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Of the hundreds of women who came forward to testify against Larry Nassar as shown in the new Netflix documentary “Athlete A,” Rachael Denhollander was the first to publicly condemn the now-convicted serial sexual abuser.
Denhollander — a lawyer and former gymnast who was assaulted by Nassar when she was 15 years old — told her story publicly in 2016. Two years later, Larry Nassar was convicted on multiple counts of sexual assault involving a minor and sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.
When Did Rachael Denhollander First Speak Out?
The story of Nassar's misconduct first broke into the public's eye with Denhollander's help in 2016, when reporters at the Indianapolis Star published an article detailing allegations of abuse against Nassar from two of his former patients.
Denhollander was one of the two women to sit for the exposé — while the other was identified as a "Jane Doe" filing a lawsuit against Nassar.
“He’s this famous doctor,” Denhollander told the Indianapolis Star in 2016. “He’s trusted by my friends. He’s trusted by these other gymnasts. How could he reach this position in the medical profession, how could he reach this kind of prominence and stature if this is who he is?”
Although Denhollander's was the first story to receive public attention, several gymnasts before her attempted to expose Nassar without the same success — with allegations against Nassar made as early as 1997 by gymnast Larissa Boyce, according to the Detroit News.
Many former patients of Nassar reported similar assaults to coaches and staff at USA Gymnastics, but the claims were never properly investigated as victims were told not to publicize the abuse, the documentary contended. Even top gymnasts like Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep the abuse under wraps, according to the New York Times.
"What I found out when I came forward was that multiple women and young girls had spoken up years before I walked in his door," Denhollander told "Athlete A." "All of the women were assured that it was common medical procedure, that it was not sexual abuse, and they were sent back to him for continued abuse."
Most of the allegations against Nassar concerned his inappropriate conduct with female patients who came to his office for treatment. Under the guise of performing legitimate osteopathic treatments, Nassar reportedly groped and even penetrated the bodies of countless gymnasts during his employment with Michigan State University and the USA Gymnastics organization — often becoming sexually aroused while giving these faux examinations.
"With his right hand, externally, he did legitimate therapy, and with his left he sexually assaulted me under the towel," Denhollander recalled in "Athlete A."
What Happened After She Spoke Out?
After her story was published in the Indianapolis Star, Denhollander began to see a measurable impact.
Nassar was arrested in late 2016 and plead guilty to child porn charges in mid-2017, ESPN reported previously. Evidence against the once-acclaimed doctor included hard drives recovered from his home containing nearly 37,000 images of child sexual abuse, according to NBC News.
He would later plead guilty to multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct in November 2017 — with sentencing set for January 2018, the Indianapolis Star reported at the time.
But all while Nassar underwent criminal proceedings, hundreds of women followed Denhollander's lead in continuing to speak out about their own stories of abuse at the doctor's hands.
Former Olympian Jamie Dantzscher came forward in 2017 as the "Jane Doe" identified in the Indianapolis Star story where Denhollander spoke publicly. Prominent Olympic gymnasts like Aly Raisman, and Gabby Douglas came forward that year to accuse Nassar of similar instances of molestation, according to Vox.
Many more women came forward with stories of abuse — ultimately resulting in an emotionally-stirring series of hearings in January 2018 where over 150 of Nassar's victims were given time to speak about their harm and confront their abuser.
"How much is a little girl worth?" Denhollander asked the court at Nassar's sentencing. "How much priority should be placed on communicating that the fullest weight of the law will be used to protect another innocent child from the soul shattering devastation that sexual assault brings? I submit to you that these children are worth everything."
The fight to end sexual misconduct in gymnastics did not end with Nassar, however. Dozens of lawsuits have since emerged in which victims and their families condemned USA Gymnastics executives for alleged complicity in the scandal, The Guardian reported.
Prior to the start of Nassar's sentencing hearing in 2018, it was revealed that gymnast Maggie Nichols had complained about Nassar's abuse in 2015 — with USA Gymnastics only quietly parting ways with Nassar at the time and not informing anyone that Nassar had been suspected of sexual abuse, NBC News reported.
Former USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny is now facing charges for allegedly covering up abuse. He has denied wrongdoing and his case is pending.
USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy later in 2018 after its entire board of directors resigned. The rigorous gymnastics training camp Karolyi Ranch — where Nassar saw patients — closed that same year, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Where Is Rachael Denhollander Now?
As a practicing attorney, Denhollander has continued the fight for victim advocacy in cases of sexual abuse since Nassar's sentencing in 2018.
Sports Illustrated named Denhollander “Inspiration of the Year” in 2018, and she was a recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award along with all the other women who testified against Nassar. The same year, TIME Magazine added her to their list of the world’s 100 Most Influential People.
Since earning national attention, Denhollander has spoken at "numerous universities across the nation, including Harvard, Stanford, NYU, Columbia Law School, UC Berkeley, USC, Pepperdine, and others," according to her website.
For the American Bar Association’s Sports Law Forum, she addressed fellow lawyers on the dynamics of sexually abusive relationships. She was even called upon to give the commencement speech at Brandeis School of Law’s 2018 graduation ceremony.
"Your legal training gives you privilege and it gives you power, and wherever you work, in whatever vocation you choose, you will be in contact with people who desperately need your skill, and your compassion, and your integrity” she told the graduating law class.
In 2019, Denhollander authored a memoir entitled “What Is A Girl Worth?” that documented her journey to the infamous Nassar hearing. She also published a children’s book called “How Much is a Little Girl Worth?” The title of the book echoes Denhollander's solemn question asked before court at Nassar's sentencing the year prior.
In addition to fighting for victims, Denhollander has written extensively about her own experiences with abuse, including a 2019 article for TIME about her struggles to approach and accept intimacy after being molested.
This year, she is slated to speak at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation 2020 Summit in Arlington, Virginia, and she will also address the 12th Annual Crimes Against Children Conference in Williamsburg.
Denhollander currently lives with her husband Jacob and their four children in Louisville, Kentucky. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"Athlete A" is now available to stream on Netflix.
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