The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Female gymnasts found their voices in the sport’s darkest hour

Aly Raisman speaks at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar in January. She was one of dozens of victims who shared their story in the courtroom. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

It was the first victim to speak at Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing whose voice reverberated most powerfully.

Watching at home, Aly Raisman hadn’t planned to take the stand in January, unsure she had the stomach to share in a courtroom the graphic details of her own molestation. But after seeing Kyle Stephens stare down Nassar and tell the world that the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics had abused her for six years, starting when she was in kindergarten, Raisman bought a plane ticket and started preparing her statement.

“I realized right then and there: I didn’t have to feel alone,” said Raisman, who won six medals at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Games, in a telephone interview.

By week’s end, the ranks of the 65 victims initially scheduled to speak grew to 156, including current and former athletes and their guilt-stricken parents, each empowering the next.

In the 10 months since Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in jail, unprecedented change has followed.

USA Gymnastics has ousted two CEOs, its 21-member governing board and two national women’s team directors. The CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee resigned. And Nov. 5, the USOC announced it was starting the process of dismantling USA Gymnastics, weary of the governing body’s series of botched corrective steps, and replacing it with a new organization.

The gymnasts who came forward, a sisterhood of survivors, have been lauded for their courage and ferocity in exposing Nassar as a serial predator and forcing change in their traditionally top-down sport.

And as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics move closer, the public appears ready to declare this horrific chapter of gymnastics history closed, eager to move on from the disturbing issue of childhood sexual abuse. Wasn’t the U.S. women’s dominance at October’s world championships in Qatar — where they won their fourth consecutive team gold while Simone Biles became the first woman to win four world all-around titles — proof that USA Gymnastics landed on its feet?

Not so, many of the gymnasts who were victimized say.

They don’t believe that the extent of Nassar’s decades-long abuse has been uncovered. They don’t believe that the USA Gymnastics officials who failed to immediately report the allegations to law enforcement have been held accountable. And they remain skeptical that the USOC, which has commissioned an investigation into USA Gymnastics’ handling of the scandal, is committed to substantive change.

“We still don’t understand the full extent of the problem,” Raisman said. “The fact that there hasn’t been a full, independent investigation is unacceptable.”

Former gymnasts who predate Nassar but spent years recovering from the physical and psychological wounds of their careers also regard many of the corrective steps to date as window-dressing that stops well short of rooting out the toxic culture that enabled Nassar and other abusive coaches to thrive.

“A culture of cruelty has been allowed to exist for decades,” said Jennifer Sey, 49, the 1986 U.S. national champion. “It persisted for so long, everybody accepts it. Now, we had this terrible guy, Nassar, but I don’t feel we’ve dug into the conditions that allowed him to do what he did for so long. I do not trust that we know the depths of depravity these leaders at USA Gymnastics went to. At the end of the day, the culture has to change.”

Stepping up

At nearly every turn, the gymnasts — not the adults charged with their development and protection — have forced the reform of USA Gymnastics and the USOC.

Aware of the newfound power in their long-silenced voices, gymnasts have pushed, prodded and shamed the USOC and USA Gymnastics. It was Biles who effectively closed the Karolyi Ranch, where much of Nassar’s abuse took place. In publicly acknowledging that she, too, was a victim, Biles wrote on social media in January that her heart was broken over the idea of having to return to that painful place to prepare for the 2020 Olympics. Three days later, USA Gymnastics severed its lease with the facility, owned by Bela and Martha Karolyi, the veteran coaches whom USA Gymnastics had put in charge of its women’s team since 1999.

It was a consortium of former U.S. Olympians who joined Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic gold medalist and chief executive of Champion Women, who called for the ouster of USOC CEO Scott Blackmun. In a February letter to Congress, they documented Blackmun’s years-long failure to protect athletes in multiple sports from abuse and asserted that he “does not deserve to lead our Olympic team.” Days later, he resigned, citing health concerns.

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It was Raisman who criticized USA Gymnastics for naming longtime coach Mary Lee Tracy, who initially defended Nassar, as head of its elite women’s development program in August, calling it “a slap in the face for survivors” and “further proof that nothing has changed.” Within a week, not only was Tracy forced to resign, but USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry was ousted as well, with the hiring of Tracy capping a nine-month tenure that left victimized gymnasts and a congressional subcommittee questioning Perry’s judgment, transparency and commitment to safeguarding the sport.

And it was Biles who publicly shamed USA Gymnastics for naming former U.S. Rep. Mary Bono as interim CEO in October, pointing out that Bono had attacked Nike, a major Olympic sponsor, for political reasons on social media at a time when corporate sponsors were fleeing the sport. Raisman cited Bono’s ties to a law firm that advised USA Gymnastics on mitigating the Nassar scandal as disqualifying. Bono was gone after four days.

Asked about the athletes’ concerns, USA Gymnastics acknowledged via a statement, “While considerable change has been made, substantial work still remains.”

The statement noted that the governing body’s goals “are aligned with the survivors’ ” — fostering a safe, supportive environment. To that end, it noted, USA Gymnastics has adopted policies that clarify what constitutes abuse, that require mandatory reporting of abuse and that make it easier to report abuse. Moreover, the governing body is not waiting for the next step in the USOC’s decertification process but is conducting a search for a new CEO, which would be its fourth in less than two years.

