Seventeen years ago, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team placed fourth at the Sydney Olympics, finishing behind Romania, Russia, and China. Coming four years after the gold medal from the Magnificent Seven, this placement was seen—both inside and outside the sport, by the press and by coaches like the famed Bela Karolyi—as a failure. After the competition, Karolyi, who had been appointed to the newly-created post of national team coordinator in November 1999, blasted the team, claiming “this generation of gymnasts lack the necessary work ethic” despite the fact that two gymnasts on the six-person team, Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow, had also been members of the 1996 team that won the gold medal.
The only member of the team to fight back and defend herself was 18-year-old Jamie Dantzscher. She called Karolyi a “puppeteer” and said that he only wanted to take credit for their successes, not responsibility for failure. Two months after the Games were over, Dantzscher continued with her public criticism of Karolyi and USA Gymnastics, telling the Los Angeles Times that she believed she had been mistreated by Karolyi, that he had too much power, and that he intimidated the athletes. She also claimed that USA Gymnastics had asked her to temper her comments.
“I don’t regret anything I said,” she told the paper. “I believe there are other girls who feel the same as I do. I hope that eventually the people in power will pay attention to what I said and maybe make some changes.”
All these years later, Dantzscher is, once again, speaking out. In September of last year, she filed a lawsuit in California against USA Gymnastics, its presidents current and past, and Larry Nassar, alleging that the renowned team physician had, under the guise of treatment, sexually abused her from the time she was 13 or 14 until she went off to college. She claimed that the physician “treated” her at competitions all over the world—and in her living quarters at the famed Karolyi Ranch in Texas—all without any adult supervision.
Dantzscher was identified as “Jane Doe” in the suit, but has since stepped forward and revealed her identity in a 60 Minutes segment and other interviews. This lawsuit—and the criminal complaint filed nearly simultaneously by Rachael Denhollander, a former club gymnast treated by Nassar in Michigan—opened the floodgates against the doctor. Since these two stepped forward, more than 80 women have come forward with allegations of sex abuse against the former U.S. team physician. Nassar is currently awaiting trial in federal prison, having been charged by local and federal authorities on multiple counts of sexual assault and possession of child pornography.
Initially Nassar flatly denied any wrongdoing, but as more and more victims came forward with stories of abuse he changed his story, claiming that he was performing a legitimate medical procedure on these women. Nassar has pleaded not guilty to the charges that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office has brought against him thus far.
The allegations against Nassar go beyond what the doctor is alleged to have done under the guise of treatment—penetrating his young patients vaginally or rectally with his fingers without gloves, consent, or, in many cases, other parties present. They also have to do with the secretive, insular, and even abusive culture of women’s gymnastics in the United States against which Dantzscher spoke out after Sydney. The system may not have been designed to allow a sexual predator both ready access to victims and the means to go undetected, but it’s clear by now, and should have been long ago, that if it wasn’t, it may as well have been.
In 2010, the 2000 Olympic team reunited in Hartford, Conn. for an unusual event—an Olympic medal ceremony. The Chinese team, which had placed third in Sydney, had been stripped of their bronze medal after the IOC investigated claims they had used an underaged gymnast. Their medal was then awarded to the U.S., as the next team in line. The IOC used the occasion of the 2010 U.S. National Championships to distribute medals to the six team members, who had long since retired from the sport. But before they stepped out onto the mat, the women sat down to take questions.
If the press had been expecting to find the women merely happy to receive Olympic recognition, they were sorely mistaken. As she had a decade before, Dantzscher spoke up about their difficult Olympic experiences. Others, though, like 2000 national champion Elise Ray, spoke up about how they felt about how difficult and traumatic those experiences had been.
“Everything we went through in Sydney is still very fresh,” she said. “Today feels like a different time. The two emotions couldn’t be more opposite.”
Ray resisted reinterpreting her experiences in light of an unexpected outcome; being awarded a bronze medal, while a welcome and joyous event, did not change what she and the rest of the team had endured. The end and the means were completely separate things as far as she was concerned.
“Honestly, the experience was not great,” Dantzscher said. “It makes us sound like we’re being negative, but it’s just the truth.”
