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Nassar survivor says Simone Biles’ Olympics decision should make us rethink what matters in sports

Rachel Denhollander
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

Like any Olympic summer, gymnastics is at the center of attention for many viewers. However, the event is seen in a different light this time around—this is the first Olympics since disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar’s widespread abuse towards USA gymnasts and other survivors became known to the public.

Activist, attorney, and advocate Rachael Denhollander is, in large part, to thank for making Nassar’s abuse public knowledge. She and another survivor came forward with allegations in a 2016 Indy Star article. They were the first to speak on record about Nassar’s sexual abuse.

In the years since, Denhollander has remained a leader in advocating for gymnasts. Her decision to speak out about her experience has served as a model for other survivors. She documented the turmoil survivors endure after coming forward with allegations in her memoir, What Is A Girl Worth: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth About Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics.

Now, the way elite gymnasts are treated is even closer to public consciousness, after all-time great gymnast Simone Biles—the only Nassar survivor who’s still on the U.S. women’s team—withdrew from the team and all-around Olympic competition finals events.

Citing mental health concerns, Biles’ decision to withdraw from these competitions came as a shock to many (at the time of this interview, Biles is still slated to compete in four individual event finals). Deeper investigations pointed to a notorious glitch among gymnasts: the twisties. Gymnasts use “air sense” to make sure they land on their feet after flipping and twisting; a case of the twisties disturbs a gymnast’s air sense.

Skeptics of Biles’ decision recalled Kerri Strug’s 1996 Olympic performance, when she vaulted on a broken ankle to help her country earn its first-ever gold medal in the sport.

With topics in the air like USA gymnastics, athletes’ autonomy over their bodies, and physical and mental health, Stateside took the opportunity to get together with Denhollander, an expert in the field. Check out some excerpts from our conversation below.

On Biles’ decision to withdraw from competition

“I ache so deeply for her because of everything that she's gone through and just the reality that she has poured so much of herself into the competition and then to not be able to compete is just devastating," she said. "At the same time, you're right, watching her be able to have the choice to say no to something that was unsafe and unhealthy for her, watching her have autonomy over her own body. That's the change we've been working for right there.”

On the twisties

“Every gymnast has that experience at some point in time. And sometimes it's just a one-time experience, losing your air sense. Especially for elite gymnasts, that kind of mental block can extend for weeks," Denhollander said. "And we know just in general, when it comes to trauma and stress that that can create incredible mental blocks and to be competing at any level of gymnastics and not be able to sense where your body is, is incredibly dangerous. But to be competing at that level of gymnastics and to not know where your body is can literally be life and death.”

On responses to Biles withdrawal

“There are so many others who are struggling with the mental health ramifications of abuse and trauma, who are watching this cultural conversation. And the question and the reality that they're seeing is, if the greatest athlete of all time who literally won championships with the kidney stone and multiple broken toes, if she can't even say, ‘I can't do this right now,’ and be given the respect she deserves, who can raise their voice about mental health and trauma and be given any form of respect? If she can't do that, who can?"

On the Biles to Strug comparison

“Kerri is a phenomenal athlete and what she has accomplished should never be taken away from. At the same time, the idea that she had a choice in what she did shows just incredible lack of understanding for the culture of USA gymnastics," Denhollander said. "There is no actual way to know what Kerri would have done if she had been given the choice to have agency, if she hadn't been raised in a system that was abusive in every way, shape and form. So, to compare the two is apples and oranges. It also ignores everything Simone has overcome from an injury perspective, like Simone hasn't done those same things herself.”

On Biles and other gymnasts using their voices to advocate

“It is always easier for corrupt institutions to sweep things under the rug when voices dissipate. And I'm deeply, deeply grateful for the way Simone has used her power and her influence and her voice to be able to continue drawing attention. And I think part of just the horrifying reality of how she's been treated is, if the world's best athlete and USAG's best gymnast receives this kind of treatment, imagine what's going on with all the lower level gymnasts. Imagine what's going on with athletes that don't have Simone's power and voice and imagine what would be happening if there weren't hundreds of survivors constantly raising the alarms.”

On the lack of reform she’s observed in USA Gymnastics

“Some of the most abusive coaches over the decades are still coaches at the elite level. So no, USAG has not reckoned in any way, shape, or form with the level of abuse that is taking place in their organization. They have done nothing proactively to address the abuse with these coaches," Denhollander said. "I find it very interesting that Jen Sey wrote an entire book about her experience, where she's laying out significant abuse that she suffered at the hands of her coaches who own the gym Parkettes (Gymnastics Club in Allentown, Penn.). And nobody followed up on that. The lack of proactivity demonstrates a lack of care.”

 On finding the balance between elite competition and healthy living

“I think we start with understanding our own identity and our own value. We start with the conversations of, you're a multifaceted person, and I love all of these gifts and abilities that you have and I want to see you cultivate them, but it's not worth sacrificing your ability everywhere else to be able to pursue this," she said.

“I think we start with those conversations because that lays the groundwork for then being able to make the decision if you want to pursue elite athletics and to understand how to hold those things in balance and to know, like Simone knew this week, that sometimes you might hit a point where, yes, you love the sport and you have poured yourself into it and you want to be the absolute best you can be," Denhollander said. "And you have worked incredibly hard and shown incredible character in your pursuit of athletics. And yet, the personal glory is not worth losing everything else that you have. It's not what identifies you.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Lucas Polack. 

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