July 23, 2018, on BleacherReport.com
Cover Story, BR 50 Power Issue
The Olympic gymnast and her Army of Survivors have given victims everywhere a new power to speak up. Find out why the work ahead matters most, in one of five cover stories for the B/R POWER 50—a celebration of 2018’s most influential people in sports culture.
Inside Exxcel Gymnastics, young girls crowd around a photo collage, boxing each other out for the best view of their hometown Olympian plastered across the wall. Among the cluster of pictures in this Newton, Massachusetts, gym is an image of 10-year-old Aly Raisman, so determined to hold her position, her little arms holding up the entire weight of her body, while her legs and toes point to the ceiling.
Back then, Raisman was not the most skilled. Just strong. She was smaller than everyone and burned to beat everyone, whether it was press handstands or chin-ups. “Can we do a contest?! Can we do a contest?!” she’d exclaim. If she did 20 chin-ups yesterday, she’d pull off 21 the next day, even if it was not a contest.
She was seven years old.
There are also black-and-white newspaper photos of 22-year-old Raisman, roaring, as she wins gold at the 2016 Olympics, next to headlines like: “Gold Fever!” and “Alexandra the Great!” The young girls who train at the gym had huddled around a television that year, cheering Raisman’s every move in navy T-shirts that said “Team Aly.”
The girls see that Raisman was just like them: Poised. Relentless. Driven by dreams bigger than their bodies. “She is a hero,” says 10-year-old Stella Bjork. Ally Chilton, 13, gushes that she shares the same name as Raisman. “She’s really calm under pressure, which I find really inspiring,” Chilton says. “Competitions are really stressful and it’s hard to stay calm. But she does it.”
Throughout her career, Raisman kept everyone calm. She was a leader in a sport of individuals, telling nervous teammates to “Trust your training. Just breathe” before competitions. “She is there for people more than she is for herself,” says Maggie Nichols, a close friend and USA teammate since 2013, who now competes for the University of Oklahoma.
That is how Raisman found herself standing in front of a podium in a courtroom in January. Shoulders back, teeth clenched. Laser eyes, stiff upper lip. It was her time to speak. In this moment, Raisman was fighting not for herself but for the safety of girls everywhere; girls just like those at Exxcel.
Raisman didn’t stutter or flinch. Her words were quick, calculated, piercing. She hung on to each syllable a little bit longer as she stared Larry Nassar, the man who abused her and allegedly more than 200 athletes, dead in the eye, over and over, during these sentencing hearings.
Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice. Well, you know what, Larry? I have both power and voice, and I am only beginning to just use them.
Lyndsy Gamet, a survivor who testified the day before, was moved by Raisman’s words. “When Aly spoke, it made me feel proud,” Gamet says. “I was proud that she would put [herself] out there for little girls to look up to. It showed the nation that it was OK to share your truth.”
And to demand change.
I will not rest until every last trace of your influence on this sport has been destroyed like the cancer it is.
Raisman grew louder, more forceful. She was in control now.
Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere.
There were also dozens and dozens of testimonies from women you may not know. Women who are now wading in the trenches—not for headlines but for the back-breaking work of ensuring this moment becomes a movement. They are calling themselves an Army of Survivors.
“It gave me more power than I ever had in my life,” Gamet says of her own testimony. “In that moment you understood how impactful one voice can be.”
And another and another. There was Rachael Denhollander, who refused to be silenced despite losing her church and her closest friends. There was Mattie Larson, who said she was so desperate to escape Nassar’s abuse at the Karolyi Ranch that she purposely tried to give herself a concussion.
Raisman, who hadn’t planned to speak in court until she heard the girls and women before her, has become one of the movement’s boldest leaders. Last November, the 24-year-old publicly disclosed that Nassar sexually abused her beginning in 2010, when she was 15, at various locations, including the U.S. national team training facility at Karolyi Ranch in Texas and the 2012 London Games. She sued the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics in March of this year for failing to stop Nassar’s abuse. The lawsuit alleges those institutions seemed to protect a predator and ignore the children and young adults he abused. Before Nassar’s sentencing, Olympic teammates Simone Biles, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas came forward and said they were also abused by Nassar.
Raisman refuses to stay silent, speaking out at events and campuses around the country, encouraging young girls to share their stories, too. She has partnered with Darkness to Light, the nation’s leading advocate for the prevention of child sexual abuse.
“To all the survivors out there, don’t let anyone rewrite your story. Your truth does matter. You matter. And you are not alone,” Raisman said last week, as she and the survivors were honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.
This work does not come without personal cost. Every word Raisman delivered in that courtroom, was laced with risk. She had no idea what would happen next. Her personal and professional lives would change. Her story would be ripe for scrutiny and judgment.
But she pressed on. Just like she did at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, as she tumbled and flipped in the floor exercise. Sticking her landing as she tilted her head to the sky, Raisman owned every bit of that 39-by-39-foot floor.
