The Heartbreaking Dark Side of Women's Gymnastics

A culture of bullying, body issues and alleged sexual abuse has clouded the road to glory for the athletes who compete in one of the most popular Olympic sports

By Natalie Finn Dec 07, 2017 6:20 PMTags
U.S. Women's Gymnastic Team, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Kyla RossCameron Spencer/Getty Images

UPDATE: On Nov. 22, 2017, Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, a day after Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas identified herself as yet another alleged victim of the former USA Gymnastics team doctor. On Dec. 7 Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in prison on child pornography charges; he's due to be sentenced in the sex abuse case in January 2018.

Show us a top athlete and we'll show you a person suffering for his or her sport.

No one hangs up their shoes (or cleats, rackets, helmets, bats, swim caps or leotards) without having spent considerable time nursing injuries, be they broken bones, concussions, torn muscles or just general wear and tear. They train hard, usually from a very young age, they dedicate their lives to competing and they'll spend every day after turning 30 fighting the notion that they're "past their prime." More and more these days we're hearing about eating disorders, the pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs and struggles with depression and anxiety.

Women's gymnastics is a sport that's notoriously hard on the body and for the most part they have an unusually small window of peak performance and marketability, and are done competing at the most elite levels past the age of 22.

Which means, basically, that to call them "women" half the time is a stretch. They're basically girls. Or they certainly started out as girls. Children.

Even once they're 18, they've foregone a so-called "normal childhood" and spent nearly all of their waking hours devoted to gymnastics, sacrificing friends, dating, sleeping in, junk food and often even regularly scheduled school to train.

They're phenomenal athletes, possessors of a physical strength and mental fortitude that most mere mortals can only look up to.

But at the end of the day, they're kids, competing for a handful of spots that open up every four years for their sport's biggest stage—the Summer Olympics—and running themselves ragged in between for regional, national and international competition. There's also a choice to be made when it comes to remaining eligible to compete in college and going pro. Gymnasts can't do both. Moreover, NCAA rules don't allow student athletes to accept the endorsements that have separated the names you know—Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Shawn Johnson, Dominique Dawes—from the ones you don't.

"It's kind of a bummer," Jordyn Wieber, who went pro after high school and won team gold with Douglas at the 2012 Summer Olympics but therefore couldn't compete as a student at UCLA afterward, told NBC Sports last year. "Gymnastics should be the exception. It's too bad girls can't do both because gymnastics is so unique."

Every single athlete has a story, a journey that led them to the pros, to the big stage, to what will hopefully include some kind of glory but either way, is a place to be proud of. Some stories are more inundated with struggles than others, but no sporting triumph is without a battle behind it—be it more public or a deeply personal one.

So it's all the more heartbreaking to hear about instances when the system that in theory should be looking out for the best interests of young athletes at all times, especially when they're children, fails them so completely.

Aly Raisman on Friday became the latest and most famous gymnast to come forward as an alleged victim of Dr. Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics who stands accused of molesting more than 140 people and is set to go on trial in December on 22 counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree for allegedly assaulting nine girls between the ages of 10 and 15 while under the guise of providing medical treatment or routine physical examinations. He's facing the possibility of life in prison.

At 18, Raisman was a member of the "Fierce Five" who won team and individual gold, plus a bronze, at the 2012 Summer Olympics and emerged as the most decorated American gymnast of the Games; last year she competed in Rio de Janeiro as the veteran 22-year-old team captain of the "Final Five," winning two individual silvers and another team gold. 

Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Last month Raisman's 2012 teammate McKayla Maroney alleged that Nassar had abused her as well dating back to 2009, when she was 13. Maroney wrote on social media that she was encouraged to come forward by the numerous women who were speaking up about sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, as she rightfully—and even more presciently than she could have imagined—reminded that mistreatment of women and children was hardly a scourge endemic to show business.

"@McKaylaMaroney love you girls!!!!!!!" Raisman tweeted at the time. "100% support you. SO proud of you and your strength. Love you like a sister!!"

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

As it turns out, she had talked to the FBI about Nassar not long after Rio.

"Why are we looking at why didn't the girls speak up? Why not look at what about the culture?" Raisman, who also opens up about the alleged abuse in her upcoming book, Fierce, said in an interview with 60 Minutes scheduled to air Sunday. "What did USA Gymnastics do, and Larry Nassar do, to manipulate these girls so much that they are so afraid to speak up?"