Tasha Schwikert, the youngest member of the team, likened the grueling nature of team selection and training to being a contestant on Survivor. “It was just, ‘We’ll just run you down, wait ’til we find the last man standing and we’ll see what the team is,’” she said. One reporter compared the press conference to a therapy session and was surprised that the athletes’ feelings seemed to be so raw after nearly a decade had elapsed. It was as if no time at all had passed between the medal ceremony and Sydney.
Perhaps the reason for the outpouring was that this was their first opportunity as a team to publicly address what had happened to them. In Sydney, only the outspoken Dantzscher had said anything, and in the years after the Games, the press was hardly clamoring for interviews with the team that didn’t medal. They, like USA Gymnastics, quickly moved on to the next generation of gymnasts. Up until that 2010 press conference, there had been no public reckoning with what happened in 2000, when USA Gymnastics, in a desperate attempt to win medals, threw together a training camp system nine months before the Games without consulting the athletes or the coaches. It was, by nearly every account, chaotic and brutal.
“We were definitely the guinea pigs of the new system they were trying,” Dantzscher said in 2010. “Whenever you’re the guinea pig, it’s not easy.”
After the 1996 Olympics, when Kerri Strug vaulted on a sprained ankle to secure the team gold for the American women, the U.S. women’s gymnastics program quickly slipped in the global rankings. At the 1997 world championships, the team placed sixth and the athletes brought home no individual hardware. When the same thing happened again at the 1999 world championships, USA Gymnastics sprang into panic mode, bringing Bela Karolyi out of retirement to become the national team coordinator, a newly created position.
The Karolyis—both Bela and Martha—were famous for coaching Nadia Comaneci to Olympic gold and perfect 10s in their native Romania. Stateside, they were known for training 1984 Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton, who became the first American to win the all-around, and 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu. The coaching duo was also infamous for the harsh training tactics chronicled in Joan Ryan’s 1995 bestseller Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.
In his column in USA Gymnastics’ official magazine, then-president and CEO Robert Colarossi spoke about the change in strategy in his 1999 year in review (which appeared in the January/February 2000 issue), he emphasized the need to focus on results in the coming Olympic year. He wrote (emphasis in the original), “We have worked hard to ensure that all of our resources and programs are better aligned to achieve our three major objectives: medals, growth, and visibility.” It was USA Gymnastics who bolded those words, more than tipping their hand about their priorities.
In this new job, Bela would not coach the athletes; rather, he would personally oversee monthly training camps at his ranch outside Houston. Members of the national team and their coaches would be required to go to Texas to train in front of the national team staff, who would evaluate their fitness and preparation. These monthly check-ins would also factor into the selection of the Olympic team. In this new setup, rankings at Olympic trials would not determine team composition. On the plus side, this meant that one bad, poorly timed performance wouldn’t eliminate an otherwise deserving athlete from the team. (In 1988, the U.S. men left arguably their best athlete home because he had a weak performance at trials.) The downside was that it made an already subjective evaluation process even more so. Now, the athletes didn’t just have to please judges—they had to please the selection committee as well. And the selection committee played it close to the vest.
Tracee Talavera, a 1980 and 1984 Olympian, was a member of the 2000 selection committee. She said that she didn’t really approve of the process of selecting the team instead of using rankings from competitions, but agreed to be part of the committee in order to represent the interests of the athletes.
“I honestly can say I went into it thinking I knew the bad side of everything, but I can tell you that experience made me see that it was much worse than I thought it was,” she told me recently. “Pretty much nothing is given to the athletes in terms of control of their career, their placement, what is happening with them.”
When I spoke to Elise Ray about the selection procedure for my book, she recalled feeling adamant that she wasn’t going to let the committee decide her fate. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to let somebody else decide whether or not I’m going to be on the team,” she told me. “I remember distinctly making that decision. ‘I just need to win both of these things [Nationals and trials] to solidify my spot.’”
Ray’s determination to control her fate was a function of just how little control everyone who wasn’t on the selection committee actually had. And it wasn’t just the athletes who felt helpless; their personal coaches did too. The monthly camps disrupted their training plans less than a year before the Olympics, and the regimen at these camps was often one size fits all, making no adjustments for gymnasts who were injured and in varying stages of recovery. Kristen Maloney, a member of the 2000 Olympic team, spent much of the year leading up to Sydney recovering from surgeries to her shoulder and shin. She recalled being pushed to do more than was probably medically advisable at these camps because she didn’t want to show the selection committee any signs of weakness.
