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What we need to learn from Larry Nassar

Dr. Larry Nassar, former physician for the American gymnastics team, will likely never walk outside prison again. After a seven day trial and statements from 156 women, Nassar was found guilty of molesting women and girls as young as 6 for decades, under the pretense of medical examination or treatment.

For Rachael Denhollander, a 33-year-old former gymnast recommended to Nassar’s care, the war started 16 months ago. In 2016, The Indianapolis Star published “Out of Balance,” a “five-month investigation into the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations by the national governing body of gymnastics,” according to The Guardian. With that one email, Denhollander became the first woman to speak out.

In her email to The Indianapolis Star, Denhollander wrote, “I recently read the article titled ‘Out of Balance’ published by the IndyStar. My experience may not be relevant to your investigation, but I am emailing to report an incident that may be. I was not molested by my coach, but I was molested by Dr Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USAG [USA Gymnastics]. I was 15 years old, and it was under the guise of medical treatment for my back.”

The Indianapolis Star quickly published a piece about Nassar himself with the accounts of two survivors. Rachael Denhollander put her name in that 2016 article and has stood alone in a sea of anonymous accounts until only recently. Now an accomplished coach and lawyer, Denhollander acknowledges her ability to publicly speak where so many do not have the power to do so. The ability to speak out against predators and abusers is a privileged one: survivors risk their reputation, resources and safety in reporting assault and pressing charges.

The Washington Post reported on Larissa Boyce, a former gymnast and one of the survivors who helped push the case forward. Boyce remembers being 16 years old and telling Kathie Klages, Michigan State’s longtime gymnastics coach, when Nassar digitally penetrated her during medical treatment. Klages expressed doubt and, at one point, discouraged her from filing a report. Another girl stepped forward, and Boyce remembers her receiving the same treatment. “Instead of being protected, I was humiliated,” Boyce said in an interview with the Washington Post. “I was brainwashed into believing that I was the problem.”

When Rachael Denhollander wrote that initial email, it could have easily been swept under the rug — like so many other reports of sexual assault are swept away or discredited by police, counselors, trainers, coaches and professors. Many survivors work their whole lives to be heard and taken seriously by those in positions of power. Every minute, a person in the United States is sexually assaulted, and every minute, their stories are silenced according to The Nation.

Nassar’s 40 to 175 year sentence is a victory for sexual assault survivors and their advocates everywhere. The trial, lasting seven days and allowing over 150 statements, is a warning to predators everywhere. Denhollander, Boyce and other Olympic gymnasts Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber no longer have to fight. “Finally,” Boyce said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Finally somebody is listening to our cries for help.”

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