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Rachael Denhollander, First to Publicly Accuse Nassar, to Close Out Sentencing Hearing
(12 votes, average 4.58 out of 5)

Before Mckayla. Before Aly. Before Maggie. Before even Simone. Before more than 150 women screamed #MeToo, there was one who said to the world, "Me. Larry Nassar assaulted me, Rachael Denhollander." Pictured: Denhollander, right, listens to Jamie Dantzscher at a press conference in 2017.

Before Mckayla. Before Aly. Before Maggie. Before even Simone. Before more than 150 women screamed #MeToo — before that was even a hashtag — there was one who said to the world, "Me. Larry Nassar assaulted me, Rachael Denhollander."

Fittingly, Denhollander will be the last survivor to deliver a victim impact statement in Nassar's sentencing hearing, expected to draw to a close Wednesday in Ingham County, Michigan. But justice is still not done, and nobody has fought longer or harder than Denhollander in a case that has already shaken the world. More than a year before the #MeToo revolution stunned Hollywood and political circles, Denhollander stood up and said, "Me."

The survivors were picked to make statements in a deliberate order over the past week, which was shuffled as more women changed their minds about delivering statements, which Nassar agreed to as part of his plea agreement. Denhollander originally planned to testify on Friday, but it has now been pushed back as more and more women decided they must also be heard. She will be the 156th to speak in court and tell the world what Larry Nassar did to her, and she is expected to call out the individuals and institutions that protected him, enabled him and allowed him to assault her.

Kyle Stephens, the first to testify last Tuesday, was not a gymnast, and thus shattered the preconceived notions a passive public may have had about the case. Stephens, a family friend of Larry Nassar, had been molested by him since she was just 6 years old. Stephens' story was the perfect introduction in this case of horrible abuse, injustice and ruined lives. In 2004, after she learned about what child molestation was, she informed her parents what their friend Larry had been doing to her since 1998. They didn't believe her. They took her to an MSU psychologist, who instead of calling the police as the law required, called Nassar instead. She was not believed. The young girl was forced to apologize to Nassar in front of her parents, who remained angry at her that she would ever dare invent such a lie about their trusted friend, an important doctor. During her teenaged years, she even returned to babysit Nassar's children, wanting to protect them from a monster.

When Stephens' father, who struggled with a chronic medical condition, was finally confronted by the truth, that his daughter had not been lying, he committed suicide.

In an explosive and powerful statement that instantly change the dynamic of the courtroom, and electrified the #MeToo revolution, Stephens stood in front of Larry Nassar and issued the rallying cry heard by millions: "Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world."

As Stephens' words stunned viewers and inspired people to demand change, Denhollander was there in the courtroom, watching. She's not an Olympian. She never competed at the national championships, much less the world championships. But her strength and bravery are equal to that of any Olympic champion. A mother of three, Denhollander's name was unfamiliar to the public and the gymnastics world when she first stepped forward in September 2016. The weekend before the hearing began she and her husband, Canadian native Jacob Denhollander, drove from their home in Kentucky to Michigan with their children, who were looked after by her family while she spent each day in Courtroom 5 of Ingham County's 30th Circuit Court. She packed for a week, preparing for daily press conferences, preparing to stand in front of every camera and microphone and demand justice.

Throughout each day, Denhollander has sat in the courtroom stonefaced listening to testimony, documenting and acknowledging each case on social media. The names and ages of the victims. One by one. This was a wholly preventable tragedy, she reminded everyone, noting that all but a handful of the women abused by Nassar occurred after the first known reports about him went ignored in 1997. The world would finally listen to them.

In 2000, Rachael Denhollander was a 15-year-old gymnast from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who was sexually assaulted for nearly a year by then-USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar, who claimed to be treating her back pain. Nassar sexually assaulted Rachael Denhollander because he could. Because Nassar, a depraved pedophile obsessed with gymnasts since his days in high school, knew nobody would believe Rachael Denhollander any more than they had believed Larissa Boyce, who in 1997 had reported Nassar to MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages. Instead of reporting Nassar, Klages called her friend up to let him know what was being said about him. Boyce, and her teammates, were told she was wrong, and that it was a legitimate medical procedure. Boyce, Klages told her, would have to face consequences if she persisted in complaining about Larry.

