Nineteen-ninety-six was the year the U.S. women’s gymnastics team first won team gold at the Olympics. It was also the first year that Larry Nassar acted as the team doctor at an Olympic Games. And according to Irvine-based attorney John Manly, who represents dozens of plaintiffs in a civil suit against, among others, Nassar, USA Gymnastics, and Michigan State University (where the doctor was on the faculty and saw MSU athletes and other patients in the clinic), it is possible that he sexually abused at least one member of every U.S. Olympic team every year from then until last year. “It’s not possible that he wasn’t hurting at least one child on those [Olympic teams],” Manly told the OC Register.
On Sunday night, 60 Minutes highlighted the stories of three gymnasts who allege they’ve been abused by Nassar. Jessica Howard, a former rhythmic gymnastics national champion; Jeanette Antolin, a former member of the U.S. national team; and Jamie Dantzscher, a member of the 2000 bronze medal winning Olympic team, talked about the toxic environment they encountered at the Karolyi Ranch, which, they allege, enabled a serial predator to abuse undetected. Nassar—whom they all called “Larry”—stood out, they said, for being for being friendly and kind there.
“He was my buddy, he was on my side,” Dantzscher said during the segment. She started receiving treatment for lower back pain from Nassar when she was a member of the junior national team, around 13 or 14 years old.
“He would put his fingers inside of me, move my leg around, he would tell me I was going to feel a pop and that would put my hips back and that would help my back pain,” she recalled.
Dantzscher doesn’t recall the doctor using gloves during these episodes; nor, though she was a minor, does she recall an adult being present. But at the time, she believed that she was receiving legitimate medical treatment. It took several years for Dantzscher, and many other women with similar stories, to come to the conclusion that what they had been abused, not treated, by Dr. Nassar.
Since September, in the wake of a devastating Indianapolis Star investigation into allegations that USA Gymnastics turned a blind eye to sexual abuse, more than 80 women have come forward to accuse Nassar of sexual misconduct. (Nassar’s attorney declined to comment to Deadspin about the allegations his client is facing.) And according to allegations made in court filings, this story was more than 20 years in the making. What’s as disturbing as the accusations against Nassar are the sheer number of alleged instances where institutions and individuals could have responded to them—and failed.
Possibly the earliest opportunity came in 1997. According to a civil suit filed in federal court against Nassar, Michigan State, USA Gymnastics, and other parties by gymnasts including Rachael Denhollander and dozens of Jane Does, this is when a gymnast’s parent says she complained to John Geddert about treatment her daughter received from Nassar, to whom the gym referred athletes seeking medical treatment until this past September. (You can read the suit here.) Geddert, a defendant in the suit, is head coach and owner of Twistars USA, a gymnastics powerhouse in the Lansing area perhaps best known as the gym that produced Jordyn Wieber, the 2011 world champion and 2012 Olympic team gold medalist. (Deadspin could not reach him despite repeated attempts.)
Either that same year or in 1998, according to that civil suit, a gymnast allegedly told Kathy Klages, the now-former head coach of MSU’s women’s gymnastics team, about Nassar’s invasive treatments, only to be discouraged from reporting him.
Another gymnast has since made similar claims about Klages, who was suspended from her duties as team head coach in mid-February and announced her retirement after 27 years at the helm of the program. (Her attorney called the accusations “a serious distraction” and at the time; when reached for comment she admonished Deadspin to report professionally and sent along a press release, which you can read here.)
After those early allegations, several other abuse accusations made against Nassar in Michigan never seemed to move beyond the complaint stage. Former MSU softball player Tiffany Thomas Lopez alleged in a civil suit filed in California in December—it can be read in full here—that in 1999 she complained to MSU trainers about lower-back treatments in which Nassar penetrated her vagina with his hand “bare, ungloved and unlubricated.” She says, according to the complaint, that after reporting this she was told that what happened was not sexual abuse.
Five years later, in 2004, according to court documents filed in the Denhollander suit, one of the plaintiffs—then a teenage girl—came to Nassar’s office for treatment of lower-back pain caused by playing basketball and soccer. He touched her vagina and her breast, she says, and required her to re-dress with him in the room. She says, according to the complaint, that she then reported his conduct to her parents and police in Meridian Township, Mich. The allegations as to what happened after that are not clear from court documents, but the Lansing State Journal reported that a county prosecutor said her office had never received a request for charges from police. (The paper subsequently reported that the case was reopened last year.)
Ten years later, according to a report from the State Journal, MSU police investigated Nassar “after a then recent graduate said he sexually assaulted her during an appointment at his campus office for hip pain treatment.” (A Title IX investigator interviewed four experts with “close ties to Nassar and the university,” the State Journal reported; they “agreed Nassar did nothing wrong.”) County prosecutors declined to file charges; the case, though, has since been reopened, reports the State Journal.
About a year after that complaint and investigation, the tide finally started to turn against Nassar, as laid out in a recent story in the Wall Street Journal.
