For the better part of January, the nation was captivated by the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University who was found guilty of multiple counts of sexual abuse and sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. At the hearing, 156 current and former gymnasts read deeply personal, graphic impact statements about the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of the disgraced doctor.
On the surface, this is a story of one terrible man who found a devious way to take advantage of vulnerable girls. But what Nassar laid bare was that the rot extends beyond one predator or even one sport — it's the product of a broken system, one that unwittingly grooms young girls to stay silent and bow to the will of their superiors.
“This is bigger than Larry Nassar,” said two-time gold medalist Aly Raisman, one of Nassar’s many victims, in an interview on the Today Show last week. “We have to get to the bottom of how this disaster happened. If we don’t figure out how it did, we can’t be confident that it won’t happen again.”
As sinister as it is to consider, in retrospect, “[Nassar] picked the perfect system to be a predator in,” says Robert Andrews, MA, LMFT, a sports performance coach who has worked with Olympic gymnasts. Refinery29 spoke to sports psychologists and former gymnasts about the self-policed system that enabled an abuser and failed the athletes that trusted it. When you consider the perfectionist culture and insular politics of the sport, it’s horrifyingly obvious how a sexual abuse scandal of this scale happened right underneath our noses.
An elite gymnast’s journey begins when she is a small child, as young as six or seven, even. This means a gymnast has to decide to forego her childhood and devote her life to a sport in grade school. (Let that sink in.) If they do choose to go this route, they usually have to kiss their parents goodbye, move away from home and in with host families, and dive headfirst into full-time training, which can mean six hours a day, six days a week, working towards one singular goal: competing in the Olympics and taking home a gold medal.
This requires laser focus — a sort of discipline that most adults can’t even muster. In order to excel throughout the rigorous training, these girls are expected to act mature and composed, and present to the world a face of a squeaky clean, yet incredibly tough, athlete, which can be particularly emotionally taxing for children, says Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD, executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. "You're taught to act and move like an adult, but you're still a child and you still think like one," she says.
Ashley Relf, MA, a sport performance coach and former USAG National Team member from 1993 to 1994 (who was never treated by Nassar) said training at this level was like going to war. "I remember crying a lot when it was time to go to practice," Relf says. At practice, she and fellow gymnasts had to show up and seem physically indestructible and stoic, so they could replicate that during competition, Relf says. And if gymnasts made a misstep, coaches would yell, spit, and occasionally throw things at them, Relf says. "When you're young, you don't think about it more than, That's just how they're coaching you, you're in trouble, you're not doing things correctly," she says.
In this world, at this level, coaches are king. When gymnasts reach a certain stage in their sports career, these impressionable athletes and their hopeful parents put their total trust in the coaches, trainers, and doctors like Nassar, who are supposed to support them and teach them to become stars. “You think everything they’re doing is right,” Relf says about coaches and support staff. “As long as your parents are paying them, you trust in them.”
To spectators, gymnasts seem grown-up and unbelievably poised, but behind the scenes, gymnasts function at the beck and call of their coaches and trainers, says Robert Andrews, MA, LMFT, a sports performance coach who has worked with Olympic gymnasts. "The sad thing about it is that it starts so young, and those kids have no concept about setting interpersonal boundaries, using their voice, and setting limits,” Andrews says. “They're terrified [during training]: They lock up and freeze, and they're supposed to go on to do advanced skills.”
What this amounts to is a disturbingly perfect place for a predator. For example, at intense training camps, gymnasts are expected to follow strict diets. Nassar took advantage of this by sneaking the girls contraband junk food and coffee. He traveled with them to competitions and the Olympics, and was the first point of contact on the hotel contact sheet the girls were given. He brought them small gifts, like pins, and left handwritten notes for them on medical supplies. He assigned the girls nicknames, like “Kiddo” and “Goofball.” Juxtaposed with their harsh coaches, Nassar was a friend and confidant who bent the rules on the gymnasts’ behalf. This tactic — befriending victims in order to build false trust — is textbook for abusers.
As a doctor, Nassar had access to extra liberties, thanks to the trust our culture puts in people who provide medical care. He often performed his treatments far from a doctor’s office: in tucked-away corners of a gym, in basements, in athletes’ hotel rooms, or his own apartment, where he could more easily abuse patients. Sometimes, he would provide quick treatments for free. McKayla Maroney, Olympic gold medalist, wrote in her impact statement that Nassar once gave her a sleeping pill before a flight, and then she woke up in his hotel room as Nassar was sexually abusing her and calling it a “treatment.” “I thought I was going to die that night,” she wrote.