Nassar knew they wouldn't believe Denhollander any more than they had believed Christie Achanbach, an MSU runner who told the athletics coach in 1998 and 1998 that Nassar was sexually assaulting her by penetrating her most intimate areas. Achanbach, too, was told she was mistaken and that it was a legitimate medical procedure.

MSU softball player Tiffany Thomas Lopez complained too, starting in 1998, that this doctor was sexually assaulting her. She was told she was wrong and was forced to return to see him until she finally refused, and in 2000, she was forced to take a medical retirement. Devastated, she dropped out of school.

Only a full criminal investigation, done in Colorado, Indiana, Michigan and Texas may reveal who else was told what he was doing to these girls and when, who else shrugged off the concerns, who else failed to report, who else betrayed the trust and failed every girl assaulted after they ignored what they were told — until Nassar's house of cards came crashing down around him in September 2016.

Denhollander, who later worked as a gymnastics coach, was traumatized by the sexual assault she endured as a teen at the hands of a trusted and admired doctor, whose office wall was covered with framed photos of famous gymnasts and figure skaters. Like so many others who have since shared their stories, she struggled with her own inner doubts about what had occurred and independently researched this supposed procedure. Was it a legitimate procedure known as myofascial release, that can help alleviate pain, supposedly done in the intravaginal and intra-anal areas to treat back, hip and pelvic injuries, as Nassar claimed? Was that what happened to her? No, it was not.

Over the years, Denhollander armed herself. She armed herself by investigating her assault and recording her investigation. She armed herself with a law degree. As she as she was convinced what Nassar had done to her, that is how sure she knew she could not be the only one.

Denhollander speaks at the preliminary hearing against Nassar, prior to his guilty plea.

As we have witnessed the parade of women coming forward to speak at Nassar's sentencing hearing, it is difficult to remember a time when their stories were not believed. One of the most horrifying aspects of the Larry Nassar tragedy is that we will never know how many girls and women he assaulted over the years as possibly the most prolific pedophile known. The victims could be in the thousands. When did he start? Despite his defense that this was a legitimate medical procedure, he never mentioned this "treatment" in any of their charts. Nobody bothered to check.

"Do you even remember what we can never forget?" one survivor asked of him last week. The number of women expected to speak at his sentencing hearing grew from 83 to 95 to 105 to 120 to 140 and 156. The testimony of each one has been reaffirming in its bravery but each one a separate tragedy, of lives and families destroyed, wasted years of anxiety and panic attacks, self-harm, self-medication and eating disorders, suicide attempts. Suicides, plural.

The horror grew as many shared that Nassar not only sexually abused them, but neglected the very injuries he claimed to be treating, leaving the women to suffer ongoing pain and permanent physical damage. Many careers were permanently cut short. Some are still plagued by the pain of those untreated injuries; many spoke of acute anxiety and mistrust of doctors caused by the trauma, leading to neglect and further suffering.

Nassar's modus operandi became clear. Typically, he groomed young girls to trust him as he seemingly sympathized with them and protected them from a harsh training environment. Other women he simply assaulted like it was a matter of routine. Nassar's depravity was so cruel that he routinely and purposely molested girls while their parents were in the room. Positioning himself in a way that blocked the parents from their children, he would continue to talk normally like everything was still routine. The young girls, confused, would think that because their moms were in the room, everything was OK. Likewise, the girls would trade stories about Nassar and his gross or strange treatment, but since he seemed to do it to everybody, they were left to assume that was what doctors did. Sickeningly, these overt acts that one would assume would lead to him getting immediately caught are what helped him get away with it for so long. The lifelong guilt he purposely inflicted upon parents by molesting their children in front of them is a testament to how vile and depraved Larry Nassar is.

