Tuesday marked day six of former USA Gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing for his guilty plea on 10 counts of sexual assault. Former Team USA gold medalist Mattie Larson addressed Nassar in court shortly before noon, and recounted how, as a teenager, she would physically harm herself to avoid abuse by Nassar himself, and at the hands of USA Gymnastics.
Larson detailed her encounters with Nassar in his capacity as team doctor for USA Gymnastics. Like more than 100 of his victims who testified before her, Larson was sexually assaulted multiple times over a period of years by Nassar, under the guise of providing medical treatment.
“Larry, I trusted you, I believed you were a kind person,” she said, addressing him directly. “Your kindness was simply a ploy to molest me every chance you got. I can’t even put into words how much I fucking hate you.”
But the most pointed and emotional moment of her testimony was reserved for the network of enablers who allowed Nassar’s abuse to continue unimpeded for years.
Most notable was her criticism of the infamous Karolyi Ranch, the privately run, USA Gymnastics-affilated training compound run by coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi for decades. In its capacity as a designated U.S. Olympic training site, Karolyi Ranch was responsible for preparing young girls for the most elite levels of competitive gymnastics.
It was also a den of abuse. The facility sits on a wooded, 2,000 acre plot of land in the middle of nowhere, completely isolated from the outside world. For decades, the Karolyis ran camps out of the Huntsville, Texas facility, inviting the most promising young gymnasts to receive coaching from the best in the business.
“The closest civilization is a high-security prison, 30 miles away,” said Larson of the ranch. “On top of that, there is no cell service. It’s completely isolated, and that is no mistake.”
Larson recounted endless hours of non-stop practice, often without being given breaks for food or even water. Injuries were to be shrugged off and pushed through, and maintaining a certain physique was of the utmost importance to Karolyi Ranch staff.
“I eventually spiralled into a very intense and destructive eating disorder for six years,” said Larson, now 25 years old. “I took anywhere from 5 to 15 laxatives without missing a single day for those six years, thinking that was the only way to stay skinny enough and therefore be liked by my coaches and the national team staff.”
So miserable was Larson’s time spent at the ranch that, at the age of 15 or 16, she began physically harming herself in order to avoid having to attend camp.
“One time, I was so desperate not to go I thought faking an injury bad enough was the only way out,” said Larson through tears. “I was taking a bath, when I decided to push the bath mat aside, splash water on the tiles, get on the floor, and bang my head against the tub hard enough so I would get a bump, so it seemed like I slipped…I was willing to physically hurt myself to get out of the abuse that I received at the ranch.”
In spite of it all, Larson was an instrumental part of Team USA’s success on the international stage in the late 2000s. She was part of gold medal-winning teams in events in Germany and France in 2009, and won several individual medals as well, at the U.S. National Championships in 2010. But no accomplishment spared her from scorn.
The abuse perpetrated by the staff at Karolyi Ranch wasn’t just physical in nature, either. Larson recounted an instance when the staff shunned her after a poor performance at the 2010 World Championships in the Netherlands, leaving her fellow gymnasts —themselves young girls in their teens — to try and console their distraught teammate. “I’ve never felt so small and disposable in my life,” she said.
It was in this setting — physically isolated, under the management of adults who were wholly disinterested in the well-being of the girls in their care — that Nassar was allowed to operate.
“The complete detachment from the outside world and careless and neglectful adults, made it the perfect environment for abusers and neglecters to thrive,” said Larson.
Since coming forward with her story of abuse, Larson has fought for a legislative solution to the problem of sexual abuse in sports. She has lobbied before Congress for a bill that would require amateur athletic organizations to report sexual abuse, which overwhelmingly passed in the Senate but continues to languish without a vote in the House.
In the last several days, USA Gymnastics has taken the first steps towards addressing decades of mismanagement, abuse, and neglect by people in their employ. They severed ties with Karolyi Ranch last week, and on Monday the three top executives on the Board of Directors at USA Gymnastics abruptly resigned.
But after decades of operation with no accountability or oversight, there is no corner of USA Gymnastics that hasn’t been soaked in scandal. “It truly bothers me that one of the adults that treated me this way, making me feel completely invisible, is the new national team coordinator, Valeri Liukin,” said Larson at the end of her remarks. “It troubles me that he is now in that position, and I hope for the sake of current and future national team members, that he has changed.”
Or, as fellow Nassar victim and Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman suggested last week, perhaps it’s time to raze USA Gymnastics to the ground and start from scratch.