Underneath this love


Elli Lahdesmaki

Loving gymnastics should be easy, with the sparkly leotards, adrenaline-inducing flips and pumped-up teammates. But as we have seen on the news in recent years, those in authority over America’s best gymnasts are disgustingly neglectful. Along with thousands of other gymnasts around the world, junior Allison Bricca can’t deny her outrage toward USA Gymnastics over their failure to keep gymnasts safe.

Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual assault.

I love gymnastics. 

I never thought that sentence would be difficult for me to say. But the face of the sport continues to let me down. 

I walk into my gym every day, the slight odor of sweat and hard work entering my lungs. For years, I’ve given my everything in seemingly endless practices. I walk into a competition, feeling itty bitty butterflies exploding in my stomach and flying out of my fingertips. I love this feeling. But underneath this love, there is a little voice that always reminds me to be careful. Underneath it all, I am scared. 

Today, I feel the same way I felt in 2016, when Larry Nassar was charged for sexually abusing over 150 girls and women. And again later that year when Steve Penny tampered with evidence to cover it. And when Lou Simmon lied to authorities about her knowledge of the abuse. And when William Strampel was found with Nassar’s child pornography on his computer. And last month, on Thursday, February 25, when the founder of Twistars Gymnastics in Michigan, John Geddert, died of suicide hours after being charged for 24 crimes stemming from Nassar’s scandal. Geddert should have been convicted years ago.

Starting in 1978, Larry Nassar worked as a team doctor for USA Gymnastics. Rising Olympic gymnasts such as Simone Biles practiced at the national training center in the middle of Texas, otherwise known as “The Ranch.” Owned by Martha and Bela Karolyi, The Ranch was — in a word — toxic. The Karolyis were terrifying and abusive on many levels, according to gymnasts formerly under their coaching. Nassar was the only one who seemed to care for their well-being, acting as a safe refuge from the coaches’ emotional abuse. For about a week every month, gymnasts would leave their families and home gym to train at this elite facility. 

Now, it is clear that Nassar was the opposite of a safe refuge for these gymnasts. 156 women have shared testimonies of their sexual assault, many of them expressing feelings of betrayal. They trusted Nassar, and he took advantage of that. Some of those women had already shared concerns about Nassar’s invasive procedures, and yet they repeatedly went unreported. The toxic environment created by the Karolyis was essentially founded on shame tactics, so most gymnasts were far too afraid to speak up when they felt violated or confused. 

This extreme level of toxicity and the complete lack of honest communication is where my anger begins. It’s all about priorities. And USA Gymnastics cared more about gold medals than the girls’ health and safety.

Geddert was the head coach of the 2012 Fierce Five Olympic team and worked closely with Nassar for over 20 years in his own gym. Geddert was abusive — physically, emotionally, verbally and sexually. He pushed girls past their limits and then sent them to Nassar. Nassar acted as a safety net for the battered gymnasts. The two made a deadly duo.

Finally, after over 15 years of abuse and assault, Nassar was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography, and he received a life sentence in jail on February 5, 2018. During that investigation, many others, including Geddert, were found guilty of failing to report complaints and lying to the police. USA Gymnastics ended their lease at The Ranch during Nassar’s sentencing. A lawsuit was filed against the Karolyi’s for being aware of the abuse and ignoring it.

Every young girl is taught to talk to the trusted adults around her. But we then watch as those same adults sweep people’s words under the rug for their financial and personal benefit. The cowardice is unbearable. Those in authority over America’s best gymnasts are disgustingly neglectful.

As a girl, I am wary. As a gymnast, I am terrified. 

I am angry at the conscious decisions that leading members of USA Gymnastics made to allow Nassar’s abuse to continue for over 15 years. I am outraged that it wasn’t until years after Nassar was investigated that they convicted Geddert for his involvement.

I am angry that their decisions have caused, and will continue to cause, decreased enrollment rates in local gyms. What kind of parent wants to put their kid into the sport that just revealed the biggest sexual assault scandal in sports history?

Most importantly, I am angry at the lasting effect that USA Gymnastics’s actions will leave on future generations of girls and women all over the world.

So, as I sit in my bed, scrolling through news about Geddert’s charges and suicide, I am painfully reminded of the world we live in. I pray for myself, my teammates, my friends and every girl that chooses to participate in the beautiful sport of gymnastics.

I love gymnastics. I hope that someday that sentence will be easy for me to say again.