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Olympics

Can U.S. gymnastics recover from the Larry Nassar scandal?

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2018, file photo, Larry Nassar listens during his sentencing at Eaton County
Disgraced former doctor Larry Nassar listens during his sentencing Feb. 5, 2018, in Charlotte, Mich.
(Cory Morse / Associated Press)

Anyone who thought U.S. gymnastics might finally find a clear path to recovery from the Larry Nassar scandal need only look at the last 48 hours to see otherwise.

The last few days have seen the sport garner positive headlines, with St. Louis named as the site for the all-important 2020 Olympic trials and former gold medalist Jordyn Wieber leaving her post as a UCLA assistant to take over at Arkansas.

“The journey of Jordyn Wieber is truly extraordinary,” Razorbacks athletic director Hunter Yurachek said. “As one of the world’s elite gymnasts and an assistant at one of the top collegiate programs in the country, she has already experienced more than many of us will in a lifetime.”

But the news about Wieber — who is also a Nassar accuser — stood in contrast to tone-deaf comments by new USA Gymnastics President Li Li Leung.

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Talking about Nassar, who will likely spend the rest of his life in prison after abusing hundreds of young athletes, Leung told the “Today” show about her own experience as a teenage gymnast who was briefly treated by the former sports doctor.

“I was seen by Larry Nassar myself,” she said on the morning program. “But I was not abused by him, and the reason I wasn’t abused by him is because my coach was by my side when he saw me. I was seen by him in a public setting and so I understand what the setting needs to be like in order to ensure safety of our athletes.”

These words drew immediate, widespread criticism because many of Nassar’s victims were molested while their parents or other adults were in the room.

Leung quickly took to the defensive on social media.

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“I understand how my comment seems insensitive to the survivors and their families, and I apologize,” she tweeted. “My intent was not to diminish what they’ve been through. I should have clarified that my experience was completely different from theirs and it is wrong to suggest I could have a solution based on my experience alone.”

The incident represented yet another misstep by a national governing body that is now on its fourth leader in two years. Kerry Perry lasted nine months and Mary Bono resigned after just five days.

USA Gymnastics is now fighting for its future, facing litigation and bankruptcy proceedings while under the shadow of potential decertification by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

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“I cannot know all necessary steps to take until I hear their stories,” Leung wrote of Nassar’s victims, adding that she hopes “they will have a dialogue with us regarding athlete safety and well-being going forward.”

The former NBA marketing executive had eagerly sought the job, confident she could help bring change to a sport in which she grew up.

It certainly didn’t hurt when college gymnast Katelyn Ohashi and the UCLA team went viral over the past few months. The announcement of St. Louis for the trials suggested that USA Gymnastics remains optimistic about hanging around for a while.

But this week, which also included news of a private Michigan gym paying $2.1 million in settlements to Nassar victims, has forced Leung to acknowledge that she, her organization and her sport have light-years to go. The journey will not be easy.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LAtimesWharton


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