“We protect our athletes. That’s what we learned from 2000. Not just physically but mentally, you have to protect your athletes. You have to let them know you care.”
Those are the first words you’ll hear from gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar—now disgraced as more than 80 women have come forward saying he sexually abused them under the guise of treating their injures—from an interview done on episode 63 of the podcast GymCastic. The quote leads the podcast intentionally. It’s meant to show why Nassar was so beloved and trusted at the time in the gymnastics community. He emphasizes putting gymnast safety first. He talks about gymnasts’ mental health. At one point, host Jessica O’Beirne says, “People are going to lose their minds when they hear this. They’re going to be so happy to hear this.”
It was a trust and persona that Nassar took advantage of, dozens of women now say, to abuse girls.
As the allegations against Nassar have continued multiplying, now stretching back over two decades, the questions being asked in the months since they entered the public sphere are similar as those in the wake of recent sexual assault scandals at Baylor and Penn State: What did he do, how did he do it, who is to blame, why did this go on for so long? But one of the best resources to understand how Nassar was able to navigate and manipulate the system that was, in theory, supposed to protect these women comes in the form of this 2013 interview given by the former U.S. national team physician.
GymCastic is a USA gymnastics-focused podcast hosted by O’Beirne, who also works full-time as a law research librarian in California. It’s arguably the United States’ most popular gymnastics podcast. The show has featured dozens of big names tied to the USA program; the podcast was where 2012 gold medalist McKayla Maroney announced her retirement. When O’Beirne hosted Nassar on GymCastic in December 2013, it was nearly three years before ex-gymnasts Rachel Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher would tell the Indianapolis Star that Nassar abused them—Dantzscher was initially identified as Jane Doe before speaking publicly in a 60 Minutes interview. Outside of gymnastics he was far from a household name, but within the sport he was the national team physician as well as the women’s gymnastics and women’s crew team physician at Michigan State; on the whole, he was a beloved figure within the gymnastics community.
So it made perfect sense at the time for the opening of GymCastic to heap praise upon Nassar. O’Beirne referred to him as “one of her favorite people,” saying he “the best credentials ever for a gymnastics doctor” thanks to his background in osteopathic medicine as well as athletic training. And Nassar played the part during the interview, with his strong Michigan accent and faux Midwestern values (refusing to curse, he says, “poop happens.”) laid on thick while he expressed his desire to refocus USAG on the gymnasts.
To show this, Nassar spoke highly about the 2000 national team. As the backlash from the 2000 U.S. team members proved, the athletes were being overworked, rushed back from injury, and pushed to their mental boundaries. The secluded Texas ranch—referred to as a “death camp” in the podcast—at which top-level gymnasts trained in preparation for national tryouts and events was run by Martha and Bela Karolyi, the legendary husband-and-wife duo who have served as the last two national team coordinators for the United States.
Amid the disarray of the Texas camp, Nassar stood out. In the interview, he calls the camp “hell” for him and the athletes. He told O’Beirne that he pushed back against diktats issued by the Karolyis and other U.S. coaches that demanded he report athlete injuries directly to them as a way assist with their selection process for the national team. He believed it would lead to the nation’s best athletes being dishonest with him about their physical status and could turn a pre-existing injury into to a career-ending injury.
The bottom line is [USAG] will be selecting athletes. No longer will the athlete that scores the highest go to the event. You’re selecting, you’re picking. And now you want to know their injuries and every detail about their injuries. And you want me to tell you the details of those injuries, so those weigh into how you select those athletes. And you still want the coaches and athletes to come knowingly and tell me this and then for me to share that information with you?
I said, ‘That ain’t gonna happen. They’re going to hide, they’re going to deceive, they’re going to do whatever they can to try and avoid having to show or display any type of injury because that may displace them from the selection.’
