“It was a culture of fear.”
These are some of the words uttered by our own Madison Kocian as she was interviewed recently on CBS This Morning alongside teammate Kyla Ross and head coach Valerie Kondos Field. The subject was the sexual abuse crimes committed by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, in which hundreds of current and former gymnasts had been abused while receiving supposed medical treatments where, in most cases, parents were not allowed to be present.
The culture of fear that Kocian speaks of was at the Karolyi Ranch, 40 acres of the Sam Houston National Forest in Texas that was purchased by the famed gymnastics coach Bela Károlyi and his wife Marta in 1983. In 2001, the ranch was designated by USA Gymnastics as the U.S. Women’s National Gymnastics Training Center, and in 2011, “the Ranch” was recognized as a U.S. Olympic Training Site by the United States Olympic Committee.
In January of this year, USA Gymnastics terminated their lease with the Károlyis following the conviction of Nassar, and subsequently, the facility was permanently closed.
During the trial, over 250 statements were read by former victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar. Each tearful proclamation was an avowal of the flat out disgusting and appalling behavior of a man that gymnasts from across the country had come to trust.
Today, Kocian and Ross spoke alongside their coach and reiterated the fact that Nassar’s behavior had basically been normalized. The girls spoke to each other about it, but no one thought anything of it because they trusted their doctors and the training facility.
While USA Gymnastics has filed a separate lawsuit against the Károlyis due to their alleged negligence and has pledged their unwavering support of the gymnasts, both Kocian and Ross have yet to hear anything from the organization that was supposed to protect them not so many years ago. USA Gymnastics issued the following statement:
USA Gymnastics’ support is unwavering for Kyla, Madison, and all athletes who courageously came forward to share their experiences. Their powerful voices and stories will continue to be a basis for our future decisions.
Both Kocian and Ross expressed their desire to have some contact with USA Gymnastics. Kocian competed at World Championships in Fall 2015 and the Olympic games in 2016, and has not heard anything from the organization as of yet. Ross called the lack of contact “disheartening”.
In addition to this “culture of fear”, coach Kondos Field spoke of an alternative “culture of winning”. She said, “any time you put winning and medals above people, you open up your organization to a corrosiveness that will spread like a disease”.
To make matters worse, Kocian said because of Nassar’s character, it was like being abused by a family member. He would bring them food on international trips and check in on them, so it was hard to separate his behavior from the inappropriate acts he was committing. Even Kondos Field spoke of how she believed Nassar to be a kind and gentle man until the accusations came out.
Both Ross and Kocian spoke of a “culture of silence” at “the ranch” and the fact that you had to get through the Károlyis in order to make it in gymnastics. The road to the Olympics went right through “the ranch”, and these unspeakable acts were something you had to endure in order to reach your goals.
Kondos Field also stated she believes the Károlyis knew nothing of the abuse, but unfortunately, USA Gymnastics protected the famous gymnastics couple because of their success. There was no one within the organization for the girls to go to, which led to their silence. No one questioned what was happening because the Károlyis’ winning record was deemed so important. She said she found fault with the verbal and emotional abuse that the gymnasts had to endure, but was just told that the Károlyis won, so everyone went about their business and turned a blind eye to the horrors that these girls faced.
Ross said she was in denial at first, but after hearing the statements of victims over the years, she now realizes what happened to her. She said it has been “a hard road”, but with support she is moving on and is fortunate to have great people in her life.
As the mother of an emerging gymnast, I can’t even fathom how you’d get through this as a parent. Watching your child testify in court that they had been sexually abused by someone you trusted with your child has to be beyond painful. I also can’t imagine being one of the victims. An organization pledges to protect you, yet also protects a predator like Larry Nassar because winning is the most important goal.
We stand by these young women and their courageous actions.
Together We Rise.