When Jessica Howard entered the world of gymnastics in 1987, she was three years old and wore a pink leotard adorned with poodles. She would go on to become a three-time national champion and later serve on the board of USA Gymnastics. The experience would nearly kill her.
Her star began rising when she was 10 years old and discovered rhythmic gymnastics, a form of the sport that requires extreme flexibility and strength, incorporating artistic items such as a ball, ribbon, or hoop. “As soon as I started it, I was dedicated,” she says. “I thought it was magical.”
When she was 12, Jessica moved on to an elite coach in her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
“The first day I went to the new gym, it was a different universe,” she says, sitting in her Manhattan apartment with a Diet Coke in hand, her pointy-eared puppy, Thor, racing around the room. The coach didn’t pay much attention to her that day, but showed her how to do a graceful toss with a ball, extending her arm and touching the ball lightly with her fingertips, letting it roll into her hand. “I was enamored with the specificity,” Jessica says.
The coach said to do the move 20 times. Jessica wanted to impress her. “I could see from the instant I stepped into the gym that she held my dream in her hands,” she says. Jessica did the move hundreds of times. The coach noticed.
The next day, Jessica felt sick after the repetitive workout in the sweltering gym, which lacked air conditioning, but still, she says, “I was so in love with everything. To me, the gymnasts looked like Rodin sculptures.”
She began training six days a week, five hours a day. “There were days when you would be so drenched, so weak and light-headed, you’d feel like you couldn’t walk,” she says. She kept going. In training, repetition ruled the day. The philosophy was, “You practice so much, you never make a mistake,” she explains. However, she adds, “It crossed a line.”
The sport took over Jessica’s being. “My eating habits changed. I had no interest in food. I turned myself into a machine,” she says. “I was technically anorexic.” She was chasing her dream, becoming “an art form,” she says.
“I transformed myself. I became a sculpture.”
The more Jessica achieved, the more negative the coaching became. She recalls getting belittled and berated, with her coach yelling, “You’re never going to be anything!” Sometimes the girls were told they looked like “fat elephants” or “ugly sacks of potatoes.” For Jessica, the competitions became more about trying to please her merciless coach than winning. “The pressure was extraordinary,” she says. “I tried not to think of every competition as life or death, dream or no dream.”
In photos from the time, with her body flexed in near-impossible, artistic poses, indeed, she looks like a sculpture.
But she was beginning to crack. Jessica suffered severe pain in her hips, and it hurt to walk. She developed obsessive-compulsive disorder, picking at her thumbnails until they bled and stung. At night in bed, she ran through her routines, repeating them relentlessly in her mind.
In 1999, when she was 15, she won her first of three national championship titles. But she was descending into darkness. When her coach “eviscerated” her at a practice for the world championships, she thought about killing herself. “I remember feeling like an ant,” she says. “I felt so small.”
Eventually her journey took her to Olympic doctor Larry Nassar. In late 1999, as her hip pain progressed, officials at USAG sent her to the Karolyi Ranch, which at the time served as the national team’s training center in Texas, to see him. She knew he was a big deal, and she felt honored.
The ranch turned out to be a nightmare. Jessica was there solely to see Nassar for a week, not to train, and she felt isolated, especially since no parents were allowed there. “It was like a prison on an island where you couldn’t escape.”
She was the perfect target for a predator. At her first appointment, Nassar abused her immediately while pretending to treat her.
“I see these very clear images—him standing over me, the proximity, the helplessness of being on the table, the rigidity of my body, lying on my back. His glasses. His greasy hair. A bookshelf in the room. A hanging TV in the corner. Old-style camp doors,” she says. She had never given any thought to predators or abuse. “I was an extremely innocent child,” she says. And, like most gymnasts immersed in training, she says, “Boys were so not on my radar. I’d never had a first kiss.” Still, she suspected something was wrong and called her mother, but couldn’t find the right words. Her mom thought the Olympic doctor was trying to help.
Jessica saw him every day—until the final appointment. “I didn’t want to go,” she says. “Something felt physically repulsive about it.” And so, Nassar came to her cabin. When he knocked on the door, she was sitting on the floor, her arms around her knees. “I tensed up,” she says. “I told him I felt sick. He was inside the room now. He kept trying to get me to go. But I refused.” She left the ranch and buried the experience.
Years later, in 2009, after she retired from the sport, she had an opportunity to join the board of USA Gymnastics, serving as an “athlete representative.” She thought she could convey the concerns of athletes to the board and help change the culture of the sport.
That’s not how it turned out.
“The whole thing was geared toward money and medals,” she says. The board meetings were highly structured, she recalls, with people voting on superficial issues, nothing controversial. Board members watched uplifting video montages of girls winning medals. They discussed lucrative sponsorships. They went to dinners at fancy restaurants on the organization’s dime. Once, a sexual abuse case did come up at a board meeting, she says, and a lawyer spoke briefly to the group, saying, “We have it covered financially.” Then everyone moved on.
“They were concerned about lawsuits, not people,” she says. “I would put on a good show at the meeting, then go home and have a breakdown. I knew I was depressed.”
In 2013, she left the board, sought help from a therapist, and tried to move forward, but remained tangled in depression.
In the fall of 2016, the Indianapolis Star published an exposé on how USA Gymnastics had mishandled reports of abuse at the hands of coaches. One night, Olympic medalist Dominique Moceanu called Jessica and asked if she had ever been abused. “Dominique is very perceptive,” Jessica says. Jessica thought back to her time at the ranch with Nassar. Things started to click. Her childhood instincts had been right. She told Dominique: Yes.
But Jessica continued her plunge into depression, she says, as she tried to come to grips with what the sport had taken from her. “I had no vision for my future,” she says. “I was sleeping more than people sleep on death row.”
The depression grew so deep, it spurred her sister to help her check into a psychiatric ward of a Manhattan hospital. “That was quite sobering,” Jessica says. “They take your clothes, shoes, purse, anything you could use to harm yourself.” She recalls the uneasy feeling of being watched—and the fear that if she said something wrong, she could be institutionalized. “It felt like a horror film,” she says, recalling the eerie pink walls of her room, the thin mattress, the rose-colored window frame, the room checks at night, and her roommate, a completely silent woman in her eighties.
After 11 days of intensive therapy and the frightening realization that she could lose her freedom, she says, “I flipped a switch.” She decided she would prevail. “I thought, I choose my family. I won’t leave them.” She went home, and continued seeing a therapist, striving to find a new path.
Today, Jessica has found that path. She is a leading advocate for the rights of children in sports, speaking before Congress, state legislatures, and the Council on Foreign Relations, among many others. Her new life as an activist has helped give her a purpose.
“It is exactly what I wanted to do next. Children should not have to sacrifice their futures because of a culture of mental, physical, and sexual abuse in sports,” she says. “This is worthy of all my fight.”
This article is adapted from the book The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down by Abigail Pesta. Copyright © 2019. Published by arrangement with Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist and author whose work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME, and other outlets.