Nassar also lobbied for more reasonable training schedules for the athletes. Around the nine-minute mark, he says that rather than abide by the old model—in which the training routine was set in stone by coaches who would make athletes either match the intensity or risk falling behind—athletes should find their “comfort zone and don’t get out of your comfort zone.”
The main goal, Nassar said, was establishing trust among the gymnasts.
In the interview, Nassar said that the USAG of 2000 was the USAG of old—that the new and improved USAG was a communicative, safe environment for athletes. Nassar said that Martha Karolyi made a fundamental change to the way the U.S. program and the ranch functioned when she assumed the role of U.S. national team coordinator from her husband in 2001. He described his relationship with Martha as a “working relationship with trust,” so much so that, as Nassar told it, she used him to get over-eager coaches to back off injured gymnasts.
Nassar: Martha [Karolyi] is the one who tries to get the help get the coaches to decrease. She’s the one who, if they have an injury, “Larry, make sure that coach is not pushing that kid in their personal gym back home.” Not just when I’m showing up here at the ranch, but I’ll get phone calls from her. “Larry, so-and-so is still doing too much. Get on the phone and talk to them.”
O’Beirne: That’s so good to hear.
He even took the time to highlight his emphasis on the mental health of the athletes.
Nassar: The most important, by far, aspect of injury that we need to protect the athlete from is the mental injury. The physical injuries, they can almost always recover from. It’s the mental injuries that leave the scars that keep coming back and haunt them later.”
Nassar furthered his athlete-first stance by saying that the hardware and subsequent financial windfall that comes with claiming a gold medal at the Olympics should not be the main goal of programs and athletes hope to eventually obtain both.
Nassar: The money and medals are all side effect of appropriate reciprocal nourishment. If you focus on the money and the medals, bad things happen.
O’Beirne: I love that, I’m going to make it into a bumper sticker.
He even flexed his medical and physiology acumen in the 48th minute, running through the varying history of popular gymnastics injuries; he followed this by answering a question about popular ACL myths:
Nassar: There’s a lot of debate in literature. There are some studies that say because you’re a female and you menstruate, there’s receptors on the ligament that are based upon your cycles that can make you to tear your ACL. You know, there’s bad thought processes. So there’s all these little issues that pop up here and there, but the bottom line is it’s biomechanical. The alignment of your knee, the angle of your knee, the shape of the balls within your knee ... it’s the biomechanics of your body and the efficiency upon which you are able to do those biomechanics that predisposes you to injury.
In the 38th minute, Nassar addressed a 10-month period of time in the mid-90s during which he was not allowed to be at the camp. Nassar said this had to do with “trust issues” between him and Bela Karolyi after “an individual gymnast created a situation.”
According to Nassar, when Bela was transitioning from being an individual coach to the national team manager, a national team member, whom he did not name, contacted him wanting to change coaches and have Bela coach as a coach 12 months before the 1996 Olympics—he said the athlete felt they could do so because “a lot of the kids will trust me and we talk, you know.” He discouraged the switch, as Bela Karolyi was not allowed to train personal athletes in his new role. Nassar claims that the athlete then penned a letter to the USAG brass in which she stated that Nassar discouraged her from switching coaches because “Bela was abusive.” Bela Karolyi was upset upon reading a copy of the letter, believing that Nassar warned the gymnast, and kept him away from the ranch for 10 months.
Nassar: They trusted me to be with them, just the five of us, at the ranch. I had to wait a whole year to take my boards because I didn’t finish my residency on time and that delays your boards for a whole year. I did all of that. Why would I do that if I thought Bela was abusive, and that’s what I tried to explain to Bela. And now it’s all fine, it’s tempered. But yeah, I wasn’t allowed to be at the ranch for 10 months because of that. You know, it was tough. Those were tough times.
I didn’t graduate from my residency on time because I’m doing things to specifically help [USAG]—Dominique Moceanu had her shin problem and Kerri Strug had a little ankle problem
Nassar said he was able to earn the trust of the Karolyis back through hard work and employing the same attitude he’d held since he started his work— “Gymnast first, gymnast first, gymnast first. Nothing gets in the way of gymnast first.”
