News

Sexual Predator Larry Nassar Had Support Within USA Gymnastics, Book Alleges

Author Abigail Pesta uncovers grooming and enabling that allowed the former Olympic doctor to abuse hundreds of young girls over decades.
August 16, 2019, 4:28pm
Larry Nassar appears at his sentencing in January 2018. Photo by Cory Morse
Larry Nassar appears at his sentencing in January 2018. Photo by Cory Morse / AP

Lindsey Schuett wasn’t silent about former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

She was 16 years old when Nassar requested the gymnast be transferred to his office, where he sexually abused her in 1999. Other victims told their mom or coach or filed a police report. Many kept quiet. Schuett screamed as loud as she could while Nassar was penetrating her with his fingers. She kept screaming, even as Nassar led her down the hall and out of the Michigan State clinic where she was supposed to be treated for chronic hip pain.

“I screamed and cried; I didn’t stop. I wanted everybody to hear me,” Schuett told Abigail Pesta, author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down, released last week by Seal Press. Nassar had the audacity to warn Schuett’s mother that “some people complain that I’m too hands-on” before the appointment, Pesta alleges in her book.

Pesta digs up several new allegations and makes a case that Nassar’s abuse was much more of an open secret than anyone outside of USA Gymnastics was led to believe. Kids called him the “crotch doc” as far back as the 1990s, and Olympic coach John Geddert allegedly walked in on the abuse of Nassar’s first victim Sara Teristi and failed to act.

Nassar pleaded guilty to child pornography charges in July 2017, and another 10 counts of criminal sexual conduct in November of that year. He’s now serving multiple life sentences.

In January 2018, Nassar faced more than 160 of his former patients in court as they read scathing victim impact statements. “I was going to sob so loudly that not only did it match the screaming anger I felt inside, but it would alert every single person in that building that something was incredibly wrong in that doctor’s office,” Schuett told the courtroom.

One father of three girls lunged at Nassar before he was tackled and handcuffed. He’d asked the judge for “five minutes in a locked room with this demon.”

The Girls makes it clear that the story did not end with the sentencing, and that Nassar did not act alone. Dozens of Michigan State officials have since been fired, and at least three have been charged with crimes. This summer, Michigan State’s dean of osteopathic medicine William Strempel, who oversaw Nassar’s department, was found guilty of misconduct and neglect of duty and was sentenced to one year of jail time on August 7.

Former USA Gymnastics coach John Geddert at the London Olympics. Photo by Kathy Willens / AP

Geddert, who has been under investigation for more than a year, is named as one of the primary enablers in Pesta’s book. He owned and operated the Twistars gym in northern Michigan where Nassar secretly became what Pesta calls “the most prolific sex criminal in American sports history.” Both went on to work at the Olympic level together.

“I think this is such a key part in this case. Geddert worked with Nassar for almost three decades,” Pesta said in a phone interview. “Many of the gymnasts I spoke to said he created a physically and mentally abusive environment that made them vulnerable to sexual abuse.”

Pesta says Geddert’s authoritarian coaching style discouraged complaint or criticism of any kind, and kept girls afraid to speak up. Because his gym was high-level and seen as a rare path to Olympic dreams, gymnasts kept training through broken limbs and other trauma.

“They just wanted his approval. They tried and tried to get it. They competed and trained with injuries,” Pesta said of Geddert. “One woman told me she trained with a broken leg and elbow. They were afraid to tell the coach about their pain, because he told them injuries were their fault.”

One of the new allegations against Geddert is that he started grooming gymnast Shelby Root when she was 16 and had sex with her when she was 18. Though not a crime, Pesta alleges his behaviour violated the Olympics’ code of conduct for coaches, and shows a willingness to misuse authority. “He was no longer her coach but it was completely inappropriate,” Pesta said. VICE reached out to Geddert through his lawyers but did not receive a response.

More disturbingly, Pesta reports Geddert walked in on Nassar when he was icing Teristi’s bare chest, and handling her nipples. Teristi had suffered a broken rib when she was training under Geddert in the 1980s. The rib reattached badly, creating a raised bony area. “Not only did he not report it to authorities, but he made fun of her,” Pesta said of the incident, recounted for the first time in The Girls. “He mocked the lump on her chest, saying the other two breasts need to catch up. He started calling her the nickname ‘third boob.’”

Many of the gymnasts Pesta spoke to question how Geddert could have worked with Nassar for 30 years without knowing he was abusing hundreds of girls in the backroom of his gym. Under his watch Nassar was able to escalate his abuse.

Pesta aims to fill in these gaps, though not all of them have satisfying answers. Part of what protected Nassar was the astronomical number of girls he violated, Pesta claims. Gymnasts didn’t have experience to be certain that what was happening to them was abuse, and when they asked girls around them, they found he had done the same thing to their friends.

“Their friends said he does that to everyone,” Pesta said. “They started to think well then it must be OK.”

The Nassar case fits a pattern now seen in many high-profile stories that fall under the banner of #MeToo. From the ex-Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky that made headlines before Nassar, to the Jeffery Epstein saga and sex trafficking trial of self-help guru Keith Raniere that followed, these cases show predators do not go unnoticed for decades without protection from powerful enablers.

In an emailed statement to VICE, USA Gymnastics acknowledged a need to do better. “USA Gymnastics is striving to become an athlete-centric organization that keeps athlete safety and well-being at the forefront of all that we do.” The organization has increased education and outreach efforts and updated its Safe Sport Policy, “which is the foundation of our efforts to foster a safe, positive and encouraging environment where athletes and all members alike can thrive.”

Geddert was suspended following Nassar’s guilty plea. “His case is now under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which has also suspended Mr. Geddert from all contact,” reads the USA Gymnastics statement. The US Olympic Committee has announced its own new safeguards and accountability measures, and increased funding to SafeSport, the watchdog group tasked with combatting abuse.

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles called out USA Gymnastics for failing to protect gymnasts from years of abuse last week. “It’s hard coming here for an organization having had them fail us so many times,” she told reporters August 7, days before debuting her history-making triple-double at national championships in Kansas.

"You had one job. You literally had one job and you couldn't protect us."

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