Olympic stars testify to Congress about sex abuse at USA Gymnastics program

Last Updated Mar 28, 2017 3:23 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- Three retired star gymnasts have told a Senate committee of being sexually abused by USA Gymnastics officials. 

Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu, bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher and national champion rhythmic gymnast Jessica Howard were among those to testify Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on protecting young athletes from sexual abuse.

“The well-being of the athletes should always come first, and to me, this is one of the most important things in sport,” Moceanu said while testifying. “And it was lacking in our own sport tremendously because everybody around us knew that abuses were going on, but they chose not to act because it became part of the cultural norm.”

“I do believe that if we could clean this up with the mandatory reporting, I believe that will help a lot of our concerns,” she said.

The hearing concerned a bill that could reshape sex-abuse reporting guidelines in Olympic sports. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is co-sponsoring a bill that calls for organizations overseeing Olympic sports to immediately report sex-abuse allegations to law enforcement or child-welfare authorities. 

The bill and proposed changes to the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act come in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal that led to the resignation this month of USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny

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1996 Olympic Gold Medalist Dominique Moceanu testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee about sexual, emotional and physical abuse by USA Gymnastics officials during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. 

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In a press conference following Tuesday’s hearing, Feinstein said that the bill would “require amateur athletics governing bodies, like USA Gymnastics, and adults who work with young athletes, to immediately report allegations of sexual abuse to local or federal law enforcement.” Failures to report would be a federal crime, she said, adding that the bill would ensure that victims can safely and easily report abuse. “It would also mandate greater oversight of member gyms and coaches,” she said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, “Young athletes who train to represent our nation at the top levels of competition, and all those who aspire to compete, should not have to fear victimization by people that they should be able to trust.”

Rick Adams, chief of Paralympic Sport and NGB Organizational Development at the U.S. Olympic Committee, expressed “unwavering support” for the legislation on behalf of the committee. He said the committee has launched a Center for Safe Sport “that is intended to provide a safe and independent place for anyone that has been the victim of abuse to come forward.”

Feinstein said that USA Gymnastics supports the legislation. No one from USA Gymnastics testified. 

The push for the bill follows an eight-month investigation into sexual abuse in gymnastics by the Indianapolis Star, as well as a ““60 Minutes” report featuring three women who said the U.S. team doctor abused them. 

Since the Indianapolis Star last year investigated cases in which male coaches, members of the national governing organization USA Gymnastics, were accused of sexually abusing female gymnasts, young women have come forward with accounts of abuse they had suffered within the U.S. gymnastics system for many years as young girls and competitive gymnasts. The new accusations concerned a prominent doctor who’d been working with U.S. Olympic and national teams and other athletes for three decades.

By mid-February, more than 60 women had filed complaints, and some believed that number may reach into the hundreds. 

In February, three former star gymnasts spoke out on “60 Minutes” for the first time publicly. They said Lawrence Nassar, a doctor for the U.S. national women’s gymnastics team, allegedly masked sexual abuse as medical treatment for years. They described what they said was an emotionally abusive environment at the national team training camps at the Texas ranch run by coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi. They said the circumstances provided Dr. Nassar an opportunity to take advantage of them and made them afraid to speak up about physical or emotional pain.

Dantzscher -- a 2000 Olympic bronze medalist who was recently inducted into UCLA’s athletic hall of fame, and who testified Tuesday -- was one of those women. She said that as a teenager striving toward excellence, she was constantly told she wasn’t “enough” when training at the Karolyi Ranch. 

“I always felt like I got in trouble,” she told Dr. Jon LaPook on “60 Minutes.” “I wasn’t working hard enough. I was told to lose weight. At one point, I started making myself throw up.”

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Jamie Dantzscher, former gymnast and 2000 Olympic Bronze Medalist, wipes away tears while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual abuse at the hands of a team doctor during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 28, 2017 in Washington, DC.

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Her ally in moments of emotional distress was often Dr. Nassar, the man assigned to relieve her physical pain. He was an osteopathic physician and one of the most renowned doctors in the world of gymnastics. As a trainer or physician, he worked with Olympic and National Women’s artistic gymnastic teams for more than two decades. He was usually on hand at the Karolyi ranch when the national team was training there, roughly once a month, and also present at national team competitions. 

Dantzscher says she began seeing Dr. Nassar after she earned a coveted spot on the U.S. Junior National Team. “He would put his fingers inside of me and move my leg around,” she told LaPook on the broadcast. “He would tell me I was going to feel a pop. And that that would put my hips back and help my back pain.” 

Dantzscher says that at the time, she didn’t realize Dr. Nassar was doing something wrong. In fact, she says she appreciated his emotional support in an otherwise harsh atmosphere during training at the Karolyi Ranch.

Jeanette Antolin, a member of the U.S. National Team from 1995 to 2000, received treatment from Dr. Nassar for several years, often at the Karolyi Ranch. She said Dr. Nassar would sneak them snacks and candy.

“He was a buddy,” she recalled. “He was someone that we would talk to when we were getting treatment, if we had a hard day. He was a listening ear. He would make us laugh. When it’s such a serious environment that would be the world. It could fix your day.”

Because Antolin trusted Dr. Nassar, she says she didn’t think of his actions as anything other than an acceptable medical procedure.

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Jessica Howard, three-time Rhythmic Gymnastics National Champion, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual abuse at the hands of a team doctor during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 28, 2017 in Washington, DC.

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Howard, the U.S. National Champion in rhythmic gymnastics from 1999 to 2001, who testified Tuesday, received medical treatment from Dr. Nassar for several days at the Karolyi Ranch. She said she was uncomfortable with the treatment, but did not feel she could question the actions of such a famous doctor who she felt she was lucky to be working with.

“No one wants to step out of line because there’s a group of people that make decisions that dictate whether you’re successful or not,” said Antolin. “So you just comply with what you’re told to do.”