Athlete A tells a story of abuse and stolen dreams

ATHLETE A Maggie Nichols in ATHLETE A. Cr. NETFLIX © 2020
ATHLETE A Maggie Nichols in ATHLETE A. Cr. NETFLIX © 2020 /

Athlete A tells how USA Gymnastics further abused Larry Nassar’s victims

Often, we turn to Netflix for mindless hours of entertainment. Athlete A does not offer that. Instead, it is essential viewing about how a culture of winning at all costs normalized and enabled the abuse of gymnasts for decades.

There is not much about the Larry Nassar scandal that has not already been said by the reporters at The Indianapolis Star, several of whom are featured in Netflix’s latest must-see documentary. As the film shows, it was likely their article, “A blind eye to sex abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report cases,” that really set the ball rolling on finding justice in this case.

Nassar, for as terrible as he is, is a symptom of a much larger disease. Even USAG, the organization which is still under criminal investigation for its part in decades of purposely turning a blind eye to several kinds of abuse, isn’t the worst of it. The disease belongs to society at large, as we’re constantly ignoring—and, in many cases, shaming and even punishing—survivors of sexual assault.

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Among other abuses, Athlete A asks if USAG stole dreams to silence athletes

Toward the beginning of Athlete A, viewers see footage from an interview with Rachael Denhollander, another gymnast who was sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar. After coming upon the Star‘s article on Facebook, she reached out and named Nassar. Asked in the interview why she didn’t come forward sooner, the film shows her responding:

"I didn’t know a lot when I was 15, but one thing I did know was victims aren’t treated well. They are mocked, they are questioned, they are blamed, they are shamed. And that does incredible damage to the healing process. I wish I could have dealt with it 16 years ago. I don’t think I could have. But I can now."

Denhollander and fellow gymnast, Jamie Dantzscher of 2000 Olympic fame, re-learned the blame-and-shame lesson the hard way after coming forward about Nassar.

Athlete A describes the verbal abuse they took on social media after their claims were published, even though Dantzscher herself had initially attempted to remain anonymous. It wasn’t so difficult to figure out who she was based on the information provided, after all.

Athlete A
ATHLETE A Rachael Denhollander in ATHLETE A. Cr. NETFLIX © 2020 /

Enter Maggie Nichols. In 2015, she received treatment from Nassar and knew something was wrong. She asked a team member, Aly Raisman, if the same had happened to her (it had); and Nichols’s coach, Sarah Jantzi, overheard the conversation.

Jantzi told Maggie’s parents, and we wish we could say the rest was history—that this was what brought Nassar to justice. It wasn’t.

For over a year, USA Gymnastics spent more time lying to the Nichols family and encouraging them to stay silent, claiming that speaking out would negatively affect an FBI investigation, than actually doing anything to care for Maggie and her teammates.

The FBI investigation that the Nichols family’s silence was supposed to protect was tampered with by the organization’s president, Steve Penny. As the documentary points out, Penny tried to offer a position to at least one agent.

Athlete A repeatedly reminds us of Penny’s attempts at burying the story but leaves out one key point of his evil: In 2018, as Reuters reported:

"A grand jury in Walker County, Texas, indicted Penny on Sept. 28, accusing him of ordering the removal of documents from the Karolyi Ranch, the site of monthly training camps for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team."

Behind-the-scenes manipulation by Penny and the Karolyis didn’t stop there. As Athlete A makes very clear through survivor testimonies, both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University—another place where Nassar abused athletes—routinely gaslit young women who came forward, convincing them that his “treatments” were nothing out of the ordinary.

Gymnasts had been conditioned to accept physical and mental abuse as normal. And, as Jennifer Sey (author, Chalked Up) noted in the film, gymnasts were constantly taught to doubt their instincts about their own bodies’ needs. Because of this conditioning and culture, it was pathetically easy for Nassar to add yet another layer of harm.

He corrupted the dreams of people like McKayla Maroney and Jamie Dantzscher, who were able to go to the Olympics but couldn’t escape him even there. And because Maggie Nichols came forward in 2015, Athlete A gives fairly compelling evidence that she was purposely left off the 2016 Olympic team.

Nichols was in sixth place at the end of Olympic Trials, 0.15 points ahead of 2012 Olympic All-Around gold medalist Gabby Douglas. But while Douglas went to Rio, Nichols made neither the five-person team, nor the three-athlete roster of alternates. On the comeback trail after a knee injury and not competing her full difficulty, she had previously seemed “practically a shoo-in,” per her local news, for the Rio team after her performances in 2015, as well as her second-place finish at the 2016 American Cup.

Douglas, also on the comeback trail at that point, deserved the bump onto the team based on her 2012 results alone…But skipping over Nichols—even, and maybe especially, for an alternate spot—given her strong all-around potential and past results was fishy at best.

If anyone ever asks why victims do not come forward immediately after being abused, point them to Athlete A and its illustration of USAG’s repeated silencing, the public’s social media abuse, and even the retaliation possibly taken against Nichols. Thankfully, after years, sometimes decades, many of Nassar’s survivors were finally given a safe place to speak out.

The witness statements shared in Athlete A are but a few of the many given over seven days in Judge Aquilina’s court. It was here that Maggie’s mother, Gina, finally revealed that Maggie was the “Athlete A” who had been mentioned in conjunction with the story. But even with Nassar’s maximum sentence, there’s no giving back, to Nichols or over 500 others, what was lost.

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There is no second chance at Rio for Maggie Nichols, and in a cruel twist of fate, her senior season at the University of Oklahoma was forced to an early end by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s no one we can really blame for that one; but it’s incredibly difficult, especially after watching Athlete A, to wonder “what if” with regards to what more she could have done as an elite gymnast, had anyone at USA Gymnastics actually cared more about protecting athletes—like Nichols, Denhollander, Dantzscher, Raisman, Maroney, Simone Biles, Douglas, Mattie Larson, and so many more—than its brand image and gold medals.

Athlete A is available to stream on Netflix.