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Steve Penny, the former longtime president of USA Gymnastics, was arrested Wednesday when U.S. Marshalls stormed his Tennessee vacation cabin, cuffed him on the back porch and hauled him away.
A grand jury in Walker County, Texas, alleges Penny impaired the investigation into former USAG doctor Larry Nassar, who is currently imprisoned for sexually assaulting hundreds of patients and young athletes. Many of those attacks occurred at the Karolyi Ranch outside Huntsville, Texas, which the national team used as a training center.
An indictment alleges that Penny called for documents concerning Nassar’s time and activities at the ranch to get shipped to him at USA Gymnastics headquarters in Indianapolis. They were sent, but authorities say they have been unable to find and recover them. The implication is that Penny destroyed them.
Penny faces between two and 10 years in prison if convicted of the third-degree felony charge. He’s expected to plead not guilty when he’s extradited to Texas.
Perhaps more importantly, this opens the possibility that the secrets of USA Gymnastics in general, and the camps at the Karolyi Ranch, will finally become public.
With Nassar imprisoned for the rest of his life, the matter of what occurred, how it occurred and who knew or should have known what was occurring is paramount for both the victims and USA Gymnastics as they move forward.
The remote facility was home to near monthly training camps among elite gymnasts. Marta Karolyi was the national team director. Her husband, Bela, was a legendary coach in his own right, dating back to their days in communist Romania where he trained legend Nadia Comaneci, among others.
Their system called for young American gymnasts to live and train at home, offering a sense of normalcy and family in their life, interspersed with intense sessions at the ranch. The Karolyis felt it could create the perfect modern gymnast, content and motivated but fully developed with both physical greatness and mental toughness.
In purely sporting terms, it worked. USA Gymnastics became a global powerhouse, dominating international competition and creating waves of famous and celebrated champions. By the 2016 Rio Games, the U.S. team breezed to team gold without viable competition and won eight out of a possible 10 medals. Simone Biles took home three individual golds herself.
The cost of glory, however, needs to be accounted for and perhaps this is the biggest step yet.
Nassar, for one, was able to exploit the harsh and pressure-filled environment, victims say, by playing the so-called “good cop.” Parents were not allowed on the premises except for certain times. The spartan, rustic conditions – gymnasts complained of moldy showers, foul-smelling water and dirty accommodations – lent to the sense of being hopeless and alone.
“It was disgusting,” gold medalist Aly Raisman said.
Nassar would offer encouragement to athletes who doubted they belonged as they struggled to fight for coveted spots on the Olympic team. He snuck extra food for those hungry from the restricted, and substandard, diet in a sport famous for eating disorders. He lent a sympathetic ear to kids beaten down by the pressure of perfection.
Namely, he groomed them, right there under the banner of USA Gymnastics.
“I really thought he was my friend,” Raisman said.
And then he abused them, often also right there under the banner of USA Gymnastics. He was, for reasons never explained, granted unfettered access to the athletes, including solo treatment sessions in the camp dorms. A number of elite gymnasts, including Biles, have said they were abused at the ranch.
Gymnasts would talk among themselves about Nassar’s concerning behavior and startling medical treatments, but the bizarre environment they were in and their fear of being seen as a problem for complaining about anything, and thus losing a spot on the team in the subjective sport, kept many silent.
After Biles’ criticism of having to return to the place of her trauma, USA Gymnastics no longer trains there. The Walker County (Texas) District Attorney’s office earlier this summer cleared both Marta and Bela Karolyi from wrongdoing. Marta retired after the 2016 Rio Olympics, before the scandal truly broke.
The belief that the Karolyis were unaware of Nassar’s behavior does not mean authorities believe the activities at the ranch, or in USAG, were OK. They are clearly continuing to investigate.
“There was a total failure by USAG to protect the athletes that were part of their program once they were made aware of Dr. Nassar’s actions,” Walker County assistant district attorney Stephanie Stroud said last summer.
USA Gymnastics was first alerted at least by 2015, when an investigation was begun. Penny is accused by numerous people of trying to keep the investigation quiet until its conclusion, a decision that allowed Nassar to continue to abuse patients unaware of the allegations back in Michigan, where he worked as a doctor at Michigan State University.
Penny appeared last summer at a U. S. Senate Subcommittee hearing but repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Perhaps now, facing the specter of a trial in a most unforgiving public environment, he will consider cooperating with authorities and detailing what he knows.
Nassar was a monster, who was able to run free for decades. His catastrophic abuse is still being accounted.
How he was able to do it though, mistakes big and small, naïve and possibly criminal, need to be presented in the light of day, studied and avoided forever. Destroyed documents and silent leadership are unacceptable.
Steve Penny will maintain, as always, his right to remain silent. It’s unlikely, however, a jury in Texas would find much sympathy for that, which means his arrest on Wednesday is a step closer to a fuller truth being revealed. Maybe he finally cooperates, for leniency’s sake.
Too late, for sure. Hopefully not too little though.
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