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This elite gymnast quit at the height of her career to escape USA Gymnastics abuse

Mattie Larson was an elite gymnast, beloved by fans. She was also one of the dozens of people sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar.

by Elle Reeve
Mar 28 2018, 12:08am

Mattie Larson was an elite gymnast who was adored by fans. She was also one of the dozens of people sexually abused by USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar.

"I don't think it's possible for someone like Larry to get away with doing what he did for 20-plus years if it's not in a corrupt environment and organization," Larson told VICE News. "I just don't really see how that would work."

To understand the environment, you have to understand how the USAG organization works. Gymnastics isn't a popular high school sport like football, so the path to the top — the Olympics — goes through some 3,400 private clubs nationwide. Those clubs are governed by USAG, which sets rules about who coaches and at what levels gymnasts compete.

When gymnasts reach the very top level, elite, they're invited to "the ranch," a gym in remote Texas that's also the home of legendary coach Martha Karolyi. From 2001 to 2016, Karolyi served as the national team coordinator, effectively picking the world and Olympic teams, making her the most powerful person in the sport. And she required the national team members to spend one week each month at the ranch, to monitor their fitness.

The ranch was also the site of much of Nassar's abuse.

At the ranch, "The rules were never show any weakness," Jessica O'Beirne, host of the gymnastics podcast GymCastic, told VICE News. "You don't talk, you don't giggle. You don't show a lot of personality. There's not a lot of food. You work out twice a day. There's not a lot of time to do homework or study. Up until February 2018, you could not bring a parent or chaperone with you to the ranch."

O'Beirne added, "And the other rule was you had to see Larry for treatment."

That's one way Nassar exploited the system, according to Larson. He would be kind to the gymnasts, and give them snacks, even letting them make fun of their coaches. But he also let them compete injured. Larson would hide the pain from injuries from her coaches, but not from Nassar. "Like with him we would be honest," Larson said. "But he never really like kept us out of competition. So they definitely benefited from him. He let us compete when we were super injured."

In 2009, Larson dislocated both her ankles and broke a foot at the same time at the ranch. "He didn't wrap them whatsoever. I didn't get a wheelchair. I had to stay the rest of the camp crawling on my hands and knees." She did upper body and core exercises while her feet dangled. And the adults who watched as a teenage girl crawled around them? They did "nothing," Larson said.

USAG closed the ranch in January after Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles tweeted that she didn't want to go back to the scene of her abuse. Multiple congressional committees are now looking into USAG, and the Texas Rangers are investigating the ranch. USAG told VICE News it’s “cooperating fully” with the investigations, but won’t comment on the ranch amid litigation.

This segment originally aired March 27, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.