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The First To Accuse Larry Nassar Of Abuse, On How Gymnastics Moves Forward

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Shortly after she finished her competition at the Olympics, the gymnast Simone Biles spoke with NBC. She said something that she had said before - that she chose to compete in this year's Olympics partly as a mark of defiance. It was the first Olympics since former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing many women and girls. His victims included Simone Biles. "Today" show anchor Hoda Kotb had a question for Biles.


HODA KOTB: Do you think that affected you at all this time around?

SIMONE BILES: Now that I think of it, like, maybe in the back of my head, probably, yes, 'cause there are certain triggers that you don't even know.

KOTB: Yeah.

BILES: And I think it could have.

INSKEEP: As the world knows, Biles withdrew from part of the competition after a case of the twisties - disorientation as she spun through the air. She later returned and won a bronze medal on the balance beam. The many people watching the Olympics included Rachael Denhollander, and she had no doubt that the attack on Biles was somewhere in her mind.

RACHAEL DENHOLLANDER: Trauma literally changes your neurobiology, changes how your body functions, and it really is a wound at the deepest level. And so while there is great hope for healing, it is a part of us now, and that's never going to go away.

INSKEEP: Rachael Denhollander would know. She was a gymnast herself and was the first person to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of abuse. She is also an attorney who has represented survivors in court as USA Gymnastics was forced into bankruptcy. And when she watched the gymnastics at the Olympics, she saw something deeply ambiguous. We found her last week in Kalamazoo, Mich.

DENHOLLANDER: Watching the games and elite-level gymnastics always brings a wide range of emotions. The sport is absolutely beautiful, and the accomplishments of the athletes are incredible and rightly should be lauded. At the same time, knowing what has gone on in the gymnastics community and, in many ways, still does go on in the gymnastics community - the lack of acknowledgement of the depth of corruption in USAG and the depth of the damage that's been done, it does shed a very different light on watching elite gymnastics and understanding the backstory. And so it is a very difficult experience, as well as a beautiful one.

INSKEEP: Somebody listening might be surprised to hear you and think, Larry Nassar was caught; eventually, Larry Nassar was convicted and sent to prison. It sounds to me like you feel that is nowhere near the end of this issue.

DENHOLLANDER: Oh, absolutely not. You know, actually, yesterday was five years to the day from the first Indy Star article coming out about the corruption in USAG, and it had nothing to do with Larry because what's been going on in USAG is an entire system of abuse, a system of covering up sexual abuse, not just by Larry but by its member coaches - a system of covering up physical abuse, an abusive framework that allowed our athletes to be systematically and routinely starved and isolated from their parents. Larry was not the problem; Larry was a symptom of the problem. And USAG's narrative for the last five years has been, hey, that's one bad apple, and we've taken care of him - when in reality, they didn't take care of him.

INSKEEP: You've talked about two kinds of abuse which can be related but are somewhat different - sexual abuse and physical abuse. Let me ask about sexual abuse first. Do you presume, from what you've said, that there may well be other abusers within the system who have not been identified even today?

DENHOLLANDER: I know there are. I know for a fact that there are because I know the victims. Added to that, when we are - we've been in bankruptcy proceedings with USAG for the last three years. Two years ago, we had a hearing where I had the opportunity to ask the chief financial officer of USAG some specific questions, and I asked him, has anybody taken those 50 files that the Indy Star reported on - has anybody taken those files and looked to see if any of those coaches are still coaching? Not only had they not done that, they didn't even know what I meant.

INSKEEP: Was there something positive in Simone Biles' story in recent days in that, despite whatever social media criticism there might have been, she made her own decision about her own health and her own condition and went right ahead and ended up with a medal, actually?

DENHOLLANDER: I think there is. And I don't think those who have not been engaged in this fight can realize how incredibly significant it was that Simone actually walked out on her own strength. She walked out uninjured. She had the wisdom and the courage and the ability to be able to draw that boundary and agency over her own body and her own decisions, which is something that gymnasts haven't had for decades, especially our elite gymnasts. So while I was deeply brokenhearted for her that that choice had to be made and that she was put in a position where her mental health and, therefore, her physical health was at risk, the fact that she could make that decision and receive support from her coaches was groundbreaking.

INSKEEP: Do you view the last several years as a time of progress for women and for equality, given all that you've said?

DENHOLLANDER: You know, I really have a hard time answering that question for a couple of reasons. There is absolutely an element to which these conversations are happening more, and the more we have those conversations, that's really the foundation for changing culture and for making progress on these issues. That being said, we really have not made much tangible progress beyond having the conversation. Conviction rates for sexual abusers haven't gone up in any way, shape or form. Our detectives and our prosecutors are often very poorly trained or very unmotivated. You know, we saw this in the FBI report, the Department of Justice report that showed the many ways that the FBI failed in stopping Larry. And that is not an abnormality; that's more of the norm.

So we have not really made any progress in our justice system towards protecting women and children. We really haven't made any progress - or very little progress, legally - with legislative changes that are necessary to be able to protect women and children better. And we do still see this instantaneous cultural backlash when a woman exercises agency or raises her voice against an abuser. And so as much as I would like to say we've made significant progress, I don't think we have.

INSKEEP: Do you have to steel yourself every time this is in the news to be ready for another kind of shock?

DENHOLLANDER: Yeah, I do. And all of us do. And unfortunately, what - the cultural backlash that we saw against Simone for making the choice to prioritize her health over medals was incredibly painful for trauma survivors because the message that was really sent by so many people is if an accomplished athlete like Simone, who's literally one of the greatest athletes in the world, given everything she's accomplished, if she still hasn't earned the right to be able to say, this is not healthy for me right now, I should not be doing this, and to be treated with respect, then who else could say the same thing and be treated with respect? The message that was sent by so many people was, you still don't matter enough. You exist for our benefit. You have let us down. That was the message that was sent to Simone and, by extension, to every trauma survivor who's watching her take that step and then seeing the way she's been treated.

INSKEEP: Rachael Denhollander, thank you so much.



USA Gymnastics President and CEO Li Li Leung provided this statement to NPR - quote, "we recognize how deeply we have broken the trust of our athletes and community and are working hard to build that trust back. Everything we do now is aimed at creating a safe, inclusive and positive culture."

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL GRIMES' "LONG BEFORE US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.