Truly Fierce: Olympic gymnasts and Michigan State University athletes speak out against Larry Nassar

Larry Nassar sits with attorney Matt Newburg during his sentencing hearing Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Dr. Lawrence Nassar was an osteopathic physician for the United States national gymnastics team and later a doctor at Michigan State University from which he got his degree. While working at both institutions, Nassar began his career as a serial abuser.

He gave them gifts from his trips to gymnastics conventions. He walked them to the bench when they couldn’t stand on their own. He washed blood off of their faces. He cheered them on. He made them think that he was the one person that they could confide in.

Then, he violated his oath as a doctor to heal and exploited the trust of young athletes to the psychological and physical detriment of over 150 women and children.

Over the years, the United States Olympic gymnastics team’s performances on the world stage have earned them titles including the “Fab Five,” the “Fierce Five” and the “Final Five.” However, their decision, along with those of many other athletes, to expose decades of Larry Nassar’s disturbing actions makes them even more deserving of this praise.

Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to assaulting seven women in the Michigan area and stands accused of sexually abusing over 150 women, some of whom are former Olympians, Alexandra Raisman, Simone Biles, Shawn Johnson, McKayla Maroney and Jordyn Wieber.

Yesterday afternoon, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, 59, of the 30th Circuit Court in Ingham county presided over the hearing.

“I’ve just signed your death warrant,” Judge Aquilina said.

During their appointments for backaches and other sport-related injuries, Nassar touched them inappropriately under the guise of medicine. Many of the athletes were too young to understand what was happening to them.

After hearing that one man abused so many women, many people ask why they never said anything.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, left, is hugged by Kaylee Lorincz after giving her victim impact statement during the seventh day of Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

One reason why this is, is because Nassar knew what he was doing and knew how to get away with it. Tony Guerrero, the father of a 12-year-old aspiring to be an elite gymnast, told ESPN’s investigative team, Outside the Lines, about his experience with Nassar in which he was in the room while Nassar treated his daughter.

“He was a professional at what he did. Not a doctor-- a professional predator,” Guerrero said, “He positioned himself in places where I couldn't see where his hands were, and he would be doing what he wanted. The whole time she's thinking it's normal because I'm sitting there with her, and he's doing stuff he shouldn't be doing.”

However, some did try to speak out including Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney, but she was paid to stay silent. Maroney accepted the money in order to pay for psychological treatment resulting from Nassar’s abuse.

Maroney’s attorney John Manly explained the illegality of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), the organization that governs gymnastics, and Nassar’s actions in a CNN article. “The US Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics were well aware that the victim of child sexual abuse in California cannot be forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement as a condition of a settlement,” he said in a statement. “Such agreements are illegal for very good reasons-- they silence victims and allow perpetrators to continue committing their crimes. That is exactly what happened in this case,” Manly said.

As Nassar’s crimes garnered more attention, people wanted the USOC to demonstrate responsibility for their actions. On Monday, three USOC officials resigned including the chairman of the board, Paul Parilla; the vice chairman, Jay Binder; and the board’s treasurer, Bitsy Kelly. Many feel that these resignations are not enough and that Kerry Perry, the gymnastics foundation’s president, should resign as well.

In a tweet sent out on Monday Perry released a statement. “We support their decisions to resign at this time. We believe this step will allow us to more effectively move forward in implementing change within our organization,” said Perry.

Rachael Denhollander, a 31-year-old lawyer who was the first to publicly accuse Nassar of sexually abusing her, explained why these resignations are not enough. “The culture of enabling is absolutely vital to why pedophiles flourish,” Denhollander said, “You don't get someone like Larry Nassar, you don't get a pedophile who is able to abuse without there being a culture surrounding him in that place. Until we deal with the enablers, this is going to continue to happen.”

Judge Aquilina earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Michigan State University in 1979 and later her Doctorate degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1984. Additionally, Judge Aquilina served 20 years in the Michigan Army National Guard where she was the first female Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) officer at the time she enlisted.

Over the course of one week, she heard 169 impact statements, oral or written statements that allow victims the opportunity to speak during the sentencing hearings of a convicted individual, including 156 from Nassar’s victims.

While the court originally invited 88 victims to speak, nearly double that amount stepped forward to condemn Nassar. Raisman calls the empowered group of women the “army of survivors.”

Raisman’s impact statement was particularly powerful. “Your abuse started 30 years ago,” Raisman said, “but that’s just the first reported incident we know of. If over these many years, just one adult listened, and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided.”

Judge Aquilina’s history with Michigan State University and her time spent serving her country influenced her input following each impact statement.

I’ve just signed your death warrant.
— Judge Rosemarie Aquilina

She spoke with the empathy and offered some of the recognition that the USOC never gave them, including Olympic gymnast Bailey Lorencen to whom Aquilina called a “heroine” and “superhero,” but that wasn’t all.

“The military has not yet come up with fiber as strong as you,” Judge Aquilina said, “Thank you so much for being here, and for your strength.”

In a New York Times article Janice Nadler, a law professor at Northwestern University who has written about victim impact statements commented on Judge Aquilina’s decision. “Permitting the victim impact statements of all individuals who Nassar abused is the government’s opportunity to counter Nassar’s message: to demonstrate to the victims that they matter, that their lives matter, that the state stands ready to impose the punishment that Nassar deserves,” Nadler said.

Ultimately, the conversations surrounding not only Nassar’s crimes but the Times Up and #Metoo movements boil down this: Denying women and children sovereignty over their own bodies is unacceptable; standing by is unacceptable and most importantly, talk without action is unacceptable.


Alex Taylor is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexis.taylor@uconn.edu.