At the Rio Olympics in 2016, the utterly dominant U.S. women's gymnastics team was dubbed "The Final Five"—so named because national team coordinator Martha Karolyi was retiring after the Games, "and without her none of this would've been possible," two-time Olympian Aly Raisman said. Also the format of the competition was changing, and only four would be selected to compete for a team gold at the next Olympics.
Led by 19-year-old Simone Biles, they were a magnetic bunch, their sport commanding prime-time TV real estate and their athleticism, strength, determination, infectious smiles, inspiring sisterhood and maybe someone's crush on Zac Efron providing some of the most entertaining moments of the entire Games.
"I've finally done it. It's so exciting," Biles, who had been expected to crush it in Rio and delivered accordingly, told reporters after winning individual all-around gold. "You never know the feeling until it hits you."
The Olympics are, of course, known for their emotionally extreme moments: Wins and losses, triumphs and heartbreaks, uplifting journeys and career-threatening obstacles that turned into just more fuel for the fire to succeed.
Millions of admirers thought they knew the Final Five's story by then. But almost no one knew the whole story.
As it turned out, they were also the final five women to compete at the Olympics before the world found out that USA Gymnastics was infected with a cancer named Dr. Larry Nassar. A disease that had been allowed to spread unchecked for 20 years, during which at least 265 girls say they were sexually abused by Nassar while he was the doctor for the U.S. women's national team and USA Gymnastics and employed by Michigan State University.
He was arrested in December 2016 and has been behind bars ever since, pleading guilty in separate cases to federal child pornography charges and seven counts of sexual abuse. He was sentenced to the maximum 60 years in prison for the former, and then 40 to 175 years in the latter, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina telling Nassar in court, "I've just signed your death warrant." (He pleaded guilty to abusing three more girls in Eaton County afterward.)
The emergence from this nightmare began with athletes who did not become household names speaking up, their bravery opening the floodgates for others whom the country had cheered for with no idea just how much they had overcome to be there. Eventually, over the course of 18 months, the entire gold medal-winning "Fierce Five" team who were the darlings of the 2012 London Olympics—McKayla Maroney, Raisman and Gabby Douglas (both also part of the Final Five), Jordyn Wieber and Kyla Ross—identified themselves as past victims of Nassar.
On Jan. 15, 2018, the day before Nassar's sentencing hearing began and 156 women spoke their truth in open court over the course of four days, Biles revealed that she too had been abused by the doctor. "And it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work toward my dream of competing in Tokyo 2020," she wrote, "I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused." Later that summer Rio teammate Madison Kocian and team alternate Ashton Locklear came forward as well.
And Nassar's crimes weren't even the full extent to which their sport was broken.
The Indianapolis Star, whose 2016 investigative series "Out of Balance" uncovered rampant instances of alleged abuse within the world of Indy-based USA Gymnastics, reported that 368 gymnasts around the country claimed to have been sexually exploited by coaches or others affiliated with their sport over the course of 20 years.
An independent investigation conducted by formal federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels in the wake of Nassar's arrest determined that USAG was in need of "a complete cultural change."
The USAG board unanimously voted to take up the majority of Daniels' recommendations. "We're confident it will make us a better organization to develop a culture that had safe sport as a top priority," then-chief operating officer and former gymnast Ron Galimore said in June 2017. (He resigned from USAG in November 2018.)
In 2018 USAG cut ties with longtime coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi—ten years after 1996 Olympian Dominique Moceanu, who at 15 was the youngest member of the squad Bela coached to a team gold in Atlanta, alleged that they had been physically and verbally abusive. (Former gymnasts including 1984 Olympics superstar Mary Lou Retton and 1992 Olympian Kim Zmeskal Burdette said they hadn't experienced that with the couple, Zmeskal Burdette characterizing their methods more as tough love that got results.)
A former member of the U.S. national team sued Nassar, USAG and the Karolyis in October 2016, alleging in the lawsuit that the couple "turned a blind-eye to Nassar's sexual abuse of children at the ranch" and "instituted a regime of intimidation and fear at the ranch for the minor children under their custody." In February 2017 an attorney for the Karolyis said they "vehemently" denied all of the allegations against them, including that they knew Nassar was hurting athletes.
"Some of the parents were in the therapy room with their own child and Larry Nassar was performing this and the parent couldn't see," Martha, who retired as national team coordinator after Rio, told NBC News' Dateline in 2018. She maintained that she and her husband didn't know that abuse was taking place despite being close to the victims, calling Nassar's crimes "awful." (Litigation against the Karolyis is still pending.)
