The Larry Nassar scandal has been widely publicized since 2016. Investigations exposed Nassar, the USA Gymnastics women’s team physician, as a serial abuser who victimized dozens of young elite female athletes. Nassar worked for decades as a doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, where he abused young women during physical therapy sessions. More than 150 women have accused him of assault, and in 2017 Nassar pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison.
In the new Netflix documentary, Athlete A, award-winning filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (Netflix’s Audrie and Daisy, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, The Island President) explore not only the 2016 investigation of abuse claims by The Indianapolis Star, as well as the extensive cover-up that protected Nassar from exposure for so long. Olympic athlete Jennifer Sey, the 1986 U.S. national champion, had originally approached the couple with the concept for a film that would examine psychological and physical abuse within the sport. Cohen and Shenk’s final product includes survivors coming forward with their stories.
Athlete A also delves into the destructive culture of gymnastics and the systemic nature of abuses, which have continued to ripple through the gymnastics community. A major shift began in the 70s, when coaches started training athletes at a younger age, using a more brutal and disciplined approach, and perpetuating the belief that champions never complain or speak up. This culture would be exemplified in the 90s by the iconic image of U.S. athlete Kerri Strug grimacing her way through a painful vault with a third-degree sprained ankle, which clinched the gold medal for her team. Coach Béla Károlya lifted Strug to receive her accolades, as she was too pained to move.
I spoke with Cohen and Shenk about the process of conducting extremely sensitive interviews. We also discussed how they hope Athlete A might aid in changing this incredible sport, and their vision for the future of documentary filmmaking moving towards in this unprecedented time.
Risa Sarachan: What drew you to this subject matter?
Bonni Cohen: I did go on to become the captain of my high school team, but we were not very good outside of that. No connection other than being just avid fans, and like most Americans, tuning in every four years for the Summer Olympics to watch the magnificent athleticism. It’s just so miraculous to watch, and I had done so since the 70s when Nadia Comaneci actually burst onto the scene out of Romania with that gold medal win in the 76 Olympics. So, we’ve always been riveted by the sport, but we would not have stopped without being contacted by Jennifer Sey, who was the 1986 United States Champion and wrote the 2008 book Chalked Up, about the systemic abuse inside of USA Gymnastics. She thought there was a film to be made that would connect the systemic abuse that she brought forward in her book with what kind of structure was set up for someone like Larry Nassar to have succeeded.
Sarachan: I found I went into viewing the film with some preconceived notions about the sport from film and television as well as reading about the Nassar case. I’m wondering what surprised you the most as you learned the history of the world of gymnastics?
Jon Shenk: What you just said was one of the early things that piqued our interest early on- of course, we knew about Nassar and had seen some of the early reporting, but we’re also looking at this in the context of the #metoo movement, and the ongoing work that has been done to correct the wrongs of the Catholic Church over the millennia. Once we started hearing, largely from Jennifer Sey, but also other people, about the culture of abuse that existed in gymnastics for so long and what seemed to be the Gymnastics Federation conscious ignoring of harm done in favor of maintaining the reputation of the organization and continuing to sell sponsorships, we thought we could really flip the paradigm on how Americans see the Olympics and get people to see what the human cost is.
Sarachan: How do you think coaches got away with all the different forms of abuse in the culture of the sport?
Cohen: I think it would be just too neat and easy to say that when the Károlyis came over from the Eastern bloc with their disciplinary ways of coaching, that everything went to hell in the United States. The truth is the abuse was going on here even before. The gyms, especially the elite gyms, became places where parents really weren’t allowed. From what we understand from those gymnasts, from those earlier days, this strict discipline- I’ll call it discipline, it was discipline slash abuse- was what was required to advance. You had to be thinner. You had to be willing to compete on a broken bone. You had to be willing to be shamed in front of the whole gym and be called a pig. You had to lose some ridiculous amount of weight four days before a competition, and the only way to do that if you’re a girl of that age is to take a laxative. There were just these practices that became normalized because there was a sense from inside the culture of the girls that this was what the coaches expected of them.