As a piece of the criminal complaint (obtained by the Los Angeles Times) filed against Nassar in February reads, Victim B referring to an accuser who wished to remain anonymous: "Victim B stated that she and all the gymnasts trusted Nassar and that he was like a god to the gymnasts. Because it was happening to all of them, they thought it was normal."

Nassar was a member of the faculty of Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he had his practice, and had been affiliated with Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics since 1986, serving as team doctor at four Olympics.

Once again, the culture of silence and intimidation that exists to keep the powerful and successful in power and those who rely on them feeling vulnerable, is hardly particular to any one business. If anyone wasn't aware before, the past month has been a crash course in just how ugly it can be out there for women in entertainment, media, politics, sports, restaurants, tech, finance—pretty much anywhere men outnumber women. At the same time, though one quick search of the Internet shows that it's a conversation that's been waiting to be had out in the open for years, we're finally starting to get a handle on how many boys have also suffered at the hands of grown men, boys who have since grown up and are only now finding an environment more conducive to sharing their stories.

Not to mention sharing the stories with the possibility of results. 

Nassar has pleaded not guilty to the 22 molestation charges, which were filed in February. In July he pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges in an unrelated case, for which he's due to be formally sentenced next month. Meanwhile, Nassar has been behind bars since being arrested last December.

Raisman told reporters during the 2017 U.S. National Gymnastics Championships in August, "I think that, you just want...you want to trust people and that he was just a disgusting person, he took advantage of so many people's trust. And I think, it just disgusts me he was a doctor. It's crazy. Because when a doctor says something you want to believe him, and it's just awful."

Tiffany Thomas Lopez, a former Michigan State softball player who's suing Nassar and the university, alleging she was abused by the doctor at least 10 times starting in 1998 and her school did nothing when she reported him, told NBC News last December that a supervisor she told in 2000 disregarded her claims.

"She says, 'He's a world-renowned doctor. He treats elite athletes, athletes just like yourself,'" Lopez, whose lawyer was also representing two gymnasts, recalled. "It was basically—you need to be grateful you are getting this treatment. She made me feel like I was crazy."

Nassar remained employed by Michigan State until September 2016, once dozens of alleged victims had come forward with complaints and almost a year after USA Gymnastics fired him.

Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The school told NBC News in December that USAG did not tell them about the "athlete concerns" that prompted them to report Nassar to the FBI in 2015. MSU said one complaint had previously been filed against Nassar in 2014, after which they imposed certain restrictions on his employment following an internal investigation into sexual misconduct. "There was no reason based on those investigations to remove Nassar from the staff," a school spokesperson said. "However, based on the investigation, we did feel it was prudent to reinforce with Nassar the proper protocols for certain medical procedures."

While both Maroney and Raisman had stories to tell when the allegations against Nassar first came to light, it's ultimately up to when a woman feels most ready to come forward. And that isn't necessarily when everyone else is doing it, in court or in a public forum.

There's no exact explanation for why one time is better than another for a sea change, but plenty of theories abound as to why now has seemingly become the time for holding nothing back—one being the belief that the outcome of last year's presidential election put the final nail in the coffin of women's tolerance of men not only getting away with things, but with being rewarded despite being accused of unacceptable behavior.

Raisman and Maroney's experience is a fairly unique-to-sports situation, however, in which there was no way out of working with a specific governing body—USA Gymnastics—in order to achieve their Olympic dreams. There is no other route to take, no other company to work for.

Sipa via AP Images

The Indianapolis Star, which has been investigating USA Gymnastics since March 2016, now reports that at least 368 gymnasts have alleged being victims of sexual abuse (by Nassar and others) over the past 20 years. The paper first reported in August 2016 that USAG officials were aware of a number of accusations and failed to alert authorities.

USA Gymnastics now finds itself a defendant in multiple lawsuits filed against Nassar, Michigan State and other people; the various parties are reportedly all in mediation to try to resolve the suits out of court.

The organization has denied wrongdoing and maintains that they fired Nassar and contacted the FBI in the summer of 2015 as soon as they learned of "athlete concerns" against him.

Nonetheless, last fall USA Gymnastics ordered an independent review of their organization to get to the bottom of what allowed this alleged gross misconduct to occur repeatedly and without consequence for years.

Steve Penny resigned as president of USA Gymnastics in March and in June, former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels released the results of her investigation: USAG was in need of a "complete cultural change," and to delay the implementation of her recommendations would be "impermissible."

USAG's board immediately announced it would put a plan in place for an overhaul. In addition to women's artistic and rhythmic gymnastics, they also oversee the men's program, as well as trampoline, tumbling and acrobatic gymnastics (not an Olympic sport).