In the spring of 2015, according to the Journal, a coach at the national team training center at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas reported overhearing a conversation between two young gymnasts discussing the penetrative methods of the doctor. This coach reported the conversation to 1988 Olympic alternate Rhonda Faehn, who had just joined USA Gymnastics as the senior vice-president of the women’s program after a successful stint as the head coach of the University of Florida Gators. Faehn immediately moved the complaint up the chain of command to USA Gymnastics president and CEO Steve Penny. In a much-criticized move, the sport’s governing body didn’t immediately report the allegations to local authorities; rather, they first conducted an internal investigation and delayed reporting Nassar to the FBI by over five weeks. (In a statement provided to Deadspin, which can be found in full here, USA Gymnastics described the delay as the necessary result of its investigation and asserted that the FBI had told them the accusations were being handled properly.) It was at that time that USA Gymnastics relieved Nassar of all duties and responsibilities, though they didn’t notify MSU about the doctor’s dismissal and the reasons for it; they assert that this was because they were under orders from the FBI not to do anything that would disrupt the investigation.
Given the silence from USA Gymnastics about his dismissal, Nassar was able to claim on his Facebook page that he was stepping down from his post less than a year before the Olympics because he wanted to focus on his race for the school board in Holt, Mich. He saw patients both at MSU and Twistars for another year.
It was only after Rachael Denhollander filed a criminal complaint with the MSU police at the end of August 2016 that Nassar was suspended from patient and clinical duties. (Denhollander credited the extensive reporting the Indianapolis Star had done about coach sex abuse within USA Gymnastics for her coming forward to both the paper and the police.) She alleges that she was abused while receiving treatment from Nassar as a 15-year-old club gymnast in 2000.
A couple of weeks later, the first of several Jane Does—an Olympic medalist with the 2000 team—filed a lawsuit in California naming Nassar, USA Gymnastics, and past presidents of the organization as defendants.
Since the lawsuit and criminal complaints late last summer, more than 80 women have, according to authorities in Michigan, come forward with allegations against Nassar, and more than 20 civil suits have been filed. Before he was hit with 22 charges of sexual misconduct this week, though, just one criminal complaint of abuse had moved forward against Nassar, in Ingham County, Mich. The victim in this complaint is a family friend—not a gymnast—who alleges that the doctor abused her in his home over several years, starting when she was around 6 and ending when she turned 13. That woman, now in her 20s, testified at a preliminary hearing on February 17th about the years of sex abuse says she endured at Nassar’s hands. After her testimony on Friday, the judge ruled that there is enough evidence for the physician to stand trial.
In addition to the criminal cases in Michigan, the FBI arrested Nassar on charges of child pornography in December. According to the indictment, they discovered 37,000 images on hard drives found on his property, and also found video files of him assaulting young family friends in the pool at his home. Nassar remains in prison without bail awaiting trial in the federal case.
Initially, Nassar, through his first attorney, denied any wrongdoing. As additional accusers came forward, he changed his story and his attorney. His defense since that switch has been to claim that what he performed on the women was a legitimate part of osteopathic practice. (While there is an osteopathic procedure that does involve intra-pelvic manipulation, the American Osteopathic Association, in response to this case, has cautioned that this procedure is not commonly used.) As MLive wrote: “Those accusing Nassar of abuse in interviews and legal filings point to what they say are red flags that his treatment was not a legitimate medical procedure: He didn’t wear gloves, use lubricant, always have a third party in the room or get consent from patients.” (That same story notes that according to MSU records obtained through a FOIA request, the university put protocols in place requiring Nassar to have a third party in the room; he failed to follow them.)
Since the Star’s reporting on USA Gymnastics’ handling of sex-abuse allegations against coaches, the organization has come under heavy fire, not only from fans and the media, but from Congress. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein was featured in the 60 Minutes segment, condemning the governing body’s handling of sexual-abuse claims. Even before the Nassar story broke, past presidents of USA Gymnastics admitted in depositions in a Georgia lawsuit having to do with a separate scandal not involving Nassar —you can read it here—that they didn’t immediately report abuse claims that were sent their way to the local authorities.
Instead, they said, they often kept files, sometimes several inches thick, on coaches, with letters—typically from other coaches and gym owners—alleging misconducting by the suspected coach. They would only go to police with allegations if either a victim or a victim’s parent came forward with a complaint. (A coach reporting suspicious behavior, for example, wouldn’t rise to their standard of proof.) Sometimes they employed private investigators to look into claims before sending them to the authorities, which is what they did when the Nassar allegations first came to light. Feinstein is working on a bill that would make immediate reporting of sex abuse mandatory for amateur athletic organizations.
Less than six months after USA Gymnastics’ most successful Olympic Games, with the coronation of Simone Biles as the greatest gymnast of all time, the organization is breaking beneath the burden of an incomprehensible scandal, seemingly unable to do anything right. Even their public-relations moves in response to the 60 Minutes broadcast backfired. They tweeted a statement, for instance, from Tasha Schwikert, a 2000 Olympic teammate of Dantzscher, in which the former gymnast said that she believed that the USA Gymnastics only had the best interests of athletes in mind:
This angered many in the gymnastics community, who viewed it as an attempt to undercut the testimony of the women who came forward, or even to pit one 2000 team member against another.
From here, things are only likely to get worse. If Manly is correct, we’ll be hearing from many more victims, women who will say that they endured not only harsh training and injuries, but sexual abuse, in search of their Olympic dreams.
Dvora Meyers is a journalist and author of The End of the Perfect 10, a book about the evolution of women’s gymnastics. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, ESPN, and Slate. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, where she lives with her dog, Lizzie. Neither one speaks with a Brooklyn accent.