She would not be deterred then. And she won’t back down now.
Raisman peered out into a crowded auditorium of women. Everything was dark but the wooden stage beneath her. It was the opening ceremony of the United State of Women Summit, held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in early May, a two-day event focused on gender equality featuring trailblazers like Michelle Obama, civil rights icon and labor activist Dolores Huerta, and actress and activist Yara Shahidi.
The lights came on and Raisman stood next to fellow survivors Tiffany Lopez, Jeanette Antolin and Jordyn Wieber. Raisman began: “Speaking out is never easy. Each time I share my story, I relive my trauma,” she said.
These days Raisman is both energized and exhausted. Her vulnerability is constantly on display as she speaks at event after event.
This new role helps heal her, but it also weighs on her. In her book Fierce, she discusses her triggers, her anxiety, her pain. The difficulties she has trusting people who walk into her life. The fear she feels when hearing a knock at her door, upon ordering room service at a hotel, for example, as she worries the server might be a man.
There are the private moments people don’t see: the nights alone in her room after all the people who call her courageous and hand her awards for her bravery are gone. She is left to contend with her own healing. That is difficult work. That is never-ending work.
It is work, too, facing naysayers within the gymnastics community and beyond who would like her to stay silent, who question her motives. Some coaches, officials and even strangers say she is only speaking to gain a bigger social media following or to get on television more.
“It affects her deeply,” says Raisman’s close friend Valorie Kondos Field, coach of the 2018 national champion UCLA gymnastics team. “She’s dealing with people that are saying that the sport of gymnastics is in a really bad place right now and it’s because these victims came forward. … And she’s having to defend that.”
“She’s not being vocal to put Larry Nassar in jail. He’s already in jail,” Field says, as Nassar pled guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. “She’s continuing to fight to make sure that people don’t forget about this, brush it under a rug, and then allow for the same culture to develop, which is going to inflict itself on the next generation.”
Raisman is pushing for all adults to take Darkness to Light’s two-hour sex-abuse education course. The rollout took just a month-and-a-half, which is very quick, but Raisman wouldn’t wait any longer.
“Aly has an inexorable spirit,” says Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement. “She’s taking her destiny into her own hands. She’s like, ‘This is what I want. This is what I need, and I’m going to go after it.’ That is a powerful example of a survivor.”
Raisman spends hours signing each Darkness to Light certificate, by hand, that participants receive upon completion of the course. Once, as the story goes, her hand severely cramped up, but she refused to put down the pen until every certificate was signed. “She had this sense of urgency. There was no red tape,” says Katelyn Brewer, CEO of Darkness to Light.
Raisman was that way as an athlete, too. She hardly took a day off in the 15-plus years she spent chasing her Olympic dream. She sacrificed going to high school with her peers, traveling and time with friends and family.
Sometimes she trained double-digit hours a day, challenging her body to unthinkable limits. In her book, Raisman revealed she was once scolded by a USAG staffer for eating a slice of pizza. At times, her self-worth felt determined by the color of the medal draped around her neck. Worse was the cool breeze that circled around it when there was no hardware to keep it warm.
The stakes are high now, too. She still hardly has time off. Each day brings sobering reminders of the work left to be done—and how that work mostly unfairly falls on survivors rather than the institutions that allowed a perpetrator to move freely.
Michigan State University agreed to pay $500 million to settle claims from more than 300 women and girls who said they were assaulted over Nassar’s 29-year career, working as the team doctor for USA Gymnastics and as an employee of Michigan State University. Yet at this point, USOC, USAG and Michigan State still have not met with all survivors or completed a thorough, independent investigation.
If Raisman does not continue to speak up, who will? The hollow truth gnaws at her: She fought to bring prestige to a country that is not fighting to bring her peace.
This became clear as Tiffany Lopez, the woman standing next to Raisman at the USOW Summit, spoke next. Lopez revealed she had reported her abuse in 1998 to Michigan State officials. They didn’t do anything. “Wows” and “Ughs” permeated the auditorium of women. A sinking feeling seemed to infiltrate at that moment. It’s that deep, familiar place inside us that is never really surprised, just continually disappointed.
“If I had been heard and believed 20 years ago,” Lopez said, “the women standing beside me, all of the 265 young women who have now bravely come forward as victims, would have been spared from the horrors of sexual abuse.”
A few minutes later, Fletcher, a singer-songwriter, took the stage next to the four women and sang her song, “I Believe You”:
Girl, I believe you
Are you losing your mind thinking what will it take
To make somebody listen to you?
Some held back tears. Some couldn’t. I belie…Fletcher’s voice cut off. She couldn’t deliver her final verse. But she didn’t have to. The crowd was united, invigorated by all the athletes on stage, especially Raisman. The 5’2” superhero from Needham, Massachusetts, stood tall, spirit unwilling to crumble.
