A Response to Larry Nassar’s serial abuse and cover-up, by Jessica Khoshnood
A few things to know about me before you read this post. I was a gymnast from the age of two until I graduated college at 21 – I dedicated my whole life to gymnastics, as did my family. In some ways, I still consider myself a gymnast – discipline, perseverance and believing in myself are among my proudest qualities. I love this sport and am who I am today because of it.
I am not a survivor of sexual abuse. I do not pretend to understand the pain or hardships survivors have endured and continue to battle today. I am, however, connected to this sport indefinitely – gymnastics was my everything for nearly 20 years; I spent more time in the gym with my coaches and teammates than anyone else, including my family. In the nine years I’ve spent removed from the sport, I have developed a new understanding and awareness for the sport and culture I thought could do no wrong. Below are my own thoughts based on my unique experience. While I do not speak for all gymnasts, I know that there are others out there who feel the same as me.
The Silence is Broken
My first reaction to the news of Larry Nassar, like most, was complete disgust and feeling of betrayal on behalf of survivors. How could a doctor abuse his power and how could an entire organization turn a blind eye?
My second reaction, however, may not be as common. I distinctly remember thinking, “of course something like this would happen in gymnastics.”
I have gone back to this thought so many times, trying to figure out why I would think such a horrible thing about the sport I love. Have I become jaded and only see the ugly in things? I’ve reflected on this for months now, and my final answer is: For as much good as gymnastics has done for me and thousands of other female athletes, it has also negatively impacted me in ways that are only now being reversed.
Lesson <Not> Learned
My image of myself as a gymnast is a perfect little soldier. I realize no child is “perfect” – I was still a ball of energy as a child, as moody as any other teenager at 15 and eager for independence like most college students – but more often than not, I did what I was told, when I was told, as many times as I was told. There was no room to ask why. If I showed weakness, fear, or exhaustion, I was quickly reminded my role was to listen and do. By the time I reached high school, the answer to a casual “what do you want to do,” was always “I don’t know, what do you want?” or “what do you think I should do?”
At the time, there was no reason to complain or question the system. I went on to become a Junior Olympic National medalist and earned a full-ride scholarship to a Division I school. For all intents and purposes, I had a successful gymnastics career.
And then the day came when I wasn’t a gymnast.
At the age of 21, I didn’t know what I wanted or needed. I didn’t know what was best for me because for the past two decades someone always told me. I don’t blame my coaches, it wasn’t my parents’ fault, and I certainly didn’t know any better. For years, gymnasts are taught to act a certain way, and when they became coaches, they require the same of their athletes. The cycle continues unchallenged and unchanged.
I fell into this pattern when I first went into coaching. I expected A LOT of my athletes. But the more I moved away from my status as “gymnast” and closer to “normal person,” the more I realized how detrimental that behavior can be for a young female, still growing and learning who she is.
It was during this time of awareness that I found and became heavily involved in ZGiRLS, the program that taught me how to be the athlete/person I always wanted to be – self-compassionate and confident. In training to be a mentor, I myself had to work through the curriculum, step by step. How can you teach what you haven’t yet mastered? Positive self-talk, reframing, goal setting, and body appreciation were surprisingly more difficult to practice and engrain than I had thought they would be. It was an amazing experience the first time around, and I find I am learning new lessons about myself each time I teach the curriculum.
I continue to work with ZGiRLS because I wholeheartedly believe that if I had this when I was an athlete, I may not have struggled as much both inside and outside athletics. And because if it can help someone at my age be more confident, imagine what it can do for young athletes.
We Must Act
The sad truth is, if Olympic gold-medal athletes can hesitate on whether or not to report something that doesn’t feel right, it can happen to anyone, anywhere.
To the women who tried to share their stories years and years ago, only to fall on deaf ears, I am sorry that your voice was not heard by the adults that were supposed to protect you. To those who didn’t want to question the methods of a “renowned” doctor, I am sorry that no one taught you to trust your gut when it comes to your own mind and body.
I cannot solve the systemic issues at USA Gymnastics or any other organization. But, what I can do is encourage young women and athletes to listen to and respect their inner and physical self. I can use my experience to teach them they do know what is best for themselves, and they do have the power to speak up and out.
I can also encourage and plead for coaches, parents and anyone working with children to break the cycle! Recognize some of the scars your sport has left on you and figure out how you can keep it from marking your athletes. Encourage athletes to trust in and think for themselves. Empower them to use their voice to speak their minds and hearts. Listen when they say they are in pain. Empathize when they crumble in fear over doing a certain skill. Thank them for their honesty when they disagree with how something should be done. You are responsible for ensuring these young impressionable girls grow up to be strong, confident people, not just successful athletes.
I can’t help thinking that if gymnastics produced more women who were confident and unafraid to question the system, something like this may not have happened.
What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear from you if you have a similar story or a different perspective on what the solution may be. While this blog post is unique to my life events, this experience is not unique to women or athletes; everyone has something they can relate to. Let’s make a change by opening up an honest discussion.