Athlete A is a 2020 Netflix documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, which unpacks the sexual abuse scandal around USA Gymnastics and team doctor, Larry Nassar, from the viewpoint of the survivors.
The opening scenes are of Maggie Nichols, the actual ‘Athlete A’, a pseudonym given to her by USA Gymnastics during their internal investigations. Nichols’ story is a tragic case of a young athlete’s success being side-tracked as a result of her reporting sexual abuse. In 2015, after attending a Team USA training camp, Maggie told her local coach that Nassar touched her. Her coach reported it to USA Gymnastics who launched an internal investigation. This reflects the first institutional problem. State law requires mandatory reporting of sexual misconduct to law enforcement which USA Gymnastics failed to do for five weeks.
Instead of being a story of a young woman’s singular struggle against the system to report sexual abuse and receive justice, Athlete A unravels to reveal how American Gymnastics’ culture, environment, and history had been enabling abuse of young gymnasts for years.
In 2016, the IndyStar, a local Indianapolis newspaper, began a story on failure to report sexual abuse in schools when a source suggested looking at USA Gymnastics. They uncovered how USA Gymnastics, headed by President and CEO Steve Penny at the time, had an executive policy of dismissing sexual misconduct complaints as hearsay unless they were signed by a victim or a victim’s parent. They published a story titled ‘A Blind Eye to Sexual Abuse.’
Following this story, women began to come forward who were victims of sexual assault at the hands of Nassar. Rachael Denhollander, who was abused at the age of fifteen, believed it was now or never to come forward and courageously filed a police report.
Angela Povilaitis picked up the case and led the prosecution in the criminal case against Nassar. After being granted search warrants for Nassar’s home in 2016, searches of his rubbish yielded hard drives containing 37,000 images of child sexual abuse material. Nassar was charged, and ultimately, as a part of his plea agreement, pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual misconduct, three of which involved children under the age of thirteen.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, the survivors could make an impact statement in front of Nassar at his sentencing. 156 women came forward over a weeklong period in an inspiring show of solidarity and strength.Nassar was originally sentenced sixty years in prison, followed by 300 more years on sexual assault charges.
The most emotional moment of Athlete A is watching the women give their impact statements. These women no longer wrongly put shame on themselves but instead shifted it to where it belonged, on their abuser. Watching the tears in their eyes, their determination to speak, with the support of their friends and family, was poignant.
However, Nassar was the tip of the iceberg when it came to abuse in USA Gymnastics. Athlete A exposes the toxic culture surrounding elite American gymnastics. The norm was developing talented child gymnasts by pushing them to train and perform on injuries, pressurising weight loss, and general emotional and physical abuse.
Powerful interviews are given by former elite gymnastics such as Jennifer Sey and Jamie Dantzscher. They explain how the treatment they received as child gymnasts deeply ingrained the notion of utter powerlessness within them. Therefore, when a doctor – someone in a position of power – came along and sexually abused them, unsurprisingly they were unable to process what was happening to them.
Back to the actual ‘Athlete A’; Maggie Nichols waited fifteen months from the time of her initial report until she received justice. Within that time, Nichols was not chosen for the 2016 Olympic team despite finishing sixth at the trials. However, the documentary ends on an uplifting note, with her happy and succeeding at the NCAA gymnastics championships for the University of Oklahoma.
Athlete A is a candid portrayal of the story of the survivors of Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics, which rightfully gives the women back their power to tell their truth, something that was taken from them as children.
Illustration: Verity Laycock
Is there a documentary that has impacted you? Send your article to firstname.lastname@example.org