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WARNING: This article discusses sensitive topics, which may not be appropriate for all readers.
Recently, I watched the Netflix documentary “Athlete A”, about Maggie Nichols’ story. She was initially identified in the Larry Nassar investigation as “Athlete A”, before she agreed to be named as one of the victims. The documentary shares not only Maggie’s story, but also the stories of several other Nassar victims.
Initial Thoughts About Elite Gymnastics
My background in gymnastics has been mostly in the J.O. world. I have always loved watching elite gymnastics, and spent my youth fascinated by it. But my firsthand experience in the elite gymnastics world is extremely limited. I remember when the book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes came out. I was so shocked that someone would write such horrible things about the sport that I loved. My experiences in gymnastics had always been overwhelmingly positive, and my coaches were never abusive. It was impossible for my then-teenage brain to comprehend that not all gymnasts were fortunate enough to have such a positive, encouraging environment.
Since then, I have read many stories and watched many videos of athletes detailing their difficult, and even disturbing, experiences in the sport of gymnastics. I understand now that I was extremely lucky to compete for coaches who had my best interests at heart. I no longer feel defensive of my sport, as I did as a teenager. Instead, I feel compelled to do anything that I can to improve the health and well-being of gymnasts.
This is the reason I am writing this today. When I was coaching, I loved working directly with young gymnasts. I have always had a passion for helping gymnasts to improve their skills in a positive, caring environment. I loved to figure out what would help them gain confidence and progress their skills. Now, in a judging and consulting role, I don’t get as much direct work with gymnasts, but I still want to use my voice to encourage them in any way possible.
Today, I’ll review some of the information presented in the “Athlete A” documentary, and how the gymnastics community can move forward from here.
Larry Nassar, in case you’re unfamiliar, is the disgraced USA Gymnastics and Michigan State ex-physician, who is in jail after the sexual abuse of hundreds of athletes, many of them gymnasts. Athletes first made complaints about Nassar’s questionable “treatments” dating back at least to 1997, but his arrest did not occur until 2016.
Nassar had started treating Maggie Nichols in 2015, and she became concerned about the nature of his treatments. She had a conversation about it with Aly Raisman after practice one day, and Nichols’ coach overheard. The coach shared the information with Nichols’ parents, who alerted USA Gymnastics. Steve Penny, then USAG president, talked to Nichols’ parents, but failed to do anything else for 5 weeks. He eventually reported the abuse to the FBI, but the investigation moved incredibly slowly.
The first gymnast the paper interviewed publicly, accusing Nassar of abuse, was Rachel Denhollander. She had read an article in the Indianapolis Star in August 2016 which described abuse at the hands of gymnastics coaches, and it prompted her to send a message to the newspaper. She told them that she had not been abused by her coach, but by the doctor. At the same time, Jessica Howard (rhythmic national champion) and Jamie Dantzscher (2000 Olympian) came forward with similar allegations against Nassar. The IndyStar staff couldn’t believe that these three women came forward, all independently of each other. And that was just the beginning of what was to come.
A Culture of Abuse in Elite Gymnastics
Abuse may not always have been a part of U.S. elite gymnastics, but it definitely dates back at least to the early 1980’s. Gymnasts from this era describe the culture of fear that the Karolyis created in Romania, and subsequently brought to the U.S when they defected. Bela is reported to have slapped girls and called them terrible names. Marta also partook in the name-calling, and she would grab the back of a gymnast’s neck if she wasn’t happy with their performance. I remember watching the 2008 Olympics and seeing her do exactly that to Alicia Sacramone after she fell.
Jennifer Sey, 1986 national champion, is one of the producers of the documentary. Her interviews are also sprinkled throughout the film. During these interviews, she talks about the prevalence of abuse throughout the elite gymnastics program in USA Gymnastics. In her words, it was normal for the coaches to try to get results by being cruel to the athletes. She also felt that eating disorders became more common due to many coaches’ insistence on being young, small, and light.
The “Nice Guy”
In comparison to the coaches, Larry Nassar was nice and funny. He joked around with the gymnasts, snuck them candy, and befriended them. He was able to develop a relationship with the gymnasts because the rest of the elite gymnastics staff was so cruel to them.
