BY WILL GRAVES
The people come forward to Aly Raisman almost daily now. Random strangers. Men and women of various ages, races and backgrounds. They see the six-time Olympic medal winning gymnast out in public and approach with a hug to give and a story to tell.
It was jarring at first, if Raisman is being honest. When she pitched her autobiography “Fierce” to publishers last summer shortly after the 2016 Olympics, she intended to focus on her journey from tenacious prodigy to champion. And while all of that is in there, the part of her experience that’s resonated the most since the book’s release earlier this month is the one she wasn’t sure she’d be able to share.
It’s Chapter 22, titled “The Survivors.” In it, Raisman outlines how she was abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, how he “groomed” her by presenting himself as a friendly ear and how she feels he was empowered to continue over the course of years by those in charge at USA Gymnastics.
Raisman spent weeks working on the section, revisiting it again and again, trying to get it just right. Or at least as close to right as she can get.
“I put in a ton of thought whether how I wanted to come forward about this,” Raisman told The Associated Press. “What I realized at the end of the day is that I want change and I want people to understand what exactly abuse is. It’s very complicated. It’s very confusing. I didn’t know that I was being abused because I was manipulated so horribly.”
In the process, Raisman discovered the abuse Nassar committed against other female athletes — including allegations from Olympic teammates McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas — is a very small part of a much larger problem that extends far beyond the actions of just one man. It’s why she took those painful memories and put them on paper, to share with the world that, as she says over and over again, “It’s not OK. It’s never OK.”
The 23-year-old’s new calling makes thinking about a return to competition in time for the 2020 Olympics seem trivial.
“This is the focus,” Raisman said.
A focus that has turned her into an unexpected symbol of strength for others who share their experiences.
“Unfortunately sexual abuse is far too common,” Raisman said. “I’ve realized how many people are affected by it and it’s disgusting. That’s why I want change.”
Raisman has become an increasingly outspoken critic of USA Gymnastics, blaming the governing body for a lack of oversight on Nassar’s conduct. The 54-year-old spent nearly 20 years as the team doctor for the U.S. women’s elite program, often working with athletes one-on-one. Raisman declined to get into specifics about the abuse she was subjected to but her experience falls in line with what many other have claimed against Nassar: that he touched them inappropriately while describing it as proper treatment.
Nassar pleaded guilty to multiple charges of sexual assault in Michigan on Wednesday and will face at least 25 years in prison. He still faces additional criminal charges and has been named in more than 125 civil lawsuits filed by former athletes. Nassar’s downfall began following reporting by the Indianapolis Star in 2016 that highlighted chronic mishandling of abuse allegations against coaches and staff at some of USA Gymnastics’ more than 3,500 clubs across the country.
Raisman has not taken any legal action yet against Nassar, though she’s not ruling it out. Her larger concern is educating young athletes and their parents on the warning signs while also loudly clamoring for change. She has seen a familiar pattern repeat itself over the last 18 months: another gymnast comes out claiming abuse by Nassar, and USA Gymnastics follows with a press release attributed to no specific individual that praises them for their courage.
One of the most decorated Olympic athletes of her generation doesn’t just want words. She wants action.
USA Gymnastics has taken several steps in recent months. President and CEO Steve Penny resigned under pressure in March and was replaced by Kerry Perry, who takes over on Dec. 1.
The organization hired Toby Stark, a child welfare advocate, as its director of SafeSport over the summer. Part of Stark’s mandate is educating members on rules, educational programs and reporting. The federation also adopted over 70 recommendations by Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw an extensive independent review.
It’s not enough for Raisman. She points out Penny wasn’t fired but instead forced out. Though Nassar’s relationship with USA Gymnastics officially ended in 2015 after an athlete came forward about potential abuse, he was still allowed to continue working at Michigan State University while also volunteering at a USA Gymnastics-affiliated club.
“That is just unacceptable to me,” Raisman said. “(That gym) is a part of USA Gymnastics. USA Gymnastics is responsible for kids at that gym. Instead of doing their job, they let Larry keep working there.”
Raisman would like to see more extensive change in leadership at USA Gymnastics. She never imagined being an agent for change as she dreamed of the Olympics while growing up in Needham, Massachusetts, but she’s embracing the role as she comes to grips with her own victimhood.
Chapter 22 wasn’t the end, only the beginning.
“I’m still, as you see, processing it,” she said. “I’m still at a loss for words. I’m having so many people come up to me, telling me they had similar experience, that they filed a complaint and it was ignored. I will do everything I can to make sure those people are heard.”
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