Over the past year, I have become acquainted with many wonderful people on Twitter, along with a few not so wonderful people. Social media is certainly a mixed bag, but one meeting I look on quite positively is my encounter with Jacob Denhollander. Jacob is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary training for the ministry. His love for God and His Word runs deep. He also happens to share many of my confessional beliefs. Time and again, he entertains us all with his humor, passionate love for hockey, devotion to the nation of his birth (Canada), and knowledge of Russian zombie surfer bands (a genre I previously did not know existed).
It was only after I had come to know Jacob in various Twitter interactions that I became aware of something that has dominated his life for the past two years. I knew that he was married, but it was only upon further acquaintance that I realized that his wife was the first person to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse.
Larry Nassar is a convicted sex criminal, having already pled guilty to charges of child pornography and sexually abusing dozens (if not hundreds) of women. He was a former physician specializing in sports medicine who worked with Twistars USA Gymnastics Club, USA Gymnastics, and Michigan State University. In his capacity as the doctor for USAG, he performed “treatments” at the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, TX (an official USOC training camp) and traveled with Team USA to the Olympic Games. In his role as a medical authority, he was able to perform sex acts on unsuspecting girls and young women, all the while convincing them that these were legitimate medical procedures. It has now been legally established that they were actually heinous instances of sexual abuse. This week, he is expected to be sentenced for these crimes—that is, if the train of women making victim impact statements ever ends. This is a day of reckoning that was long in coming, and it finally arrived thanks to the bravery of Rachael Denhollander.
Rachael was not the first person to report Nassar’s inappropriate behavior. It has now become clear that there were internal complaints against him going back at least two decades. However, in taking her story to The Indianapolis Star, Rachael shined a light on what others had kept in the dark. By sticking her neck out and taking much of the initial criticism, she helped encourage others to add their voices.
As a long-time gymnastics fan, I was aware of the criminal accusations against Nassar long before encountering Jacob. I suspected that the problem was bigger than USAG was willing to reveal, and that people in positions of leadership must have known that there were complaints. Thus, I was able to quickly sympathize with the Denhollanders’ situation. However, it was only after having a few conversations with Jacob that I realized the extent of the problem. He hinted that the rot went far deeper.
Evidence brought forward as a result of the criminal trials has now confirmed this, along with media investigations. Several USAG officials have already resigned, and I do not doubt that more will follow in their wake. John Geddert, the famed gymnastics coach who maintained a close relationship with Nassar at the Twistars gym, has been suspended. The criticism of Michigan State seems to increase by the day, and it is unlikely that they will escape their own day of reckoning.
I am particularly thankful that God allowed me to meet Jacob (at least online), because it helped me to see how this whole process has affected his family and many others. There are few people on earth who could properly understand what this family has endured: Jacob, Rachael, and their three children. Along with the other victims, Rachael lives daily with the horrible knowledge of what was done to her against her will. Add to that the media onslaught and trial process, which have opened wounds anew, and I truly wonder how she does it. It has been encouraging to see not only her bravery and resolve, but also that of her husband. Jacob fiercely defends his wife, and he is right to do so. I cannot imagine what it would be like to try to support a spouse suffering from such pain. Much has been said about Rachael’s character, but I would like to commend Jacob’s as well.
Nassar’s heinous methods were so effective that many of his victims did not realize they were being victimized. They believed him when he said that inserting his fingers into their vagina would help to cure their back pain. They did not realize as he massaged their sore muscles that he was deriving a perverse sexual pleasure from the experience. They knew that it made them feel uncomfortable, but they had many adults telling them that this man was the best gymnastics doctor in the country, with wonderfully innovative methods for curing injuries.
Then when some of these young ladies (most of them under 18) realized that what was happening to them was not right, they felt afraid to speak up, knowing it would put their dream in danger. The sacrifices these girls endure to fulfill their Olympic dreams are immense, but it was only in seeing those victim impact statements that I realized exactly how immense. Nearly every step in an elite gymnast’s journey—from which competitions they can join, to which training camps they can participate in, to whether or not they are placed on the national team—is dependent on the approval of higher-ups in USAG. If you run afoul of that small group of people, your elite career can be over in the blink of an eye. Is it any wonder that they didn’t speak up sooner?
As it turns out, gymnast Maggie Nichols, a member of the 2015 US World Championship team, did complain about Nassar’s “treatments”. The complaint never saw the light of day and was dismissed internally. Gymnast McKayla Maroney was given money to keep quiet about how she was treated during the 2012 Olympic Games. This was a system in which coaches, trainers, and executives had all the power and gymnasts were left in fear.
Therefore, it was only after her gymnastics career was over, she had gone through law school, and Nassar had left his official capacity at USAG, that Rachael Denhollander felt in a strong enough position to go to the press. This was not about getting revenge against Nassar, USAG, Michigan State, or anyone else. It was about sending a message that criminal behavior will not be tolerated and protecting the next generation of gymnasts. Both Larry Nassar and those who enabled him must be removed from their positions and brought to justice if elite gymnastics in this country is going to become safe once more.
Since the turn of this century, women’s gymnastics in the United States has moved from strength to strength. They return from the Olympics with handfuls of medals, many of them gold. It has been six years since the U.S. ladies have been defeated in team competition at either the World Championships or the Olympics. It has been just as long since a gymnast from any other country has stood on the top step in an individual all-around competition at either event. That is an extraordinary level of success, and until recently I was proud of my country for achieving it. However, I now see that this success came at a price, as so many prominent gymnasts in that gold rush were sexually abused. Believe me when I say there is no medal in the world that is worth this.
This article is not meant to be about Larry Nassar or USA Gymnastics. Rather, I wrote it as a tribute to Rachael and Jacob Denhollander and all the other victims and their family members. This may have been the largest sex abuse scandal in sports history, but it has also been a stirring testament to the power of women. Today, I particularly wish to honor the woman who led the way in bringing this case to the public’s attention: Rachael Denhollander. She is an inspiration to me, but not because she is an angel. Rather, she is an inspiration because she is a normal person just like myself—a Christian woman who saw injustice and oppression and refused to stand for it any longer.
Please pray for the victims and their families during this difficult period. This does not end when Larry Nassar is locked in prison for the rest of his life. Rather, it ends when all those who enabled his abuse are brought to justice. It ends when parents can send their little girls to gymnastics camp and worry about whether they will get blisters instead of whether a sexual predator will be lurking among them. It ends not when we have a new official promoting “safe sport”, but when the sport is truly safe.
If there is one thing that we should take away from this episode as Christians, it is the importance of being a voice for the voiceless and confronting the evil that so many refuse to acknowledge. We have heroes walking among us, and like superheroes, they wear lycra. Unlike superheroes, they experience the fears and failures of human beings, yet somehow rise above. I am speaking, of course, of gymnasts in leotards, who now stand in a courtroom to call their predator to account. In the case of the Denhollanders, their faith has played an important role in helping them to overcome it all and pursue justice.
I don’t know if I am brave enough to do what Rachael did. I hope I never have to find out. What I do know is that God will occasionally place us in positions where we can act as prophetic voices crying out for justice, and when that happens, we must rely on the power of the Spirit to help us seize the moment. I am not talking about something hokey and mystical. I am talking about a power greater than any that walks this earth, who is perfect in justice. We serve a God who fills His saints with bravery, for they know that justice has already been accomplished and will have its end at the consummation of the ages. That is the God we serve, to whom the truth is always known, for He Himself is truth.