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

On Friday USA Gymnastics, which several days ago announced that Kerry J. Perry will be taking over as president and CEO starting Dec. 1 (making her the first woman to head the organization in 20 years), applauded Raisman's courage.

"We are appalled by the conduct of which Larry Nassar is accused, and we are very sorry that any athlete has been harmed during her or his gymnastics career," USAG said in a statement obtained by E! News.  

"Aly's passion and concern for athlete safety is shared by USA Gymnastics. Our athletes are our priority, and we are committed to promoting an environment of empowerment that encourages speaking up, especially on difficult topics like abuse, as well the protection of athletes at all levels throughout our gymnastics community."

They stated they were "hard at work" abiding by their promise to revamp the culture, citing Perry's hiring and the ongoing implementation of the "USA Gymnastics Safe Sport Policy," intended to strengthen "policies that include mandatory reporting, defines six types of misconduct, sets standards to prohibit grooming behavior and prevent inappropriate interaction, and establishes greater accountability."

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The 2016 Summer Olympics also marked another end of an era, that of the end of the reign of Bela and Martha Karolyi, who as coaches and national team coordinators have been the most familiar behind-the-scenes faces of USA Gymnastics for decades.

The most famous image of Bela as a coach may be of him carrying Kerri Strug to the medal podium when her vault on an injured ankle helped secure team gold for the U.S. women at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. But there were also stories of him, some from Romania when he coached their women's team, being an exacting task master, closely monitoring the girls' diets and encouraging them to train through the pain of injuries.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Bela was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997 and was brought on as national team coordinator in 1999. Martha assumed the role in 2001 after the women's team's disappointing showing (retroactive bronze after the Chinese team was disqualified) in Sydney in 2000.

In 2008, Dominique Moceanu—at 14, the youngest member of the "Magnificent Seven" team in 1996 before the minimum age to compete was raised to 16—alleged that the Karolyis were physically and verbally abusive.

Moceanu first said in a Real Sports interview that Martha had one grabbed her roughly by the neck and slammed her face into a phone, while Bela had humiliated her by making hurtful comments about her weight in front of her teammates.


She told the Los Angeles Times that she was "completely embarrassed by Bela in front of the 2000 national training team at camp. He completely belittled me and my weight, singled me out and made me feel very small. It was unfair treatment. Martha's logic is so false but no one would listen to a 14-year-old. I was never allowed to speak out."

"I think there's a better way to do it," Moceanu, who was hampered by injuries and only competed in the one Olympics, concluded on Real Sports. "Bottom line, I've had several coaches after the Karolyis. And I know it can be done in a healthier way physically and emotionally."

Her 1996 teammates and other students coached by the Karolyis said they had never witnessed such behavior from the couple, however, and though Moceanu's claims prompted several others to come forward with stories of harsh treatment, many gymnasts—including gold medalist Mary Lou Retton—have praised the couple. Still others admitted, yes, it wasn't always easy, but the end—medals upon medals—justified the means.

"I don't know where she's coming from," Kim Zmeskal Burdette, a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1992, told the Times in response to Moceanu's claims. "From my personal experience, she's coming from a different planet. It's a difficult process and there are a lot of pieces to becoming the very best in the world.

"It's not a walk in the park. Bela was always very clear that if you want these results you put in this kind of work."

Bob Levey/Getty Images for Hilton

Martha Karolyi told reporters at the time, "I feel sad that a gymnast so accomplished as Dominique, being a part of the 1996 Olympic team and being the individual medalist in the 1995 world championships, can remember the harder days during the preparation. I feel sad."

Moceanu, meanwhile, never wavered from her interpretation of events, telling People as the Final Five were gearing up for Olympic glory in Rio, with Martha at the helm, "Most of them [gymnasts, not necessarily those five] don't want to talk about [abuse] because so many people are afraid of being shunned. So many people are afraid of having the governing body blacklist them so nobody wants to speak out."

And when the allegations against Nassar blew up in February and three gymnasts—Jamie Dantzscher, Jeannette Antolin and Jessica Howard—told 60 Minutes they were abused by the doctor while training at the Karolyis' ranch near Houston—she blamed the overall culture within the gymnastics world for allowing this to go on.

"I have tremendous admiration for the gymnasts who have bravely come forward to share their painful stories," Moceanu said in a statement. "I, personally, was not assaulted by Dr. Nassar. However, after years of suffering other forms of physical and emotional abuse and neglect under the Karolyis, as well as being ostracized and overlooked by USAG when I did speak out, I have first-hand knowledge of how the culture set the stage for such atrocities to take place."

