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Sexual Assault Survivor Speaks Out Against Former USA Gymnastics Doctor

Jan 20, 2018
Originally published on January 24, 2018 11:33 am

Rachael Denhollander was 15 the first time she went to see Larry Nassar, then the doctor for USA Gymnastics. Denhollander didn't tell anyone of authority about how he sexually assaulted her until years later, in 2004, when she was working as a gymnastics coach.

Nassar has admitted to sexually assaulting minors. He has been sentenced to 60 years in prison for charges related to child pornography but has not yet been sentenced in a state case for sexually assaulting the athletes.

The sentencing hearing for the Ingham County, Mich., case started Tuesday. As NPR previously reported, before issuing Nassar's sentence, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina is giving all of those assaulted by Nassar a chance to speak. Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber spoke on Friday and condemned the abuse and actions of Nassar, as well as what they see as the inaction and inability to protect athletes from USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Olympians Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas also have said they are survivors of sexual abuse by Nassar.

Denhollander was the first person to file a criminal complaint against Nassar in 2016. That led to more than 100 women coming forward saying they also had been abused. Denhollander contacted The Indianapolis Star after the paper published an investigation about sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics.

Denhollander testified for nearly three hours during the preliminary examination for the child pornography case against Nassar, and she will be the last of at least 120 women to speak during the sentencing hearing, which continues next week.

She says that although she is not sure of exactly what she will say, she will address Nassar and those watching.

"This is the greatest sexual assault scandal in sports history," Denhollander says. "Larry is arguably the most prolific pedophile in history. And it is imperative that we learn some very serious lessons from what has happened here."

Denhollander spoke with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly about the abuse she experienced, the trial and her feelings toward gymnastics today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On women speaking at the sentencing hearing

It really is an empowering thing. It is an incredibly difficult thing to face your abuser, but to see all of these survivors able to stand up and to look Larry in the eye and to speak the truth about what he did and to put the shame and the blame and the guilt exactly where it belongs — on Larry and on Larry alone — is an incredible thing to witness.

On when she first told someone about the abuse

I first spoke up to an authority figure in 2004. I was coaching gymnastics at that point and one of the young gymnasts that I coached was going to be sent to him for treatment for hip pain. She was only 7 or 8, and I thought I couldn't let that happen. So I did disclose parts of the abuse — not all of it, but parts of the abuse — and told the coach at the gym that he had sexually assaulted me under the guise of treatment and that no gymnast should be seeing him.

On what happened when she spoke out

The response to that was not malicious in any way shape or form — I consider that coach a good friend still to this day — but she didn't know what to do with it. And so she did continue to send gymnasts to Larry up until the point that she stopped coaching at that gym.

On whether Nassar's behavior was an open secret

Absolutely ... many of the dancers, the gymnasts, the people who saw him would talk about the treatments. And the conclusion was, "Well this must be medical treatment, because he'd never be allowed near us if it wasn't." And as a 15-year-old, that was my thought process.

As I lay on that exam table, it was very clear to me that this was something Larry did regularly. I knew if it was something Larry did regularly — that he was seeing girls every day, including our elite gymnasts — that there was no way someone had not described before what Larry was doing.

And so the only conclusion that I could come to was that it had to be a legitimate medical treatment, because surely the adults that heard the description of what he was doing would have done something if it wasn't, and he would have never been near me. And that thought process caused me to lay still.

On how she views gymnastics now

The sexual assault itself does not color my view of gymnastics — I think it is an incredible, beautiful sport, that there is so much good that can come from it. But the way USA [Gymnastics] has created a culture in gymnastics absolutely has colored my view. Because the reality is that Larry is not the problem, Larry is the symptom of the problem. The reason Larry was able to have access to so many children for so long is because you had two major institutions who looked the other way.

NPR's Kat Lonsdorf produced the audio for this story. NPR's Wynne Davis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

When 33-year-old Rachael Denhollander was a young gymnast suffering from back pain, she went to see Larry Nassar. He was a doctor with Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. Years later, she became the first person to file a criminal complaint against Nassar, and she's told her story to The Indianapolis Star.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Since then, more than 140 women have come forward, too, and now Nassar is being sentenced in Michigan for criminal sexual misconduct. That's on top of 60 years he'll spend in federal prison for child pornography. Nearly all of those women have been in the courtroom to look Nassar in the eye and give victim impact statements. Denhollander will give the last of those sometime next week. During a break in court today, I asked what it's been like to watch all this unfold.

