Olympic medalist and favorite for the 2021 Olympic gold Simone Biles also came forward as a victim of Larry Nassar. (Elsa/Getty Images)
In the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, two former gymnasts and survivors of sexual abuse are opening up about their experiences and calling out the institutions they say were complicit in the scandal that has rocked Team USA in recent years.
Nassar, the disgraced former USA Gymnastics doctor, is a convicted sex offender serving several sentences amounting to life in prison without parole for the sexual assault of young women and minors, including molesting female gymnasts in his care.
Klein and Smith, now both mothers, recently spoke with Zenger about how Nassar’s perverse behavior was normalized and enabled by powerful people and entities — so much so that Klein didn’t realize she was being abused at the time.
“You equate it to a cult. All you know from childhood, before your brain is biologically fully formed — you don’t know anything else. You just think that’s how they do it here, and your red flags don’t get raised,” said Klein, the first-known survivor of Nassar’s abuse.
Klein is one of 141 women who received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2018 ESPYs.
“The other piece of that is, I loved this guy [Nassar]. He was the nicest part of the entire gymnastics experience,” she said. “It’s a brutal, nasty environment that’s based on tearing you down and scaring you. It’s extremely fear-based. And then you go to the back room and there’s this sweet, nerdy, laughing warm doctor who says he’s going to help you. That sounds great. And you’re a child, so you really don’t know any better.
“It’s sort of the perfect storm for a serial pedophile to get away with it for three decades like Nassar did.”
Smith suffered abuse at the hands of Nassar starting at age 9, while training at Twistars, a competitive gymnastics gym, in the early 2000s. For her, Nassar was largely enabled by John Geddert, who coached the gold medal-winning U.S. women’s gymnastics team during the 2012 London Games and took his own life in February after being charged with enough counts of human trafficking and sexual abuse to face life in prison.
For around 25 years, Geddert was professionally and socially linked to Nassar, having employed him at two gyms he operated. The pair also worked the 2012 Olympics together, during which the women’s gymnastics team included the famous “Fierce Five,” many of whom have since come forward as Nassar victims.
As a coach, Geddert regularly used fear and intimidation tactics on the athletes by verbally berating them. He was also accused of assault and battery in a handful of instances.
His pattern of mentally and emotionally tearing the girls down led some to view Nassar as a welcome reprieve, despite the former doctor’s twisted forms of medical treatment, according to Smith.
“Larry always made himself our safe space. … He was the shining light at the end of the day,” Smith said. “Every Monday night was like, ‘Yes, Larry’s here. We don’t have to listen to John [Geddert] scream at us for an hour. Usually John’s demeanor changed when Larry was around. … He didn’t physically harm other girls in front of Larry. Larry’s presence put this fake hope in the gym.”
The failure on the part of law enforcement to act, once alerted of such an environment, also played a role in Nassar’s prolonged mistreatment, according to a report released this month by U.S. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
In his 119-page report, Horowitz accused two FBI officials of lying about and covering up “numerous and fundamental errors” in the agency’s investigation into the sex-abuse scandal.
Horowitz said the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis “failed to respond to the Nassar allegations with the utmost seriousness and urgency they deserved and required” by neglecting to conduct any investigative activity for eight months after the probe began in 2015. The office also did not notify state authorities or the local FBI office in Lansing, Michigan.
Abuse at the hands of men like Nassar also initially went unchecked by USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee, reports have found.
USA Gymnastics, named in several lawsuits regarding the scandal, came under fire for its handling of sex-abuse allegations against Nassar after a 2016 bombshell report by The Indianapolis Star found the organization routinely dismissed such accusations, failed to alert authorities and did not adequately track or flag fired coaches.
In addition to losing several major sponsors, the body also faced criticism from many U.S. senators for waiting five weeks to report Nassar to authorities after learning of allegations concerning him in 2015.
The U.S. Olympic Committee, which also faces dozens of related lawsuits, was additionally accused by Congress of a “cover-up.” Lawmakers claimed in a 2019 report the entity “knowingly concealed abuse by Nassar” after it received information about Nassar’s behavior more than a year before action was taken. Both organizations have denied culpability, but have since adopted policies aimed at preventing future abuse.
Present in most abuse cases is “this paradigm of people in a position of authority,” according to Klein, who now works as an attorney representing sexual-abuse survivors.
“A coach, a teacher, a priest, a doctor, Boy and Girl Scouts of America taking advantage of that authority,” she said. “And the institution this person is supposed to represent chooses the cover-up, protecting their brand and protecting themselves from liability approach. Things get swept under the rug or hidden.”
“The work we do is not only holding the predator accountable, of course, but also holding the entity accountable that knew or should have known that this person was a predator and still gave access.”
Many survivors of sexual abuse are still picking up the pieces today on a path toward healing, including Smith.
“It’s been a full healing journey to try to make baby steps. There are pitfalls. As bad as my abuse was with Larry and as horrifying and invasive as that process was, it’s almost like I was getting healed from that portion,” she said.
“And then the stuff with USAG and John Geddert came out. It was a whole other downfall. I actually spent more time at Twistars with John than I did with Larry. It was a bigger scab getting ripped off. That part has been a little more difficult to deal with because it’s newer to people. I lived through it, but the world didn’t know about it, so that’s been another process.”
Klein said her experience has “come full circle” now that she is able to help other victims find their voices.
“My suffering that I went through for my entire childhood and beyond has had something good come from it. And what’s come from it is: I can now walk other people through the journey that I went through myself,” she said. “I feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing in this world. In a strange way, I’ve found some gratitude for what I went through because there’s nothing I would rather be doing than the work I’m doing now.”
“With that said, healing is a journey. It’s a couple of steps forward and 10 steps back. Childhood trauma is one of those things that never fully resolves itself. But you learn to manage it. And with the right resources and support, you can lead a full and happy life.”
Although the Olympics opening ceremony is set for Friday, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team is already making headlines after an alternate gymnast, who was not publicly identified in Monday’s announcement, tested positive for coronavirus during training. While she and another alternative gymnast are now in quarantine, one of the stars expected to make an appearance when the competition kicks off this weekend is Simone Biles, another Nassar survivor, a favorite to take home the gold.
Biles’ continued success and domination of her sport after overcoming abuse serves as an inspiration to others, Klein said.
“I could not love and respect that woman more. We call each other ‘sister survivors’ — those of us who were abused by Nassar, the institution that is USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee,” she said. “She has definitely risen above and conducted herself with such class and such resilience. Watching her succeed in the way that she is says so much about her character.”
(Edited by Judith Isacoff and Fern Siegel)
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