The Karolyis have also been named as defendants in one of the lawsuits against Nassar and USAG.

In a civil suit filed in October 2016, the plaintiff, a former member of the national team, accused the Karolyis of "[turning] a blind-eye to Nassar's sexual abuse of children at the ranch" and "[instituting] a regime of intimidation and fear at the ranch for the minor children under their custody."

The Karolyis denied any wrongdoing via their attorney.

"We are ethically limited to how we can respond due to the pending litigation," the statement read. "However, the Karolyis vehemently deny the allegations made against them—including that they physically abused gymnasts and deprived them of food. The Karolyis did not have any knowledge of any complaint from anyone concerning any athlete's alleged mistreatment  by Dr. Nassar until they learned of his dismissal from USA Gymnastics during the summer of 2015. At the National Training Camp, the Karolyis encouraged the attending athletes to eat well, sleep well, and train with heart.

"The Karolyis deny the existence of a 'toxic' environment. In addition, the Karolyis were never aware that Dr. Nassar would be performing any procedures which are now the subject of the present litigation. Finally, the Karolyis will not offer an opinion on any complaining athlete's veracity considering the pending litigation."

Doug Pensinger/Allsport/Getty Images

Moceanu concluded in February, "Changes and improvements to the system—including a functioning set of checks and balances—are long overdue. Gymnastics is a beautiful sport, and its young athletes deserve to practice and perform their craft in a safe environment."

Going into the 2016 games, Martha Karolyi had already announced her intent to retire for good from the national team. So, minus the pending litigation, she and her husband are now part of USA Gymnastics' past.

After Rio, Valeri Liukin—Olympic champion with the former Soviet Union in 1988, longtime coach and father of 2008 Olympics all-around gold medalist Nastia Liukin—was named the new coordinator of the U.S. women's national team. And though he took over a team with a glorious history in competition, he also assumed a role primed for controversy.

During an October 2016 media conference call hosted by USAG after he was announced as Martha's successor, Liukin was asked if he envisioned changing anything about the way national training camps were handled. 

"I don't think we should change many things at all," he said. "This system has proved that it is working. I was brought up in this system, I brought all my athletes through this system. I'm absolutely happy with the outcome, and I don't see the need. I'm sure there will be little tweaks here and there since all the gymnasts are different, but I don't see the need to change anything."

By January, the USAG had been named as a defendant in four lawsuits, including one involving 18 plaintiffs.

In February, Vanessa Atler—a member of the U.S. team from the age of 12 who was the 1997 all-around champion at nationals and considered a front-runner to make the 2000 Sydney Olympics team, only to not make it —said on the GymCastic podcast that she developed bulimia while training at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy under Liukin, charging that she always felt pressured to be thin.

"He would weigh us three times a day, which is insane," Atler said. "You'd weigh in the morning, write down your weight and after workouts you'd write down your weight and at night time you'd write down you weight. Which is so stupid because it doesn't mean anything."

Liukin said in a statement to People: "I am sorry Vanessa's experience wasn't positive during her time at WOGA. When asked to help during a difficult time for her, my intention as a coach was to help Vanessa achieve her dreams, not make her training situation more difficult," says Liukin.

"My recollection of working with Vanessa is different and includes many positive experiences. Coaching techniques and perspectives have evolved since then, and I have grown as a coach through experience and expanding my knowledge. Today, I firmly believe an athlete's focus should be on training smart, with increased education in the areas of balanced nutrition, fitness, healthy lifestyle and communication. This is the basis for our approach in women's gymnastics."

Liukin's continued evolution and growth as a coach will be key—and should be non-negotiable—in moving USA Gymnastics forward out of a bittersweet era that resulted in so much glory but also produced so much pain. 

Yet while the jury will be out for some time on Liukin as a next-generation mentor, there will still be a never-ending stream of hopeful kids who want to go for the gold, as well as the young women angling for one last shot.

Aly Raisman, 23, said last month that she's still "definitely thinking about" trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, and fellow 2016 super-star Simone Biles, 20, is back in training. 

But the future of USA Gymnastics is now—and judging by what we're seeing unfolding all around us, everyone who wants to be a part of that future had best learn that there can be no going backward, that a lot of the old ways are in no way good enough. The suffering experienced by so many has to end up meaning something. Kids will still show up with the will to compete and the desire to win—but it's up to the adults in charge to ensure that they're living out their dreams instead of a nightmare.

(Originally published Nov. 11, 2017, at 5 a.m. PT)