Maggie Nichols was the 4th child and first-born girl to Gina and John Nichols of Little Canada, Minnesota. She always had a lot of energy and her mother, who was a fan of gymnastics, decided to enroll her in the sport when she was still in pre-school.
Athlete A, a Netflix original documentary directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Schenk, tells the story of Maggie and many other gymnasts who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of coaches and more specifically, Dr. Larry Nassar, team doctor for USA Gymnastics for 29 years.
Maggie excelled at gymnastics. She had a natural talent and was the only 10-year-old at Nationals in 2007. She gained the attention of Bela and Martha Karolyi, famed Hungarian coaches who defected to the United States in 1981 and began coaching the US Women’s Gymnastics Team.
Athlete A is not an easy watch, but it is an important one. At times both shameful and sad, it shows what adults were willing to overlook to win and to bring gold to the United States.
Centering on the staff at the Indianapolis Star, a small local paper, who’s investigative team including Investigations Editor Steve Berta, and Investigative Reporters Marisa Kwiatowski and Mark Alesia, we see how the team broke the story.
In 2016, Kwiatkowski was working on a story about the failures to report sexual abuse in schools when a source pointed her in the direction of a lawsuit brought up against a predatory coach in the gymnastics community who, once accused, rather than being removed, was just relocated to another gym.
The investigative team got a copy of the deposition where it was indicated that USA Gymnastics had been warned about this coach and did nothing. The story entitled “A Blind Eye” went to print while the USA Olympic Team competed for gold during the 2016 Rio Olympics, bringing the interest in gymnastics and the team itself to an all-time high.
Seeing a link on Facebook for the story, former USA Gymnastics gymnast Rachel Denhollander realized what she knew as the truth, that USAG had been burying sexual abuse occurring under their watch for years.
Denhollander reached out to the Indy Star and told them that she was a victim, but that her abuse had not come at the hands of a coach, but by team doctor Larry Nassar. Jessica Howard, another former gymnast, also reached out to the news team with the same story.
ATHLETE A Jamie Dantzscher in ATHLETE A. Cr. NETFLIX © 2020
Attorney John Manly of Manly, Stewart and Finaldi got a call, this one from former gymnast Jamie Dantzscher after she read the story. He reached out to the Indy Star team and mentioned that his client was implicating Dr. Nassar and USAG.
The team at Indy Star began to wonder if there were three different women who didn’t know each other and had the same story, how many more could there be?
Dr. Larry Nassar, along with being the team doctor for USAG, was also a Michigan State University doctor, seeing athletes and students from that school.
During training in 2015 at the Karolyi’s camp in Huntsville, Texas, coach Sarah Jantzi overheard Maggie and another athlete discussing Nassar and how Maggie found some of his techniques disturbing. Vaginal entry with his fingers during one particular treatment was brought up and the fellow athlete confirmed that he did that to her as well.
Jantzi spoke to Maggie and got the information and immediately reached out to Maggie’s parents. She also brought the information to the attention of Rhonda Gaehn, the Vice President of the USA Gymnastics Women’s program.
The next day, President of USA Gymnastics Steve Penny called Maggie’s mother and promised her that he would report the incident to the police. Maggie remained at training with the promise to her parents that Nassar would be handled.
Almost a month later, Maggie’s parent had not heard anything but were told they now were to speak to investigator Fran Sefler. Penny told them there was an ongoing FBI Investigation.
As Maggie’s parents pushed for information, Maggie was suddenly removed from events like appearing in a commercial with fellow gymnast Simone Biles. During the Olympic trials, Maggie’s parents weren’t treated like the other parents. No cameras, no reserved seats, and although Maggie finished 6th in competition, she was not among those picked for the five-member team or even as one of the three alternates.
Former USAG gymnasts describe a “fine line between coaching and child abuse” happening at the Karolyi camp and of being “beaten down” to the point where when you are abused, you think you are imagining it.
ATHLETE A Maggie Nichols in ATHLETE A. Cr. NETFLIX © 2020
Nassar was described by many of the gymnasts and the only one that was nice to them at the camp, with some abuse sufferers even looking forward to the treatments because he was the only one that seemed to be concerned about them.
The Indy Star team knew that USAG was aware of the abuse, but how much did they know and did they work to cover it up? They found evidence of USAG knowing and working to hide the information from the very start.
After releasing a story on the reports of Nassar’s abuse, Michigan State University Police received more than two dozen reports of abut at the hands of Nassar.
Investigator Andrea Munford of the Michigan State University Police and Michigan State Assistant Attorney General Angel Povilaitis began gathering information for prosecution.
After being fired from Michigan State, it was reported that Nassar was treating patients out of his basement of his home and abusing again. With that information, a search warrant was obtained for his home and hard drives containing more than 37,000 pieces of child pornography.
In 2016 Nassar was arrested and charged with the most serious of the cases.
In November of 2017, Nassar agreed to a plea deal on the child pornography, destroying evidence and other charges. As part of the plea deal, survivors of the abuse could make impact statements. Impact statements began in January 2018. Many women came forward and gave their statements.
Nassar was convicted and is serving two 60-year terms.
The Indy Star was not done, nor was Manly. USAG covered the abuse and allowed it to happen. It was also found that during the FBI Investigation, Penny was discussing the opportunity for security positions within USAG with assigned FBI investigators.
A senate hearing was held in June 2018 on the Olympic athlete abuse and what USAG knew. Penny, who was removed from his position in 2017, was called to testify. He exercised his Fifth Amendment rights and would not answer any questions.
Penny was later arrested in October 2018 at a cabin in Tennessee, accused of tampering with the evidence against Nassar.
The Karolyi’s closed the training ranch in Texas in January 2018.
The US Department of Justice is currently investigating USAG, the US Olympic Committee and the FBI for its handing of the sexual abuse accusations.
Maggie has continued competing, now at the university level for the University of Oklahoma. She and her team won the National Championships in 2018. Maggie won the all-around at the 2019 NCAA Championships.
The Indy Star continues to cover the story.
Athlete A recalls the 2015 Academy Award winning move Spotlight about the Boston Globe investigative team who broke the story of the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Boston Catholic Diocese. It is hard to watch but important to see.
Viewers will be shocked that this continues to happen, everywhere, even to our most celebrated athletes.
Athlete A gives us an example of why investigative journalism and the news media in general needs to be protected, so that stories like the abuse in the USAG and the Catholic Church are brought to the public’s attention.