Final Five member Laurie Hernandez, who was 16 when she competed in Rio (and also earned silver on the balance beam) alleged last year that she was verbally and emotionally abused by coach Maggie Haney. Following an independent hearing into her conduct based on separate allegations from six families, Haney was suspended from coaching for eight years by a panel consisting of a lawyer, a club owner and a former member of the U.S. national team, all members of the gymnastics community.
"The toughest part about it was that there were no bruises or marks to show that it was real," Hernandez told the New York Times. "It was all just so twisted that I thought it couldn't be real."
After an arbitrator heard Haney's appeal, the suspension was reduced to five years in December. Her Morgantown, N.J.-based training program, MG Elite, remains open and Haney has denied all accusations of mistreatment, which included that she forced athletes to train through injuries. "It upsets me greatly to see what's happening in the sport of gymnastics, and that so many girls have reported allegations of abuse, but this never happened in my program," she said in a statement.
More than 500 women have sued USAG since 2016, including Biles, whose 2018 lawsuit is still pending. USAG also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection that year, which led to a pause in the various legal proceedings, as well as to U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee's efforts to strip it of its governing authority.
In January 2020, in documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana, USAG stated its intent to propose a $215 million settlement to Nassar's victims—the terms of which were widely criticized by victims because they didn't address structural change needed within the organization and would have released the USOPC, the Karolyis and others from the possibility of future claims. (The USAG said at the time, "These releases would not impact any criminal charges or investigations, because those are separate processes.")
"We would love to be out of bankruptcy," Li Li Leung, a former NBA executive who became president and CEO of USA Gymnastics in March 2019, told reporters in June, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic had also delayed progress. "That way we can be able to more freely move forward with all of the things we had been working on and not have this be part of the narrative, but what has happened is something we are learning from. We are using the past to inform how we move forward." Their "ultimate goal," she said, "is prevention."
In the meantime, USAG has remained in charge of who competes for the country on the world stage, including at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where a now four-woman squad hopes to win America's third straight team gold after a year-long postponement due to the pandemic.
The Games kick off July 23, now in the wake of the release of a 119-report by the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general detailing mistakes made by FBI agents in Indianapolis and Los Angeles after USAG contacted authorities in July 2015 (though not until after the organization had conducted a five-week internal investigation, a delay Daniels' report called "impermissible"). Then-USAG President Steve Penny provided "graphic information" that three gymnasts had been abused by Nassar, the IG report states. McKayla Maroney was one of the three, according to her attorney John Manly.
The report found that agents failed to thoroughly investigate. Or, once they determined they didn't have jurisdiction to bring a case in Indy or L.A., alert authorities in Texas (home of the USAG National Team Training Center) and Michigan that this guy posed a threat to young athletes.
Nassar remained employed by Michigan State until September 2016, when he was fired after the Indy Star reported on the history of allegations against him.
Citing civil court filings, the inspector general estimated that Nassar abused 70 girls during those 14 months.
Michigan State, which had investigated Nassar following an accusation of sexual misconduct in 2014 and kept him on staff, agreed to a $500 million settlement in 2018, with 332 victims splitting $425 million while $75 million was set aside for those who'd yet to come forward, according to NBC News. In a statement, interim university president John Engler called the restitution "an important step for the university, but it is not the only way MSU is accountable to those harmed. The entire campus is focused on implementing the improvements we've made in health care practices, reporting policies, campus-wide sexual assault education and prevention efforts and trauma-informed responses and treatment for survivors."
In a statement, the FBI acknowledged dropping the ball, admitting "this should not have happened. The FBI will never lose sight of the harm that Nassar's abuse caused. The actions and inactions of certain FBI employees descried in the report are inexcusable and a discredit to this organization."
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, attorney Rachael Denhollander—a former gymnast abused by Nassar in 2000, when she was 15—wrote, "If there is a silver lining to the ugliness of the Justice Department's report, it's that it tells the truth about the realities that survivors faced in being believed and heard. Change happens through our collective efforts, and a great deal of change is still needed."
Simone Biles is the only one of the hundreds of gymnasts who came forward who's still competing at this elite level, at 4-foot-8 still towering over her sport.
Of course there were times when she thought about packing it in, whether due to the stress (she revealed in 2018 that she was taking anti-anxiety medication in the wake of the Nassar scandal) or just because she'd already reached the pinnacle of women's gymnastics. Once you have four moves named after you, what else is there to prove?
Moreover, she still has plenty of hard feelings against USA Gymnastics. At the U.S. Championships in 2019, Biles told a cluster of reporters while a USAG spokeswoman was right next to her, "Did you guys really not like us that much that you couldn't just do your job? You literally had one job, and you couldn't protect us."
