‘WE ALL TRUSTED HIM’

The doc­tor, the child star & the 20-year abuse scan­dal

Cosmopolitan (UK) - - Contents - Words ABI­GAIL PESTA

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?

Ris­ing star

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.

Los­ing con­trol

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.

Bat­tle won

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)

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