Noting that the gymnasts that he once treated in the 1990s were now working as coaches in 2013, Nassar said his reputation as a gymnast-first doctor helped him expand his role within the community, adding that he was well aware that “if you screw up once with one of those gymnasts, it will spread like wildfire.”
Nassar: If you defeat one of the gymnasts, if you do something where you break their train of trust, you’re done. Because they’ll never trust you again. They’ll tell the other gymnasts. You gotta stick with the core—protect the gymnasts mentally and physically.
You gotta stick to that. You gotta stick to the simple fact that the gymnasts have to be honest to themselves first, and not try and lie to themselves about what’s going on. Does that make sense?
O’Beirne: That totally makes sense, it makes a lot of sense. Yeah, this is so good to hear, this is so good to hear.
O’Beirne went on to ask Nassar whether he’d ever experienced similar trust issues with parents and coaches, spurring another anecdote in which Nassar recounted that he’d had several encounters in which parents wanted to sue coaches for not allowing their children to address their injuries. He said multiple times he’d threatened to call child protective services on parents for not addressing injuries, placing the responsibility on them for not better caring for their child.
Nassar: They’d come to me, and I’ve heard this from several different parents, and there were a couple who wanted to sue the coach. I look at the parents and I said, “You’re the parent. Do you want me to call child protective services on you for what you’re just telling me.” I said, “Do you understand you’re the parents? You knew your child was injured and you knew that your child needed medical help to the point that you’re discussing to me right now and you chose not to seek medical attention. Then who’s to blame? It’s your child. You have to do what’s good and right for your child. You have to choose those things. The coach didn’t choose not to do those, you chose. So don’t be blaming the coach, she’s your child.”
That trust still comes up when women talk about Nassar, except now it’s to explain why they waited so long to report him to authorities. Former Michigan State rower Cate Hannum told Deadspin in February that Spartan athletes allowed Nassar’s treatments to continue in part because “he was such an advanced physician and he studied osteopathic medicine, so he understood that kind of treatment in a way that nobody else really did.”
When Rachael Denhollander filed her complaint against Nassar with Michigan State university last year—she told the investigator that the doctor vaginally penetrated her without gloves multiple times after she sought treatment for lower back pain as a 15 year old in 2000—she said that Nassar’s status as a heralded medical member of the gymnastics community dissuaded her from coming forward; she also strongly believed that his word would be valued over hers.
Listening to the podcast can be difficult, no matter one’s connection to the world of gymnastics. In light of the allegations, which eventually will have their day in court, Nassar put on display his complete understanding of how to operate within the gymnastic community, by appearing as an athlete-focused doctor while also politicking with coaches, administrators, and parents well enough to climb up the USAG ladder. In retrospect, it can be sickening; at the time, it was a relief to hear the program was supposedly making a change.
I talked to O’Beirne about the podcast, which she has chosen to leave up although she says she doesn’t have the desire to listen to it again, saying the three times she listened to it during the editing process were enough. When the allegations against Nassar surfaced, O’Beirne said she was mortified when she thought back to the glowing reception she granted Nassar on the podcast. Despite the bad optics, O’Beirne left the show up, and GymCastic has consistently covered the allegations and lawsuit updates in the months since the story first broke.
She said in a recent interview she hopes the segment is used in the future to show that sexual assault is not just carried out by “a scary guy in an alley ripping his jacket open” but by the people society least expects, including doctors and coaches.
“When everything came out, I wanted to get rid of it and never look at it again. But I won’t ever do that because it’s a really important piece of evidence,” O’Beirne said. “The reason that I will not ever take this interview down is because I want people to hear it. Even with how painful it is for me and that I hate that it exists, I want people to listen to it so they know what this sounds like, who this person will be.”