“We will continue to prioritize our athletes’ safety and well-being and acting in the best interests of the greater gymnastics community,” the statement read.

A culture of deference

The young age of elite female gymnasts is among a confluence of factors that makes the sport fertile ground for abuse. Those with Olympic aspirations aren’t simply high achievers; they also tend to be exceedingly self-critical, quick to blame themselves for anything less than perfection and desperate to please powerful coaches who can make or break their gold medal dreams.

All of this contributes to a culture of deference and silence in which an abuser can thrive.

It was only after years of therapy following her retirement from gymnastics that Sey, the senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Levi Strauss and a mother of four, came to understand that the barrage of criticism she endured from coaches is a common tactic of abusers.

“What happens is, the child comes to not believe her own understanding of the world if she is told she’s fat, but she is hungry. If she’s in pain and doesn’t want to practice but is told she’s lazy, then she thinks she’s lazy,” Sey explained. “You come to not trust your own perceptions.”

Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu, the youngest member of the “Magnificent Seven” who triumphed at the 1996 Atlanta Games, attests to that. Now 37, she refers to the constant berating, name-calling and body-shaming she endured under the Karolyis from age 10 as “brainwashing.”

Rather than investigate the troubling claims of mistreatment that Moceanu made in her 2012 memoir, “Off Balance,” USA Gymnastics treated her like a traitor upon publication, she said, and froze her out of potential sponsorships and public appearances.

“All I was saying in the book was: ‘Take a look at what’s going on at the [Karolyi] Ranch. Pay attention to it,’ ” Moceanu said. “I spoke the truth, and I paid a high price.”

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That’s why Jessica Howard, a three-time national champion rhythmic gymnast, was reluctant to speak out when the Indianapolis Star published its investigation of widespread coaching abuse on the eve of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Howard, 34, had served on the board of USA Gymnastics and had seen how former gymnasts who criticized the sport were shunned. In her case, she wasn’t fully aware that she had an abuse story to tell until much later in life, when she pieced together the truth about the fraudulent “treatment” Nassar provided when she was 15. At that age, she considered it an honor to be sent to the Karolyi Ranch for a week of treatment on her hips.

Howard tried telling her mother that something wasn’t right after the first treatment, when his ungloved fingers penetrated her, but she couldn’t describe what Nassar had done.

“I was a very innocent 15,” Howard said. “I had never even held a boy’s hand, let alone knew anything of that kind of touch. Once I left the ranch, I buried it. I never spoke of it again. It disappeared into whatever part of the brain holds memories.”

It took an outsider — Rachael Denhollander, a former club-level gymnast with a nurturing coach and supportive, vigilant parents who insisted that her health trumped all achievements in the gym — to put Nassar in the public eye. After years of researching legitimate invasive medical treatments, Denhollander realized the “procedure” Nassar performed when she was sent to Michigan State for care was not that.

By then, she was a lawyer, wife and mother whose identity and livelihood didn’t depend on staying in the good graces of USA Gymnastics. But she feared no one would listen or believe her; she didn’t have Olympic credentials or a famous name. She found her opening when the Star published its report. She contacted the newspaper to tell her story, and she filed a police report and a Title IX complaint against Michigan State, Nassar’s employer.

Like many others today, Denhollander believes Nassar’s life sentence isn’t enough to guard against future abuse.

“This is not really a Larry Nassar story,” said Denhollander, 33 . “This is a USA Gymnastics story. He was a symptom of a very abusive culture.”

Unfinished business

They filed onto the stage at Los Angeles’s Microsoft Theater from four directions, a procession of 140 young women in ballgowns who stood shoulder to shoulder, some clasping hands, as they were honored at the ESPY Awards with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for exposing Nassar’s abuse.

Raisman, one of three who spoke on the group’s behalf that July night, began with a somber recitation: “1997. 1998. 1999. 2000. 2004. 2011. 2013. 2014. 2015. 2016.”

“Those were the years we spoke up about Larry Nassar’s abuse,” Raisman said, pointing out how many gymnasts had been ignored by USA Gymnastics officials or were warned of the peril of making waves in a sport that rewards loyalty. She is among dozens of gymnasts suing USA Gymnastics and the USOC for their failure to protect athletes.

Said Sey: “I don’t have a ton of confidence that this organization or even a new one will rise from the ashes in a totally new mold, because the culture is so deeply broken.”

Raisman said she doesn’t know what to believe: Is the USOC’s move to decertify USA Gymnastics window-dressing, or does it represent meaningful change?

“I want to believe this is a step in the right direction,” she said. “I’m going to choose to be hopeful. It needs to change.”

Howard sees it as “a vital first step” but is cautious. “I don’t want everybody to think: ‘Okay, we did it! We’re done because USAG is decertified,’ ” she said.

She wants Congress to continue its oversight role and the Justice Department to investigate. She wants those who didn’t immediately report Nassar to be held accountable. And she wants the USOC to care as much about athlete safety as it does performance-enhancing drugs.

“As a victim, somebody who has been through every step of this horror show,” Howard said, “I just don’t want to squander an opportunity of this magnitude.”