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Gymnastics Hasn't Changed Since Nassar, Survivor Rachael Denhollander Says

Rachael Denhollander accepts the "Inspiration of the Year Award" at Sports Illustrated 2018 Sportsperson of the Year Awards Show on December 11, 2018.
Rich Polk
Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
Rachael Denhollander accepts the "Inspiration of the Year Award" at Sports Illustrated 2018 Sportsperson of the Year Awards Show on December 11, 2018.

In 2018, former Olympic and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sexually abusing girls and women under the guise of treatment, and was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. The sentencing came after more than 150 survivors read powerful statements in court reflecting on the abuse. Rachael Denhollander read one of those statements, and the judge called her "the bravest woman I've ever had in my courtroom."

That's because Denhollander was one of the people responsible for bringing Nassar to justice. A former gymnast, she was the first person to accuse Nassar publicly of abuse. She's now a lawyer who has represented survivors in court during USA Gymnastics' bankruptcy proceedings.

Denhollander told Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition that the sport still has widespread problems with abuse. She also spoke about what Simone Biles' courage meant to abuse survivors.

NPR reached out to USA Gymnastics for a response. President and CEO Li Li Leung provided this statement:

"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."

Click here to listen to Denhollander and Inskeep's full conversation or continue below for excerpts. You can also hear more from survivorson theBelievedpodcast from Michigan Public Radio.

On whether Nassar's conviction meant the end of widespread abuse in U.S. gymnastics:

"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 [USA Gymnastics], and it had nothing to do with Larry. Because what's been going on in [USA Gymnastics] 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 and 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."

On whether there are still sexual abusers within the gymnastics industry who haven't been brought to justice yet:

"I know for a fact that there are, because I know the victims. Added to that, we've been in bankruptcy proceedings with [USA Gymnastics] for the last three years. Two years ago, we had a hearing where I had the opportunity to ask the chief financial officer of [USA Gymnastics] 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."

On whether there was a positive element to Simone Biles pulling out of Olympic events to protect her health:

"Actually, 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 someone 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 the 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."

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.