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SALT LAKE CITY — Last week’s emotional and dramatic sentencing of former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar is just the tip of an enormous iceberg.
As the abuse was uncovered and detailed in court by 156 victims, many were left dumbfounded how the manipulation happened for more than 20 years despite victims reporting incidents.
“It was shocking when it all came out,” Utah gymnast MyKayla Skinner said of Nassar’s abuse. “It’s crazy.”
Skinner is a four-year member of the U.S. Senior National Team and a 2016 USA gold-medal Olympic team alternate. Nassar was the team's doctor at the time.
“It’s crazy knowing we had Larry as a doctor and knowing now that all that stuff happened,” she said.
As the scandal stole gymnastics’ spotlight, Utah co-head coaches Megan Marsden and Tom Farden worked with the university’s sports information office to talk with their team, making sure each gymnast felt supported on how to handle the publicity.
“I wanted them to feel supported on how to handle this, especially if they felt they had some things to say,” Marsden said. “Mostly, I did not want to make our athletes feel that we were digging for any personal information.”
Marsden said with the Red Rocks talking to the media every day, it was a priority to the staff to offer the team information, support and advice with the possibility of having to answer some questions.
“We were not asking the girls to be quiet. We were helping them with ideas on how to move forward depending on what route they want to take” Marsden added. “I’m glad we did it in a way where they had some possibilities and it was their choice.”
The team also discussed how to use its platform regarding the situation. The coaches asked the Red Rocks if they wanted to be supportive in some way and the response was overwhelming.
“They all unanimously wanted to support the victims and wanted to wear teal ribbons,” Marsden said. “It’s those young women supporting other young gymnasts.”
The Red Rocks first wore teal ribbons in their hair last week against Arizona. They’ll continue to don the symbolic support for the rest of the season.
“I’m glad we’re doing that,” Skinner said. “I think it’s a really cool thing we get to do.”
Throughout Nassar’s sentencing, many victims shamed USAG and MSU for not investigating his inappropriate actions in their victim impact statements. As more findings are exposed, the institutions continue to be under fire. To quickly implement change, the U.S. Olympic Committee issued an ultimatum to USAG on Jan. 25: “all current members of the USAG board of directors must resign” by Jan. 31 or it would begin the decertification process.
The next day, USAG said it “completely embraces the requirements” mandated by the USOC and later the entire board resigned.
“We understand that the requirements imposed by the letter will help us enhance our ability to build a culture of empowerment throughout the organization, with an increased focus on athlete safety and well-being. Our commitment is uncompromising, and we hope everything we do makes this very clear,” USAG said in its response statement.
The resignation of the top three members of the board came months after President Steve Penny stepped down under pressure.
“It’s good to have them start fresh,” Skinner said. “The biggest thing is having the new president of USA Gymnastics. I think it will definitely help.”
Marsden agrees with Skinner, adding that she doesn’t think it’s any surprise that USAG is being forced to clean house.
“I was pretty sure that was probably going to be the result with all the revelations of Larry Nassar and all these women coming forward with the abuse,” Marsden said. “I don’t see how there could be any other way to handle it other than to start over and hopefully with a great amount of change.”
Marsden hopes the organization’s transformation doesn’t stop with replacing faces. She also believes change needs to happen in USAG’s operations and adding safeguards for gymnasts. The underage girls need to be cared for correctly, she said.
“These training camps where athletes leave parent supervision, (USAG) needs to make sure they’re showing that they have a lot of protocol in place that protects these young girls,” Marsden said.
While sexual abuse can happen in any sport, Nassar taints the image of men working with female gymnasts. Marsden said that while any gymnastics organization doesn’t demand a male doctor, men genuinely benefit the sport by coaching tumbling, vaulting, bars and spotting, as women tend to coach floor, beam and dancing aspects.
“Our sport is one that takes both male and female coaches,” Marsden said. “It doesn’t have to be that way — there are some club teams that have two women coaches and they get it all done, which is great, but there are some great male coaches out there.”
And to the many parents who have since vocalized their hesitation in letting their child be a part of gymnastics, Marsden isn’t sure that’s a good plan.
“It’s something to take note of. We have to be careful of how these young women are handled in this sport and be sure they are protected. We can’t let one man and this situation ruin what is an incredible sport to be involved in.”