Once an upsetting statistic, over the past 10 days, we saw their faces, heard their pain, felt collective guilt, and vowed to change the institutions and laws that made this tragedy not just possible, but inevitable.

Assured individually and sensitively by Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina, each woman has reclaimed her power and strength as surely as she embraced the term "survivor," not "victim." It brings comfort, but the pain will never end. The justice is not Nassar behind bars.

When they first spoke up, they weren't the victims. They were the accusers. The Nassar accusers, who were publicly and privately mocked and belittled and shamed by his friends, colleagues, supporters and legal team. USA Gymnastics was silent in what it knew. Only after the truth began to emerge and the public began to demand accountability did USAG's tone change to one of sympathy for the victims. Only then did they begin to call him a monster.

USA Gymnastics, which quietly parted ways with Nassar in September 2015, did nothing that led to his conviction. USAG did not stand up to support Rachael Denhollander when she showed tremendous courage, at personal sacrifice, to come forward and reveal who Larry Nassar really was.

Just prior to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, The Indianapolis Star began a series investigating troubling accounts of USA Gymnastics' handling of sexual abuse in the sport over the years. Denhollander saw her chance and took it, realizing now, finally, someone might believe her. And she fired the first shot that wounded Larry Nassar, who was still practicing medicine and assaulting women and girls despite numerous law enforcement and institutional investigations that ignored his behavior, or worse, excused it. Even the FBI couldn't, or wouldn't, stop Larry Nassar, despite supposedly being notified in July 2015 by USA Gymnastics's President/CEO Steve Penny of his "concerns" about Nassar, or however he described rampant sexual assault of young girls. ("Concerns" being the word Penny used when he called Gina Nichols, the mother of Maggie Nichols, to comment on the "concerns" the gymnast had in June 2015, when her coach, Sarah Jantzi, first overheard her discussing "treatment" Nassar inflicted on her.)

As much as USA Gymnastics would like you to believe that Nichols' statement and Penny's report to the FBI in July 2015 are what led to Nassar's conviction in Michigan — a preposterous claim which USAG has purported both in public statements and in legal filings — this is a lie.

It was the The Indianapolis Star, which had a dedicated team of investigative journalists backed by a supportive publisher, that had the courage to print troubling accusations and fight USAG in court to find out more. They opened the door that let in Rachael Denhollander, who went to the Michigan State University Police Department in August 2016 and filed a report of sexual assault against Larry Nassar. Denhollander told IG she was armed with the following:

Rachael Denhollander: What I Brought When I Reported Larry Nassar to Michigan State University in August 2016
    • • Medical records showing what he alleged he did for treatment (none of which involved techniques with penetration or adjusting the ribs or tailbone)
    • • Medical records from 2004 where I disclosed in detail what he'd done to a female nurse practitioner. She charted everything I told her, so there was an old written record confirming I'd been saying the same thing ever since it happened. This written medical record of my disclosure in 2004 included my allegations of penetration, genital massage and breast massage.
    • • The names of three pelvic floor specialists I had been disclosing the abuse to since around 2001. Before coming forward, I described in detail what he did and sought their professional opinion on whether any of it was legitimate. All three had provided their contact info to speak to investigators and explain why what Larry did to me bore no resemblance to real pelvic floor therapy.
    • • The name of a fourth pelvic floor specialist who had recently treated me who they could also contact for additional expertise.
    • • A letter of reference from a neighboring Chief Assistant Prosecuting attorney who has significant seniority in his community. He was testifying to my character and truthfulness, and stated in his letter to investigators that he was willing to speak as a character witness on my behalf. He also asked investigators to take my claim seriously.
    • • The name of a USAG certified coach who I and my mom had disclosed to in 2004.
    • • An index of current national and international medical journal articles demonstrating what legitimate pelvic floor techniques involve, and why Nassar's technique was far outside the bounds of medical treatment.
    • • A legal memorandum citing the relevant statutes and providing specific facts as to how each element of the statute was met.
    • • An email chain with reporters at the Indianapolis Star revealing that two other unnamed women had also contacted them alleging sexual abuse by Larry Nassar.

