Maggie Nichols was set to become an Olympic gymnast.
She gave up a normal life at a young age to competitively pursue gymnastics and caught the attention of coaches due to her dedication and skill. She even made it to the Olympic Trials in 2016, but despite finishing sixth all-around, she didn’t make the five-member Olympic team and wasn’t chosen as one of three alternates.
While it’s possible that this was because she didn’t score in the top three in any single event, Netflix’s Athlete A encourages viewers to question whether this was the real reason Nichols didn’t make the team. After all, the tension between USA Gymnastics and her family didn’t begin at the Olympic Trials. Rather, it started months before, after she first reported sexual abuse from Dr. Larry Nassar to her coach Sarah Jantzi.
Athlete A, from Audrie & Daisy directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, dives into how USAG failed to protect Nichols and countless others from the abuses of Nassar, who ultimately pleaded guilty to seven counts of sexual assault of minors. Though Nichols’ experience is at the center of the new Netflix documentary, she is not the only gymnast whose mistreatment is explored. Former gymnasts Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard, and Jamie Dantzscher share their own stories of abuse from Nassar. Tagically, they represent only a fraction of the over 500 young women who have reported similar experiences.
Athlete A exposes the corrupt systems that allowed Larry Nassar to treat gymnasts for so long.
While Athlete A shows the events that led to Nassar’s imprisonment, it also exposes the corrupt systems created by USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee that allowed the former doctor to treat gymnasts for so long. It displays how girls in competitive gymnastics were bullied into eating disorders. It reveals that the boundaries between strict coaching and abuse were frequently broken. Worst of all, it uncovers how USAG chose to put their clean public image above the emotional and physical well-being of its female athletes, most of whom were minors.
While much of this has circled the news before, the documentary dives deeper into these issues and puts a more specific focus on the people who covered up Nassar’s abuses. One of these individuals is former USA Gymnastics president Steve Perry, who failed to promptly report Nichols’ accusations to the FBI and frequently held her dreams at stake to keep her quiet. The documentary further suggests that former coach Márta Károlyi ignored her gymnasts’ reports of abuse even though much of Nassar’s mistreatment occurred at Karolyi Ranch, a training center that she owned.
Perhaps one of the most interesting groups of people evaluated in the documentary is those who continued to support Nassar even after his abuses were exposed. There were people who tried to vote him onto a school board and others who accused the survivors of seeking fame and money online. Bullying like this happens far too often and discourages sexual assault survivors from coming forward. Athlete A condemns this, and it’s something that needs to continually be condemned again, and again, and again.
Though the documentary spends a lot of time tearing down the harmful practices of USAG, it also takes the opportunity to lift up the women who survived the organization. One of the most gratifying moments of the documentary comes near the end when many of the abuse survivors take back the power that was stripped from them as children by calling out Nassar’s harmful actions in court. This conclusion might not qualify as a happy ending, but it is a powerful one.
The documentary reveals that Nichols left USA Gymnastics to instead compete at the collegiate level for the University of Oklahoma. She became the NCAA National All-Around Champion in 2018 and defended that title the following year. However, the fact remains that had the USAG, U.S. Olympic Committee, or the FBI taken action sooner, she and many other young women might not have suffered through such devastating abuse. The U.S. Department of Justice continues to investigate all three organizations.
Athlete A is a well-crafted glimpse into the sexism and abuse that women have faced in gymnastics. It’s angering and disturbing, yet it is incredibly necessary. It will help you understand not only how young female athletes have been taken advantage of in the past but how they continue to be taken advantage of today. Though the documentary can’t encompass all the mistreatment women have faced in sports, it is a solid starting point.
Athlete A is now streaming on Netflix.