The known number of women and girls who were sexually abused by Larry Nassar, the former US gymnastics team doctor, is 265. Earlier this week, 141 of his victims reunited on stage at the ESPY Awards (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award) to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Here, Stylist shares some of the their stories.
Warning: this article contains details of a sexual assault case that some readers may find triggering.
In January this year, 156 women stood up in Ingham County court in Michigan to testify against former US gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar.
Aged between 15 and 39, the women, including Olympic gymnasts, took to the stand to share their statements and address Nassar directly.
The abuse appeared to follow a similar pattern: the women would go to Nassar, a respected doctor, in pain with various injuries. He, in turn, would abuse them with his “special treatment”, inserting his ungloved fingers into their vaginas or rectums. Some were abused hundreds of times, others once or twice. The abuse had a lasting impact on them all.
After listening to their testimonies, and reading a further 24 victim impact statements, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Nassar to 175 years in prison, and said he must serve at least 40. Nassar had already been sentenced to 60 years in prison for possessing over 37,000 images of child pornography, and pleaded guilty in November to “seven charges of first-degree sexual assault”.
“I just signed your death warrant,” she told him, adding “I hope you are shaken to your core”.
She also praised the women who came forward to speak in court, telling them “You are no longer victims. You are survivors.”
Quoting a statistic that says one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, she said: “That means that in the United States, 400,000 babies born in the US will become victims of child sexual abuse.”
She added: “It stops now. Speak out like these survivors; become part of the army.”
Here, Stylist shares 26 of the survivors’ stories, alongside some of the powerful words they spoke aloud in court.
Ashley Erickson was a patient of Nassar for 17 years. She said she has only come to fully understand his abuse through hearing the testimonies of other women.
“Ever since I realised what he was actually doing, I’ve been through hell,” Erickson said in court. “I have to rethink everything. I have no trust left. How can I trust when someone I trusted for years, took advantage of me?”
Facing Nassar, Erickson said: “Today I can say I’m finally ready to face you … Why did you do this? You were the adult, you were the doctor.”
Donna Markham on behalf of her late daughter, Chelsea
Chelsea died by suicide when she 23.
“Every day I miss (her),” her mother said. “Every day. And it all started with him.”
Olivia Cowan was 13 when she was referred to Nassar with a lower back injury. In court, she described how his confident manner led her to believe there was nothing wrong with his actions.
“He was so sly, even with a mother in the room. His demeanor stood for trust,” she said.
Cowan is now a cosmetologist with two daughters, and she wants to ensure that abuse of this scale is never covered up for so long again.
“I am really struggling with the people who could have prevented this and saved so many women,” she said. “I want women and girls to know they are not alone.”
“He was the only one that could help me,” she said. “Most of all, he gave me hope. Here I was, a scared little girl in excruciating back pain. This grown man confidently offered me salvation, healing freedom.”
However, Nassar went on to abuse Halicek multiple times.
“He turned out to be a monster,” Halicek said. “He was an unwarranted intruder to my most private, never been touched places. Again, and again, and again he abused me all while telling me tales of his Olympic journey.”
Nassar later told Halicek that her spine was untreatable, and that she could no longer be a gymnast.
Jennifer Rood-Bedford was a volleyball player referred to Nassar for help with shoulder, back and leg injuries. She cried in court as she described how he asked her to lay face down on a medical table in a private room, before applying pressure to her pelvic area with his fingers. He later put his fingers in her vagina.
“When he started treatment, I remember him saying his treatment relied upon applying pressure to areas around the pelvis and that this was normal,” she said. “So when he went down there, I just told myself it was normal, that he knows what he’s doing and don’t be a baby.
“I remember laying there and thinking, ‘Is this OK? This doesn’t seem right.’”
Rood-Bedford added a powerful message to her testimony.
“There are people that are hesitant to speak up because they think a victim wanted to be assaulted. And that’s just not true.”
Amanda Thomashow was in her twenties and studying to go to medical school when she went to see Nassar about hip and back pain. She told the court she thought Nassar was a “hero doctor in town” who would help her with the pain.
“That man was no hero, he was a villain,” she said.
Addressing Nassar directly, Thomashow said, “Larry, the thing you didn’t realise when you were sexually assaulting me … was that you were building an army of survivors who would ultimately expose you for who you are.
“From this rubble we will rise as an army of female warriors.”
Jeanette Antolin, who was one of America’s most celebrated gymnasts in the Nineties, spoke in court to say Nassar violated her trust by repeatedly sexually assaulting her over the course of several years.
“Little did I know that behind his good guy façade, there was a monster preying on innocent victims such as myself,” she said. “He robbed a good portion of my gymnastics experience but not just from me, from countless women.”
Addressing Nassar, she added, “You made me believe you were my friend. I truly believe you are the spawn of Satan. There’s no therapy that will fix the evil that’s deep inside you.”
Tiffany Thomas Lopez
Tiffany Thomas Lopez was a freshman on the Michigan State University softball team when she made an appointment with Nassar, who was working as the school sports therapist. She hoped he would help alleviate her back pain but, during the appointment, he put his fingers into her vagina.
“I imagine hitting you if I ever had the opportunity to see you again,” she told him in court. “Instead I will allow my thoughts and my feelings to hit your heart.”
Former athlete Gwen Anderson, previously known as “Victim 83”, only made the decision to reveal her identity shortly before speaking in court. Anderson now works as a teacher and wanted to make an example to her two sons, as well as to her students.