Despite all of this, MSU still refused to listen. Ingham County, where MSU is located, refused to bring charges against Nassar for assault.

"Despite all the evidence I brought forward with me, (MSU Medical School) Dean William Strampel and Larry's colleagues immediately refused to listen," she explained. "Dean Strampel emailed Larry and told him 'Good luck, I'm on your side.' He then mocked my video testimony, saying it was the 'cherry on the cake of his day.' When he finally did fire Larry, he apologized and said things were 'moving outside of his control.'"

Just think of that. While, over the past 16 months, the still-emerging truth has led to some in power to "retire" or "resign" instead of facing the public humiliation of being fired, the only person who has faced real accountability in the Larry Nassar tragedy is Larry Nassar. And when he was finally fired from MSU in late September 2016, he actually received an apology from his boss. People still believed him and defended him.

Jamie Dantszcher also said "Me" in a lawsuit filed in California's Sacramento County Superior Court on September 8, 2016. She filed it as a Jane Doe against other Does, but everybody knew their real names. Jane JD Doe — a 2000 Olympian from California who was on the U.S. national team from 1994-2000 before becoming an NCAA champion — was Jamie Dantzscher. Even the initials matched. And Doe 1, the osteopathic physician who had worked with USA Gymnastics as a trainer in 1986 before becoming the team doctor in 1996, was Larry Nassar. Further, the suit alleged that this physician had routinely sexually assaulted other members of the national gymnastics team.

Dantzscher was also an accuser. After a tremendous career competing at UCLA, she gradually withdrew from the sport. She coached, including a year at Arizona State University, but she struggled. She suffered from anxiety, depression, self-destructive behavior. Unlike Denhollander, she had blocked out what she had endured, only knowing she didn't feel proud of anything she had accomplished as an elite gymnast. While attending the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose in July 2016, she began trading stories with teammates. Everything suddenly became clear, including the absence of Nassar, who had retired suddenly less than a year before the Olympic Games, claiming he planned to concentrate on running for the local school board. It was a retirement mysteriously not mentioned by USAG.

As The Indianapolis Star investigation stunned the gymnastics community, Dantzscher sought out a lawyer and filed her anonymous lawsuit. Jamie Dantzscher was maligned horribly, her allegations treated with skepticism by some. USA Gymnastics was convinced she could be discredited, as their lawyers began to investigate her own personal sexual history, even telling her attorney that they would be prepared to put her on trial, despite the fact USA Gymnastics knew that every word she said about Nassar was true. Dantzscher was hurt, but not fatally wounded by what she now had to suffer through, and she prepared herself for battle, too.

On September 12, 2016, The Indianapolis Star went ahead and printed Denhollander's account of being assaulted by Larry Nassar, and the paper also simultaneously reported that an unnamed former gymnast, a medal winner at the 2000 Olympic Games, had filed suit against him in California. They had also been contacted by a third former gymnast, later revealed to be rhythmic national champion Jessica Howard. Denhollander was the only one prepared at that time to use her real name. Hers was not an anonymous accusation.

The Indianapolis Star article was a bombshell. But even that wasn't enough to worry Nassar, who quickly responded to the newspaper's request for comment and welcomed an interview. He cheerfully told them why it was all a misunderstanding, offering an explanation so calm and confident and rehearsed, it is haunting to imagine just how many times he has said it before.

Jamie Dantzscher didn't know Rachael Denhollander then, but together they marched out in front, leading two armies of one that united and grew stronger and larger as more and more girls and women appeared by their sides. One by one. "He did it to me, too."

MSU Police Chief Jim Dunlap believed Denhollander, as did MSU Police Special Victims Det. Andrea Munford. They knew that predators came in all forms, and that nobody should be above suspicion because of a reputation. More and more calls were received, and the accusers reached double digits. The numbers continued to climb even after a search warrant uncovered child pornography at Nassar's home in Holt, Michigan, in neighboring Eaton County. But still, it wasn't enough.

