‘WE ALL TRUSTED HIM’
The doctor, the child star & the 20-year abuse scandal
The afternoon that Lindsey Lemke was sexually abused for the first time was like any other; unremarkable. As she lay on a massage table, a fortysomething man’s fingers worming their way into her body, she thought it was normal. She thought this was helping.
She was 13 years old. Her world was gymnastics. And in her world, the man she saw three times a week was celebrated across America. He was the doctor for USA Gymnastics. He’d guided her idols through four Olympic Games. When girls were in pain, they saw him and this was what he did.
On 25th January this year, that same man stood, his eyes glazed, as he was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. One hundred and fifty-six women confronted Larry Nassar in court, their testimonies drawing gasps from those in attendance. Two dozen more submitted private letters to the judge, each with their own account of what Nassar did to them in the name of medical treatment. Their stories are eerily similar: penetration of the vagina, sometimes the anus, with his fingers, to ‘help’ injuries. While serving him his sentence, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said,“You do not deserve to walk out of a prison ever again… I just signed your death warrant.”
But, in a frightening echo of the Weinstein case, it now transpires that gymnasts and their parents began making documented complaints about Nassar as far back as 1997. His pattern of abuse spans his entire career. So, again, the question most of us want answered is: why did it take more than 20 years for the world to listen?
Lindsey was in nursery when she started attending gymnastics classes at a local gym in Bay City, Michigan. “I never wanted to take my leotard off,” she recalls. “I used to sleep in it. I’d do round-offs and back handsprings in the garden, in the dining room.” Her talent was immediately obvious, and soon her coach referred her to a prestigious gym in Lansing called Twistars. Her mum, a dental nurse, would drive a threehour round trip after school to get her there and home.
“The coaches worked me really hard,” remembers Lindsey.“It was driven into your brain that when you go to a meet, you win – there is nothing else. They’d yell at you for missing one turn.”
It was tough. But Lindsey loved gymnastics, and was determined to make level 10 – one notch below the Olympics. After three years, her family moved to be closer to Twistars, and she began training before and after school – up to seven hours a day. At 10,
she hit a “hot streak”, winning state and national championships in the floor exercise and uneven bars.
By 11, she’d achieved her ambition: level 10. But then, during a particularly nasty landing, she went over on her ankle. There was one man who she was assured would help her: Nassar. Not only did he treat all the girls at Twistars, he was also an associate professor at Michigan State University and the physician for the US Olympic gymnastics team. In Lindsey’s world, he was pretty much a celebrity.
“He seemed very genuine,” Lindsey recalls.“Not creepy.” He told her that her foot was broken and would take up to six weeks to heal.
Then, aged 13, her back started aching and she returned to him.“My pain was so extreme that it hurt to breathe, to bend down, to stand up,” she recalls. Nassar diagnosed her with a condition that meant her vertebrae grew unevenly. She’d eventually grow out of it, but in the meantime, he said, his treatments would loosen her muscles.
“My muscles were so inflamed,” says Lindsey, now 21.“He told me that if he inserted a finger and pressure-pointed a certain area, it’d make it feel better.”
He’d offered to treat her after his normal office hours to accommodate her family’s schedule. She’d call him from her mobile as her mum dropped her off at the university, and Nassar would let her in via a side door.
“He would have me lie on my stomach on a table,” she says.“Then he’d massage my back, using his elbows and forearms.” Nassar would work his way toward her bum – before kneading her vagina over her clothes. Then he’d slip a hand down the back of her underwear and start stroking her skin. Finally, he’d push a finger inside her.
This penetration lasted 15 to 20 minutes, while he massaged her back with his other hand. She had just turned 13 and had never kissed a boy. She had never even held hands with one. Nassar was a celebrated physician with a wife and three kids. It never occurred to Lindsey that he was violating her.“When it first started happening, it hurt. I hadn’t had anything like that done before,” says Lindsey.“But I thought it was a legitimate medical treatment… Who was I to question him?”
Lindsey started seeing him several times a week, the treatment eventually moving to a makeshift clinic in the basement of his house, just doors from Lindsey’s dad’s place.
She began confiding in him like she would a friend.“If you had a bad day with a coach, he would talk to you about it,” she says.“If I got into a fight with my mum, I could talk to him.” While lying on the massage table, she’d chat to him about what was going on in her life. At other times, she called or texted him. He lavished her with gifts, including T-shirts and pins he brought back from the Olympics. At one point, the pain became so extreme she thought about quitting, but Nassar convinced her to stay.
He also cultivated a close relationship with her parents, socialising with them and declining to bill their health insurer, saying that he saw their daughter’s potential and wanted to help. Lindsey’s mum, Christy Lemke-Akeo, bought him bottles of his favourite scotch as a thankyou. The friendship Nassar forged with her parents is one reason Lindsey decided not to share what happened during her treatments.“I assumed they knew,” she says. “Because they were just like, ‘Alright, going to get groceries! Hope it makes you feel better!’”
Her sessions carried on for four years, until she moved away from the area. Looking back, she estimates he penetrated her 600 times over that period.
Lindsey’s silence makes sense when you consider the highly competitive world of gymnastics, and more widely, elite sports. In this world, girls get used to their bodies – and actions – being out of their own control. To reach a professional level, the sport comes above everything: every spare minute of their day, when they’re not studying or sleeping, is devoted to their practice. While their peers are hanging around shopping centres, they’re in the gym for 30 hours a week, doing the same move over and over again. It’s isolating, but ignited by the deep drive inside them. And during that time, they are being told what to do with every part of their body, being guided into position by coaches’ hands. The coach is king, as is any professional who can help you reach your potential. “It’s an environment where you ask your coach for permission to go to the bathroom,”
“I thought it was legitimate. Who was I to question him?”
says Courtney Kiehl, a former gymnast and executive director of Abused Children Heard Everywhere. “You really believe that what they’re doing is in your best interest and will help you achieve your goals.”
