Yesterday, 2012 Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney added her name to the ever-growing list of gymnasts who allege they were sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Maroney is the highest profile athlete to date to come forward; so far, more than 140 women and girls have come forward accusing Nassar of sexually abusing them under the guise of medical treatment. (Nassar, who has pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and is awaiting sentencing, is facing 33 counts of criminal sexual conduct in the state of Michigan. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.)
Yesterday, however, was not the first time that Maroney spoke up about problems inside the USA Gymnastics training system. In early 2016, Maroney announced her retirement from gymnastics on the podcast GymCastic, but the the nearly hour-long conversation with host Jessica O’Beirne, went well beyond the scope of a typical athlete retirement announcement. The former champion spoke candidly about harsh coaching, injuries, and weight. And some of her comments, though not specifically referencing to sex abuse, inform why the gymnasts waited so long to speak up about what happened to them.
Early in the conversation, Maroney spoke about the fracture that she suffered during the first stop of the post-Olympic tour. Already injured from the Olympics, Maroney fractured her tibia while dismounting from the bars and had to be carried off the mat. Many at the time questioned whether the mats were of adequate thickness. From her response on GymCastic, it seemed like Maroney had her doubts about the safety of the setup but never said anything. “I didn’t think about speaking up about that. It just didn’t come up,” she recalled.
This was one of the key themes of Maroney’s podcast interview: She never felt like she could speak out when something was troubling her. She talked about feeling doubted by her personal coaches—Artur Akopyan and Galina Marinova—when she brought up the pain she was feeling after the 2013 world championships, which turned out to be her final competition as an elite gymnast. (Akopyan and Marinova have been named in at least one of the Nassar-related lawsuits.)
“My whole body felt like it was broken. It was shattered,” Maroney recalled. She said that when she told her coach about how she was feeling, the coach’s response centered on the weight she had gained after taking some time off from training after worlds. “She was like, ‘Yeah, it’s probably because you had a lot of days off so you gained weight,’” Maroney recalled being told.
“I was taught that resting was lazy, resting was you just not trying hard enough. You would go into the gym and would have something hurt. Most gymnasts are used to this, just somebody saying, ‘No you’re fine.’ So you believe you’re fine.”
“They always make excuses for pain...You start thinking that your pain isn’t real... I, for so long, thought I was going insane. I just thought was making it up. That’s what everybody was telling me.”
Eventually, Maroney realized that despite her coaches’ assertions to the contrary, she was not fine. She was diagnosed with tendinosis and problems with blood flow to her leg and underwent surgery. The pain, as so many had been telling her, was not “just in her head.”
While she doesn’t mention sexual abuse, it’s hard to re-listen to this podcast in light of all that has been revealed since last September, when the first allegations against Nassar were made public, and not consider how the atmosphere Maroney described helped conceal the former team physician’s alleged crimes. Would any gymnast feel comfortable coming forward about sexual abuse to a coach who expressly doubted that they were injured and in pain?
“My whole life, I never listened to myself,” Maroney said.
It’s heartbreaking to hear a young woman who performed with such self-assurance on the biggest stage in sports—her vault in the 2012 team final is still the greatest vault ever performed by a female gymnast—admit that she wasn’t able to express what she was feeling and experiencing.
When Maroney gave this interview, Nassar’s alleged crimes were known to some in the gymnastics community. He had been fired by USA Gymnastics during the summer of 2015 and news of his conduct had filtered out to a handful of people. It’s not implausible that Maroney had Nassar and his “treatments” in mind.
In the February 2016 interview, she seemed, at times, to be dancing around something bigger. “Once you get stuck in not speaking up for yourself, the universe gives you more and more things that, like, bring you down because you need to eventually learn how to speak up for yourself,” she told O’Beirne.
“It was my lesson to learn and I needed to learn it.”