Ingham County Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer still did not want to bring assault charges for the assaults reported at MSU and Twistars. Even though Whitmer believed the victims, she didn't seem to see the point of charging him with assaults, offering assurance that he would be going away on the child pornography charges. Outraged, in October, Chief Dunlap sought help from Michigan's Attorney General Bill Schuette, who agreed to open a criminal investigation into Nassar for sexual assault. Though Whitmer, who has since announced she is running for governor of Michigan in 2018, denies she didn't want to charge Nassar with assault, the facts are hard to dispute. On 11 a.m. on November 22, 2016, Attorney General Schuette stood up alongside Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis, Chief Dunlap and Det. Munford, and announced, "Today MSU Police Chief Jim Dunlap and I are officially announcing criminal charges against Dr. Larry Nassar."

Because of Rachael Denhollander.

Exactly one year later, Nassar would plead guilty to seven counts of felony sexual assault charges in Ingham County. But for that year, Nassar insisted he was innocent, and the women remained the accusers. There was no massive outpouring of support at what they had been through. Nassar even got more than 2,000 votes in the school board election in early November 2016, more than 10 percent of the vote. Though Nassar's supporters shrank after he was indicted in December 2016 for the child pornography, he still had his supporters. The "Nassar accusers" were scorned by many, accused of making it all up, conspiring, for fame and fortune. Klages continued to support him, even claiming the files on his computer were possibly planted there by one of the women suing him.

While Nassar and his attorneys were still claiming he was a misaligned and misunderstood doctor, Denhollander, the Commanding General of the Army of Little Girls Who Grew Up, filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging the violation of her civil rights. Federal case 1:17-cv-00029-GJQ-ESC, better known as Denhollander et al v. Michigan State University et al is the federal suit filed that has since been joined by more than 140 other plaintiffs, who are suing Michigan State University and its board of trustees, USA Gymnastics, Gedderts' Twistars and Larry Nassar (who eventually defaulted in the case by inaction).

Former national team member Mattie Larson confronts Larry Nassar in court on Tuesday in Ingham County, while Rachael Denhollander, on the left, watches from the front row of the gallery, and Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis, standing behind Larson, observes.

As Nassar hired new attorneys and continued to claim innocence, it was clear he wasn't expecting the power of one woman to stand up in public, show her face, tell her name and say, "He assaulted me." Soon the number reached triple digits, and Denhollander continued to fight, speaking to untold media outlets, granting interviews, meeting with lawmakers, facing Nassar and his condescending lawyers in court. Her willingness to speak openly and fiercely encouraged more to come forward in public, until Nassar's lawyers complained and were granted a gag order temporarily prevented her from speaking. Through preliminary hearings and repeated legal motions, she charged forward, until the wrath she had brought down on him resulted in this increasingly weak and pathetic man surrendering.

Because of Rachael Denhollander.

Nassar pleaded guilty to assault charges on November 22, 2017, but even then he thought he wasn't beaten. He still seemed to think his reputation could be restored as he assured the community that he didn't hold "any animosity against anyone," a glimmer of the delusional mind of the real Larry Nassar. In December, his request for leniency on federal charges related to child pornography was nearly comical as his lawyers described what a giving and caring man he is, devoted to his autistic daughter, helping others in prison with their injured ankles and earning their GEDs: "Mr. Nassar is a kind, compassionate, hard-working man of faith who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it."

There will be some justice for Nassar on Wednesday, as the judge is expected to give him the maximum on the seven counts of sexual assault in this case. But the larger justice that so many have screamed for is still to come.

"There is nothing, NOTHING that would have made MSU listen absent intense public pressure, a groundswell of victim voices, and a relentless media presence that didn't let them run," Denhollander said. "And there still is not."

Dr. Larry Nassar, who since April 2017 has become known as former doctor Larry Nassar, has over the past week frequently been referred to as Inmate Nassar. Inmate Nassar, the only title he deserves, as a policeman, a father of a survivor, so succinctly told him to his face in court. Yes, Nassar even sexually assaulted the daughter of policemen. He was not afraid of anybody because he knew he had an excuse: his "medical procedure" and these young girls didn't understand what actually occurred. It was an excuse that let him get away with his depravity for years, while basking in his fraudulent reputation as a "miracle worker" with gymnasts, because nobody would believe the word of a little girl against his.

