Rachael Denhollander, a survivor of sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, shares thoughts before delivering her impact statement at Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing, Mich., on the final day of Nassar’s sentencing hearing.
New Netflix documentary “Athlete A” spotlights the work of IndyStar journalists as they uncovered the USA Gymnastics scandal, an investigation that led to more than 500 women accusing Larry Nassar of sexual abuse.
Former USA Gymnastics doctor Nassar is serving a 60-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to child pornography charges in 2017. He also was convicted on multiple charges of sexual assault.
In “Athlete A,” available today to Netflix subscribers, filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk show how decades of Nassar’s abusive practices — administered under the guise of medical care — came to an end.
The film’s title refers to Maggie Nichols, believed to be the first Nassar survivor brought to the attention of USA Gymnastics in 2015. Viewers of “Athlete A” will learn USA Gymnastics waited more than a month before taking Nichols’ accusations to the FBI.
The public side of Nassar’s downfall began when former gymnasts Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher and Jessica Howard contacted the IndyStar investigative team around the time of the 2016 Summer Olympics.
The three women shared similar complaints about Nassar with reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans.
Here are five things to look for as “Athlete A” arrives today at Netflix:
1. It began with ‘Out of Balance’
Before focusing on USA Gymnastics, the IndyStar journalists researched school and day care officials who failed to report suspected child abuse to authorities.
In March 2016, Kwiatkowski learned about a lawsuit in Georgia filed by a former gymnast against her coach and USA Gymnastics. Documents buried in the court file revealed how USA Gymnastics had a longstanding policy of not reporting many allegations of child abuse to police or child welfare authorities. The policy had never been made public.
On Aug. 4, 2016, one day before the Rio Olympics opened, IndyStar published the first report in a series titled “Out of Balance.” Two former USA Gymnastics officials admitted under oath that the organization routinely dismissed sexual abuse allegations as hearsay unless they came directly from a victim or victim’s parent.
Former gymnasts Denhollander, Dantzscher and Howard then brought Nassar to IndyStar’s attention.
2. The gymnasts’ days in court
“Athlete A” includes excerpts of Nassar survivors delivering victim impact statements in his presence. In all, more than 200 women spoke in two Michigan courtrooms in January 2018.
Denhollander, the first survivor to speak publicly about Nassar’s crimes, described the doctor as a “hardened and determined sexual predator.”
“Larry is the most dangerous type of abuser,” she said. “One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome and caring external persona as a deliberate means to ensure a steady stream of young children to sexually assault.”
3. Famous coaches, golden results
Nassar treated athletes at the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center at Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Bela Karolyi, who attained fame as the coach of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, and his wife, Martha, have denied being aware of Nassar’s crimes until they were alerted by USA Gymnastics.
The trailer for “Athlete A” lists the Olympic achievements of gymnasts abused by Nassar: 34 gold medals, 38 silver and 32 bronze.
The film catalogs high-profile companies that have sponsored USA Gymnastics, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa and Dodge.
IndyStar investigations editor Steve Berta talks about USA Gymnastics’ priorities in “Athlete A”: “They were so busy trying to sell that brand that they didn’t have time for those girls.”
4. One denial’s ripple effect
On Sept. 12, 2016, IndyStar published the report in which Denhollander accused Nassar of abuse.
Nassar, a Michigan State University faculty member no longer affiliated with USA Gymnastics, denied any wrongdoing.
IndyStar’s Berta said he believes one specific claim by Nassar’s attorney inspired dozens of survivors to come forward. The attorney said his client never used his fingers to penetrate an athlete’s vagina.
“At that point,” Berta says in the documentary, “every woman he’d done this to, and there were hundreds, knew he was lying.”
5. Man of few words
Filmmakers Cohen and Shenk made about 10 visits to the IndyStar newsroom, and the co-directors accompanied Evans when he reported on a 2018 U.S. Senate hearing in Washington, D.C.
Steve Penny, former president and CEO of Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics, was subpoenaed to appear at the U.S. Capitol. Instead of answering questions, Penny invoked his Fifth Amendment right of non self-incrimination six times when asked about his role in the Nassar scandal.
Four months later, Penny was indicted on a felony count of tampering with evidence related to the Nassar investigation.
In “Athlete A,” Maggie Nichols’ mother, Gina, said Penny told her not to worry about telling anyone about Nassar. Gina Nichols quoted Penny as saying, “I will take care of that. USA Gymnastics will call the police.”
Follow David Lindquist on Twitter: @317Lindquist.
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