“You felt like you had to do everything they asked you to do, no matter what, no matter how injured you were,” she said when I spoke to her for my book. “I remember a time when I had to come crawling back on the vault runway because my shin was hurting so bad, but you had to keep going.”
“The amount of work and the amount of conditioning that they were expecting us to do was just impossible and every single person knew it,” Ray told me.
Chari Knight-Nagel, a former elite gymnast and member of the 2000 selection committee, told me in an email that she felt that the disruption was problematic. “I always felt that the athletes and coaches should get to basically keep their usual workout schedule, since that’s what got them to the top to begin with.” She also said that the camps were fear-based and that the intensity level was unsustainable over the long-term. “Every workout was a competition,” she said. “You can’t keep up this level of intensity without starting to break down somehow.” For Knight-Nagel this was especially true during the lengthy camp that preceded the Olympics. “Camps being this way was one thing but having to maintain this for so long leading up to the Olympics (a month?)—they were breaking down.”
Knight-Nagel also brought up problems the athletes had with eating during these camps. She noted that in general, it was a tight, nervous atmosphere but that didn’t all come from the administration and higher ups. “Everyone was competing against each other too and that alone gets coaches and athletes to behave differently. More intensely.”
This extended into eating. “I can’t imagine anyone was eating as they usually did at home. Everyone seemed uncomfortable eating together and the dining room was another contest for who ate the least—as coaches and admin[s] were all watching,” she recalled. 2012 Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney remarked on this when she was interviewed by GymCastic in 2016, saying that the gymnasts were often uncomfortable eating to satisfaction in front of their coaches and the national team staff. Knight-Nagel said that at the Olympics, she asked Martha Karolyi in the dining in front of everyone if an athlete could go get more food to eat because she was still hungry. “It was silly to have to stand up for that but that demonstrates some of the fear based atmosphere.”
The unhappiness of the coaches and athletes wasn’t just clear in retrospect; the discontent was evident at the events. In April 2000, Sports Illustrated reported from Texas and noted the unhappiness among the coaches and athletes about the new system. Mary Lee Tracy, who had coached two members of the gold-winning 1996 team, complained about the workload and worried about the physical toll on the gymnasts. “We don’t need to be ready now for a meet we’ll have in six months,” she said. (One of her gymnasts, Morgan White, would later be named to the 2000 team only to be removed before the competition started due to injury.)
Kelli Hill, who coached Ray and Dominique Dawes, and would end up being named head coach of the 2000 Olympic team, also registered her displeasure with the new regime. “I fought it strongly,” she told SI. “If the girls are trying to learn anything new back home, then this is a deterrent.” The pressure on the gymnasts to hit at the camps was intense; every turn they took in practice was being scrutinized. Fear of making mistakes during camp workouts kept gymnasts and coaches from trying out new skills. There should have been no reason not to introduce new elements half a year before the Olympics; the only reason there was was the fear of making any kind of mistake.
And at the 2000 National Championships, the roiling discontent played out in front of the cameras. Beth Ruyak waved papers that outlined the selection process and explained, “It indicates that they understand and agree to those procedures. Donna Strauss has signed it, but she crossed out the word ‘agree.’ It’s a small protest, but she and others who have also done the same thing feel it’s one way that they can express their dissatisfaction with the selection process.”
Error loading player: No playable sources found
Jack Carter, who accompanied Maloney to those early training camps in the run-up to the 2000 Games, was quite blunt in talking about how much he disliked the experience. “It wasn’t the national team training camp; it was the black hole. All of us disliked it. None of us liked going there. It was an awful place,” he said. Carter told me that in the early years, there were just two pay phones—the only way for the girls to reach their parents during their stays—at camp, and that even once cell phones became more common, they weren’t useful either. “You can climb up, sit on the guard tower at the pool and sometimes at night you could get a signal there,” he said.
Tony Retrosi, a coach and a gym owner from New Hampshire, added, “You would sit in line and there would be 3-4 people waiting to stand on top of the lifeguard chair so you can call home.”
“This is why we called it the black hole,” Carter repeated. “You can go in and there’s not getting out. You can’t escape the place. I think that’s problematic.”