The voices of the survivors who stepping forward into the light have echoed like gunfire at an execution, that has exposed the secrets and the truth, that Nassar never acted alone, but he abused them because he was promoted and protected by his own army of supporters. Their names were heard, sometimes just once, but often over and over. The institutions like USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Individuals like Steve Penny, Lou Anna Simon, Marta Karolyi, John Geddert, Kathy Klages, Dr. Brooke Lemmen, Dr. Alison Arnold, Kathy Kelly, Debbie Van Horn. The survivors, finally able to speak to the world, said their names, too.

And over and over they begged for real justice, for criminal investigations, not just civil lawsuits. The State of Texas has done nothing for Maggie Nichols or Aly Raisman or Simone Biles or McKayla Maroney or Mattie Larson or any of the girls who were repeatedly sexually assaulted by a doctor who was not even licensed in the state of Texas. The number of felonies is in the thousands, and Nassar is not solely responsible.

If there were so many complaints at Michigan State University that went ignored — reportedly at least 14 MSU employees were aware of the complaints — imagine how many there could have been at USA Gymnastics. USA Gymnastics' record of handling of sexual assault cases was so abhorrent that it led to the original Indy Star investigation that uncovered the monster that preyed on young gymnasts for more than 20 years, and used his reputation as the USA Gymnastics and U.S. Olympic Committee doctor to prey on countless women (and at least one boy) in Michigan. The State of Indiana, where USA Gymnastics is headquartered, has failed to initiate an investigation, despite very public calls to do so. Neither has Colorado, where the U.S. Olympic Committee is located.

The FBI, which is apparently accountable to nobody, has never explained why it failed to act when USA Gymnastics reported Larry Nassar. The FBI has refused to release any information related to the case. But the silence from the Federal Bureau of Investigation cannot explain away its failure to execute even a basic search warrant against Nassar. The federal case against him, after he was charged in relation to more than 38,000 files of child pornography, was because of a warrant the MSU Police Department executed in September 2016. Because of Rachael Denhollander.

The tone-deaf and weak responses of these institutions, whose leaders react only when forced, show they are confident they will not have to admit liability or responsibility. They have refused accountability. They have lied.

As the sentencing continued, the survivors' demand for accountability grew so strong that they even turned to Nassar, one final time, for help. On Monday, 15-year-old Emma Ann Miller stood in front of Nassar and begged him that the only good act he can do is to reveal the truth for once.

"Tell us who knew what and when," Miller said. "Tell us about who had the opportunity to stop you."

Nassar, when he is sentenced, could choose to cooperate, as a final act of redemption. But it would be highly unlikely of such a man so narcissistic that last week he had the gall to write a letter of complaint to the judge that listening to the survivors' testimony was too mentally taxing on him.

Nobody knows what to expect when Rachael Denhollander finally stands up on Wednesday. She will close out the case and have the final word until the prosecutor and the judge speaks. Now, the world will be listening as these three powerful women deliver not one, but three closing arguments, in a case poetically tried by women.

But the fight will go on, for this will never be over for the women and families destroyed. Surviving is a daily challenge. Denhollander will still be there, leading the army of powerful and empowered women ready to change sports, change medicine, change universities, and change the world by demanding justice.

Time's up.

Comments (2)add comment

Tanya said:

authorities disgraceful
What a disgrace that those in power sat back and did nothing to protect these women when they were children. What has our society come to that people are more interested in what makes life comfortable for them than protecting the minds and bodies of our future key players. How many of the victims were so traumatized by their experiences that they failed to achieve their potential, both in the sport, and in adulthood?
January 24, 2018
Votes: +2

Jenny Z said:

I've been reading your articles a lot of years, Amanda, but this is the best thing you've ever written. Amazing.
January 24, 2018
Votes: +3

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