Athlete A Reveals How Deeply USAG Failed To Protect Its Gymnasts

Britni de la Cretaz

In 2016, the gymnastics world was rocked by the reports of sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics and University of Michigan doctor Larry Nassar. In total, over 500 women and girls have accused Nassar of sexually assaulting them during what were supposed to be routine treatments for injuries sustained during the sport. Athlete A, Netflix’s new documentary, explores the case through the lens of the IndyStar journalists who reported it, and attempts to answer the questions of how this could have happened — and how it could have gone on for so long.

“Athlete A” was gymnast Maggie Nichols, whose identity was revealed right before testimony at Nassar’s sentencing. Nichols was the first athlete to formally file a complaint against Nassar with USAG, in June of 2015. But, as the IndyStar investigation revealed, there were many, many other girls before Nichols.

Perhaps even more damning, USAG lied to Nichols’ parents about the way the incident was being investigated. For months after being made aware of Nassar’s abuse, USAG allowed him to remain in his position — during which time at least 40 more girls were abused — and the organization attempted to cover up the accusations. The film also insinuates that Nichols, who had been considered a shoe-in for the 2016 Olympic team but ultimately didn’t make it, faced retaliation for reporting Nassar. She has since left the USAG system to compete for University of Oklahoma at the NCAA level.

Now, the Nassar case is all but settled legally. He was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, though the healing for survivors of his abuse will likely be an ongoing process. But the reckoning for USAG is far from over. In 2019, a Senate panel determined that a pattern of negligent behavior on the part of USAG and the U.S. Olympic Committee allowed Nassar’s abuse to continue.

The organization filed for bankruptcy in December 2018, following the fallout of the Nassar lawsuits. This spring, survivors overwhelmingly rejected USAG’s settlement offer, which would have paid victims between $82,500 and $1.25 million, and would have released former USAG CEO Steve Penny, USAG and USOPC coaches including Bella and Marta Karolyi, and former Olympic coach Don Peters, who was found to have coerced underage gymnasts into having sex, from any legal claims.

Then, in April, coach Maggie Haney received an eight year suspension from the sport for subjecting her athletes to physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. 2016 Olympian Laurie Hernandez was one of at least a dozen athletes who reported being abused by Haney. The allegations included reports that Haney would pull athletes by their hair, ridicule them and call them names, including an ableist slur, if they were unable to perform or afraid to try a trick, body shame them, and pressure them to train or compete while injured, including coercing them to remove boot casts or other medical devices before they were healed.

According to Hernandez, she and her parents first reported Haney to USAG back in 2016, but a case into the allegations wasn’t opened until 2019, when the parents of world champion gymnast Riley McCusker began raising the issue with USAG officials. If an investigation had been opened sooner, “it could have prevented a lot of athletes from having to go through the same thing that I went through,” Hernandez said on the TODAY Show last month.

The lag in time between the report of abuse by Haney and the opening of an investigation is not dissimilar from how the Nassar case was handled, which is all the more shocking considering the public fallout from Nassar’s actions and USAG’s failure to prevent or stop them.

According to reporting by the Orange County Register, Penny, the CEO of USA Gymnastics until March 2017, was informed of Hernandez’s complaints twice. But Wanda Hernandez, Laurie’s mother, said she was never contacted by Penny about Haney. Meanwhile, Nichols’ parents were being told by Penny that the FBI was investigating their daughter’s complaint about Nassar and that if they spoke publicly about it, they would compromise the investigation. They would come to find out that Penny was lying to them.

In October 2018, Penny was charged with tampering with evidence related to the Nassar case. He pled not guilty. He is currently awaiting trial.

What’s left is countless women and girls left continuing to try to pick up the pieces after an organization that was supposed to protect them failed to do so. Athlete A is a damning investigation into what it looks like when a culture is “willing to sacrifice its young” to win at all costs, as Jennifer Sey, author of Chalked Up: My Life in Gymnastics, says in the film.

Athlete A premieres on Netflix, on Wednesday, June 24.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

The Founder Amplifying Female Athletes' Stories

How Organizations Failed Gymnasts Abused By Nassar

How Aly Raisman Decided To Confront Larry Nassar

More From

  • Your Horoscope This Week

    It’s time for us to open our eyes. The Lunar Eclipse reaches its fullest point in security-minded Capricorn in the early-morning hours of July 5 (between midnight and 1 a.m. EST). A light is being shone on aspects of our lives that we were once unaware of, and it’s critical to pay attention. New paths will be revealed, though we may need to dedicate some quiet time to a mindfulness practice to see them. Luckily, the Eclipse supports our intuition and encourages us to finally let go of old ways of thinking or acting that are holding us back.  The Lunar Eclipse is supported by a trine with change-loving Uranus, which may compel us to discuss our innovative ideas. But it opposes thoughtful Mercury, which can cause some confusion or fogginess — so take time working through your emotions and feelings before you speak, and listen carefully to others.  The Moon is void-of-course on Tuesday, and she will remain void for a full day, until Wednesday afternoon. Void Moons are known for halting action and promoting introspection, so these are great days to sit with your emotions, to heal, and to collect your thoughts. The Moon enters Aries on Saturday at just past 1 a.m. EST, stirring up a more active, ambitious energy.  Be careful with your words on Wednesday, when messenger Mercury forms a square against warrior Mars. It’s easy for us to get fired up against each other. Avoid jumping to conclusions during this transit. Work to be patient with others — then blow off steam by dancing out your feelings, or going for a quick run to clear your thoughts. Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Your July HoroscopeThis Mercury Retrograde, Prepare To FightThe 2020 Revolution Was Written In The Stars