Of course, there are those whose only intention is for their squad to reach their potential. But for men like Nassar? It’s an opportunity. “Predators groom not only the child, but also the community and the parents,” says Barbara Dorris, victims’ managing director at advocacy group the Survivors Network Of Those Abused By Priests.
Experts say it’s common for childhood abuse victims not to fully realise what’s happening. “Their brains are still developing,” says Brian Pinero, vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. “If someone tells them something is OK, they have no frame of reference. Kids are impressionable.”
That is, until March 2016, when a team of five journalists, working on
The Indianapolis Star, began investigating stories of coaches and doctors sexually abusing the gymnasts in their care. One name kept coming up: Larry Nassar.
The report was published in August, with two former gymnasts blowing the whistle on what Nassar had done to them one month later. Rachael Denhollander, now in her thirties, was one of them. She then filed a criminal complaint against Nassar, saying that she was sexually abused by him aged 15 during treatments for lower back pain.
Dozens of others soon spoke out, including Olympians Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman. By the time of his sentencing, more than 150 women had come forward, many waiving their right to anonymity to face their abuser in court. Among those who have spoken out are Jeanette Antolin, Kaylee Lorincz, Jessica Howard and four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles, who detailed her experiences in a #MeToo tweet. But the road to justice was long, and paved with denial from Nassar.
In November 2016, Nassar pleaded not guilty to three counts of criminal conduct with a person under the age of 13. Then, that December, he was arrested on childpornography charges after the FBI found more than 37,000 images and videos in his home. He pleaded guilty to this – but still maintained his innocence regarding the assaults. He claimed that what he had done was genuine medical treatment.
This was a line he’d used for a long time. According to lawsuits (he also faces civil charges from his victims), the first complaint made against Nassar was in 1997, from parents to the owners of the gymnastics club he worked for. Complaints followed him from job to job – but they were all dismissed. Then, in 2015, USA Gymnastics fired him as its national physician on suspicions of abuse. The problem? They failed to tell Michigan State University, where he carried on working. USA Gymnastics says it reported Nassar to the FBI.
Eventually, the storm surrounding Nassar was too much. In November last year, he pleaded guilty to seven counts of sexual assault, leading to his sentencing this year.
When Lindsey first heard the allegations against Nassar, she thought that Rachael must have had an agenda. That she had failed as a gymnast and was taking it out on Nassar. Her mum asked her directly if Nassar had abused her, and she said no. She still believed his ‘treatment’ was medical. He was her trusted confidante; she just couldn’t see him as a villain.
But then he was arrested, casting a dark shadow over her past. That’s when she began poring over press reports. Suddenly, her sessions seemed more menacing: “He took me into his basement because he didn’t want his wife
“You believe that what they’re doing will help you”
and kids to be around. He never billed our insurance because then there was no evidence [he was treating me]… It all came together.”
Still, as the reports emerged, many people maintained that Nassar’s victims would have known what was happening to them. And it was this assumption that made Lindsey step forward.“A friend posted something on Facebook about how [the victims] were stupid not to realise it was happening,” she says. “I got mad. I said, ‘Look, the gymnastics world is different from anything you can comprehend. You have no idea [about] the things we go through.”
The Nassar case highlights the horrifying dynamic that is at play in so many elite sports. But why does it keep happening? Because the training required to reach the top can put young people into the hands of predators, in a culture in which preserving gold-medal chances is given priority over safeguarding those in danger. Predators like Scott Volkers, the Australian swimming coach charged with five counts of indecent treatment of children in 2016. He was first investigated in 2002. Or Daniel Sanders, a UK tennis player turned coach, who was jailed for six years last July for eight counts of sexual activity with a child. The alarm was raised about him, and ignored, in 2012. Or Matt Bell, the Canadian swimming coach sentenced to seven months in jail for sexual exploitation last November. The list goes on.
And these are just the cases that have reached the press in the last two years: a Washington Post review found that 290 officials associated with Olympic sports organisations in the US have been accused of sexual misconduct since 1982. Meanwhile, UK football is currently facing a historic sex-abuse scandal, with 331 clubs said to have been affected by coaches abusing players from the ’70s to the ’90s.
But finally, in the wake of these floodgates opening, change is being made to protect athletes. In the US, thanks to Nassar’s victims testifying, a bill has been passed requiring sports organisations to report abuse claims to law enforcement. And, aside of this, 11 Olympic national governing bodies publish lists online of those banned for sexual misconduct to prevent them from joining other organisations that work with children. In the UK, the Football Association is leading a review into what clubs know about crimes committed by coaches. And following the Sanders case, the Lawn Tennis Association has apologised, saying the action they took to protect children was ‘not enough.’ It has also launched an independent enquiry.
Lindsey, meanwhile, has been working with a therapist and leaning on her strong support system, which includes assistant coaches at MSU and her boyfriend of three years. Now a senior in college, she’s still a star gymnast – and considering becoming a coach. Ironically, the sport that put her in harm’s way, she says, also fortified her. “Growing up, I was never allowed to feel sorry for myself,” she says. “I think that’s honestly what’s helping me now.”
Lindsey is now 21 years old
Lindsey, aged 10
Nassar finally pleaded guilty in November 2017
Nassar with McKayla Maroney
Olympic star Simone Biles Lindsey breaks down in court
Victim Larissa Boyce (right)