Though the Karolyi Ranch is now furnished with wifi and the girls regularly post to social media during their stays, this lack of communication with the outside world during the early years made it an isolated place. If a gymnast was being abused and couldn’t talk to her coach, who could she turn to? She couldn’t even reach her parents if she wanted to. The fact that parents were not—and are, with exceptions for selection competitions, still not—allowed to attend troubles Carter.
“All the environment did, it enabled Dr. Nassar,” Carter said.
The first time I heard of Larry Nassar was in 2013 was when he was interviewed by Jessica O’Beirne of the gymnastics podcast GymCastic. (I am friends with O’Beirne and have appeared on the podcast many times as a guest.) Though my knowledge of the sport was fairly comprehensive, I never gave much thought to who treated the gymnasts when they were injured or who administered treatments at training camps. I didn’t realize that one person had been in charge for so long.
O’Beirne, a law research librarian based in Orange County, Calif., first met Nassar in 1998, when she was a college student and athletic trainer at the University of Washington in Seattle and volunteered to work the weekend of Level 10 Junior Olympic Nationals. “He was running the table for Level 10 Nationals so I worked with him,” she told me. “He’s a professor, so he was explaining and teaching things as he went, and I saw nothing inappropriate. I had never even heard of him before that weekend. As time went on, everyone said great things about him.”
This seemed to be consensus view of Nassar, at least until the first allegations of sexual abuse were made public this past fall. Christy Linder Sharp, also a friend, is a photographer. She had been an NCAA gymnast at Michigan State in the early aughts, and Nassar was her team doctor. Her experiences with Nassar were also very positive.
“He was the guy who was not the pushy coach that would want [you] to compete with injuries,” she told me. “He was the guy that the coaches would actually listen to. ‘If Larry said you need eight weeks rest, you rest for eight weeks.’” In a world where coaches have been known to push gymnasts to train and compete through injuries, this sort of intervention was especially welcomed by the athletes and earned Nassar a lot of fans among gymnasts.
Sharp said she was absolutely shocked when she first heard of the allegations against her former team doctor, but that the accusations jogged a memory from nearly 17 years earlier that made her quickly believe in the veracity of the claims. “I remember hearing from one of my teammates—but I couldn’t remember who—that one of my other teammates was asking around because it happened to her. She was like, ‘This was my treatment. Has it happened to you?’” Sharp said. “I remember thinking in my head at that time, ‘Oh man, I’m so glad that he doesn’t have to use that treatment on me because that would be so weird and uncomfortable.’” Sharp said she didn’t think about the incident again until she heard of the allegations.
Even after she graduated and moved to California, Sharp said, she’d continue to reach out to Nassar for help. Her old gymnastics injuries would flare up every four or five years, even in retirement. “I think the last time I reached out, it was probably about 5 or 6 years ago,” she said. “I messaged him on Facebook [to see] if he knew of any osteopathic doctors out in this area that did the type of manipulation that he does because his stuff actually worked. And I’m not talking about the intravaginal stuff.”
Wendy Bruce Martin, a member of the bronze-winning 1992 Olympic team, had considered Nassar her “go-to guy.” She told me she had messaged him on Facebook about her daughter’s cheerleading injury just over a month before Dantzscher filed her lawsuit and Denhollander went to the Michigan State police. He responded quickly and reassured her that it seemed like her daughter was in good hands with the doctors and trainers in Florida and was being treated properly.
These kinds of good deeds bolstered Nassar’s reputation as a “nice guy”, and his passionate testimony during the GymCastic interview about athlete health and mental well-being only burnished his image further. During the interview with O’Beirne, Nassar came off as knowledgeable, caring and compassionate, stressing the need to care for athletes not just physically but also emotionally, and speaking passionately about what the 2000 team endured during the chaotic training camps and Olympic selection process. (Listening to it now, with the knowledge of what he is alleged to have done, induces a queasy sort of feeling. He uses the word “trust” a lot.)
This was unusual; it was rare to hear anything approaching criticism coming from a person in USA Gymnastics. Since the controversy over the 2000 team had died down, the news out of the camps and USA Gymnastics was typically rosy, even when injuries were piling up and things were clearly going wrong. The federation seemed inspired by Mao: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.” The fact that Nassar seemed willing to even acknowledge that things at the camps were not always great was a radical departure from the USA Gymnastics party line, and gave him a degree of credibility. After listening to his interview on GymCastic, I sought him out for an interview for my book on women’s gymnastics.
