You’ve seen ‘Athlete A.’ How do you watch Olympic gymnastics now?
Last summer, one of the biggest USA Gymnastics meets took place just a few miles from Rachael Denhollander’s home in Louisville, Ky. She badly wanted to take her daughters to the competition, especially because it was rumored that Olympian Simone Biles would unveil a triple-twisting double tuck — something no female gymnast had ever performed.
But after everything she’d been through, Denhollander — a mother of four — felt it wasn’t right to expose her kids to the world of elite gymnastics.
“I couldn’t take them in front of these athletes and have their minds filled with starry ideals, knowing what is going on in the backdrop,” said the 35-year-old. “I can’t put those coaches or athletes in front of my girls. And that broke my heart.”
Denhollander has been in the midst of a public reckoning with the sport since 2016, when she became the first woman to report sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, a physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. In August of that year, she filed a Title IX complaint with MSU and told their police department that Nassar had assaulted her when she was a 15-year-old gymnast.
Her story — now at the center of the Netflix documentary “Athlete A” — would compel over 260 female athletes to come forward with their own tales about Nassar’s abuse. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to to federal child pornography charges in addition to multiple charges of first-degree sexual assault and will likely now spend the rest of his life in prison.
But even though Nassar is behind bars, Denhollander and others in the gymnastics world feel the sport has far more work to do to address claims of systemic emotional, physical and sexual abuse. We spoke to her, the directors of “Athlete A” — Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk — and 1986 U.S. National Champion Jen Sey, who also produced the film, about the ongoing problems they hope the documentary will bring to light.
Rachael, you have been so outspoken on this issue for years. Was there a part of you that didn’t want to participate in a movie where you’d have to talk about what you went through yet again?
Denhollander: Every time I speak, I find it difficult. It’s never an easy thing to do. But I had already been through so much. Continuing in advocacy was something I really had to weigh, because it does come with a significant cost. But it is better to do something than not be able to do anything. I want to let women know they’re not alone, and the stories aren’t unique. That they’re part of a community that understands.
Cohen: I think we really learned that you just can’t push people that don’t want to be pushed. The repercussions of re-traumatizing girls and women — the danger of that is far more important than something you’re gonna get for the film. They’ll tell you what their boundaries are.
This film is coming out a little over a year after the release of a well-reviewed HBO documentary on the same subject, “At the Heart of Gold.” Did that project interfere with yours?
Shenk: We did know about the film and that it was going on. But good work makes its way out there, and people respond to it even if there is competition. We were never really that concerned. We had a very special corner to the story. We hope that there will be a number of films — this is the biggest scandal ever in the history of sports. It’s going to take a lot to unpack all the damage and the success of the survivors. We celebrate that.
Cohen: There were some ancillary characters in our film who let us know they were going to be participating in Erin [Lee Carr’s] film. And that was a factor for us. We weren’t going to make them some huge participant. It’s tough, because you’re already navigating a tough story and you want to get it right. I think we were a thorn in their side as well, when they tried to get access to some of our subjects and it just wouldn’t happen.
Shenk: We decided not to watch their film, because we really didn’t want to color our story. Our producer watched it, mostly because we wanted to make sure there wasn’t some kind of fact-checking thing — we wanted to make sure we weren’t missing something or getting something wrong.
Cohen: We should probably watch it now.
Were you surprised that so many projects were made about the Nassar scandal? There was also a popular NPR podcast about the case, 2018’s “Believed.”
Shenk: It seems like documentaries are just more valuable now when they were when we first started making films. We were tickled that Netflix wanted to pick this film up, knowing that [the HBO] film was already out there. They said to us, ‘Let’s not rush it. We’re not competing with that film. You guys take the time to get it right, and it will find an audience.’ I get the sense that some of the big streamers are more focused on who their audience is than who it isn’t. It gave us a lot of confidence — if they’re not worried about it, they must know something we don’t know.
Cohen: We’re living in an era where truth is power, and it’s very hard to know what the truth is. We’re living in a funhouse. The general public turns to documentary to understand what is happening and to get a deep story. It has become a commodity. If you have a good story, you will fall over two or three people making that same story.
Denhollander: The interesting thing about this story is that it actually took an incredible amount of effort to get people interested in it. I’m very grateful about where it has come, but it took a lot to get here. We weren’t boys. It wasn’t a famous football program. When I first came out with my story, I got more requests from international publications than national ones. We have a very star-driven culture, and so what to someone overseas was a very important abuse case did not register on the national scale. If you look at the Google results, spikes in the news stories didn’t start happening until we got to [Nassar’s] sentencing. You saw interest almost immediately with the Penn State case.
