How the Horrifying Gymnastics Abuse Scandal Finally Unraveled

A paper trail revealed the extent of Larry Nassar's crimes but it took some of the sport's most famous faces coming forward for the extent of USA Gymnastics' toxic culture to be revealed

By Natalie Finn Jan 23, 2018 9:58 PMTags

Nightmare. Heartbreaking. Horror show. Monster.

There really aren't any words that are too strong to describe what has unfolded with regard to Larry Nassar and the seemingly endless parade of young women he's accused of abusing while working for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. More than 100 women have submitted victim impact statements against the disgraced osteopath, who has pleaded guilty to seven counts of sexual abuse and, in a separate case, was sentenced to 60 years in prison on child pornography charges.

All of which begs the question: How did this happen? How did the so-called adults in charge not know that countless minors were being molested? How did Nassar's prominence and interaction with young athletes only increase as the years went by?

Sadly, as tends to be the case with problems that storied institutions don't want to admit are happening in their midst, it took a number of famous names coming forward to crank up the national spotlight on Nassar, who was a team doctor for USA Gymnastics until 2015 and employed by Michigan State until 2016, and a culture that allowed for decades of systemic abuse.

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Nassar was going down, though, before Olympic gold medalists McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber spoke up. It was a combination of court documents and good old-fashioned investigative journalism that really blew the lid off of what had been going on in the shadows while the ever-poised American gymnasts smiled brightly for the cameras.

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"He denies all the allegations. He's never heard these allegations before. No one from law enforcement, any other regulatory body, USA Gymnastics, any individuals, parents—no one has ever suggested Dr. Nassar has done anything in any context with either this gymnast or any other that he's aware of. This is the first time anyone's ever made such an allegation related to USA Gymnastics."

So Nassar's attorney at the time, Matthew Borgula, told reporter Tim Evans of the Indianapolis Star in September 2016. The paper's investigation into USA Gymnastics (which is based in Indianapolis) proved essential in explaining just how irreparably broken the system was at USAG and how widespread the damage wrought by Nassar. 

Nassar, who had been with USAG since the 1980s, announced via Facebook in July 2014 that he was retiring as National Team Medical Coordinator, but would stay on as team doctor through the 2016 Summer Olympics. On June 20, 2015, he reiterated that 2016 "will be my last summer before I step down and no longer travel to competition." Instead, however, on Sept. 29, 2015, he announced, "After 29 years on the USA Gymnastics Women's Artistic National Team staff, it has come time for me to retire."

USAG would later say that it was they who cut ties with Nassar during the summer of 2015.

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On Aug. 4, 2016, the Indy Star published a story saying USAG had a file stuffed with sexual abuse complaints against more than 50 coaches, most of which had not been reported to authorities.

On Aug. 29, Rachael Denhollander—who emailed the Star on Aug. 4 to tell her story after seeing its initial article—reported Nassar to Michigan State University Police, saying she had been sexually abused by him in 2000, when she was 15.

On Aug. 15, 2016, a lawyer representing Jamie Dantzscher, who won bronze with the US Women's team at the 2000 Summer Olympics, contacted the Star to say his client was planning to sue USA Gymnastics for negligence. Days later a lawyer representing rhythmic gymnast national champion Jessica Howard told the paper his client had been abused by Nassar when she was 15.


On Aug. 30, Michigan State stripped Nassar of clinical and patient duties. On Sept. 8, Nassar and USAG were sued in California by a former Olympic gymnast who alleged the doctor had molested her between 1994 and 2000. 

In an email to Tim Evans at the time before they were scheduled to meet in person, Nassar wrote, "I am very sorry for what has occurred with this misunderstanding of my medical care. It saddens me greatly to think that these gymnasts feel I offended them when I was trying to help them." When they did meet, Evans recalled in a new first-person account of their Sept. 12, 2016, interview, Nassar still presented himself as the proud doctor, confident in his ability to heal. "Almost arrogant," Evans wrote. They spent about 30 minutes together, with Nassar growing increasingly flustered, but Burgola pulled the plug on the interview after Evans got a text—at that moment—confirming the lawsuit had been filed five days beforehand and Nassar and his lawyer read over a copy, apparently seeing it for the first time.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

That afternoon published its story detailing the aforementioned abuse Nassar had been accused of at Michigan State and in the Olympian's lawsuit, and the story appeared in print on Sept. 13.

But still, Evans wrote, even after the Indy Star's exposé, Nassar had his supporters, people who were convinced the accusations entirely false and an innocent man's life was being ruined. 

Burgola and Nassar later parted ways after police, serving a warrant at Nassar's home, found 37,000 images of child pornography, the reporter added.

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On Sept. 20, 2016, MSU announced Nassar had been officially fired. The Michigan State Attorney General's Office said they were reviewing the complaint against Nassar filed at the college.

Strangely, on Nov. 8, 2016, Nassar came in third, with 21 percent of the vote, for a seat on the Holt School Board in Michigan. He had withdrawn from the race, but too late to get his name off the ballot.

The married father of three was charged on Nov. 21, 2016, in state court with three counts of first-degree sexual conduct with a person under 13. He was able to go free on a $1 million bond, but he was arrested again on Dec. 16 on federal charges of receipt and attempted receipt of child pornography between 2003 and 2016.


