The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At a quiet Senate hearing, four U.S. gymnasts made sure the truth was loud and uncomfortable

In a Senate hearing on Sept. 15, four gymnasts condemned the FBI’s handling of the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by coach Larry Nassar. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

We’ve seen them before, the four women who spoke Wednesday morning in a room full of U.S. senators.

We’ve watched them adorned in glossy gold, flashing those megawatt smiles they’ve been trained to wear since youth, standing atop Olympic podiums and mugging through NBC promotional shots. We’ve consumed the airbrushed advertisements for everything from crackers to body-positive lingerie. We’ve even joined in on the joke, imitating the “not impressed” face while turning one of the four gymnasts into a meme.

To the senators, to officials in law enforcement and the Olympic movement, and to anyone watching Wednesday’s hearing, these women demanded more than just an audience. Instead of seeing them merely as the smiling, ponytailed pixies we pay attention to every four years, they made us listen, really listen, to the horrifying stories about their time as unprotected girls in USA Gymnastics. Because for far too long, no one did.

Before McKayla Maroney began her opening statement to a Senate Judiciary Committee gathered to probe the FBI’s failure to properly investigate serial pedophile Larry Nassar, she looked to her right and commended her friend and former teammate Simone Biles on her “really powerful” testimony. However, her microphone was muted. Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) reminded her to push a button on the mic, and Maroney glanced up and smiled, asking: “Are we on?”

Maroney certainly was.

As she looked to her phone to read prepared notes, her voice was steady, no hint of a quiver. Yet still emotional. A voice forceful enough to reveal the strength of a survivor of sexual abuse but also quickened and raised to make plain her urgency for justice.

“Enough is enough. Today, I ask you all to hear my voice,” Maroney said. “I ask you, please, do all that is in your power to ensure that these individuals are held responsible and accountable for ignoring my initial report, for lying about my initial report and for covering up for a child molester.”

Sally Jenkins: Larry Nassar is in jail. Why isn’t everyone who ignored his crimes?

The four women — Biles, her sport’s most decorated athlete; Maroney, a member of the 2012 U.S. gold-winning team at the London Games; Maggie Nichols, a world team and NCAA champion; and Aly Raisman, the two-time captain of the American teams that won Olympic gold — shared testimony about the hell they went through as minors, as the agencies and law enforcement organizations sworn to keep them safe stood by and did nothing. Senators on both sides of the aisle took turns heaping praise on the gymnasts, using a litany of words to describe them.

Young women. Victims. Survivors. Witnesses. Heroes.

For more than an hour of opening and closing statements, the politicians talked. And spoke about bravery. And offered apologies. And injected their favorite letter — “I” — into the women’s ghastly reality, as if it was their own. But these lawmakers, like all of us, needed to just shut up and hear their words. Even when it was difficult to listen.

We’ve watched Biles stick the most difficult move in the world, and yet she described being in that room as more challenging than completing the Yurchenko double pike vault.

“To be perfectly honest, I can imagine no place where I would be less comfortable right now than sitting here in front of you and sharing these comments,” Biles said.

The greatest gymnast of all time, who has chosen to use her star power to keep the pressure on for a thorough investigation of USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the FBI, introduced herself to the room, then she went first.

Simone Biles to Congress: ‘I blame Larry Nassar, and I also blame an entire system’

It was upsetting to hear Biles get choked up when saying the words “Larry Nassar abuse.” She whispered an apology into the microphone and then went on to say she blamed Nassar but also the whole system that enabled him to molest hundreds of young people.

It was disturbing to hear how Nichols’s national team dream died once she reported the abuse to USA Gymnastics in the summer of 2015, eventually becoming not the Olympic medalist she was on track to be but rather “Gymnast 2” and “Athlete A” in the work done by investigators.

And it was excruciating to hear the details of Maroney’s experience with the FBI, how she had told an agent things she hadn’t yet revealed to her mother — that as a 13-year-old, within minutes of meeting the doctor appointed by USA Gymnastics at a camp, he had inserted his fingers into her vagina — and that the agent’s idea of a follow-up question was: “Did his treatment help you?”

After Maroney delivered a barrage of body blows, name-dropping the most incompetent and spineless in this mess, Raisman lit a torch to everyone else involved; USA Gymnastics initially allowed Nassar to retire with his dignity intact — and to find an estimated 100 new victims.

“It was like serving innocent children up to a pedophile on a silver platter,” she said.

Raisman concluded the testimony, and the senators had the floor again to make comments and pose questions. Unfortunately, too many of those politicians decided to keep on talking.

With all due respect to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), we didn’t need to hear how he has two athletic daughters or his fears over their safety. Neither was the apology from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) given on behalf of all adults necessary. We needed to hear the women. A handful of lawmakers did ask questions, including Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). And while in the spotlight, the quartet of survivors surrendered their own privacy to share real lessons on what trauma looks like.

In response to Booker’s question about what the gymnasts would like America to know, Raisman turned on her microphone and dropped her heart-wrenching truth about not even having the energy to stand up in the shower in the days and months after sharing her story for the first time, instead having to sit on the floor to wash her hair.

We’ll never see that kind of pain behind Biles’s smile on the cardboard cutout for Nabisco still displayed in grocery stores, nor as she’s presented by the other corporate sponsors of USA Gymnastics. In explicit terms, the four women at the witness table shattered the polished PR version of what we once imagined was their Olympic dream.

They publicly recalled the worst moments of their lives at the risk of triggering pain they may need months to recover from, as Raisman achingly pointed out, because they know accountability doesn’t happen until somebody brave enough steps forward and speaks up. Their stories should compel senators to take action. And as uncomfortable as it may be to hear such raw truth, they should compel all of us to listen.

Read more about sports and social issues

“But while Osaka Inc. is thriving, Naomi, the woman, is hurting. Tennis doesn’t seem to be helping. And she doesn’t owe it to anyone to keep trying — not her sponsors, not her fans and not the game.” Read Candace Buckner on Naomi Osaka.

“I can’t escape into sports. Nor should I. I don’t even want to try, even during this most absorbing stretch of the sports calendar. March Madness for me is no competition for the real madness that, while overseas this time, seems oh so close.” Read Kevin B. Blackistone on the war in Ukraine.

“It was all true. The members of the women’s team had been wronged. For years, they had to play more, and win bigger, to be paid anything close to their male counterparts. They got less pay for better work.” Read Sally Jenkins on the USWNT settlement with U.S. Soccer.

“Who’s lying here? Probably, to some degree, both sides. The NFL expecting Snyder to stop lying, covering up, blocking and bullying is a little bit like expecting a poisonous cobra not to bite you. You are who you are.” Read John Feinstein on Daniel Snyder and the NFL.