He repeated many of the same things to me that he said when he spoke on air to O’Beirne. Nassar insisted that while things had started rough at the early camps, they had improved over time as the coaches and athletes began to trust the national team staff and the process. He claimed that certain practices, like coaches searching their gymnasts’ bags for food, had ceased, and stressed that the facilities had improved, with gymnasts working in a new gym replete with the latest training aids, as opposed to one the 2000 team worked in, that didn’t even have foam pits. (For gymnasts, things like foam pits are essential; they enable the gymnast to land on a soft surface and minimize impact on her joints. That the Ranch, which hosted training camps of the country’s best gymnasts, didn’t have aids like this at a time when they were standard in every major training facility in the country was highly problematic.)
I interviewed Maloney for my book in 2015 and never thought to ask her about where and how the athletes received their treatments from Nassar and the rest of the medical staff. When I spoke to her more recently, it was practically the first question I asked. Maloney corroborated Dantzscher’s assertions that Nassar administered treatments in their rooms at the Olympics in Sydney. When asked if there was any other adults or professionals around during these treatments, she said, “Not that I recall.” She believed that the reason they were often treated “off-site” and privately was due, in part, to the fear that many athletes had of letting the national team staff know that they were injured.
“No one wanted to show that they were injured or they were hurting,” she said. “Probably that’s why getting treatment outside of the gym or in a different area came about—so they didn’t know we were injured and hurting so there wouldn’t be an opportunity for them to make an excuse and kick them out or something or not put us on the team.” Fear drove treatment at the Ranch underground, so to speak.
Carter agreed with his former pupil’s assessment. “She’s exactly right. That’s exactly how it went down,” he said. He added that the Ranch’s training room at that time was tiny—really just a cleaned-out storage closet where they set up a training table.
“Admit injury or weakness?” Knight-Nagel wrote to me. “Not a good idea unless you truly can’t hide it because it could cost you a spot on the team.” Knight-Nagel went on to to use language similar to what Schwikert used to discuss her experience a decade later. “It was a ‘survival of the fittest’ contest as opposed to a—how can we take great care of these athletes so they can truly perform their best? What do they need?”
In the 2013 GymCastic podcast, Nassar, in his own words, confirmed Maloney’s and Knight-Nagel’s theories while talking about the events of 2000 and Morgan White’s removal from the team due to injury. “They’ll do whatever they can do to avoid showing the injury because that may displace them from the selection,” he said.
These sorts of comments are creepy when considered with the knowledge of what Nassar is alleged to have done. He had outlined all of the problems in the system that he would allegedly end up exploiting: that it was based on fear, and that there was a lack of trust between athletes and coaches and coaches and national team staff, making it, among other things, an ideal environment for a predator presenting himself as an ally to girls and young women who desperately needed one.
Dantzscher, in her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, described Nassar as friendly and reassuring. “I trusted Dr. Nassar. He was my buddy,” she said. “He was the bright light at the camp.”
In the end, this was a question of power, about whether athletes had control—or at least were able to in some circumstances take it on merit—or didn’t.
Talavera said that the girls were right to be afraid of being removed from the team for issues that were not necessarily performance- or even injury-based. She said that Dantzscher, even though she made ended up making the team due to brilliant performances at Championships and Trials, wasn’t a favorite of the Karolyis. They didn’t like that she was chewing gum or always had her headphones on—typical teenage behavior. Knight-Nagel said she vaguely recalled this but added, “I saw no problem with her strength or individuality that way.” She also pointed out that this was part of the overall gymnastics culture of the time, not just in the U.S. but abroad too. “They were looking for that stoic international waif-like gymnast who operated mostly robotically. In their defense, this is the type of gymnast that would score best on the world stage.”
“They were so focused, USA Gymnastics and the Karolyis were so focused on presenting perfection, that big smile, because that’s what sold,” John Manly, Jamie Dantzscher’s attorney, told me.
“Pretty much, Jamie wasn’t one, pardon my French, to kiss [the Karolyis’] ass. She didn’t fall all over herself to please them at every turn,” Talavera said. “They love full control of everything and they want to be loved by those who they want to choose.”
