How Gymnastics Shaped McKayla Maroney’s Response To Her Sexual Abuse — And Her Recovery

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In her first public comments about the sexual abuse she says she endured from USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, McKayla Maroney described how gymnastics shaped her recovery. Speaking Tuesday at a luncheon for the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Maroney said the very culture of the sport encouraged her to keep silent about the alleged abuse. But she also explained that her training taught her how to find the strength to recover from the trauma.

"I at times question if my gymnastics career was really even worth it," she told the audience. "There's a lot that comes with healing from this. To heal takes true courage... I'm really just taking it day by day."

Maroney is a gold-medal winning athlete who was trained from a young age to accomplish astonishing physical feats, but she says that the sport didn't make her feel emotionally empowered.

"In my whole gymnastics career, I was trained to be quiet," Maroney said. "I was taught for so many years that I wasn't supposed to say anything. I carried a secret around with me."

The wave of #MeToo accusations other women made against famous men in Hollywood, the media, and other fields gave Maroney the push she needed to overcome that impulse toward silence last fall, she explained. She first came forward with her allegations against Nassar in an Oct. 18 tweet, writing that "I had a dream to go to the Olympics" and that "I got there, but not without a price."

At the time, several lawsuits had already been filed against Nassar, and the doctor had been fired from his post at Michigan State University (MSU). But Maroney's statement — which came before her teammates like Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas spoke out about their own experiences with Nassar — brought national attention to the case.

"The one thing that gymnastics did teach me, was when you fall, you gotta get back up."

Although she criticized gymnastics culture for making her feel she had to keep quiet in the face of abuse, Maroney also said at the luncheon event that her career as an athlete helped her approach the healing process.

"The one thing that gymnastics did teach me, was when you fall, you gotta get back up," she said. "I do know how to be a fighter."

Maroney does indeed have some experience "falling" — a spill she took during the 2012 Olympics in London dashed her chances at a gold medal in the vault event she'd been favorited to win. Still, she resumed her routine and performed it so well that she took away a silver medal. She didn't allow the experience to disrupt her competitive career, either: She went on to win a gold medal at the P&G Championships and defend a world title on vault at the 2013 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.

But while she credits the sport in general for teaching her about bouncing back after hardship, Maroney isn't mincing words for the organizations that she claims enabled Nassar to abuse her and other young athletes.

"My team won gold medals in spite of USA Gymnastics, MSU, and USOC [the U.S. Olympic Committee]," she said. "They don't build champions, they break them."

In tweeting about Nassar last October, Maroney was defying a nondisclosure agreement she'd signed with USA Gymnastics (USAG) in December 2016, in which she agreed not to come forward with accusations against the doctor. A few months later, she sued USAG for allegedly covering up Nassar's abuse (confidentiality agreements about child molestation are illegal in California, where she filed suit).

For its part, USAG argues that it did not initiate the NDA; when Maroney submitted a victim statement for Nassar's sentencing in January, the organization said that it would not fine her for breaking the agreement.

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But Maroney is steadfast in her critique of the organization. "The thing is, USA gymnastics, MSU, USOC continued to look away to protect their reputations," she said on Tuesday. "All they cared about was money, medals, and it didn't seem like anything else. It was my biggest dream to compete for my country. They demanded excellence from me, but they couldn't give it to us."

Maroney alleges that Nassar started molesting her when she was around 13 years old and continued to do so until she retired from competitive gymnastics in 2016, when she was 20 years old. According to Maroney, the abuse began when she was at a training camp in Texas, continued before her medal-winning performances at the 2012 Olympics in London. She alleges she was once abused after Nassar gave her a sleeping pill, and has referred to that incident several times as "the scariest night of my life." She also alleges that Nassar took photos while he was abusing her.

On Tuesday, Maroney described what it feels like to try and heal from that abuse. "Sometimes you're just left in the dust and you have to pick up the pieces of your life," she said. "That has been the hardest part for me. It's always three steps forward, two steps back." She described speaking out as an essential step toward recovery, saying that telling her story has been like "lifting that weight off my shoulders."

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Nassar is currently serving a 60-year sentence at a high-security prison for child pornography crimes — that's not counting several additional decades-long sentences for sex crimes, if Nassar lives that long. Meanwhile, Maroney is speaking out to help other survivors and prevent new abusers from using their positions of power to prey on the vulnerable.

"Things are changing now, as we speak. This year has been so huge for everyone speaking their truth with the #MeToo movement," she said on Tuesday. "I definitely see a future where athletes are safe and succeeding. I think this next generation is going to be even stronger with everything that we're doing."