RACHAEL DENHOLLANDER: You know, it is - it really is a very empowering thing. It is an incredibly difficult thing to face your abuser, but to see all of these survivors able to stand up and to look Larry in the eye and to speak the truth about what he did and to put the shame and the blame and the guilt exactly where it belongs on Larry and Larry alone is an incredible thing to witness.

KELLY: Now, I know that you were supposed to speak today. Your statement has now been pushed to early next week, I gather. How come?

DENHOLLANDER: Well, for the best and the worst reason - because there are more survivors calling in every night who are ready to stand up and face their abuser, which is an incredible thing and also a very sobering thing to continue seeing how much damage Larry Nassar was able to do in his 20 years at MSU and USAG.

KELLY: You were 15 when you went to see him. When did you first decide to tell somebody about it?

DENHOLLANDER: I first spoke up to an authority figure in 2004. I was coaching gymnastics at that point, and one of the young gymnasts that I coached was going to be sent to him for treatment for hip pain. She was only 7 or 8. And I thought I couldn't let that happen. So I did disclose parts of the abuse, not all of it but parts of the abuse and told the coach at the gym that he had sexually assaulted me under the guise of medical treatment and that no gymnast should be seeing him.

And the response to that was not malicious in any way, shape or form. I consider that coach a good friend still to this day. But she didn't know what to do with it. And so she did continue to send gymnasts to Larry up until the point that she stopped coaching at that gym.

KELLY: You know, we've heard so much these last few months as the behavior of powerful men has come to light and they've been confronted with things that they have done that was inappropriate or worse. Was Larry Nassar something of an open secret among young women competing for U.S. gymnastics?

DENHOLLANDER: Oh, absolutely. I mean many of the dancers, the gymnasts, the people who saw him would talk about the treatments. And you know, the conclusion was, well, this must be medical treatment because he'd never be allowed near us if it wasn't. And as a 15-year-old, that was my thought process. You know, as I lay on that exam table, the only conclusion that I could come to was that it had to be a legitimate medical treatment because surely the adults that heard the description of what he was doing would have done something if it wasn't and he would have never been near me. And that thought process caused me to lay still.

KELLY: You, we mentioned, were the very first to come forward to file a criminal complaint against Larry Nassar. That was in 2016. What happened?

DENHOLLANDER: Well, the floodgates opened. I found out that the statute of limitations had been lifted in Michigan and that I still had the option to file a police report. We packed up the family. We drove up to Michigan. We filed the police report. And two weeks after that, The Indy Star story came out, and the detective started receiving calls almost immediately from other women that had experienced the exact same thing.

KELLY: When you face him in the courtroom it sounds like next week, what are you going to say?

DENHOLLANDER: I have a lot of things that I think need to be communicated, some to Larry and some to everyone who's watching. This is the greatest sexual assault scandal in sports history. Larry is arguably the most prolific pedophile in history, and it is imperative that we learn some very serious lessons from what has happened here.

KELLY: Does this color your view of gymnastics now?

DENHOLLANDER: Yeah, yes. And my daughter actually is begging for gymnastics lessons. The sexual assault itself does not color my view of gymnastics. I think it is an incredible, beautiful sport, that there is so much good that can come from it. But the way USAG has created a culture in gymnastics absolutely has colored my view because the reality is that Larry is not the problem. Larry is a symptom of the problem. The reason Larry was able to have access to so many children for so long is because you had two major institutions who looked the other way, who had abhorrent policies - USAG in particular when it came to reporting sexual assault. And that is something I cannot be a part of.

KELLY: May I ask? I know you have three young kids. How are you talking to your kids about this?

DENHOLLANDER: You know, my kids are 6, 3 and 2, so right now they really do not understand what is going on. I do intend to talk to them about this when they get old enough to handle it. And my hope is that my son will grow into a man who becomes a protector and a defender and that my daughters will grow into warriors.

KELLY: Rachael, thank you very much for talking with us.

DENHOLLANDER: Thank you.

KELLY: That's former gymnast Rachel Denhollander talking about the sentencing of Larry Nassar. He was a doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. Today the school's board asked the state attorney general to investigate its conduct, saying this can never happen again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.