Talavera said that at one point—either at Championships or Trials—she tracked down Dantzscher’s coach, Beth Kline Rybacki, a former gymnast who had been on the 1980 Olympic team with her. “I got ahold of her and said, ‘Get in the bathroom.’ She came in and I said, ‘Get your girl to stop chewing their gum, stop listening to their music because they are using that to get rid of them,’” she recalled. (Rybacki did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
If gum chewing and listening to music could potentially be held against you, what would’ve happened had Dantzscher stepped forward to complain about the emotional abuse she endured at the Ranch? She probably wouldn’t have been on the team. Dantzscher, in her Senate testimony, explained, “They were in control of taking my dream away in a second.”
Even if Dantzscher or any of the other gymnasts—another alleged Nassar victim, Jeannette Antonlin, attended the training camps during this period—suspected anything was amiss with their medical care, would they even feel empowered to say anything? “Why would you speak about a strange medical procedure and hope to be heard if no one really wants to hear about your acutely painful ankle, including yourself? Even the athlete had every motivation to pretend to be fine—or miss out,” Knight-Nagel wrote.
After the 2000 Olympics and the mini-mutiny that played out in the press, Bela Karolyi stepped down as national team coordinator. His wife and longtime coaching partner, Martha, took over the job in 2001, and held the position until the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
During her tenure, the U.S. women’s program went on something of a winning spree, especially from 2011 on. Though some coaches and athletes seemed to have preferred Martha’s leadership to Bela’s this didn’t mean that the camp became the happy-go-lucky place it was portrayed as in The Ranch, NBC’s short documentary about the training center. (The best recap of the Ranch “movie” comes from the Balance Beam Situation’s Spencer Barnes, who aptly titles his post, “American Horror Story: The Ranch.”) It remained a placed filled with pressure, tension, and fear. Any mistake, big or small, could eliminate you from a team or from the program. This was not the environment in which to bring up your concerns, and the athletes knew it.
Knight-Nagel resumed elite gymnastics in 2002 for a brief period after being on the 2000 selection committee and attended some camps again, this time as an athlete. “It was the same,” she said of her experience as an athlete there. “As an adult, it’s a hard fit since you’re treated more like a child in a highly controlled environment.”
Robert Andrews, a sports performance consultant and licensed therapist based in Houston who has worked with many gymnasts over the years, including 2016 Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez and the U.S. men’s program until 2012, brought up Mattie Larson, one of the athletes who has accused Nassar of abuse, when we spoke.
“At worlds, she fell on floor and we never saw her again,” he recalled. The fall, and an additional error in her routine, cost the U.S. team the gold medal at the 2010 world championships. (They won the silver.) It also seemed to end her elite career. Though she’d once planned to make a run at the 2012 Olympics, Larson retired from elite gymnastics soon thereafter and matriculated to UCLA. (Manly, Larson’s attorney, said that the extreme emotional abuse she suffered while at the Ranch was the reason she retired.)
“If you’re an elite gymnast watching that, you watch what happened to Mattie Larson. She was struck from the system,” Andrews said.
(The Karolyis’ lawyer provided the following comment to Deadspin: “We are ethically limited to how we can respond due to the pending litigation. As stated before, he Karolyis had no knowledge of the troubling and distressing allegations against Dr. Larry Nassar until they learned of his dismissal from USA Gymnastics during the summer of 2015. In addition, the Karolyis do not recall any gymnast or coach ever complaining of any medical treatments provided by Dr. Nassar. At the National Training Camps, the Karolyis encouraged the attending athletes to eat well, sleep well, and train with heart. They are humbled by their respective opportunities to contribute to the dedicated work required to transform USA Women’s Gymnastics into a top-ranked world program. The Karolyis vehemently deny the existence of a “toxic” environment at the training facilities in Texas. In addition, the Karolyis were never aware that Dr. Nassar 1) would be performing any procedures which are now the subject of the present litigation or 2) was visiting athletes in their rooms without supervision. Finally, the Karolyis will not offer an opinion on any athlete’s veracity relative to their statements to the media considering pending litigation.”)
Andrews told me about his failed attempt to try to work with the women’s program as a whole. He said that he called the Ranch in 2008 to see about offering his services. Martha Karolyi got on the phone, and he explained to her what he did and what he could offer the gymnasts. “She said, ‘We don’t believe in that,’ and hung up the phone,” he told me. “I think she considered it a sign of weakness is what I’ve been told by some of the girls I’ve worked with in the elite program.” The Karolyis, when reached for comment through their lawyers, said they do not recall ever speaking to Andrews. They added that they did encourage athletes to participate in individual therapy to help with the mental and emotional aspects of their performance if necessary.
