Miracle of Fierce Five: Winning in spite of abuse

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The most enduring image from the USA women’s gymnastics 2012 Olympic team wasn’t of gold-medal-celebrating athletes or a stuck landing at the end of a championship routine.

It was one of self-doubt and disappointment.

It came courtesy of McKayla Maroney, undeniably the world’s best vaulter at the time, who nonetheless was denied a gold medal after she shockingly fell on her second attempt. Had she landed square, she would have won easily. She didn’t and had to settle for silver.

On the medal podium, Maroney briefly pouted her lips. Cameras snapped and the image was instantly hailed as her “not impressed” face. It was mimicked, replicated and repeated everywhere. Maroney even busted it out when visiting President Obama at the White House.

“I was sad, I was upset and I was not impressed,” Maroney said years later. What was a joke to many wasn’t to her though. She said she didn’t sleep for nearly a week.

It was the least of her troubles, the shallowest of her horrors from those Olympics.

Throughout Maroney’s time in London, the then-17-year-old was systematically raped and violated by team doctor Larry Nassar. Each of her four teammates — Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber and Kyla Ross — has publicly revealed they were victimized as well. It all happened under the watch of a group of adults that keeps being charged with its own despicable crimes.

That included the 2012 team’s head coach, John Geddert, who doubled as a friend of Nassar’s from back in Lansing, Michigan. It was at the gym Geddert owned and operated, Twistars, where Nassar would meet and molest hundreds of girls.

Geddert, himself, was charged Thursday with 24 criminal counts, including two involving his own sexual assault of a girl aged 13-16. There was also one for lying to police during questioning about Nassar and 20 counts related to abusive coaching. Rather than face the accusations, he ran from them, driving to a highway rest stop and killing himself.

FILE - In this Aug. 7, 2012, file photo, U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber is consoled by head coach John Geddert after her performance during the artistic gymnastics women's floor exercise final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The finality of the end of her gymnastics career hit Wieber suddenly. Too far removed from the high-intensity training needed to continue at the elite level and ineligible to compete collegiately because she turned professional as a high schooler, the 2011 world champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist needed a place to vent. 
 (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber is consoled by head coach John Geddert after her performance during the artistic gymnastics women’s floor exercise final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. (AP)

Then there was USA Gymnastics president Steve Perry, who in 2018 was indicted by a Texas grand jury for tampering with evidence related to the Nassar investigation. He is still awaiting trial.

Other training and competition settings included Indianapolis-based coach Marvin Sharp, who in 2015 killed himself inside his jail cell after being charged with molesting a 15-year-old girl.

And, of course, there was Nassar, who in 2017 pleaded guilty to raping and sexually assaulting 10 victims and had nearly 200 speak at a sentencing hearing. For years he wasn’t just the national team doctor, but an active presence on USAG advisory boards that wrote training and safety procedures. The 57-year-old is currently in a federal prison in Florida on separate child pornography charges.

“I frequently had to travel [without my parents] under the supervision of USA Gymnastics,” Raisman stated on Thursday following Geddert’s indictment and then suicide. “The ‘responsible’ adults included John Geddert, Marvin Sharp, Steve Penny and Larry Nassar.”

Others, including team coordinator Martha Karolyi, were clearly too focused on winning to question the wisdom of allowing a grown man such as Nassar unfettered access to the training center dorms or hotel rooms of teenage girls.

The United States would capture five medals over the nine-day gymnastics competition at those London Games, including three golds. The visions of their smiling and cheering (and even not impressed) faces would launch fame, commercial opportunities and another generation of young, enthralled girls who aspired to be just like them.

It looked beautiful. It was actually a nightmare and one that, with each increasing arrest and allegation, becomes even more unfathomable to comprehend. Not just how it happened, but how the athletes accomplished what they did in spite of it all.

Maroney’s Olympic dream, for example, began when she was handed a sleeping pill by Nassar on the flight to London. She recalls awakening with Nassar in his hotel room where he was giving her a “treatment.”

“I thought I was going to die,” she said in a statement at Nassar’s 2018 sentencing hearing.

He went on to repeatedly rape her, perhaps daily, throughout the Games.

The scope and breadth of the depravity is breathtaking. Or it should be. The Nassar scandal became so big, and so brutal, that the stories tended to blend together, overwhelming the true sense of the evil and awfulness involved.

Each girl was a victim though. Each act was a crime. Each moment a life-altering act. The volume of the incidents shouldn’t diminish their viciousness.

Everything those Olympians went through, from the climb up the ultra-competitive ladder of USA Gymnastics, to the Olympics itself, to even the disappointments that came during competition, lives forever under that cloud.

They were surrounded by alleged pedophiles, who constructed a training mentality and a culture of compliance that made the athletes extremely vulnerable to abuse.

