On January 24, 2018, former USA Gymnastics (USAG) doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced 40 to 175 years in prison. During his trial, 158 women offered victim impact statements, recounting story after story about being sexually abused by Nassar. Among those who spoke were Olympians Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber, both of whom were treated by Nassar at the Olympics. In her testimony, Wieber expressed that she, Raisman, and teammate McKayla Maroney were uncomfortable with the medical care they were receiving but did not speak up about it.
“He appeared to be the good guy in an environment that was intense and restricting.”
“[Not standing up for yourself is] what you were taught,” Maroney explained to the host of Gymcastic, a gymnastics podcast, in 2014. In elite gymnastics, the expectation to blindly follow the demands of coaches, regardless of whether or not they are best for the athlete, is consuming. From this notion has sprung a culture in which eating disorders are rampant, competing while injured is the expectation, and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse is normalized and excused.
The environment surrounding women’s elite gymnastics is toxic and isolating; girls practice upwards of 30 hours a week in intense, sometimes outright abusive, conditions. It is not uncommon for these girls to be homeschooled to work around training demands. As a result, many gymnasts interact primarily with people at their gym and family and miss out on a multitude of standard adolescent experiences. Instead of shopping with friends, teenage gymnasts are drilling press handstands; instead of going on dates, they are training a new acrobatic series on the balance beam. “They really get living in this world where the abnormal becomes normal and it’s the perfect situation for abuse,” says Joan Ryan, author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which was one of the first books to expose the toxicity in the U.S. elite gymnastics system. This intensive training regimen was implanted in the American gymnastics system by coaching legend Bela Karolyi. After coaching renowned Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci to seven “perfect 10s” at the 1976 Olympics, Karolyi and his wife relocated to the United States and began to work with their struggling gymnastics program. It did not take long for the Karolyis to establish themselves in America, coaching Mary Lou Retton to an all-around gold and Julianne McNamara to a first place finish on bars in the 1984 Olympics.
Unfortunately, it was not just his success that found a way into the American gymnastics program; along with fame and Olympic medals, the Karolyis brought with them a culture of abuse. “[His coaching style was] very bullying, very abusive; [he had] no conscience about what he was doing to these girls,” says Ryan. Though Karolyi was abusive, his coaching methods worked, and many coaches in America began to mimic his style in hopes of success.
Among those who tried to emulate Karolyi’s methods was Al Fong, who created Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE) in Missouri. Fong, like Karolyi, was known for his temper and relentless training schedule, insulting his athletes regularly. The difference is that initially, Fong found disgrace instead of success, when two of his gymnasts died as a result of his continued abuse.
Julissa Gomez left Karolyi’s gym because of his damaging training methods and moved to GAGE in 1988. Although Gomez had struggled with her vault, both Karolyi and Fong had her continue training it in hopes of achieving a higher score. “You could tell it was not a safe vault for her to be doing,” said Gomez’s former teammate, Chelle Stack. During warm ups for the vault final in an international competition, Gomez missed her foot on the springboard in the entry to her vault and crashed into the vault table instead of flipping over it, snapping her neck. The accident left Gomez paralyzed and she died three years later.
Christy Henrich was Fong’s other hope for success at the 1988 Olympics. After receiving remarks on her weight from both Fong and an international judge, she stopped eating. Henrich’s weight plummeted and her strength dwindled. By 1990, she was so weak that she was pulled from competition and kicked from Fong’s gym. Henrich blamed Fong for her eating disorder, accusing him of calling her names like “Pillsbury Doughboy,” while Fong denied her allegations. After leaving gymnastics, Henrich was in and out of hospitals, battling anorexia until she died of multiple organ failures due to malnourishment in 1994.
Henrich is not an isolated incident; eating disorders are commonplace in the elite gymnastics scene. The practice of weighing gymnasts, usually publicly, is executed by many. Additionally, as Maroney explains, many elite gymnasts are not comfortable eating in front of their coaches, which becomes a significant issue when you take international competitions and camps at the Karolyi Ranch into account. In these situations, gymnasts travel with their coaches and spend most of their time together and training; usually, the only reprieve is when the girls are in their rooms at the end of the day.
Constantly being around coaches—which happens regardless of whether or not the gymnasts are traveling for competition or training at home—further instills the toxic mindset that is so valued in the culture of elite gymnastics. Maroney describes almost passing out at the end of her practices, and feeling like it was a good thing she hadn’t eaten because she felt light. Beyond the eating disorders, many coaches push their gymnasts to compete on injuries, as can be seen through countless examples—Retton, Betty Okino, and Brandy Johnson to name a few. In the case of Okino, her injuries never fully healed and she cannot write or straighten her arm without pain.
