Hey y’all-hope your weekend was great. Today’s post is more serious in nature. I’m going to share my thoughts on the Larry Nassar scandal that has cast a shadow on USA Gymnastics over the past months. I’ve been wanting to discuss this on the blog for awhile, but needed to make time to really sit down and organize my thoughts in a cohesive way. Late last week Olympic gold medalists Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross came forward and shared that former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused them as well. Therefore, I figured that now is a very fitting time to chat about this tragic headline. Although I have never been sexually abused, this saga still impacts me in a very personal way. So I want to share a little bit about why the Larry Nassar sex scandal resonates with me deeply. I’m also going to share some lessons that we should take away from this, most importantly that your voice matters. I’ve got a lot on my mind so I’m going to jump right into it!
Longtime Gymnastics Lover
One reason why the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal impacts me emotionally is because I have been a fan of watching gymnastics for as long as I can remember. (Sidenote: the extent of my actual involvement in the sport is taking a beginner gymnastics class for a brief period when I was eight so that I could learn how to do a cartwheel). I still vividly remember watching Kerri Strugg land that second vault on a sprained ankle at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to secure Team USA’s first ever women’s gymnastics team gold medal. Every four years I get so excited for the Summer Olympics, particularly to watch women’s gymnastics. I remember the excitement of watching the “Fierce Five” win the women’s gymnastics team gold in London in 2012, then watching the “Final Five” flip their way to the top of the podium at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. In addition, I have fond memories of watching Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas, and Simone Biles win individual all-around gold for the US in the past four Summer Olympics.
It breaks my heart to now know that all five members of the “Fierce Five,” and at least four members of the “Final Five” were sexually abused by Larry Nassar. This casts such a dark shadow on what should be some of the most celebrated moments in American sports history. Competing at the Olympic Games should be an exciting time filled with joyful memories to last a lifetime. Thus, it makes me sad that these girls’ memories are taunted by horrific sexual abuse disguised as “medical treatment” that they experienced while working towards their dream of Olympic gold.
Mental Health Awareness
I am also emotionally invested in the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal because of its close connection with mental health issues that are near and dear to my heart. Although I have never experienced sexual abuse, I have suffered from depression and an eating disorder. Some of Larry Nassar’s victims spiraled into depression as a result of the trauma from sexual abuse. Earlier this year I watched a TV special on the Larry Nassar scandal and learned that one of his victims committed suicide because she simply couldn’t bear to live with the shame anymore. Having personally experienced the pain of clinical depression, my heart goes out to anyone who gets to the point where they just don’t want to fight the battle anymore.
Furthermore, multiple news articles alluded to the fact the Larry Nassar was able to “groom” elite gymnasts and earn their trust by sneaking contraband treats forbidden by Bela & Marta Karolyi’s strict diet regimen at the USA Gymnastics National Training Center. When I was in college, my advisor recommended the book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes* by Joan Ryan to me because he knew I was interested in eating disorders awareness and prevention, particularly with respect to female athletes. This book had previously been on the required reading list for his “Sport in Modern Society” class, which was my favorite class I took in college.
In Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Joan Ryan reveals the dark side of training for elite gymnasts and figure skaters. The book includes anecdotes of emotional abuse and body-shaming that some gymnasts endured while training under Bela Karolyi. Ryan recounts stories of Bela Karolyi strictly regulating his gymnasts’ caloric intake, and punishing them by making them do extra workouts if they were caught sneaking “extra” food.
Little Girls in Pretty Boxes was published in 1995, prior to the Karolyis taking over as USA Gymnastics women’s national team coordinators in 1999. I was hopeful that if the Karolyis were working for USA Gymnastics rather than their own private training center, that they wouldn’t promote unhealthy dietary restrictions. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case. As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body image issues in the past, it makes me angry that practices that foster eating disorders also opened the door for Nassar to manipulate his victims into thinking he was a “good guy” because he snuck forbidden foods to them.
Lessons Learned from the Larry Nassar Scandal
As I mentioned earlier, my very last semester in college I took a class called “Sport in Modern Society.” My advisor was the professor, and it was hands down my favorite class I took the entire four years of college. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes was actually on the reading list for this class prior to the time I took it. The main premise of the “Sport in Modern Society” course was that sports are a microcosm to issues our society at large faces. Therefore, it is beneficial to examine issues such as the Larry Nassar scandal and consider what they reveal about our society as a whole. So here are a couple lessons that are society should take away from the horrific Larry Nassar sex scandal:
Athletes’ Well Being Comes First
Gymnastics fans such as myself remember being elated watching Team USA have so much success in women’s gymnastics at the Olympics in the 21st century. I remember thinking that it was so amazing that “the land of the free” was able to rise above communist China and the former communist Eastern European countries that had dominated women’s gymnastics for most of the 20th century. However, knowing what we know now, it’s sad to think about the price these amazing, talent young women had to pay for their success. Sure they weren’t whisked away from their parents before kindergarten to go train 365 days a year at a national training center. But they endured a different kind of oppression, the suppression of their voice.