  • The Long-Weekend Fashion Sales You Can Still Shop Tonight

    Ah, long weekends... In lieu of crowded backyard barbecues, we seared hot dogs on individual mini grills from a safe social distance of six feet. And, instead of pouring rosé out of a shared cooler while not really keeping track of whose glass is whose, we sipped bottled to-go cocktails beneath the cover of face masks. But, despite all of these time-honored traditions being in a state of flux, there is a holiday weekend staple that we can still expect: the sales. As sure as the sun rising in the east, the annual influx of 4th of July sales is business as usual with many of the deals lasting through Sunday eve — and they don’t disappoint. Click through to see what scores we rustled up this year. No matter how you ended up spending the long weekend, you can complete it with a darn good sale, if you're in the market to do so. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Wayfair's July 4th Sale Is Up To 70% OffThe Black One-Pieces Online Shoppers Swear By23 Red Swimsuits For Every 4th Of July Pool Party

  • R29 Readers’ Top Stay-At-Home Picks Are All On Sale For July 4th

    After spending many, many months indoors recently, it's very possible that you already know your way around a good cyber sale. But just when you thought you'd be swapping screen time for sunshine in honor of one star-spangled holiday this weekend, let us remind you that the 4th of July is also a major moment for some of the year's biggest markdowns on everything furniture, decor, rugs, and more. And while we're on the topic of that stay-at-home life we've grown accustomed to as of late, we'd like to point out that many of our R29 readers' favorite finds over lockdown (fire pits, desk chairs, and breathable bedding, to name a few) are having their prices slashed, all in the name of patriotism as July 4 draws near. So we're breaking down the top holiday deals by category featuring the season's most-loved home items so you're well-prepared to ride the wave of promotions that's on its way. With discounts of up to 70% off from popular retailers like Wayfair and Lulu and Georgia, it'll be worth the extra few minutes at your computer. The more efficient your sale shopping, the more time you've got to soak up that all-too-precious vitamin D, so click through our roundup of unmissable steals ahead and keep checking back — we'll be updating this list as long as the markdowns are marching in. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?All The Home Sales You May As Well Shop While WFHUpgrade Your Bedroom Decor With This Design HackWayfair's July 4th Sale Is Up To 70% Off

  • It’s Hot. Here’s How To Make Your Face Mask More Comfortable

    I’m going to kick this off with two statements that are likely beyond obvious to you (unless you’ve spent the first half of 2020 living off the land in the desolate wilderness with nothing but a penknife and a ball of cord to keep you company, à la My Side of The Mountain). You should be wearing a mask. And it’s freaking hot outside. What do these two things have to do with other? Well, wearing a mask in the heat is a pain. Masks can get sweaty, feel stuffy, and can even leave us with a heat rash.“It’s worth acknowledging that masks are uncomfortable, especially when it’s hot and humid,” says Nate Favini, MD, medical lead at Forward, a concierge medical service. “They’re annoying, and I don’t think we should pretend that’s not true. I’m empathetic — but it doesn’t mean that wearing a mask isn’t crucial.” Because the fact is, face masks work. They reduce transmission, helping to curb the spread of coronavirus and to quite literally save lives. “The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an increasing number of cases, so it’s more important than ever to wear a mask,” says Natasha Bhuyan, MD, One Medical’s regional medical director. “Until we have a vaccine, widespread masks are our best defense against this virus.”But when it’s hot and sticky outside, and the humid air you’re exhaling is getting trapped by your mask, things might get a little stifling, admits Dr. Bhuyan. (To be clear: While there’s a myth circulating that wearing a mask can lower oxygen levels, it’s not true. Doctors and nurses wear them all day long, and they’re doing okay. “Even though we are exhaling carbon dioxide, it already exists in the environment… Wearing the mask does not increase this risk,” Dr. Bhuyan says.)So, yes, wearing a face mask on a 100-degree day is still worth it. And to make it easier on you, we asked doctors for their best tips for staying comfortable while doing your civic duty and covering your face in steamy temps. Get a more breathable mask. Choose one that has more structure than those that lie flat against your mouth. But Dr. Favini cautions that the more breathable a mask is, the less protection it may offer to the people around you. “There’s the tension of wanting people to have masks that are more comfortable versus wanting them to have ones that are more effective.” So if you’re going to be indoors and/or around others, wear a more effective mask, even if it makes you feel hotter. (Or layer up. Which brings us to…)Choose the right material. This is especially important if you’re getting heat rashes from your mask. “Consider fabrics that are either natural, like cotton, or synthetic fabrics that wick away sweat, such as fabric found in exercise clothing,” says Ted Lain, MD, dermatologist and chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology. “The latest recommendation is to use multiple layers of fabric to produce the most effective protective barrier to the virus, so instead of using a thick cotton, consider a thinner cotton fabric but layering it.”Bring backups. A sweaty mask stinks — literally and figuratively. So have a few fresh ones in your bag. That way if you sweat through one, you’ll have another at the ready. This can make you more comfortable, and prevent breakouts. “Sweating and the humidity in the mask area certainly can lead to a dermatitis, or even an acne breakout,” says Dr. Lain. Pack each extra in a clean, sealable plastic baggie so it won’t be exposed to any germs before you slip it on your face.Time your “chin strap” moments. Sure, if you’re totally alone, then it’s fine to pull your mask down and take a few deep breaths. But then pull it back up, Dr. Favini says: “Wearing your mask down around your chin is like having a condom and leaving it on the nightstand while you have sex.” Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?