his credentials and medical terms. Detective O’Brien, however, was able to get Nassar to admit to touching Amanda and to having multiple complaints about the way he treats his patients. Nassar used the excuse that the three who’d accused Nassar of inappropriate behavior had a history of sexual abuse, but there was no evidence to back up this argument. Nassar’s abuse extended past just athletes, causing his list of victims to grow. Both episodes listed above are prime examples that Nassar took advantage of people other than athletes. This goes to show how desperate he was and how he was willing to do anything to satisfy his needs. 

Listening to “Believed” podcast, episode “Gaslighting”

Lastly, I listened to another podcast named, “The Woman Who Took On Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics”. Host Alex Blumberg interviews Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to file a criminal complaint in 2016. Rachael had contacted The Indianapolis Star after the paper published an investigation into the abuse within USA Gymnastics. This article mentioned the abuse of USAG coaches. 

Denhollander was a gymnast who was treated and assaulted by Dr. Nassar. Nassar practiced in her hometown and when Denhollander had pain in her body, she went to him. She knew that Nassar was the best of the best because of his performance with Kerri Strug. During her appointment, Nassar had to realign Rachael’s hip, but he instead inappropriately touched her. Her mother was in the room during the time of her assault. Rachael was uncomfortable, but she wasn’t clear that it was abuse. She genuinely believed it was valid medical treatment and that she was the problem by feeling the way she felt. As years of Nassar’s abuse continued, it started to show in Rachael’s behavior: she became fearful of men, got anxious when someone stood behind her, and was overall very tense. 

“Larry was very loved” (6:13).

Rachael denhollander talking about larry nassar

Moving forward, Rachael found it extremely difficult to speak on her experiences. Abuse wasn’t taken seriously because society believed they’d be in it for the money, for fame, and for attention (13:30). Society also blamed the victims for their experience. Rachael, who was a paralegal by the age of 17, knew that by speaking up she’d be messing with a big ten school and the Olympic governing body. She couldn’t do it on her own, and she needed media pressure. Rachael waited for the perfect opportunity and stayed silent. But the moment she broke that silence was when one of her students was going to be sent to Larry for a possible hip injury. She confided in a well-respected coach, but unfortunately the coach said that there wasn’t any evidence to support what she was saying and continued to send the gymnast to Nassar. This confirmed that she couldn’t even get a friend to believe her story, leading to a feeling of discouragement.

Cover of Denhollander’s episode

But then in 2016, the time had come for Nassar to go down. As mentioned before, there was an article by The Indy Star that went into USAG coaches. This was Rachael’s moment to reveal Nassar’s abuse through the media and to take control of the narrative. It was now or never. She was hoping this would prompt survivors to step forward and to know that they aren’t alone. Rachael knew that this wasn’t a decision, it had to be done. The paper had taken Denhollander’s story seriously and went down to Kentucky to interview her. Dehollander took all precautions before the interview, and by the end of it, she was able to get dozens of victims to come forward. As time went on, Nassar’s innocent facade was crumbling, and it all fell down when Nassar’s lawyers asked for a guilty plea deal. In front of 156 survivors, Nassar admitted to what he’d done and those 156 were able to hear the truth come out of his mouth. In “Athlete A” and videos on the internet, the instant regret and guilt is seen while Nassar listens and relives his actions. After 2 years of Denhollander fighting, Nassar’s abuse had finally stopped. But the institution that protected him and the mindsets that enabled him to do what he did is still going on and the survivors still have to deal with the damage. 

“I did not know that at the same time Larry was penetrating me, USAG was systematically burying reports of sexual assault against member coaches in a file cabinet instead of reporting them, creating a culture where predators like Larry and so many others in the organization up to the highest-level coaches were able to sexually abuse children, including our Olympians, without any fear of being caught” (42:11).

rachael’s testimony

After watching the documentary and listening to three survivors’s stories, I reflected on what I had learned. Although justice was served, those memories of Nassar’s abuse will continue to impact each survivor. The young victims were manipulated and silenced for years while Nassar and USA Gymnastics continued unbothered. In addition to this, their innocence was taken away, most before their lives could even begin. According to National Sexual Violence Research Center, a majority of females had experienced such victimization early in life, with 81.3% (nearly 20.8 million victims) being before the age of 25 in 2015 (NVCS). 

Additionally, it’s later revealed that Kyle’s father had committed suicide due to Nassar’s abuse to his daughter. In an article, it says that “Her [Kyle] parents initially believed him [Nassar] and Stephens blames her father’s suicide on the shame and self-loathing he felt for defending Nassar” (The Sun 1). Larry’s persona was able to easily convince many that he would never abuse a child. Nassar’s actions ended in those taking their own lives, including 23-year-old Chelsey Markham. The pain would forever be felt by each and every victim and their families. 

Video of survivors’ testimony

“For my daughter [Chelsey Markham] it became a serious, serious bout of depression. So in 2009 she took her own life because she couldn’t deal with the pain anymore” (Donna Markham).

Donna markham, chelsey’s mother, explaining her daughter’s suicide

Rachael Denhollander, the catalyst, concluded that, “‘This is the greatest sexual assault scandal in sports history,” Denhollander says. ‘Larry is arguably the most prolific pedophile in history’’ (NPR 1). It is brought to light that the reality of the situation is that Larry Nassar is a symptom of the big picture. USA Gymnastics had created and nurtured a community that looked the other way when it came to the wellbeing of their athletes. I as an athlete have never endured any sort of abuse, but this case still nevertheless plays a part in my life. Figure skating is my passion, and I wouldn’t be who I am without it. If it were ever to be taken out of my hands and torn apart, I’d never be the same. The young ladies lost their one love to Larry Nassar and his cruel decisions. It’s heartbreaking to see the damage Nassar left, but also empowering to see such strong women tell their stories and put Nassar away so he couldn’t continue his cycle. According to Bobbie Harro’s, “Cycle of Socialization’‘, “It’s easiest to do nothing” (Harro 6). To hell with the easy way, it is our moral obligation as humans to lift each other up and to protect one another from harm. We can’t sit here and expect things to get fixed. Nassar’s cycle of abuse affected many across the country, and although not everyone was directly affected, the support shown to the survivors helped the fight. Just because someone isn’t the victim of the situation, it doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute for the greater good. The journey to putting Nassar behind bars took everything out of everyone and wouldn’t have been successful without hundreds getting behind the survivors. It was well worth it knowing he would never see the light of day ever again. It’s imperative we learn from these mistakes and to never let history repeat itself because the future of our country is at stake. 

“I did not know that, contrary to my belief, the elite gymnasts whose pictures were plastered on Larry’s wall were far from protected” (42:55)

rachael’s testimony

Published by Ellie Lim

Hi! I'm Ellie, and I'm a Senior at Glenbrook North High School. Some of my interests include synchronized figure skating, spending time with my friends and family, and being with my dog. For synchro, I compete on behalf of Team USA!

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