The hardest thing about gymnastics is keeping your head in the game. Sure, gymnastics takes an incredible toll on your body—which I definitely know about, having been forced to stop due to constant back pain. But in gymnastics, there’s nothing harder than staying mentally focused.
There’s something about this sport that breeds a fear of sharing our emotions. We’re told as little girls that it’s important to keep our emotions in check so that they don’t distract us from performing to the best of our abilities. And by keeping our emotions locked away, key nowhere in sight, we close ourselves off to our friends, parents, coaches, and even teammates—our closest support systems and lifelines to surviving such an incredibly grueling sport.
On January 24, Larry Nassar, renowned doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University Gymnastics, was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for decades of sexual abuse of athletes. That’s right: Nassar had been providing “medical treatment” (i.e., sexual assault) to gymnasts and other athletes for over twenty years—and was just sentenced now.
Over the course of seven days, more than 150 women came forward and addressed Nassar, detailing their horrific experiences with him. As each day of the trial passed, more athletes gathered the courage to share their stories. This signaled a turning point, not only for gender roles and the horror that is sexual abuse, but for the sport itself.
What amazed me was how many of these athletes were abused during major competitions, such as world championships and even the Olympic Games. According to Jordyn Wieber, 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist, “I thought that training for the Olympics would be the hardest thing that I would ever have to do. But, in fact, the hardest thing I would ever have to do is process that I am a victim of Larry Nassar.” Mckayla Maroney, Wieber’s Olympic teammate, stated: “I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting.” The fact that these two, along with Olympians Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, and Gabby Douglas, were able to accomplish such incredible things, notwithstanding the abuse they endured, is amazing.
Unfortunately, not all were that lucky. Many never made it to that point because they were broken. Elite gymnast Mattie Larson summed it up: “The Olympics were just one year away, and I just couldn’t take any more of the abuse. Larry, my coaches, and U.S.A. Gymnastics turned the sport I fell in love with as a kid into my personal living hell.”
What’s truly astounding is how Nassar had been able to abuse girls for so long. When you have privilege—something that Nassar has a lot of, being white and male—you gain a lot of trust from those around you, which easily leads to abuse of authority.
When Nassar’s victims expressed feelings of discomfort and pain, they were brushed aside: “I was attacked on social media. … People didn’t believe me, even people I thought were my friends. They called me a liar, a whore, and even accused me of making all of this up just to get attention,” Jamie Dantzscher, 2000 Olympic bronze medalist, testified.
Victims must be given the same benefit of the doubt—if not more—that their predators have been given. If victims are shamed for sharing their stories, and made to feel that their feelings are invalid, this will only perpetuate the notion that staying quiet is the best (and only acceptable) response.
As a former gymnast, I am incredibly thankful that my training was mostly positive and included nothing even remotely related to abuse. For me, the sport that I was forced to stop due to injury was still the same sport I fell in love with as a little girl. I wish others could have had that luxury, but I am incredibly thankful that they had the courage to speak up—and thereby improve the sport of gymnastics for the next generation.