Still, this is not the same thing as having therapeutic or supportive resource at the Ranch itself. “They didn’t bring somebody in to provide mental and emotional support and tools and resources for these girls. It’s not part of their culture,” Andrews said.
There was a standing need; for many of the gymnasts, it was met by Nassar. Retrosi commented that Nassar was everybody’s friend at camp. “If you were having a bad day at camp, the girls would go and talk to him,” he recalled.
Though some of the abuse allegations against Nassar pre-date the national team training camp system—Dantzscher claims he began molesting her around 1994 or 1995, and a former gymnast recently claimed that she was abused back in 1992 when Nassar was still in medical school at MSU—the camps, with all their attendant chaos and stress, created a perfect opportunity for someone in his position to do exactly what he is alleged to have done. He was able to make himself invaluable; to become, by virtue of being kind and generous, the gymnasts’ and coaches’ best friend. Nassar established what was considered normal for treatment in that setting, expertly weaving himself into the fabric of daily life. It’s no wonder that many gymnasts never suspected anything for so many years.
In 2015, 15 years after the creation of the national team training camp system, USA Gymnastics fired Nassar. A coach at the Ranch overhead a conversation between two gymnasts discussing Nassar’s sexually abusive treatment techniques. This coach reported the conversation to Rhonda Faehn, the senior vice-president of the women’s program, who then reported it to the now-former president and CEO, Steve Penny. In a much-criticized move, USA Gymnastics privately investigated the claims against Nassar and waited five weeks before reporting him to the FBI and removing him from any athlete contact. They did not tell officials at MSU, so Nassar continued to see patients there until Denhollander filed her police complaint over a year later in late August 2016. (USA Gymnastics has previously defended this delay as the necessary outcome of an investigation aimed at finding just what Nassar was being accused of, and asserted that the FBI told them they’d handled the situation correctly.)
Though Nassar was able to pass off his dismissal as a resignation in a September 2015 Facebook post, a few people in the gymnastics community heard about what was alleged to have happened since gymnasts had been questioned during USA Gymnastics’ investigation. Carter was one of the people who had learned about it earlier than most and he struggled with the information. He had trusted Nassar, not just with his athlete, but with his own son. (Retrosi said that Nassar had, on occasion at meets, treated his daughter.) “As I started going back in my mind and going over things that I saw, I thought, There were no witnesses to what was going on. Ever.” Per USA Today’s report on the Ranch, coaches like Carter were not allowed into the gymnasts’ living quarters at the Ranch. It’s unclear whether the same rules applied to the medical personnel.
When the news of the suit first became public knowledge, Dantzscher’s account of her experience was not immediately embraced by those in the gymnastics community. In her testimony before the Senate committee, Dantzscher noted the early backlash. “I was disbelieved and even criticized by some in the gymnastics community for bringing this deserving issue to light,” she read from her prepared statement.
In the first weeks after the story went public, Nassar had many public defenders in the gymnastics community. They mostly quieted down as the number of accusers entered Bill Cosby territory. All public defense of him completely ceased when the federal child pornography charges were announced last December. (Kathy Klages, the MSU coach who resigned in February, was an exception. She allegedly told a victim’s mother that the child pornography could’ve been planted on the doctor’s computer.)
And in an affidavit Dantzscher submitted in order to get a Michigan judge’s gag order lifted, she added that she has been informed that USA Gymnastics’ attorneys had reached out to her former boyfriends to “dig up dirt” on her and ask questions about her sexual history as an adult. (When reached for comment about Dantzscher’s claims USA Gymnastics responded that due to pending litigation, they were unable to respond.)
A great deal of the inquiry into the case of Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics has focused on who knew what and when. While those are certainly important questions to answer, clarifying the timeline won’t tell the whole story. It won’t explain how Nassar infiltrated the gymnastics world and managed to abuse so many gymnasts for so long without being discovered, and it won’t explain how that was, in part, a function of the structure built to win America medals. The complete story of this tragic chapter in U.S. gymnastics history has to include a thorough review of a culture that prized obedience to authority—particularly that of the Karolyis.
“The sex abuse,” Andrews said, “is a symptom of a culture that does not allow the athletes to have their voice.”