Rachael Denhollander (Michigan, 36 years old) was the first gymnast to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, the former doctor of the United States Olympic gymnastics team, of sexual abuse. She was also the last of more than 150 victims to speak at the trial against the greatest sexual predator of athletes in history, sentenced to 175 years in prison. Four years after she felt compelled to tell the media how Nassar penetrated her with his fingers under the guise of medical treatment, she says that the United States Gymnastics Federation (USAG) has once again betrayed the survivors. . “For them it is a public relations problem and not one of corruption and abuse,” the lawyer and activist said by phone from her home in Kentucky.
The never-ending crisis that USAG has been in since the Nassar scandal erupted was recently compounded when John Geddert, coach of the London 2012 Olympic team, was charged with human trafficking and sexual assault and, a few hours later, committed suicide. . The federation regretted what happened in a brief message of support to those affected.
Ask. How has Geddert affected you?
Answer. I think for all of us to see this kind of silence and inaction from the federation leaders over and over again is devastating. Leaders keep sending the message that they don’t understand, they don’t want to understand. And that they don’t care enough. To perpetuate that culture is to betray athletes over and over and over again.
P. What is the message that the federation sends?
R. That it is a public relations problem, that they only have to change a couple of policies here and there. This is a problem of corruption and abuse. Your way of handling the issue does not create a culture change and it is the culture of your organization that will determine how easy it is for an abuser to abuse, and how safe it is for a child to participate. Abusers are very skilled predators, they look for places where they will be safe; Institutions such as churches or universities that do not take abuse seriously and do not do what they should to stop it. They know that if someone is abused and speaks out, motivation for money, medals, and reputation will take precedence over motivation to stop the abuse, provide justice to the victim, and conduct an investigation. Right now, the USAG and the US Olympic Committee are communicating that something matters more than people.
P. Does the USAG have a fix?
R. No, I don’t think so, not right now. They have had decades to deal with the physical and emotional abuse that prevails in the environment, but not only have they not dealt with it, they have continued to promote coaches who have perpetrated that culture. I don’t think they will be able to fix it.
P. What are the basic steps to identify the problem and recognize the damage?
R. First, an independent investigation of the culture and the coaches. We don’t even know the most basic answers like what did Steve Penny do? [presidente de la USAG hasta 2017, acusado de destruir pruebas del caso Nassar] With the evidence documents he got from the Texas gym. Not who knew about Larry’s abuse or how the coaches were able to continue to abuse for so long. They have made vague expressions that they regret the abuse, but have never acknowledged leadership corruption or ignored the red flags. Athletes have been talking about the culture of abuse in the federation for decades. We have coaches and leaders saying horrible things about survivors and no leader has stood in front of them to say, “These women were right and we should have listened to them and this has happened because we didn’t.”
P. Would you like to see an action also from the sponsors?
R. That is certainly what has to happen. It is inconceivable that all the weight has fallen on the shoulders of the survivors and victims. We have all of our sponsors saying amazing things about empowering women and protecting children and creating a safe culture, but they are not willing to take money away from where the problem is. If you want to create a safe culture, stop funding organizations that facilitate the abuse of female athletes. Stop financing them. Point. End of discussion. Stop allowing these organizations to continue.
P. Are athletes alone in this fight?
R. Absolutely. The athletes are not only grappling with their recovery after all the abuse, they are still battling organizational structures and their leadership that prefer silence. There are some coaches who give me hope, but USAG leaders don’t. Even when they completely revamped the board after everything that happened with Larry, it came back to settling for people who were already part of the culture of abuse. Unfortunately, the few who brought things from outside have refused to acknowledge what is happening. Federation President Li Li Leung said they have participated in six independent investigations, but that is not true. There is still no investigation on the coaches. That is not admitting the problem, it is continuing to believe that abuse cases are bad apples and not part of a culture.
P. Has raising your voice helped you in your recovery process?
R. I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily a healing experience. I would say that it was being in a good place of healing and knowing that my identity and my value did not depend on the response I received from outside. And that I define success as being true to what was given to me. Because if you are not in that place of recovery, it is very difficult to cope with the trauma. I know there are many survivors who say that speaking has been very healing, but I have not had that experience.
P. What has been the most difficult in these four years?
R. Survivors and activists are still dealing with our own traumas. They remain our personal stories. No one should be put in the position of having to give details about the abuse suffered in order to be heard. Failure to comply with the law and bad leadership compelled us. They prevented us from getting over the trauma. Also, every time a leader fails to do the right thing … it is disruptive and disruptive at a high level of intensity. They communicate that survivors don’t matter enough. Nobody gets into activism because they want to tell their story of abuse over and over again. No one. They do it because they are desperate for the next generation not to go through what they went through. When you see that leadership privileges money, medals and their friends, over the safety of girls, it is very discouraging for us because we see that we have not yet succeeded in protecting those who come after.
P. Simone Biles said that if she had a daughter, she would forbid her to enter gymnastics. You?
R. In fact, it’s something we’ve been dealing with for over a year. My six-year-old daughter desperately wants art gymnastics classes. I had a good experience in my gym, which I know is something that many gymnasts cannot say. Not counting my experience with Larry, my training and the team environment was very healthy. I acquired many tools for life during that time and when I look back I do so without regret, but with great gratitude. That said, if my daughter wanted to compete competitively in a federation certified gym she would be putting her safety in the hands of a corrupt organization that doesn’t care enough. I can’t do that with a clear conscience. I would love to be able to give a different answer because I would love for my daughter to participate in gymnastics in a positive way, but right now she can’t. And that breaks our hearts all.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.