“I still remember the feeling of his hand,” she said in court. “I still remember flinching from his touch and I still remember him saying, ‘It’s OK, I know you’re not used to being touched that way but you’ll feel better.’”
As she was speaking, Nassar refused to look at her, as he did with so many of victims: as they came forward, one by one, he would mostly keep his head or his eyes down to avoid looking at them, NBC reported.
However, for coach Tom Brennan, this was not good enough. “Look at her!” he told Nassar, before adding that he should “go to hell” once Anderson had finished her testimony.
Speaking in court on permission of the judge, he continued, “When I graduated from grad school [Nassar] was an adviser of mine. He’s been a mentor of mine. I’ve done clinics with him for years in the past. And I’ve also sent well over a hundred kids to him over the years.
“So the guilt I feel for that is hard to fathom.”
Arianna Guerrero is a 16-year-old high school gymnast who visited Nassar after experiencing back pain. Following his abuse, she had to enroll for online classes at school because she was scared of sitting too closely to other students, in case the contact caused her to have a panic attack.
“I am only 16. I should not even know what an impact statement is. I shouldn’t know what the inside of a courtroom looks like,” she said in court.
“You have a hard time looking at me now. But you didn’t seem to have a problem when I was half naked on your table.”
Melody Posthuma-Vanderveen addressed the court to say she was first abused by Nassar when she was 13 years old. She described Nassar as a “craftsman of manipulation”, but said that she was praying for him.
“We need to call out the deeper issue at hand,” she added. “We live in a society where action is not taken when it’s most needed.”
Christine Harrison, a gymnast and soccer player, was abused by Nassar between the ages of 15 and 16, after seeking treatment for injuries.
“I know the truth. Regardless if he remembers what he did to me or not, I remember,” she said in court. “That’s all that matters. You knew what you were doing was wrong. It wasn’t until you got caught that you started to beg for forgiveness.”
Jessica Smith, a dancer, saw Nassar when she was 17, in the hope that he would be able to heal her severely sprained ankle. He told her that he would need to work on a pressure point in her vagina in order to heal her ankle.
“I’m mortified that I didn’t understand exactly what that meant at that time,” she said in court.
Smith has since gone on to found the movement #MeToMSU, supporting Nassar’s victims of Michigan State University.
“Even though I’m a victim, I do not and will not live my life as one,” she said. “I’m an Olympian despite being abused. I worked hard and managed to achieve my goal.”
“You have not taken gymnastics away from me,” she told him. “I love this sport, and that love is stronger than the evil that resides in you, in those who enabled you to hurt many people.”
She added, “I will not rest until every last trace of your influence on this sport has been destroyed like the cancer it is.”
Kaylee McDowell first went to Nassar with a heel injury, and from the age of 12 he abused her “hundreds of times”. She said she trusted him, and that he told her they had a “special bond”. At one point, he even gave her his Olympic jacket to wear.
“You are sick in the head, and I am sick, but I will not be forever,” she told him during the hearing.
“You will fall into your grave, and I will rise.”
Anya Gillengarten saw Nassar for treatment after being injured in an automobile accident. She was 16 at the time, and said she has been unable to visit a doctor since.
Now 33, she said: “Larry stole my childhood, my innocence, my virginity and my self worth.”
Anna Dayton was the 130th woman to give her statement at the hearing. Standing with her parents, she said Nassar used his power as a medical expert to abuse her.
“I’m here to take back my power [and] relinquish yours,” she said to Nassar. “From now on, I decide who I become. I will write the ending to my life story, free from this darkness that you’ve created.”
Fifteen-year-old Jillian Swinehart started seeing Nassar when she was eight.
“You have to be the most sick and twisted person ever to do that to young girls,” she told him.
Gymnast Emily Morales said she had been in denial about Nassar’s abuse. She spoke on day six of the trial, after watching the first three days and realising that she was not alone in her experiences.
Describing the abuse, she said, “He would rub one hand up and down my leg and butt as the other ungloved hand penetrated me … He talked about how my muscles were so tight.”
She added, “My innocent naive self, had no idea that what he was doing was not medical care. It was sexual abuse.”
Mattie Larson was a former U.S. National Gymnastics team member and silver world championships medalist. She was first abused by Nassar when she was 14, and said that a few days after she could barely “lift [her] foot off the ground”.
She went on to describe how the abuse ruined both her love of the sport, and her career: “I was at the height of my career at 19 and the Olympics were just a year away and I just couldn’t take any more of the abuse.
“I was broken. Larry, my coaches, and USA Gymnastics turned the sport I fell in love with as a kid to my personal living hell.”
Brianne Randall said she was abused by Nassar when she was 17. Now a family practice physician assistant, she said she was shocked to discover that many of her own patients were victims of sexual abuse.
Addressing Nassar at the hearing, she said: “I was a 17-year-old that reported your abuse to police in 2004. You used my vulnerability at the time to sexually abuse me. I reported you to police immediately and had a rape kit done … you had the audacity to tell [police] I misunderstood the treatment because I wasn’t comfortable with my body. How dare you? Sadly they took your word instead of mine.”
Morgan McCaul, a dancer, first visited Nassar when she was 12. She said she viewed him as a mentor and friend, and did not realise that he had abused her until 2016.
“You violated the very principle of your calling: Do no harm,” she told him during the hearing.
Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse and, at the hearing, she was the last woman to deliver her impact statement.
“How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?” she asked.
Later, addressing the judge, she added, “I plead with you to impose the maximum sentence under the plea agreement because everything is what these survivors are worth”.
You can read her full statement here.
Images: Rex Features