Why do you think that is?
Denhollander: It goes back to: How much is a little girl worth? It shouldn’t take more than 100 damaged little girls talking about something to get people to pay attention. That’s something I hope to see change — the value of the little girl who is not famous weighed just as heavily as one who is.
How do we celebrate the accomplishments of elite gymnasts now, knowing that many of them went through abuse to achieve success?
Denhollander: I think that’s a very difficult question. With my own children, I focus a lot on the athletes who have engaged in advocacy — where their hard work has not played out just in gymnastics. I talk about Jen or Dominique Moceanu or Aly Raisman. They work really hard, but it’s so amazing that they really care about the people around them. For Jen and Dominique, in particular, the reality was that they loved gymnastics but had to give it up because of their advocacy. It cost them a lot — their reputations, endorsements, financial gain — because they told the truth. Gymnastics is beautiful, but it is not more important than doing right. I want my kids to see athletes with a well-rounded view of personhood.
Cohen: I think if you asked Kerri Strug today, would she stand by her decision to run down that runway and do a vault and win a gold medal even with a broken ankle? I think she would say yes. But how do you separate that from if she knows what she wants to do, because of all the years she’s been told what to do? It’s a very hard thing to parse out psychologically. There are sacrifices to be made. I think we can all agree that sexual assault should not be on the menu. But what other sacrifices are tenable and could be considered necessary, depending on what coach you’re talking to, to get to that end? I think that’s a very nuanced conversation.
Is there a way to ethically watch Olympic gymnastics?
Denhollander: I think if you’re honest about what is taking place and simultaneously pushing for change, yes. Let’s celebrate the athletes, but not support, justify or minimize abuse.
Cohen: Our hope is that [since] the Olympics aren’t happening this year, and this summer, I think people are going to be thinking about what it means to have a perspective shift. It would be our hope that people will tune in and watch this so that they can still see the glory of the sport through this more difficult lens, and maybe come out of it being somewhat entertained but with a different perspective.
Sey: Most people don’t think about gymnastics except when they watch it every four years during the Olympics. I don’t have any misapprehensions that people are going to watch the film and suddenly everything will change. This culture is deeply embedded, and cultural change takes a long time. But if it puts pressure on USA Gymnastics to make more changes — calling for an independent investigation into what has actually happened — I think that’s important.
Would you let your kids partake in gymnastics?
Denhollander: They do and will not participate in USA Gymnastics until they clean up their act a little more. By and large, my experience with the sport itself was very good and I learned a great deal. I would love for my girls to have that experience, but I have to be able to trust the people.
Cohen: If it were my kid, I wouldn’t be sending them to the gym. I don’t know what kind of certification process the coaches of that gym may have been put through. There are no regulations that are in place. In the Catholic Church, you send your kids to Sunday school and don’t know much about the background of the priest. You don’t get a master’s in coaching and present that to get into a gym. There isn’t a system in place. As a parent, until I can understand what kind of system is in place to prevent those possibilities, I wouldn’t send my kid to the gym.
What are the changes you would like to see USA Gymnastics make?
Sey: I think the bigger question is: How do we reimagine child athletics? It’s a tough question, because the culture is competitive. Winning overrides everything. To reimagine that in sports is quite a hill to climb, I recognize. But what if we could reimagine these governing bodies as bodies that protect children first and foremost, instead of being in the business of promoting winning above all else? Reimagining coaching methodology. We’re a long way away from that. But one of the things I’m hoping we can at least start the conversation on with parents is: Ask questions of the coach you’re leaving your kid with for five hours.
Shenk: This is not about one bad dude. He got away with it for years and had hundreds of victims because he was operating in a milieu where abuse was not only tolerated but accepted. Young girls were a dime a dozen and the coaches and organization used it as raw material for this massive marketing machine that was making people wealthy. USA Gymnastics has done some surface-level things to at least make it seem like they’re trying to make a difference. We just look to the cues of the Simone Biles of the world, and what they’re saying is “No, not enough has happened.” There’s a lot of shoes left to drop on this.
Denhollander: Money, medals, reputation, status — they value something else more than protecting the children in their care. Larry was not the problem. He was a symptom. Say we walk away from the next Olympics with a bunch of gold medals. At what cost? The bodies and souls of little girls that are emotionally, verbally, sexually and physically broken. Can we win if we stop abusing? I think you can with a healthy coaching environment. But what if you can’t, just in theory? What if we sacrifice prowess in the athletic world for a non-abusive world? I say that’s a win.
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