"It's hard coming here for an organization, having had them fail us so many times," she continued, tearing up. "We had one goal, we have done everything that they asked us for, even when we didn't want to, and they couldn't do one damn job."
But, Biles recently told The Wall Street Journal Magazine, "In 2018 I kind of realized, 'Wow, I'm one of the only remaining survivors in the sport. They can't brush that under the rug, and they can't stop talking about it."
Leung told the publication that USAG was still committed to and actively working toward overhauling the culture that resulted in this tragedy occurring in their midst.
"We recognize how deeply we have broken the trust of our athletes and community, and are working hard to build that trust back," she said. "Everything we do now is aimed at creating a safe, inclusive, and positive culture for everyone who participates in our sport."
As for what happened at nationals in 2019, Biles said, "I usually handle that on my own or in therapy and stuff like that, but I feel like it was just a lot of pent-up emotions. And sometimes
that does happen…a spark in me kind of goes off."
Usually, Biles added, "When I do gym, it's gym, and if I have to talk about something else, then I try to separate the two."
Having won her record seventh women's all-around title at the U.S. Championships in June, all business at the end of the day for the most decorated American gymnast of all time, that unbelievable mental fortitude has been on display time and again.
And as the wise elder veteran of U.S. women's gymnastics at the age of 24, favored to win her second straight all-around gold in Tokyo (and become only the third woman to achieve the feat and the first in more than 50 years), Biles knows that she's both the face of the national team—at the Olympics and basically all the time—and the designated survivor, the ambassador of a sport that she loves and yet has every reason to resent.
So she has stepped up as their fearless leader.
Teammate Jordan Chiles credits Biles with stopping her from quitting gymnastics altogether following her intense disappointment at not being selected to represent the U.S. at the World Championships in 2017. She parted ways with a coach who, she said, had been contributing to her low morale.
"I didn't think the sport wanted me anymore," Chiles recalled to the New York Times last month. "So I went in the opposite direction." After an 11th-place finish in the all-around at the national championship in 2018, she figured that was really it.
The 20-year-old said she thought at the time, "'I guess this sport is coming to an end for me because things just aren't working out for me at all whatsoever.' I just wanted to finish high school and go off to college. But then I had a talk with Simone."
Biles invited Chiles (yes, adorable) to train with her at her own World Champions Centre gym. Chiles said she would, but first wanted to attend her prom like a normal kid and graduate from high school. Two days later, she joined Biles and coaches Laurent and Cecile Landi in Spring, Texas—and this time, she stuck the landing.
"I discovered that gymnastics doesn't always have to be about strictness and being so hard on yourself and having so much doubt," Chiles told the Times. "I actually realized this when I saw Simone compete. She looks like she's having fun out there, laughing and giggling, and doesn't look stressed or tired. I was like, ‘You know, I'm going to try that one of these days and see how it turns out.'"
Chiles subsequently punched her ticket to the Olympics at the June trials in St. Louis, Mo., second only to Biles. Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum, both 18, round out the Phenomenal Four (just taking that one out for a test drive) while McKayla Skinner, 24, and Jade Carey, 21, qualified to compete in individual events.
"I'm freaking out, it's so crazy, I've been waiting for this moment forever," Skinner, a team alternate in Rio, told Today's Hoda Kotb in a group appearance with the Sensational Six (again, just checking...) after the trials. McCallum, one of the youngsters on the squad, said, "You just have to remember, I've done a thousand of these routines in the gym, so you just have to trust yourself and trust your gymnastics that you know what you're doing."
Biles admitted to Sports Illustrated recently that she actually felt "so ashamed" in Rio for winning only four gold medals instead of five, her fifth medal a bronze on balance beam. (She and swimmer Katie Ledecky led all American women in 2016 with five medals apiece.) But the years of training and winning (she now has 19 World Championship gold medals and 25 medals overall) and coming into her own since then have made all the difference.
Asked what sort of advice she might have for other young women in terms of coping with pressure and weighty expectations, Biles told E! News in May, "My advice is to be your own person. Don't let anybody tell you different. If you have goals, dreams—whatever it is, go for it, don't let anybody hold you back. Because it's going to seem scary and it should, but in the end it will pay off, even if you're walking on that road alone. Just do it, go for it and believe in yourself."
As for herself as she trained for the Olympics, she was simply excited about competing, "showing off the athleticism that we've worked and trained so hard for."
And no matter what happens on the floor, beam, vault and uneven bars in Tokyo, we will all have witnessed an indescribable feat of strength.
—With reporting by Alli Rosenbloom