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After the Indy Star's initial report on Nassar, 60 women had reported claims of sexual abuse against him and three lawsuits were filed, including one in October 2016 that also included women's gymnastics fixtures Marta and Bela Karolyi as defendants, alleging Nassar abused a member of the U.S. women's national team at their Houston ranch.

On Jan. 10, 2017, 18 women joined forces (and 12 more signed on later) to file a fourth civil lawsuit against Nassar; USA Gymnastics; Lansing, Mich. gymnastics club Gedderts' Twistars; and Michigan State University, saying the institutions were negligent in failing to warn people that the doctor was under investigation, thereby exposing more girls to possible harm.

USAG said in response to the lawsuit that they had been instructed by the FBI in 2015 not to discuss it, but they did promptly relieve Nassar of his position. The organization told the Indy Star that they found the allegations against Nassar "very disturbing."

The athletes' attorney, Stephen Drew, said that the point of the suit wasn't to collect monetary damages but to implement "institutional change and non-monetary concessions so that acts of sexual abuse like this will never, ever happen again to young athletes and students. Protecting them is more important than enhancing the reputation of the athletic system that invites their participation."

Almost exactly a year ago, Nassar's wife filed for divorce, asking for full custody of their children.

Mike Powell /Allsport

But still, this remained a sports story, a regional story. It was only in February 2017, when former national team members Dantzscher, Howard and Jeannette Antolin and shared their stories about Nassar with 60 Minutes, that the country had pretty, innocent faces to go with the image of the monster. And though the legal wheels continued to grind Nassar to a pulp in court, it wasn't until October, when McKayla Maroney—emboldened by the wave of sexual misconduct allegations that effectively banished Harvey Weinstein from Hollywood within days—came forward to say that she, too, had been one of the doctor's victims, starting when she was 13. 

Aly Raisman at first tweeted her support, and then in November she said Nassar had also abused her. Gabby Douglas spoke up next, and then this month Simone Biles and Jordyn Wieber came forward as well.

Within two weeks in November, Nassar pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County, where Michigan State is, and then to three more counts of the same for crimes committed in nearby Eaton County.

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Though USA Gymnastics officials denied knowing what Nassar was doing and denied covering anything up, an independent audit was commissioned in the fall 2016 to identify the glaring flaws in the system that allowed this to go on. Then-USAG president Steven Perry resigned in March. The findings revealed in June—that USAG required a "complete cultural change" and to delay would be "impermissible"—prompted a unanimous board vote to implement the changes immediately. 

But certain seemingly obvious fixes didn't occur overnight.

As the accusations of USAG complicity have only continued to pile up, and in the wake of stomach-churning testimony from a seemingly unending stream of victims, the fallout continues: USAG formally cut ties with the Karolyi Ranch Training Center a week ago, months after pressure mounted to do so. Three members of the USAG board just resigned. The U.S. Olympic Committee is also reviewing USAG's leadership in light of the growing stain on the organization. 

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

As it stands, the Indy Star reports that at least 368 women over the past 20 years have alleged abuse, not all by Nassar, but while they were involved with USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the US Olympic Team—and therefore an unavoidable stop on the road to Olympic glory.

"I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there, were unnecessary, and disgusting," Maroney wrote in October.

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"The Indy Star broke on August 4, 2016 after survivors courageously came forward sharing stories of sexual abuse and alleging organizational  mishandling," Raisman tweeted Monday. "The next day, the USOC said they wouldn't investigate (and even praised USAG's work in the area of sexual abuse). For the past week, survivors came forward to courageously face a perpetrator of evil and share their painful stories. Many of them, myself included, claim the USOC is also at fault. Was the USOC  there to 'focus on supporting the brave survivors'? No. Did they issue a statement then? Crickets…."

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

In suffering what they did and then going on to compete at the highest level and emerge as champions, the determination and resilience of Maroney, Wieber, Raisman, Douglas and Biles cannot be overstated. As Biles said in her own statement, "know that this horrific experience does not define me...I won't let one man, and the others that enabled him, to steal my love and joy."

But there's only so much room on that podium. It's horrifying to think about the lives that were forever altered, the women who may always wonder what could've been, if they hadn't encountered Dr. Larry Nassar along the way.

David Goldman/AP/Shutterstock

Rachael Denhollander, whose email to the Indy Star in 2016 helped set this seachange in motion, told reporters in November after Nassar pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct that she was "very satisfied.

"The attorney general did a phenomenal job making sure that every victim, even the ones who didn't have crimes charged, felt that justice was done."

As happened in Hollywood, it took a certain few at the right time to send a rallying cry of "no more" charging through the industry—and now it's up to the more famous names, the ones who have a platform, to look out for the others who for so long have been swept under the rug.

Nassar could be sentenced for the seven counts of abuse as early as Wednesday. With 60 years on the child pornography charges to serve first, he's never getting out of prison. But the more than 100 brave women who finally had the opportunity in 2018 to make sure that their voices were heard, loud and clear, will at least now have the opportunity to see a judge throw away the key.