Larry Nassar abused gymnasts for decades. ‘Athlete A’ film shows what it took to stop him

Filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk say everyone involved in bringing down former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar — the athletes who spoke publicly about sexual abuse, their attorneys, a Michigan State University police detective and a Michigan assistant attorney general — did what was needed to stop Nassar after decades of molesting children.

If anyone faltered, it's possible Nassar still would be treating athletes and abusing them under the guise of legitimate medical procedures.

The list of crucial participants in Nassar's downfall includes four IndyStar journalists featured prominently in "Athlete A," the Cohen-Shenk documentary that arrives June 24 at Netflix.

IndyStar reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans worked with investigations editor Steve Berta on coverage that led to more than 500 women coming forward to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse.

Rachael Denhollander is interviewed by IndyStar Aug. 23, 2016, at her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse.

The first gymnast to speak publicly about Nassar's crimes was Rachael Denhollander, who contacted the IndyStar investigative team after it published a 2016 report about USA Gymnastics failing to alert authorities when coaches were accused of abuse.

Denhollander's subsequent interview with IndyStar caught the attention of Cohen and Shenk, who began work on "Athlete A" before before Nassar was convicted and given a prison sentence of at least 125 years.

The documentary was being made as the case reached its emotional crescendo: More than 200 survivors delivering victim impact statements in two Michigan courtrooms in January 2018.

“Having the time and the opportunity to speak to (people) in the film was kind of the chance of a lifetime — to watch that amazing wave unfold and have it lead up to the victim impact statements and then of course reverberate beyond that," Shenk said in a phone interview.

Cohen and Shenk made about 10 visits to the IndyStar newsroom, and the co-directors accompanied Evans when he reported on a 2018 U.S. Senate hearing in Washington, D.C.

Among the developments that followed Nassar's sentencing:

Steve Penny, the former president and CEO of Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics, was indicted on a felony count of tampering with evidence related to the Nassar investigation.Lou Anna Simon, president of former Nassar employer Michigan State University, resigned.The USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center at Karolyi Ranch in Texas permanently closed.

Cohen said she and Shenk gravitated to the IndyStar staffers because they “uncorked this whole really sick and insane policy at USA Gymnastics of burying sexual abuse cases. It felt like very deep investigative journalism that could help us tell the story of the cases of abuse inside this organization for decades.”

"Athlete A" was selected to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, Doc10 Film Festival and San Francisco International Film Festival, three events postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Maggie Nichols, seen competing for the University of Oklahoma in 2017, said she was sexually abused by Larry Nassar in 2015. Described in documents as

Who is 'Athlete A'?

The film's title refers to Maggie Nichols, believed to be the first Nassar survivor to be brought to USA Gymnastics' attention.

Five years ago this month, in June 2015, Nichols raised questions about Nassar's invasive, "intravaginal adjustments" at Karolyi Ranch.

"He didn't use gloves or anything and told me that there was, like, a nerve down there," Nichols told IndyStar in 2018.

USA Gymnastics spent five weeks looking into Nichols' allegations before handing the matter over to the FBI. In documents, she was characterized as "Athlete A."

Gymnast Larissa Boyce said she raised concerns about Nassar to Michigan State University coach Kathie Klages in 1997. Twenty years later, Klages told police she did not remember Boyce coming to her.

Passion that pops off the screen

It's reasonable to compare the presence of IndyStar reporters in "Athlete A" to the dramatic depictions of Washington Post journalists in 1976 film "All the President's Men" and Boston Globe journalists in 2015's "Spotlight."

"All the President's Men" addressed the Watergate scandal, while "Spotlight" focused on child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

Tim Evans:IndyStar reporter selected for Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame

Cohen said she and Shenk look for "good dramatic narrative stories" when considering documentary topics.

In addition to the IndyStar team, Cohen mentioned John Manly, an attorney for multiple survivors, MSU police detective Andrea Munford and Michigan assistant attorney general Angela Povilaitis as standouts in "Athlete A."

"Now more than ever, documentary filmmakers feel like we are in a position with our movies to help create change and understanding and a ‘never again’ philosophy around certain subject matter," Cohen said. "First and foremost, if you’re going to do that, the story has to resonate. It has to be dramatic and emotional and real. We knew with this story, with the access we had to the reporters, to the survivors, to the lawyer, to the prosecutor, we knew that combination of passion was going to pop off the screen and inevitably be able to make some kind of change."

Rachael Denhollander, right, embraces Kaylee Lorincz, another survivor of sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, after Denhollander delivered her impact statement Jan. 24, 2018, in Lansing, Michigan.

Working with survivors

Cohen and Shenk's filmography includes 2016's "Audrie & Daisy," a documentary based on two teenagers who were sexually assaulted and then cyberbullied.

"These are really difficult stories to tell," Cohen said. "As filmmakers, we think long and hard about whether we have the fortitude to go into them, because you spend upwards of two years of your life really living alongside the survivors and their families, in their trauma.

"You really have to build trust with the survivors and the survivor families, which is a huge commitment and something we take very seriously."

Screen time for journalists

Catching up with members of the IndyStar team, Kwiatkowski now works as an investigative reporter for USA TODAY, and Alesia is director of communication at Indiana State University. Berta, Evans and visual journalist Robert Scheer continue to work on investigations and other stories for IndyStar.

Shenk described the filmmakers' time spent with IndyStar journalists as a chance to watch experts "go down the rabbit holes of corruption."

"They take their jobs as truth-seekers and fact-finders very seriously," Shenk said. "Every fact that went into the articles that we witnessed them writing was triple-checked. They made sure their sources confirmed one another. It kind of gave us a very warm feeling, especially in a day and age when, for some reason, journalists have become a bit of a punching bag for some people in our country. We feel like maybe their work isn’t as appreciated as it should be."


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