Before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Karolyi was appointed national team coordinator, a position that was passed onto his wife, Marta, shortly after. This new role entailed working with elite athletes in monthly training camps instead of training his own gymnasts. The two set up outside of Houston, in what is now the infamous Karolyi Ranch. In its early years, the Ranch was isolated, with no cell phone service and only two pay phones that the girls could use to contact the outside world. Though the establishment now has WiFi, the exclusion of parents from attendance and the intensity of the environment means that the Ranch remains a secluded and toxic climate. “It’s just scary in there,” says Maroney, with every move feeling like a make-or-break moment.
It was in this culture—in coaches’ insults and blocking out the pain of a sore tendon or stress fracture, in pushing through one last bars repetition despite exhaustion so intense that you’re almost passing out—that Nassar was able to establish his presence. “He appeared to be the good guy in an environment that was intense and restricting,” explains Wieber. She chronicles Nassar’s advice on dealing with the stress brought on by training and the other adults in the elite gymnastics scene, and how he brought her and her teammates food and coffee at the Olympics; they could eat in front of him even when they could not in front of their coaches. It was only later that she realized these were grooming techniques.
Nassar played the good guy; he was there when everyone else was against them, and the girls trusted him. And he abused them. And even though they felt uncomfortable—even though they knew it was wrong—they did not speak up. “Just as Nassar groomed [the gymnasts], the whole culture of gymnastics groomed them to disconnect from their own bodies and do what everybody tells them to do,” says Ryan. So they pushed through, ignoring their discomfort just as they had ignored the countless aches and pains, the hunger and fatigue.
A casual follower of gymnastics may assume that Nassar’s predatory actions against young girls was an isolated incident, that he was a pedophile who happened to be especially skilled at manipulation and not getting caught. In reality, the longevity of Nassar’s abuse could only persist in the toxic environment that already existed within American gymnastics. “The reality is that Larry is not the problem, Larry is the symptom of the problem,” says coach and former gymnast Rachael Denhollander in an interview on NPR. Denhollander was the first of many to file a criminal complaint against Nassar and publicly accuse him of sexual abuse. In a culture that enables abusive behaviors, Nassar found himself shielded from accountability, the perfect position to prey on girls and get away with it for 30 years.
After the 2016 Olympics, Marta Karolyi stepped down as national team coordinator. She was replaced by Valeri Liukin, who is said to be much less intense. In this sense, USAG has made progress. However, it is worth keeping in mind that two of his former high profile gymnasts, Vanessa Atler and Katelyn Ohashi, have come forward about struggling with eating disorders as a result of Liukin’s demanding coaching style.
USAG also dropped their non-disclosure agreement with Maroney, in which she agreed to not discuss the abuse allegations regarding Nassar publicly—and was therefore unable to testify against him in court—in exchange for a $1.25 million settlement paid to her family. The contract was dropped after multiple celebrities spoke up about its ridiculousness and offered to pay the $100,000 fine so Maroney could confront her abuser. In a similar circumstance, USAG announced they were moving their national training camps from the Karolyi Ranch. Like Maroney’s contract, this change was not carried out until facing public ridicule, when 2016 Olympic champion, Simone Biles, expressed her discomfort in a social media post addressing returning to the facility where she was sexually abused. These instances of change are huge steps forward in a sport with such a large history of abuse, but USAG’s failure to implement them until it was under public scrutiny says a lot about the program’s priorities.
More reform has come with the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) calling for the USAG board’s resignation, after reserving comment on the Nassar situation for months. The USOC also said they would work to change the elite gymnastics system, threatening to decertify USAG—which would mean they could not send gymnasts to World or Olympic Championships—if they did not make mandated changes.
With all these changes, USAG is left without a board, national team coordinator, or a training location. It has been announced that the next national team camp will take place at Louisiana State University, a dramatic change from the isolated Karolyi Ranch. A fresh slate is undoubtedly a good thing, though overseeing the process and keeping the program from going down the same road again will need to be consciously addressed at every move.
Rebuilding the US gymnastics program will not be possible without the athletes, who have endured years of abuse but have emerged as survivors. The women who have spoken up about the culture of abuse within elite gymnastics, the women whose voices have been cast aside for so long, are finally being heard. “I have both power and a voice and I am only beginning to just use them,” Raisman said.