Gymnastics star Aly Raisman, 23, is an Olympic gold medalist and outspoken survivor of sexual abuse that she says began when she was 15, and outlines in a victim impact statement published in December 2017.
Her alleged abuser, former Michigan State sports doctor Larry Nassar, 54, pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in November 2017. Already sentenced to 60 years of federal prison for child pornography charges, Nassar faces at least 25 more years in prison for charges of sexual assault. This week, at his sentence hearing, nearly 100 of his victims are reading their victim impact statements, detailing alleged abuse by Nassar.
Updated Friday, Jan. 19 at 2:20pm EST: Although Raisman initially tweeted that she wouldn’t read her published statement at the sentencing because it would be too traumatic, she appeared in court on Friday to address her alleged abuser directly.
At an event held on Thursday, January 18 celebrating Playtex Sport's free tampon vending machines at New York City's Chelsea Piers, University of Connecticut, and University of Texas, which are activated when athletes Instagram advice using the hashtag #PlayOn, Raisman, who is a brand spokesperson, shared her advice for other sexual assault survivors and discussed the importance of continuing the conversation – even after justice is served.
When did you realize you'd experienced sexual assault?
It was when Fran Sepler [an interviewer hired by USA Gymnastics to contribute to its private investigation of sexual-abuse allegations] came to my house, and she asked me questions about Larry Nassar.
Even though at times, I thought Larry was weird and he made me uncomfortable, I never imagined he was a monster and what he was doing was really wrong because I thought only strangers could hurt me. But then I realized I had been manipulated to stick up for Larry, and I had been brainwashed to think he was a good person because everyone had been telling me he was the best doctor. [Editor's note: In Raisman's impact statement, she writes that Nassar insisted his "inappropriate touch" was medicinal and would help her get to the Olympic Games.] I think a lot of people don’t understand the manipulation and the brainwashing that comes along with the abuse. It’s very confusing. It’s very hard to cope with.
After talking to Fran, my mom helped me sort of process everything by talking through it, which I’m still processing today. Abuse isn’t something you suffer in the moment during the time of the abuse – it carries on with you for the rest of your life.
It sounds like you experienced self-doubt in the initial stages. What advice do you have for others experiencing the same sort of doubt?
If you are unsure about something, it’s important to ask questions and it’s important to talk about it. If I had told someone what Larry did to us, they would have known that it was abuse – although many, many people did report it to authorities, or to adults, and they didn’t listen. They always took Larry’s side, which is disgusting. [Ed's note: In the victim impact statement of Kyle Stephens, who at Nassar's hearing on Tuesday addressed the sexual abuse she said she experienced beginning at age 6, said she told her parents what Nassar was doing to her, and they didn't listen. In June 2017, USA Gymnastics admitted it waited five weeks to alert law enforcement authorities after Nassar's behavior was flagged.]
It’s so important to trust your gut and to remember that abuse can – unfortunately – come from someone who you love and trust in a high position of power. We have to continue to spread the message that abuse is never OK. You should never feel uncomfortable. We have to teach kids about the grooming techniques [the process by which sexual abusers gain the trust of potential victims to break down their defenses]. Abusers are master manipulators. These monsters are really good at confusing the people they are abusing, like myself and so many others.
Few people understand what it feels like to out your alleged abuser. Have you felt a sense of relief?
It’s not a situation where you feel relief – even if the judge gives Larry the maximum sentence – and I think he deserves that.
I wish it was that simple, that the pain can go away, but it affects you for the rest of your life. [Ed's note: Raisman elaborates in her victim impact statement, citing fear of medical treatment, which hinders her ability to train; anxiety and side effects linked to anxiety medications; and interpersonal issues with friends and family that have resulted from her trauma.]
This week, you see all these brave girls and women speaking up and addressing Larry in the courtroom, and I hope it is therapeutic for them, but it’s not something that is easy. It’s very hard to talk about.
What advice do you have for winter Olympians who want to be both athletes and activists?
One of my best pieces of advice is that your character and the kind of person you are is more important than your place on the podium.
When I was competing in Rio, I was so nervous I was going to let myself and everyone else down if I didn’t win. I had to take a step back and realize that what’s most important is to be the best version of yourself – a good person, trying your hardest, looking out for other people, and being there for other people.
How has talking about sexual abuse affected your relationship with teammates who've also spoken out about similar experiences, like Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, and Simone Biles?
It’s something we've been talking about with each other for a while. I think we’re very open about it. For me, venting to my teammates who were also abused is the best form of therapy. I think we’re really lucky to have each other.
You’ve said that you don’t think USA Gymnastics has done enough in response to sexual-assault allegations within the organization. If someone like you – in a position of power and with an audience – can’t invoke change, what can others do?
The only way to create change is to share your story, even if it's uncomfortable. It’s been really amazing to see so many women this week at the sentencing speak up. I hope that everyone is listening and realizing that organizations have to stop putting money, their reputations, and medals – or whatever else, if they're not a sports organization – ahead of the safety and well-being of the people they work with. I hope that change is coming. I feel like there’s an army of so many strong girls and women that I hope – I know – we will continue to keep up this momentum.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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