‘Athlete A’: The Netflix Documentary That Exposes USA Gymnastics’ Mistreatment of Gymnasts

Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast, was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA gymnastics doctor, of sexual assault. Dennhollander is featured in the new Netflix documentary, Athlete A, released in June.

‘Athlete A’: Who is Rachael Denhollander, and what was her role in the Larry Nassar Scandal?

Athlete A
Rachael Denhollander in Athlete A | Courtesy of Netflix

Denhollander was 12 years old before she could afford to work and pay for her gym fees to participate in gymnastics.

“I did it because I loved it. I was not any good,” Denollander explained.

In Athlete A, Denhollander reported that she was encouraged to seek care from Larry Nassar at the Michigan State University sports medicine clinic in 2000. She was experiencing low back and wrist pain which prevented her from normal use. Although she remembers Dr. Nassar performing “legitimate therapy” with his right hand, she reported: “with his left, he sexually assaulted me under the towel.” While her mother was present, she could not see what Nassar was doing to Rachael and had no idea what was going on. Denhollander remembers seeing Nassar monthly for nearly a year and was abused on the majority of those visits.

The Indy Star journalists in ‘Athlete A’ who broke the story

Many years later, in August of 2016, Denhollander happened to see the first IndyStar article, titled “Out of Balance: An IndyStar investigation into USA Gymnastics,” on her Facebook page. She immediately emailed one of the IndyStar journalists, Mark Alesia.

“My experience may not be relevant to your investigation,” she wrote. “… my abuse wasn’t by a coach, but it was by Dr. Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USAG.”

Athlete A trailer

Aleisa agreed to visit Denhollander’s home to complete an on-camera interview for the record. When asked why she was willing to and brave enough to speak with him, Denhollander said in Athlete A that she responded:

I didn’t know a lot when I was 15, but one thing I did know was that abuse victims aren’t treated well. They are mocked. They are questioned. They are blamed. They are shamed. That does incredible damage to the healing process. I wish I could have dealt with in 16 years ago. I don’t think I could have, but I can now.

After the interview, Denhollander called the MSU Police Department and reported the sexual abuse to Det. Lt. Andrea Munford. Detective Munford was integral in pursuing the case against Larry Nassar working with the Michigan Assistant Attorney General and lead prosecutor, Angela Povilaitis.

In Athlete A, Povilaitis affirmed: “Essential to any plea agreement was that he had to agree to allow all of the victims, if they chose, to give an impact statement.”

More than 200 women gave testimonies about his abuse in two courtrooms over nine days in county courtrooms. Denhollander was the last to speak during both of Nassar’s sentencing hearings. She asked the judges to impose the maximum sentencing available.

“How much is a little girl worth?” she asked. “These victims are worth everything.”

Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman wrote about Denhollander in her book

Alexandra Raisman of the United States competes on the Women’s Floor final on Day 11 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games | Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

RELATED: ‘Athlete A’: Who Are the Karolyis, and What Was Their Role in the Larry Nassar Scandal?

Aly Raisman, Olympic and world champion gymnast wrote the detailed account of Denhollander’s impact. Raisman wrote:

…through her strength and resolve, she is a survivor. None of us could have anticipated or prepared for the onslaught of emotions we’d experience just by being in that courtroom. It was overwhelming. And yet Rachael was there for each court session of that sentencing, each impact statement and each fellow survivor. This show of courage and conviction inspired many people to feel less like victims and more like survivors. We still have a long way to go before we achieve all the change that is so desperately needed, and I am grateful to be fighting alongside Rachael, my sister survivor!

Denhollander was named amount TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2018. The young athlete, featured in Athlete A, also wrote about her deeply personal story in the book, What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics which was published in 2019.

How to get help: In the U.S., call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to connect with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.