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You've seen 'Athlete A.' How do you watch Olympic gymnastics now?

Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Last summer, one of the biggest USA Gymnastics meets took place just a few miles from Rachael Denhollander's home in Louisville, Kentucky. She badly wanted to take her daughters to the competition, especially because it was rumored that Olympian Simone Biles would unveil a triple-twisting double tuck -- something no female gymnast had ever performed.

But after everything she'd been through, Denhollander -- a mother of four -- felt it wasn't right to expose her kids to the world of elite gymnastics.

"I couldn't take them in front of these athletes and have their minds filled with starry ideals, knowing what is going on in the backdrop," said the 35-year-old. "I can't put those coaches or athletes in front of my girls. And that broke my heart."

Denhollander has been in the midst of a public reckoning with the sport since 2016, when she became the first woman to report sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, a physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. In August of that year, she filed a Title IX complaint with MSU and told their police department that Nassar had assaulted her when she was a 15-year-old gymnast.

Her story -- now at the center of the Netflix documentary "Athlete A" -- would compel over 260 female athletes to come forward with their own tales about Nassar's abuse. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to to federal child pornography charges in addition to multiple charges of first-degree sexual assault and will likely now spend the rest of his life in prison.

But even though Nassar is behind bars, Denhollander and others in the gymnastics world feel the sport has far more work to do to address claims of systemic emotional, physical and sexual abuse. We spoke to her, the directors of "Athlete A" -- Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk -- and 1986 U.S. National Champion Jen Sey, who also produced the film, about the ongoing problems they hope the documentary will bring to light.

 

Rachael, you have been so outspoken on this issue for years. Was there a part of you that didn't want to participate in a movie where you'd have to talk about what you went through yet again?

Denhollander: Every time I speak, I find it difficult. It's never an easy thing to do. But I had already been through so much. Continuing in advocacy was something I really had to weigh, because it does come with a significant cost. But it is better to do something than not be able to do anything. I want to let women know they're not alone, and the stories aren't unique. That they're part of a community that understands.

Cohen: I think we really learned that you just can't push people that don't want to be pushed. The repercussions of re-traumatizing girls and women -- the danger of that is far more important than something you're gonna get for the film. They'll tell you what their boundaries are.

This film is coming out a little over a year after the release of a well-reviewed HBO documentary on the same subject, "At the Heart of Gold." Did that project interfere with yours?

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