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Jeanette Antolin was an elite gymnast – NCAA championships, national championships, world championships. She was also a victim of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor currently serving 60 years in prison for child pornography and facing decades more for sexually abusing hundreds of girls, most under his medical care.
On Wednesday, Antolin stepped to a podium inside a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan, as part of an extraordinary four-day sentencing hearing for Nassar. Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina has offered time to any victim to come forward and speak. At least 100 are expected, either in person or via video.
Antolin’s powerful words shamed Nassar, showed strength in her survivorship and then poignantly drew a direct line between her training as an elite gymnast and Nassar’s ability to abuse her – not merely that injuries brought her under his care, but that the sport taught her to be compliant, silent and desperate.
“It’s hard for an outsider to understand the world of elite gymnastics and understand how a man like Larry could gain the trust of so many young girls and sexually abuse them for so many years,” Antolin said. “For a young girl away from her home, being worked into exhaustion by screaming coaches, a kindly doctor offering relief from pain and a little sympathy was easy to like.
“I was raised in a culture of gymnastics,” Antolin continued, “where we were taught your voice doesn’t matter and you follow direction and never complain.”
Gymnastics is a tremendous activity, capable of producing not just physical strength, but confidence, self-esteem and accomplishment. It is home to an array of caring and wonderful coaches, trainers and doctors.
However, as the scope of the Nassar’s reign of terror grows with each victim statement, it is an opportunity for the sport at all levels, and particularly the elite competitive levels, to consider the current system that while unrivaled in its ability to produce champions, can also be unhealthy and dangerous.
American gymnastics has become a juggernaut over the last few decades. It attracts and produces so many talented athletes that the rest of the world is no longer competitive. Team gold in the Olympics is a forgone conclusion. A battle for all-around gold is an American vs. American battle. The mere fight to get on the Olympic team, soon to feature just four women, is perhaps the single most intense battle in all of sports.
With that comes not just glory every four years. It also, as we see, can devastate not just those fighting to make it, but those who did. Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney and other gold medalists say Nassar abused them, too.
Nassar was a master manipulator who through his work at Michigan State abused softball players, volleyball players, figure skaters and others. He clearly found, however, an opportunity with young gymnasts, something that those very gymnasts say is not a coincidence. They were easy targets. The sport made them that way.
“Discipline and obedience,” victim Chelsea Williams (formerly Chelsea Kroll), a USAG national and NCAA gymnast testified, describing the key attributes of young, successful gymnasts.
Antolin, Williams and others described a world that requires such perfection that coaches are exacting and girls must learn to quietly fight through failure. Second guessing or speaking up is never encouraged.
It’s that way not merely at the national level, but in the local gyms across the country that serve as the lifeblood of the sport. Antolin hails from California. Williams grew up in Pennsylvania. In mid-Michigan, that was most prevalent at the Twistars Gymnastics Club, where Nassar worked with coach John Geddert, who is described as a relentless taskmaster hell-bent on producing an Olympian. He finally succeeded in 2012 with Jordyn Wieber. Twistars, along with MSU and USAG is being sued by hundreds of Nassar’s victims.
“A lifetime of engrained trust in coaches and staff cannot be underestimated as a factor in this case of abuse,” Williams said.
The victims spoke of the significant pain they suffered from injuries, but also of the fear of acknowledging, let alone treating, them. Better to just bounce back up and try again. This is a sport that discourages days off. The skills needed are so precise that any setback is a major setback.
Worse, this is a subjective competition. It isn’t track or swimming, where the winner is the winner. That is determined by the judges, and in the process of getting to competition, that means the king-maker coaches who can determine, without appeal, who is better and who is best.
The result are young girls taught to shut up and smile rather than anger their coach. And forget involving meddlesome parents. Control is everything.
That, Williams said, leads to minor injuries to go untreated until young bodies are overwhelmed. It then, she said, produces desperation as athletes seek anyone who can provide relief from incredible pain, or can promise some magical cure and return to the gym, even if it seems odd or feels like sexual assault.
The doctor becomes god. An “experimental” treatment, as Nassar often described his actions, is embraced.
“These problematic cultural aspects of elite gymnastics – obedience, unimaginable pain and silent suffering were expertly manipulated by Larry Nassar to identify, abuse and control his victims,” Williams said. “Not once, but systematically. … The culture of gymnastics … promotes a fear of challenging authority, an environment of physical and mental abuse and a system designed to limit parental involvement.”
The words coming out of the Nassar sentencing are profound, and painful, and hopeful and truthful. The rightful focus is on what Nassar did and what the victims went through.
Going forward, though, the focus has to be on how the next Nassar can be prevented.
If the greatest gymnasts in the world were susceptible to Nassar, then what chance did those with lesser talent striving to reach that level stand? If Biles, as great a gymnast as there has ever been, couldn’t stop it, who could? It’s not that Nassar was capable of manipulating and controlling some gymnasts, it’s that he was capable of manipulating and controlling all gymnasts.
That speaks to a far broader problem than one man, or one gym, or one change in policy. It speaks to something that doesn’t end because one monster will spend the rest of his life rotting behind bars.
USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry has been in Lansing to hear the testimony. Even Michigan State president Lou Anna K. Simon came on Wednesday, after skipping the first day. Perry is the new head of USAG and must make her organization accountable for its failures with Nassar.
On a wider scale, though, she needs to lead a change of culture in the sport everywhere, one that focuses less on the relentless pursuit of perfection but on empowerment, on confidence, on developing young athletes who learn to stand up and speak up for their own self. That is true strength.
American gymnastics is the most unstoppable winning machine in sports.
But as victim after victim pours their heart out in Lansing, as day after day drags on, it feels more and more like a terrible, horrible failure.
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