With sports as a whole, Dr. Dieffenbach says that there’s a lack of concrete boundaries between trainers and athletes, which opens up an abuse and power dynamic. “You have to teach people to understand that, if I’m the coach, I still have power over you and can’t be your friend — not in the traditional sense,” she says.
Gymnastics is an entertaining sport, one that gets mainstream audiences excited about female athletes, in particular. But with more excitement comes more pressure: When USAG competes at a global level, they’re up against countries that use notoriously draconian coaching methods. It’s easy to think that, in order to compete on a global scale, these young athletes have to be pushed to the limit. As a culture, we have to ask: At what cost?
Karolyi Ranch, owned by gymnastics legends Bela and Martha Karolyi, is famous for making USA Gymnastics what it is today — and it’s also where a lot of survivors cited Nassar’s abuse. The Ranch sprawls 2,000 acres of land in Walker County, Texas. Though physically massive, the training complex is isolated and remote. In an impact statement, Mattie Larson, former member of the US National Team, said, “There’s an eerie feeling as soon as you step foot on the Karolyi Ranch.”
The politics of the sport are insular, too. Gymnastics, even more so than most Olympic or otherwise elite sports, is an extremely small world, and it all revolves around a few top trainers and gyms, like the Karolyi’s. What this means is that gymnasts essentially have to train with the Karolyi's to be elite; whereas in other sports you may have choices of coaches and training camps all around the country.
Martha Karolyi, the coach who ran most of the camps at Karolyi Ranch, was renowned for her discipline and keen ability to hand-pick the next stars for the national team. "I have all this information on my mind not only about their scores or their performance, but about how strong of a person it is,” she said in an interview with WTHR in 2015. “How dedicated of a person it is? How disciplined a person it is? How much she is ready to do everything in order to be successful?” Naturally, this power can seep into other aspects of life: “Coaches have tremendous power of: I give you my attention. I equate that with your worth,” Dr. Dieffenbach says. “It becomes a place where it's dangerous to rock a boat or say something.”
“They always made us feel like if we ever said anything or complained we were being dramatic or high-maintenance or difficult,” Raisman told The Washington Post in January. “When you only have five girls who make the Olympic team — we were just conditioned from a young age not to say anything.”
Put together, all of these conditions create the perfect smokescreen for a predator. "[USAG] let it go because they win a medal, and the medals are more important than the athletes," Andrews says. "It looks like the system is working, but now that we look behind the curtain, it's dreadfully messed up." As spectators, we see Olympic gymnasts winning medals and we fawn over their accomplishments. We give them nicknames (the "Fab Five"), make them into memes ("McKayla Maroney is not impressed"), and cheer them on whenever an Olympics rolls around. But what the Nassar scandal shows is that we’ve neglected to ask the tough questions about what it takes to win a medal — to extremely devastating results.
As Dr. Dieffenbach puts it, "We've all failed those girls.”
So, what do we do next? First, we do just as Raisman says. We hold everyone in USAG accountable, and rethink the structure and culture that allowed this to happen to hundreds of young gymnasts. Already, steps have been taken: Last year, a diverse group of independent experts (including former Olympians) came together to found SafeSport, which now provides a place for Olympic and Paralympic athletes to confidentially report allegations of sexual assault or misconduct, outside of the intense hierarchy of USAG. Anyone legally employed (from volunteers to medical personnel) by the 49 national governing bodies for each of the Olympic sports is required to follow SafeSport’s code of conduct, which forbids sexual misconduct, one-on-one meetings with minors, and gift-giving — all of which were involved in Nassar’s crimes.
Despite everything, there are still scores of young girls who dream of being the next Aly Raisman or Simone Biles — and they shouldn’t be turned off from chasing achievement. But going forward, things must change: No one should have to sacrifice their safety in order to reach the podium. The fraught system that’s been in place for too long must be transformed. If Nassar’s sentencing hearing taught us anything, it’s that those who’ve had the uniquely grueling experience of training on the inside are the ones who know what work needs to be done.
We’ve spent the past few decades watching these gymnasts. Are we finally ready to listen to them?