Olympic gymnasts calling for change

We’ve been reading reports for years about the impact of sports on self-esteem, especially for girls. Participation in athletics has been shown to improve confidence, strength and the ability to overcome obstacles.

Knowing the positive impact sports can and should have on young people makes it even more heartbreaking to watch coverage of the sentencing proceedings of Larry Nassar.

The former member of the US Olympic Gymnastics and Michigan State medical staffs has pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual misconduct, including abusing female athletes while claiming to be caring for them.

Dozens of athletes, including US gymnasts have bravely addressed the court, and Nassar himself during the difficult proceedings; the victims taking another step in their healing process, but knowing they may always deal with the emotional scars of their experiences.

It’s hard to even wrap your head around the situation these young athletes found themselves in, some working for years toward the goal of representing their country at the Olympic Games.

A sport like gymnastics, in which athletes reach their physical peak as teenagers, forces young people to train, sometimes far away from their families, putting their trust in coaches, the organization, and its doctors. That these athletes, many in the highest-profile positions in their sport, would be so betrayed by the very people tasked to protect them is incomprehensible. The abuse allegedly spanned decades.

Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, speaking in court about that deception and betrayal, said her pain continues, knowing that Nassar “took advantage of our passions and our dreams.”

Raisman, who captained the 2012 and 2016 US gold medal gymnastics teams, and captured multiple individual medals as well, is one of the most decorated gymnasts in the history of the American program. But her athletic excellence could not spare her, or others from the alleged abuse.

Aly’s mental toughness was on display as she competed among the best in the world on each apparatus through two Olympic Games, but her strength in the courtroom was more powerful than any gymnastics routine.

Determined to classify herself as a survivor rather than a victim, Raisman has continued to lead, providing support and a voice for so many others who unfortunately faced similar experiences. And she is also calling for changes that will improve policies and procedures surrounding the sport, and protect future Olympic hopefuls.

Top US Gymnastics leaders have stepped down in the wake of the outcry by Raisman and others, and considering the growing social outrage nationwide through the “Me Too” movement, change certainly should be on the horizon.

The qualities of courage, strength and determination that drove Raisman and her fellow survivors to the pinnacle of athletic success are now creating a culture of care and integrity for the future of their sport.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.