Survivors stun senators with testimony on prevalence of sexual abuse in sports

"We’ve been yelling, and nobody has been listening."

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 18:  Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Jordyn Wieber (L) recounts her sexual abuse at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar while testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security Subcommittee with fellow abuse victims speedskater Bridie Farrell and figureskater Craig Maurizi in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. The athletes testified during the hearing titled 'Olympic Abuse: The Role of National Governing Bodies in Protecting Our Athletes.'  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 18: Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Jordyn Wieber (L) recounts her sexual abuse at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar while testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security Subcommittee with fellow abuse victims speedskater Bridie Farrell and figureskater Craig Maurizi in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. The athletes testified during the hearing titled 'Olympic Abuse: The Role of National Governing Bodies in Protecting Our Athletes.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday afternoon on Capitol Hill, four survivors of sexual abuse in Olympic sports — Olympic medalist gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Jamie Dantzcher, former speedskater Bridie Farrell, and former figure skater Craig Maurizi — testified at a hearing held by the Senate Commerce Committee on “Olympic Abuse: The Role of National Governing Bodies in Protecting Our Athletes.”

The committee was formed in the wake of more than 250 girls and women coming forward about sexual abuse by former Olympic, USA Gymnastics, and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar.

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But, as quickly became clear in the hearing, the problem is much bigger than Nassar, or even USA Gymnastics. And frankly, that came as a surprise to those in charge.

Towards the end of the two-hour hearing, following emotional testimonies from the survivors, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the ranking member of the subcommittee, asked all four if they thought that sexual abuse was ongoing in their respective sports. A few responded that they were certain it was: not only are the current policies still insufficient from both a response and prevention standpoint, but, as Farrell said, “I think the majority of athletes and coaches are wonderful people, but every child molester would love to be a coach.”

What shocks me is even after Larry Nassar has been sentenced to 175 years, that it continues,” Blumenthal said. 

Meanwhile, committee chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS), expressed his shock multiple times throughout the hearing, stating he couldn’t believe that any individual would hear a child talk about sex abuse and not immediately report it to the authorities. He assured the survivors that all the adults he knew would behave differently, though given he has worked alongside sexual harassers himself since entering Congress in 2011, it’s unclear how accurate that is.

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More to the point, it shows a naive understanding of the motives of individuals, and the masterful grooming techniques employed by abusers.

I think people will come forward because they’re scared what will happen if they don’t — not because they want to do the right thing,” Maurizi responded.

This is a complex, widespread, and sensitive issue, one that will ultimately require a dramatic cultural shift in order to properly reckon with it. It’s wonderful that survivors are finally being heard, but it can at times feel like those who are listening still aren’t fully comprehending the situation.

Of course, it’s hard to blame anyone for expressing shock and exasperation at this topic — the stories the survivors shared in the hearing were harrowing.

Farrell, now 36, was abused by former speed skating coach Andy Grabel, beginning at the age of 15.

“At 15, I was the disposable meat of a known 33-year-old child sexual predator. When he had torn apart all he wanted, he left my picked over adolescent carcass to decay and rot,” Farrell said.

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Eight years before Farrell’s abuse began, the United States Olympic Committee, members of U.S. Speed Skating, and members of USA Boxing knew about Grabel’s sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old child. Nobody took action. Grabel went on to work in and around U.S. Speed Skating for the next 30 years; he was even inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame. When Farrell finally came forward about her abuse in 2013 — and even after Grabel admitted to the “inappropriate” relationship — then-USOC CEO Scott Blackmun told Farrell there was nothing he or the USOC could do.

Maurizi’s abuse started 40 years ago when he was 13 years old. He first reported it to U.S. Figure Skating 20 years ago. His abuser, Richard Callahan, wasn’t suspended by the USFS until two months ago — he was so moved by the victim impact statements by Nassar’s victims, and so struck by how much their experiences mirrored his own, that he decided to come forward.

Jamie Dantzcher, a 2000 Olympic silver medalist who was the first former Olympian to come forward with allegations against Nassar, talked about the social media abuse she’s experienced since coming forward. When she first filed her lawsuit, a senior USAG official sent her a Facebook petition she was circulating to support Nassar. Attorneys working for USAG called her former boyfriends, tried to dig up dirt on her, and asked very personal and detailed questions about her sex life.

USAG then began lying to the public, saying they “immediately” alerted the FBI when they found out about allegations against Nassar in 2015. The truth is, they waited five full weeks before alerting the FBI. They didn’t alert MSU at all, and Nassar continued practicing there — and abusing patients — for the next year. The FBI took a year to begin its investigation as well.

Wieber, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, talked about how USAG created an environment that was ripe for abuse.

“At the Karyoli Ranch National Training Center our Olympic and national team athletes were motivated by fear. Fear of being treated as invisible if you didn’t perform to their standards. We couldn’t smile or laugh during training. We were even afraid to eat too much in front of our coaches … ,” Wieber said. “This toxic environment was the perfect place for a predator like Larry Nassar to flourish….and he did.”

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At the top of the hearing, Blumenthal said the point of this investigation was to answer three questions: How was this abuse allowed to happen over so many years? What systematically allowed it to continue? How can we prevent it from happening in the future?

The voices of the survivors and these hearings will help answer the first two questions. But the third question will ultimately be much more difficult to address, particularly if those in charge don’t grasp the scope of the problem.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that Blumenthal, Moran, and the other senators who came in and out of the hearing to ask questions all seemed genuinely concerned, and were adamant that this was only the beginning of the investigation. On May 22, another hearing will be held, one in which representatives from the USOC, USAG, and MSU will hopefully be on hand to testify. (Notably, representatives from the USOC were present at the hearing on Wednesday.)

The survivors know that the road ahead is an arduous one. But at this point, they’re just happy not to be on the path alone.

We’ve been yelling, and nobody has been listening,” Farrell said. “I felt alone for years and years and years, and telling my story has not been easy or enjoyable in any way. I never thought I would be here saying this, because I never thought anyone would listen.”