Shenk: There’s a little bit of a pyramid scheme type mentality to the whole sport. As a young girl, you know, even at 5 or 6-years-old, you walk into the gym, and you see posters of Olympians, and they say, “This Olympian was trained in this gym.” And so you’re always a little bit taunted by the authorities. You know, like if I talk back or if I stick out as a complainer then I’m not gonna be able to make it someday to the Olympics. I think that’s that’s a huge amount of psychological power the coaches hold.
Sarachan: Similar to your work in Audrie and Daisy, this film deals with very sensitive conversations. How do you approach interviews like that to make sure people feel safe?
Cohen: It’s a long process. I can’t overstate that. Building trust with people who have been through a significant trauma is essential. Their desire to actually do the interview and be on screen has to be for the right reasons. We now know this sort of thing well enough to know that somebody may immediately say, “yes,” but we always say, “Why don’t you think about it? Give a couple of weeks, talk to your family, see if this is something that you really want to be involved with.”
Our tactic is to tread very lightly, and just sort of set a stage where really anything goes. If there’s a day that we show up with a full crew and they don’t feel like talking, well that’s just- that happens. I would give you the example of sitting down with Jamie Dantzscher, the 2000 Olympian, who is, in our view, one of the emotional pillars of Athlete A. She had done a lot of press and short interviews on morning shows and stuff, but she really hadn’t had the opportunity to sit down and dive deeply into what she had been through. We gave her the space to do that, and I think if you asked her, she really got something out of it. She felt, not that it was cathartic, but that there were perspectives she was able to reach in the course of our conversation that she may not have had before.
Sarachan: How do you hope that the bravery of the women’s stories will help bring the sport to a more positive place?
Shenk: Well, I think in simple terms, the work being started by exposing the lack of policy that the USA Gymnastics had regarding reporting any kind of abuse to authorities- it’s just an incredible change that will never be the same. I think that whoever is heading up the USA Team, whether they do enough-and according to the survivors they haven’t done nearly enough yet- but when they get a report of sexual abuse among their member gyms, hopefully they’ve had a pretty loud warning shot that they need to go to the police as the law requires.
Sarachan: How has the current pandemic changed the way that this film is going to be shared with the public?
Cohen: I think what for us is the great sadness we have experienced, is just not being able to bring the subjects of the film to live audiences. We just saw the way that the warmth of an audience just bathed the women in Audrie and Daisy, and we were really looking forward to that support system of live audiences for the subjects of this film. We are just so excited about the global platform. It’s hard to get the distribution right now because everything is so in flux. So we feel very fortunate that we have a platform for the film and a very wide one.
Sarachan: Where do you see the future of your work going considering the changes happening in our world right now and this unprecedented moment?
Shenk: It’s a really earth-shattering moment in so many ways, not the least of which is that it’s hard to shoot right now. Documentary filmmakers depend on travel. We are involved in a very exciting project right now. We’re making a film about the homelessness situation in the country, and it was mostly shot prior to COVID-19. We were able to kind of get out and shoot some scenes to show how COVID-19 has actually affected that issue in particular. We do have another film in the can, so to speak, that we’re working on in post-production right now.
Cohen: I also just want to say that we feel committed to making room for a diverse set of voices in this particular moment in the country to tell their stories. We’re trying to support African American filmmakers and people of color to get out at this moment and be brave enough to take to the streets and tell their stories. And we’re just so excited to see this revolution underway and want to support it however we can.
Shenk: One thing that we’ve been told over and over again, just in this little microcosm of racial race relations, is that the number one reason that the homeless problem is so bad in our country is because of racism. It’s predominantly people of color who are affected by income inequality and experiencing homelessness. That’s why this Black Lives Matter Movement is so exciting to see as it gets traction, not just among people of color, but everybody in the country. I think now we’ve woken up to what the situation is in the country and hopefully there’ll be some changes. It seems somewhat promising that we’re on the cusp of maybe a second chapter in the civil rights movement.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Athlete A will be available on Netflix June 24th.