Stella Bjork has been doing gymnastics since she was five years old. She glows, talking about Raisman’s beam performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “She could do amazing tricks,” Bjork says.
Girls like her at Exxcel see that Raisman fought for greatness. It never chose her. It didn’t even come near her at first. Not for a while. No one thought she’d end up as the second-most decorated gymnast in American history behind Shannon Miller.
Raisman started off behind, having to repeat pre-team, her first year of gymnastics. She wasn’t the quickest at mastering skills. “And she still went to the Olympics,” Bjork says. “I love that.”
Raisman wasn’t discouraged. She put her head down and labored to improve, often completing more repetitions than asked of her. “You didn’t look at her and know she was going to the Olympics, but she definitely had something,” says Melissa McManus, who helped coach a five-year-old Raisman at Exxcel. The two remain in touch. “More of a determination, a ferocity in her. She just really never gave up.”
When she finally mastered a move, a wave of satisfaction would wash over her. “She had the best smile. She was so happy to learn and grow,” says Susan Ham, who works in the office at Exxcel.
After moving on to Brestyan’s American Gymnastics Club in Burlington at age 10, Raisman began to dominate nationally throughout her teenage years. But she was still doubted and had to prove herself. She struggled in the all-around, at one point convinced her destiny was to forever finish fourth in the event.
There were also the 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, where she didn’t qualify for the beam or floor finals. And there were those who said returning for a second Olympics, a year later in Rio at age 22, would be impossible. Her teammates even called her “Grandma.”
But Raisman flourished in Rio, winning gold in the team event, silver in floor and silver in the elusive all-around. She burst into tears after her floor routine in the final rotation of the all-around, finally breaking through.
Aly the Activist is very much still Aly the Athlete. This is the source of her strength in courtrooms and on campuses today: She hasn’t lost that relentless work ethic, that incessant need to achieve, that propelled her as an athlete.
She does not cower.
And she refuses to be reduced by what has happened to her. She is still the same 15-year-old girl who cracked so many jokes that one coach used to call her “Albert.” No one knows why; the name was just funny. Just like Aly. She is still the same 18-year-old girl who loves shopping for cute outfits, who adores ice cream and Starbucks coffee and tea.
Before delivering her testimony at Nassar’s sentencing hearing, Raisman walked up to every survivor in the room, row by row, probably 70 women, and introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Aly.” As if they didn’t know.
“I still think she doesn’t think she’s famous,” McManus says. “She’s just a very down to earth, normal person, that has more power than she even knows.”
But Raisman is still waiting for answers, and even those closest to the highest seat in the land don’t have them.
Three rows of reporters sat in Room 2123, in the Rayburn House office building in Washington D.C., awaiting testimony from U.S. Olympic leadership. It was late May, and members of Congress were to question leaders from not just USA Gymnastics, but USA Taekwondo, USA Swimming and USA Volleyball—all of which allegedly also turned a blind eye to sexual abuse.
Raisman was not there, but anticipation buzzed as this Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing followed a months-long bipartisan investigation. There was hardly a seat open. The doors were closed, but loud chatter crept in.
It was the first time Kerry Perry, the newly appointed and widely criticized president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, spoke publicly since being hired in December 2017. For survivors, that was five months too late—signaling neither transparency nor hope for new beginnings.
Perry did not impress. Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg asked whether Nassar had been asked to step away from his volunteer position as USA’s physician in 2015 after a complaint of abuse. “It’s my understanding that he did,” Perry said.
Walberg corrected her, saying Nassar was still involved. “I encourage you to check those facts out,” he said.
Shellie Pfohl, president and CEO of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the structure built for athletes to report their abuse, said that SafeSport was receiving 20 to 30 calls a month when it opened in March 2017.
She said the center was fielding about 20 to 30 calls a weekat the present moment.
But it remains unclear how those calls will be handled if these organizations failed to account for all the calls that came before. And, given that Perry walked away from reporters asking questions after the hearing, it still seems uncertain how U.S.A. leadership will prevent the abuse of the next Gamet, the next Raisman.
“You would think that as a survivor you wouldn’t have to fight so hard for justice,” says Larissa Boyce, a survivor who testified during Nassar’s January sentencing hearing. “USAG, USOC, MSU not really taking this seriously and not taking ownership of that is really frustrating. It feels like they aren’t listening. They aren’t truly getting that this is a cultural problem and that they need to take ownership of where they went wrong before anything can even change.”
When Raisman speaks, she gives young women permission to speak, too. But her presence transcends words. She is protection. She is healing. She is assurance that signifies: I see you. I believe you. And I’m with you.
“We’re not going to back down. We will push until change actually happens at each of those institutions,” Boyce says, before she echoes the testimonial words of Aly Raisman: “We aren’t going anywhere.”