Sports

TARA SULLIVAN

Rachael Denhollander was the loudest, bravest voice against Larry Nassar

Rachael Denhollander was not Larry Nassar’s first victim, nor the most famous. She’s the most important, though.
Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal/AP
Rachael Denhollander was not Larry Nassar’s first victim, nor the most famous. She’s the most important, though.

Jacob Denhollander started the turn from friendship to romance across hundreds of pages of e-mail correspondence, and for anyone who’s taken the time to read the speech his wife, Rachael, days ago delivered in a Michigan court, there’s little wonder he was so taken. So taken he found himself doubting she could ever feel the same way about him, yet hoping she would fall in love with a Canadian from up north the way he was falling for an American down south.

“She is so amazing, I was seriously wondering, ‘What do I bring to this relationship? What could she possibly see in me?’ ” Jacob recalled.

Nestled on a swing set under a dark night sky, he got his answer. Having flown down to see her, Rachael told him her story, a story she has since told the world. The heart-wrenching, infuriating, agonizing, sad, awful story that has driven us all to tears, anger, and outrage. The historic, landscape-altering story that has exposed the failures of so many adults who were supposed to be protecting our children. The ultimately inspirational story that has redefined courage, and, we can only hope, justice. The story of this army of sexual abuse survivors, led by one spectacular general.

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Together they defeated Larry Nassar, the despicable doctor who systematically, for decades, used his position as a renowned, sought-after, and respected physician in the gymnastics world to sexually abuse countless young athletes under the guise of medical treatment. Nassar’s hearing didn’t simply result in the 40-175-year sentence he received in a Michigan courtroom. It introduced the world to that empowered female army, whose members took the stand day after day after day to bring down Nassar, who finally made the world hear what officials for 20-plus years ignored, obfuscated, and ridiculed, thus allowing Nassar to continue unchecked.

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Rachael Denhollander was not Larry Nassar’s first victim. Sadly, the disgraced doctor’s serial crimes against countless young gymnasts and other female athletes long predated Denhollander’s 2000 intersection with him.

Denhollander is not Nassar’s most famous victim. A club level gymnast who went on to coach, Denhollander does not have the name recognition of Olympians Aly Raisman or Jordyn Wieber, also among the 158 women to deliver victim impact statements at Nassar’s recent sentencing hearing.

But what we learned across a stunning week of testimony is that Rachael Denhollander is Larry Nassar’s most important victim, his loudest and bravest opponent in the fight to expose his depravity as a serial pedophile disguised as a respected physician. In putting her name and face behind an interview with the Indianapolis Star so that the newspaper could advance the investigative work it was already doing about USA Gymnastics’ history of burying evidence of abuse by coaches in its system, Denhollander changed the course of history, opening the floodgates that ended Nassar’s reign of terror.

Denhollander was embraced by husband Jacob last week at Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing.
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Denhollander was embraced by husband Jacob last week at Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing.
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That she didn’t do it alone is a testament to her love story with Jacob, one that truly found its roots on that late-night swing set.

“I could see something was bothering her,” Jacob recalled in a telephone conversation this past week from New York, where Rachael was busy doing multiple media interviews. “She told me what had happened to her. She did not disclose nearly the level of detail as she did later, but just said in general terms what happened. And what was so heartbreaking to me was that this young lady, who at the time was in law school and pulling in straight A’s, she was so accomplished, and she was worried by disclosing this to me that I would view her as damaged and that I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with her.

“I saw how it attacked her identity, her feelings. Of anybody I know she has so much to be proud of and yet she was so vulnerable. And so when she told me that, I distinctly remember sitting there going, ‘This is what I can do, this is what I bring to this relationship.’ I committed at that time to walk with her through this process.”

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And so began the journey that reached one stirring conclusion inside Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom, when sobs and applause combined to make one unprecedented soundtrack to the proceedings, punishment for disguising all those years of sexual abuse as some sort of legitimate medical procedure. And on goes the journey that is so many things all at once, a sports story because of its victims, because of failings in USA Gymnastics, in the United States Olympic Committee, and within the Michigan State athletic department, institutions that continue to face reckoning such as the Friday resignation of MSU athletic director Mark Hollis and threatened decertification of USAG.

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But it is a societal story too, because of the systematic dismissal of so many claims of abuse, because so many girls and young women were ignored, assumed they were at fault for being too sensitive or too suspicious. It’s a lesson to all of us in the dangers of selective outrage, forcing us to analyze why the Jerry Sandusky abuse case at Penn State drew immediate attention in a way this case never did, why it is so easy to dismiss girls, exploiting their vulnerabilities and silencing their voices.

“When it comes to public outrage, we live in a very celebrity-driven culture, and a national sport like college football, involving a national figure in Joe Paterno, that gets immediate respect and generated the controversy in the public eye in a way that it didn’t happen for us, despite the fact that we have so many times the number of survivors,” Rachael said, sharing some thoughts with the Globe before handing the telephone to her husband. “Ultimately the reaction is generated more by public outrage than by who the victims are. We need to be more concerned about what happened than who it happened to.”

Denhollander read her impact statement in a Lansing, Mich., courtroom.
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Denhollander read her impact statement in a Lansing, Mich., courtroom.

The public pain unleashed across those days of testimony was so powerful precisely because we were forced to face those this happened to, to hear their words, to witness their tears, to live their truth in a way that is at times painful, uncomfortable, and frightening. It is something we must never forget, something that must continue to fuel efforts to hold those who ignored them accountable, something that must be utilized for good as a way to affect change.

Something for which we say, “Thank you, Rachael Denhollander,” for using your voice. And thank you to Jacob, for hearing it when others wouldn’t.

“I’m almost speechless just to see her in action, and what just blows me away is that the love and intentionality and determination that people are seeing finally on national television is the same love and determination and intentionality in everything she does,” Jacob said. “I’ve always known she’s incredible, I’m so grateful now the world is seeing it, too.”

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.