As news stories about the sexual abuse allegations against Larry Nassar circulated, some indicated that when elite gymnasts complained about the questionable procedures that Nassar performed during their medical treatment, their concerns weren’t taken seriously. In fact, some were even told that they should be honored that they got to receive treatment from such a world-renowned physician. Others, like Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross, didn’t speak up for fear that they would be left off the Olympic team if they questioned the authority of USA Gymnastics.
Gymnasts such as Aly Raisman (a member of both the “Fierce Five” and the “Final Five”) have outrightly reprimanded USA Gymnastics for failing to protect the interests and well-being of the gymnasts entrusted into their care. Shawn Johnson, 2008 Olympic Team member and balance beam gold medalist, even stated that she would not want her future daughter to be involved in gymnastics unless drastic changes occur in the governing body of the sport.
The bottom line is this: the physical, mental, and emotional well being of athletes comes before winning gold medals. Period. In this article, Madison Kocian’s parents flat-out share that their daughter’s gold medals weren’t worth what she had to go through. American gymnasts very well may have still experienced the same success in recent years if USA Gymnastics had taken measures to ensure that a sexual predator like Larry Nassar did not have such easy access to their gymnasts. They really are that talented. But when athletes are scared to speak up about things that aren’t right for fear of losing their spot on the Olympic squad, we have a problem. This clearly indicates that winning comes above health and well-being.
That’s why it was really hard for me to read USA Gymnastics’ statement that they were “heartbroken” for Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian when they came forward last week. If USA Gymnastics is so heartbroken, why did the allow this sexual abuse to continue for so long? Why didn’t they take every complaint about Larry Nassar’s medical “treatment” seriously from the get-go? And why did they require gymnasts to receive “treatment” from Larry Nassar instead of the doctor of their choice whom they were comfortable with?
Use Your Position of Authority Wisely
In addition, the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal also teaches us that those in positions of authority should use their position to protect and empower, not to manipulate and take advantage of others. This is a lesson that applies to sports and to society as a whole. Just because you are in a leadership position, or even if you are simply older than someone, doesn’t give you a free pass to be oppressive, manipulative, or to bully.
Your Voice Matters-Be an Advocate for Yourself
The final, and probably the most important take-away lesson from the Larry Nassar scandal is that your voice matters, and you should NEVER be afraid to stand up for yourself. I have never experienced any type of physical or sexual abuse. However, I have had moments in my life where I felt like my voice didn’t matter. Sometimes this was due to the inherent passiveness that used to be part of my personality and perceived insecurities. Other times the words and actions of others made me feel this way.
One of the greatest areas of personal growth I have experienced over the years is increased assertiveness. Nowadays I am MUCH less likely to let others walk all over me and am not afraid to speak up and advocate for myself. I recently had a situation where someone felt like it was okay to manipulate and belittle me because they were older than me. Never had I felt more discriminated against because I’m young. However, I stayed strong and stood up for myself. Because I remained assertive and never quit advocating for myself, I am able to put this unpleasant situation that has plagued me into my rearview mirror. It wasn’t easy and there were some super stressful moments, but it was so worth it.
Now I realize that the situation I recently went through and the horiffic abuse the American gymnasts endured is like comparing apples to oranges. However, I share this because I want y’all to know that in any situation, no matter how big or small, your voice matters and you should assertively stand up for yourself.
Thanks so much for reading, and I hope that y’all got something out of this post. I realize it’s a bit different from anything I have ever posted on here, but I hope you found it worthwhile. I’ve had so many thoughts about the Larry Nassar sex scandal swarming around in my head for the past months, and feel like it was so hard to adequately put them into words. However, I tried my best because I really wanted to share my heart on this issue and let y’all know your voice matters. Finally, I’m so thankful to serve a God of mercy and grace, but also justice. Larry Nassar’s victims are getting justice. But even if justice isn’t served for a specific incident in our time on this earth, those who know Jesus can rest in the comfort that one day He will return and make everything right, that He will wipe every tear and that there will be no more pain or suffering.