Jamie Dantzscher says, “Larry (Nassar) was really the only nice adult on the USA Gymnastics staff.” That is really sad. And it becomes understandable how he was able to prey on the broken, unsuspecting young elite gymnasts for such a long time. If the gymnasts had trusted the coaches and the USA Gymnastics staff, and if those adults had been willing to listen to the gymnasts, much of Nassar’s sexual abuse could have been prevented. Remember, the first report of his abuse was in 1997, almost 20 years before he was finally arrested.
The Organization That Failed the Gymnasts
Beginning in the 1980’s, USA Gymnastics presidents have always been concerned with the image of the organization. Mike Jacki was the president in the 1980’s, and he secured a lot of endorsements for USA Gymnastics. These endorsements created the squeaky-clean image of USA Gymnastics in the country, and the world. Who can forget Mary Lou Retton’s smiling face on the cover of the Wheaties box? Watching these gymnasts, it’s easy to overlook, or completely fail to see, the problems lurking beneath the surface of the organization.
The president of USA Gymnastics at the time of the Nassar scandal was Steve Penny. USAG initially hired Penny for his marketing background. His job was to continue to build USAG’s sponsors and endorsements. He was so intent on protecting the reputation of USAG that it led him to hide the Nassar investigation as long as he possibly could. After the allegations first came out, USAG banned Nassar from serving as the team doctor during upcoming competitions. But instead of stating the facts, Penny asked his team to say that Nassar was on vacation. After everything really hit the fan, he allowed Nassar to retire, rather than firing him. USAG was so busy trying to protect their image that they forgot to protect their gymnasts. Later, Steve Penny admitted, under oath, to a USA Gymnastics policy of not reporting abuse complaints.
Here are some of the thoughts I had while watching:
WOW. Rachel Denhollander is SO strong. It was clear that she was initially very nervous to tell her story. But she did it anyway, because she felt so strongly that she wanted to stop Nassar from abusing anyone else.
Watching the interview with Larry Nassar, my first thoughts were: “Ugh, Larry Nassar is just SO slimy and creepy.” And he sure fooled a lot of people. I have friends who knew him personally, and they were positive the allegations weren’t true when they first came out.
Back to Maggie Nichols, her parents felt that her allegations of Nassar kept her off the 2016 Olympic team. Watching “Athlete A”, it sure looked like they already had that 2016 Olympic team selected before the trials. What’s the point of even having the Olympic Trials?
Where’s the Accountability?
The first question I have is the same as what many of the survivors are asking. What about the accountability for the authorities who kept it quiet and did not report the abuse?
Over 500 Nassar survivors have now come forward, including 9 Olympians. To think that the culture of elite gymnastics was so toxic that this many athletes were abused, is just shocking.
Not all of the survivors were elite gymnasts, though. Some were involved in other sports, particularly at Michigan State. Some were lower-level gymnasts. So is this a one-off? An anomaly? Hardly. The Nassar scandal was made possible by adults who did not listen to athletes, across the board, in different organizations and different sports.
Cover-ups are not new to sports. Consider the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University. USA Swimming has had similar issues with abuse, and subsequent cover-ups. Who knows how many other situations are currently happening, that no one knows about?
Improving the Elite Gymnastics Culture
Now, the question everyone should be asking is, how can we do better? Specifically within USA Gymnastics, how can this type of abuse be prevented in the future?
The culture needs to change, starting at the top. And individual gyms have a responsibility to ensure a healthy environment for ALL gymnasts, starting at the grassroots level. Most gyms throughout the country do not even offer elite gymnastics. Is the culture of abuse a systemic problem among J.O. and recreational clubs? Or is it more of a problem for the sport’s elite? I don’t know that answer, but I do know that the problem seems much more widespread in the elite sector.
USA Gymnastics needs to start with the clubs that train elite gymnasts. These clubs cannot be allowed to employ coaches that will continue this culture of abuse. If gymnasts cannot trust that their coaches have their best interests at heart, then we cannot make progress. Providing training in how to report abuse is not enough. USA Gymnastics, and its club owners, must ensure that these coaches are not the ones perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Only then can our sport move forward in a positive direction.
Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics by Jennifer Sey
There is also another documentary on YouTube called At the Heart of Gold, which discusses similar topics. You can find it here: