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Nassar's Exploitation Of The Climate Of Fear At A USA Gymnastics Training Site


This week marked an important moment in the ongoing story about the sexual abuse inflicted upon some of the country's elite female athletes. By now, you've probably heard that Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor, was handed a sentence of up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing young patients, patients who were required to see him as part of their training. Others have been forced to resign or fired. USA Gymnastics recently announced that the gym run by Bela and Martha Karolyi, where the victims alleged some of the abuse took place, will no longer be used to train Olympic contenders.

In the wake of this, some are wondering how this could all have happened without anybody knowing or intervening. But some in the sport have spoken about the kind of environment that could allow this to happen. Dominique Moceanu is one of them. She is a former gymnast and the youngest American to win an Olympic gold medal. And she has long been a critic of the Karolyis and their training methods. She even wrote about all this back in 2012 in her memoir called "Off Balance." She's with us now via Skype from her home in Cleveland. Dominique Moceanu, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DOMINIQUE MOCEANU: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Forgive me, I do have to ask. Did you experience the kind of mistreatment - sexual misconduct under the guise of medical treatment that has now been revealed?

MOCEANU: No, I was not a victim of Dr. Nassar's. And more importantly, now he's inmate Nassar because I don't consider him a doctor at all but more a master manipulator. So no, I was not a victim of his, but I applaud all the women who have come forward so courageously to share their stories. Because if the world did not hear them one by one by one, they may not have believed how egregious these acts of manipulation were and how vulnerable young children were in the arms of this really toxic environment and this prolific pedophile.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to ask you about the environment, specifically at the Karolyi Ranch, because you were coached by them intensely - personally by them. So could you talk a little bit about the environment that you described?

MOCEANU: Well, the environment at the Karolyi Ranch is a place where I know very well. And I lived there before the Summer Olympic Games in 1996, and it holds some of my darkest and worst memories of training. It was a very cold place. It's not welcoming. The expectations I have no problem with - discipline and respect and hard work. I'm all for those things. But what they had there was fear, intimidation tactics, shaming tactics. If you didn't go along with everything that they wanted you to and what wanted you to do, well, you were blacklisted immediately. You may not be put on an Olympic team.

And that fear is what did not allow so many young gymnasts to speak up when they were being abused because some of them didn't even recognize it was abuse initially. So the abuse became normalized. And Nassar knew and saw the abuses take place not only with the Karolyis but at the gym with John Geddert in Michigan at Twist Stars. He knew the psychological abuses, and he took an oath to do no harm. And he was exploiting the abuses for his own personal pleasure on top of it.

MARTIN: Why do you think it's taken so long, though, to get attention to this issue? Obviously, the sexual misconduct is a crime but also this kind of closed environment, this attitude of you can't question authority. You can't say anything. You're not, you know, not allowed to speak about it. Why do you think it's taken so long to get attention for this?

MOCEANU: It's taken so long because it took countless courageous women to come forward for people to believe. It took Dr. Nassar - inmate Nassar, correctly speaking - it took his child pornography and for him to get arrested, first of all, to start getting more attention paid on this. We have to give credit to the investigative journalists at the Indy Star. They broke the story of abuse and they stayed on it. They got a lot of heat for it, but they stayed on it. And then the next step was kind of all of the women little by little coming forward and then all of them forward.

MARTIN: The practices that you described, the kind of the demeaning the athlete, you know, this kind of toxic environment, do you think that's changing?

MOCEANU: I absolutely see it changing because it has to. Look at the attention worldwide this has received. I mean, right now, it's an embarrassment to our sport. And it's a humiliation to the powers that be and who ran our sport. And if any coach thinks they're getting away with this in the future, you have another thing coming to you because it's not going to happen. And a lot of eyes are going to be much more serious and watching the behavior of coaches. I mean, there wasn't an inmate Nassar just because he was super clever.

Sure, he was a master manipulator, but there were also a lot of people who helped him. You have John Geddert, who allowed him a private room in his gym club. There was - the Karolyi Ranch was the perfect breed for a prolific pedophile. He got to go unchecked. And there is also the institutions who never reported any instances of sexual abuse. They brushed it under the rug. So that arrogance is what got us here. There were a lot of enablers. And now we have to hold people accountable. So for me, I just want the healing for these young women. I want everyone to heal. And I want to get rid of all of the abusers. So one by one, they better be careful because we're coming after you.

MARTIN: That was Dominique Moceanu. She is the youngest American ever to win a gold medal in gymnastics, which she did in 1996. I want you to know that we reached out several times to the Karolyis for comment, but we have not heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.