With red-rimmed eyes and gut-wrenching disgust, I watched the disturbing, yet eye-opening recount of the Larry Nassar and USAG sexual-abuse scandal in the new Netflix documentary, Athlete A. From husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the standalone film touches upon abuse, corruption, eating disorders, Cold War politics, and how a culture of winning (at all costs) failed hundreds of teenage gymnasts.
Trigger Warning: Mentions of Sexual Abuse
Shot through the eyes of the survivors and a band of determined journalists at the Indianapolis Star, Athlete A delves into the investigation of Dr. Larry Nassar, the osteopathic physician who served the USA Gymnastics women’s team for 29 years. Over the course of his career, Nassar abused dozens of young female athletes under the guise of physical therapy sessions and routine examinations.
A bulk of the abuse took place at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas, home to the National Team Training Center for USA Gymnastics. Coming out of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s România, it’s no surprise that the fabled trainers leveraged coaching tactics that were brutal and severe. As a former competitive gymnast myself, Béla and Márta Károlyi, two of the most renowned trainers in the sport, were the center of my universe growing up. The ranch was iconic. I ate, lived, breathed, and slept gymnastics all under the guise of becoming the next Dominique Dawes, Nastia Liukin, Shannon Miller, or Mary Lou Retton.
The Károlyi Method
Athlete A shares a very different perspective from what I considered reality as a teen. The documentary demonstrates how the Károlyi method itself was a purveyor of abuse. These girls, my idols, were subjected to sadistic, rigorous training – requiring them to psychologically steel themselves for the constant onslaught of abuse. This type of environment essentially anesthetizes the mind, making it easy to excuse unethical behavior. After all, this was every little girl’s dream, right?
From my own experience, it’s taken years to reverse some of the mental trauma that came from being told to show no emotion, no pain, and be 100% focused at all times. You have a job. It’s to perform at the highest level possible. Anything less is unacceptable. Injuries? Those don’t exist. You’re expected to compete whether you have broken fingers or a sprained ankle. After years of being brainwashed, I eventually learned to conceal my thoughts and emotions, hiding them inside a concrete vault in the deeper recesses of my mind. And if this was my experience, I can’t even begin to imagine the type of damage this inflicted on gymnastics who perform at the elite level.
The Evolution of Gymnastics
Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, female competitors were grown women. However, the Romanians were the “brains” behind the concept of training girls from a very young age. As they noted in the documentary, a new aesthetic emerged – one that was very childlike – ultimately creating an environment conducive to eating disorders and delayed menstruation. They believed that executing the more difficult stunts and routines required a tinier body. Someone fearless. Someone who could be fully controlled. When the Károlyis became U.S. Olympic coaches, they brought a very Eastern Bloc style of training to the states with them – it was merciless, but it also churned out winners. Whatever-it-takes was their mantra and the U.S. was eager for their athletes to dominate.
And this “whatever-it-takes” attitude carried over to the idyllic ranch; a place where no parent was allowed to step foot on the grounds. Red flag? Inside the gym, we learned exactly what discipline meant to the Károlyis. Teenage gymnasts were frequently called lazy, tormented about their weight, slapped, and treated like nothing more than little somersaulting machines. They were forced to follow commands like miniature soldiers; it was covert oppression at its finest.
How Nassar Was Able to Get Away With His Abuse
The camp also meant being exposed to Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse. The most heartbreaking part of all this? The girls regarded Larry as the one authority figure who was friendly and “on their side.” He’d even slip them some sweet treats, like food or candy, that were normally prohibited due to their strict dietary restrictions. He was friendly, never threatening. Yet he maintained this facade while shoving his ungloved fingers inside the girls – later attempting to explain away the vaginal penetration as part of the “exam.” Many of the girls knew something was terribly wrong, but they were alone, afraid, and had nowhere to go.
IMAGE: MELISSA J. PERENSON / NETFLIX
Nassar isn’t the only one to blame. The problem was systematic; cultivated from inside the organization itself. In 2015, an incredibly talented gymnast by the name of Maggie Nichols decided to step forward. She was ranked second behind Simone Biles and slated to make the 2016 Olympic team. Yet, after opening up and alerting USA Gymnastics of the abuse, the allegations were seemingly swept under the rug. Steve Penny, the slimy CEO and president of the organization at the time, was legally obligated to alert the authorities. Instead, he kept the scandal quiet, shielding Nassar from any legal action in an effort to protect USA Gymnastics as a brand (Oh, and the $12 million they raked in each year).
Silencing Maggie Nichols
As a punishment, and to keep other gymnasts from speaking out, Maggie Nichols was intentionally snubbed during the 2016 Olympic Trials. She didn’t even make the team as an alternate (something I was baffled by at the time). This systematic protection of a serial sexual abuser by such a powerful organization is a testament to how deep this type of corruption runs. When you’re the crème de la crème of USA Gymnastics, and you produce winners, you’re essentially unchallenged. Or, at least, unchallenged for far too long. For Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard, Jamie Dantzcher, Maggie Nichols, and over 500 others, that meant living in a nightmare and nursing raw wounds while hoping justice would someday be served.
The Indianapolis Star relentlessly pursued the investigation into Larry Nassar and USAG. Their tenacity and dedication helped uncover the eerily twisted truth about the bullying and abuse these gymnasts were subjected to. During the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, the paper released testimonies from Jamie Dantzscher (a 2000 Olympian) and Rachael Denhollandar. My heart dropped hearing how Denhollander was sexually abused right in front of her mother in Nassar’s exam room (unbeknownst to her mother).
The Real Nassar
Nassar’s response? Duh. Of course, he never touched anyone inappropriately. He’s a professional. A professional that made a colossal mistake. After the article was published, other survivors saw Nassar’s false testimony and stepped forward to share their own stories about his sexual abuse. Shortly after, police raided his home, uncovering thousands of pornographic pictures, including those of children. Once Nassar finally stood trial, 125 women, including Olympians like Aly Raisman, gave powerful testimonials directly to their abuser. I wish the documentary allowed more of those stories to be aired. They are part of the fabric that speaks to the toxic chain of co-conspirators and enablers, including the larger cultural opposition that prevents abuse survivors from speaking out. But, their courage and perseverance – especially in facing a man who violated them – is nothing short of heroic.
After the emotionally devastating trial, Larry Nassar was sentenced to life in prison in 2017. While Athlete A is hard-to-watch (have tissues handy), the testimonies of these brave women were vital in shifting the narrative surrounding sexual abuse – a debate that is finally veering in the right direction and siding with survivors.