Say nothing. Question nothing. Dare never to complain. America, they were often reminded, has a dozen more elite gymnasts just like you who will gladly take your place and maintain the focus needed to win gold.

There is no union to advocate for them. No agents with the power to speak up. The system can replace them too easily.

Everything worked against them, even Olympic rules, which allow for just two gymnasts from a single country to compete for the coveted All-Around gold — often chosen at the discretion of the coaches.

In 2011, Wieber won the women’s world championship. At the Olympics a year later, dealing with a shin injury “treated” by Nassar, she missed qualifying for the all-around final by one-tenth of a point.

It is a sport where the smallest of mistakes means everything. That reality impacts everything.

Even parents were held at bay. They were banned from lengthy, cut-throat training camps at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. And during the Olympics, USA Gymnastics, citing the need for focus, limited parental contact to just a few phone calls and texts, plus two brief face-to-face pre-scheduled sessions.

Maroney, in 2018, said that the fact “my mom and dad were unable to observe what Nassar was doing … imposed a terrible and undeserved burden of guilt on my loving family.” In 2019, her father, Mike, died while trying to detox from opioids.

It doesn’t take much to connect the dots.

The need for control was everything to USA Gymnastics, though. Geddert, who fashioned himself as a tough guy coach but was really just a manipulative bully to little girls, was always quick to brag about his demanding ways. He basked in his reputation.

What kind of coaching was this though?

Does Maroney uncharacteristically fall on that second vault, blowing what was presumed to be a shoo-in gold, if she wasn’t suffering through a string of rapes by a doctor she had been brainwashed into trusting?

And what of Wieber? She was the best in the world at 15, but suffered a stress fracture in her shin, in part, she later theorized, because of overtraining by Geddert.

Then, rather than receive honest medical treatment, she received Larry Nassar.

U.S. gymnasts, top left to right, Jordyn Wieber, Gabrielle Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Alexandra Raisman, Kyla Ross raise their hands on the podium, next to Romania's Sandra Raluca Izbasa, right, and Russian gymnast Kseniia Afanaseva, left, during the medal ceremony during the Artistic Gymnastic women's team final at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in London.  Team U.S. won the gold. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
U.S. gymnasts, left to right, Jordyn Wieber, Gabrielle Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross raise their hands after winning the team gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. (AP)

“The doctor that was our abuser,” Wieber said at Nassar’s sentencing. “The doctor that is a child molester.”

The abuse went beyond just sexual and included mental and emotional trauma. Wieber’s failure to qualify for the all-around competition left her devastated. She openly cried after and couldn’t face fans or the media.

“She hasn’t said a word,” Geddert said of Wieber directly after the qualifying failure. “She doesn’t talk. She’ll get into her little shell.”

Wieber’s mother, Rita, unable to see her then-16-year-old after the most heartbreaking day of her career, could only get her briefly on the phone — “I told her, ‘Life will go on,’ ” Rita said at the time. “We always raised her to know that we support her in all of life, not just gymnastics.”

USA Gymnastics meanwhile shrugged and sent her in for more “treatment” from Nassar. There was the coveted team gold to win two days later, after all. The U.S. would clinch it when, incredibly, Wieber and Maroney delivered near flawless vaults.

That spectacular triumph was hailed as proof the machine of American gymnastics worked.

“Redemption,” Geddert said that day of Wieber. “That’s the type of kid she is.”

She is. No matter what John Geddert and USA Gymnastics did to try to break her.

“Now I question everything about that injury and the medical treatment I received,” Wieber said. “Was Larry even doing anything to help my pain? Was I getting proper medical care, or was he only focused on which of us he was going to prey on next?”

With a real doctor, could Wieber have won all-around gold? Could she have, scores and standings aside, performed her best in the competition she spent her life training and sacrificing and dreaming to reach?

And what if anyone stopped and thought of McKayla Maroney, not merely her ability to vault?

“If Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee had paid attention to any of the red flags in Larry Nassar’s behavior, I never would have met him,” Maroney stated. “I never would have been ‘treated’ by him, and I never would have been abused by him.”

No one was paying attention, though. Certainly not enough. Perhaps because many of the people charged with identifying those red flags had red flags of their own. The win-at-all-costs mentality, the disregard for abuse of any kind … it was done by what we increasingly know were abusers themselves.

The USA gymnasts didn’t just have to defeat the Russians and Romanians.

It had to defeat USA Gymnastics itself.

At the end of an Olympics that appeared, per the medal count, to be a glorious success, the team branded itself with a name. Some media had been calling them “The Fab Five,” but that didn’t work.

“I guess it was taken by some basketball team or something,” said Maroney, who wasn’t alive when, indeed, the University of Michigan made the term famous in the early 1990s.

So they dubbed themselves “The Fierce Five” instead.

“Fierce,” Maroney proudly explained back then. “That’s what we are.”

More and more each day.

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