MASON, Mich. — A former gymnast testified Friday that she turned to a prominent Michigan sports doctor for treatment of back problems as a teenager, but instead was repeatedly molested. The woman said the assaults have haunted her for nearly two decades and had a lasting impact on every aspect of her life.
Rachael Denhollander was the first witness to speak at a critical court hearing for Dr. Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State University doctor who also worked for USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians. A judge will decide whether there’s enough evidence to send Nassar to trial on allegations he sexually assaulted seven gymnasts at a campus clinic or at his home basement.
The case is among four criminal cases against Nassar that have rocked Michigan State and Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics, whose president resigned in March because of how the organization responded to sexual complaints against coaches. Nassar has pleaded not guilty.
The Associated Press typically doesn’t identify people who say they’re victims of sexual assault, but Denhollander, 32, of Louisville, Kentucky, has publicly identified herself. She started last year in media interviews.
“I was confident that an anonymous voice would not be enough” to stop Nassar and any institution protecting him, Denhollander testified.
With her hands folded in front of her, Denhollander answered a prosecutor’s questions with poise for 90 minutes. She recalled how as a 15-year-old in 2000 she went to see Nassar — a “household name” in gymnastics — for chronic back and wrist problems.
Denhollander said the doctor molested her with his hands during the first visit, even with her mother in the room. She said it felt “very humiliating,” but she trusted Nassar. She said the assaults continued during four subsequent visits, with the doctor also unfastening her bra and massaging her breasts.
“His movements were very rehearsed, very confident,” Denhollander said. “I was not a test case.”
She said she was confused and didn’t tell her mother immediately. Denhollander said Nassar was known for unusual techniques to relieve injuries that are common for gymnasts.
She said a physician’s assistant in 2003 recommended she report Nassar to state regulators, but she didn’t follow through.
“I was confident I wouldn’t be believed. At that age I wasn’t ready for this,” said Denhollander, who’s now a lawyer.
Another woman and a 16-year-old gymnast also testified during the hearing before Judge Donald Allen. The woman, now 22, said she was frequently molested as a teen in Nassar’s home basement in Holt, Michigan.
The woman said she chose to go there for back treatments because of the long line of gymnasts waiting to see Nassar at her Lansing-area club, Twistars. Despite the many visits, she said, “the only thing that helped my back was taking Tylenol.”
The court hearing lasted much of the day Friday, with the front row of the courtroom filled with lawyers representing dozens of women and girls in lawsuits against Nassar, Michigan State and USA Gymnastics. The hearing will resume May 26, with more gymnasts expected to testify.
One of the other criminal cases against Nassar is a child pornography case in federal court. He has pleaded not guilty.
Denhollander stepped forward publicly last summer after reading a report in the Indianapolis Star about the history of assault allegations against coaches affiliated with USA Gymnastics. She said Nassar’s assaults have negatively impacted how she perceives male doctors and seemingly innocent things, such as casual touching.
“Not one” part of her life has been unaffected, she said.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Shannon Smith wondered aloud if Denhollander has been speaking publicly because she wants an “audience.”
“There are things that are more important than what I want,” Denhollander replied. “Stopping a child predator is one of them.”
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