The most important event on the American gymnastics calendar, in a non-Olympic year, is in Boston this week. One of the best gymnasts the US has ever seen, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and member of the greatest US team, lives 20 miles away.
But Aly Raisman will attend the US Gymnastics Championships as an invited guest of TD Garden, not USA Gymnastics. She thinks that’s wrong.
“They know I live here,” she said. “Actions speak louder than words. Don’t say it’s a new USA Gymnastics if you can’t invite someone who’s been speaking out.”
The relationship is complicated, to say the least.
Raisman, who came out of Needham to capture hearts across America during the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Games, has become one of the preeminent voices of the movement to end sexual abuse in Olympic sports.
She has done it by going public with her story of abuse at the hands of former US team doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted on numerous charges of sexual abuse after Raisman and more than 250 others came forward. She has criticized the leadership that kept him on for decades, and expressed her frustration that not enough has been done.
USA Gymnastics said it does not invite athletes to major events except when certain teams from the past are being honored. But the perceived snub of one of its former stars in her hometown is far down on Raisman’s list of concerns, as she detailed in a 25-minute phone interview with the Globe.
As a survivor of Nassar’s abuse and a sounding board for others who see her as an inspiration inside and outside the gym, Raisman, 24, is learning to cope with a life in a unique spotlight — one much harsher than most Olympians have to endure after the Games.
Even if it means battling an organization she once considered beyond reproach.
“USA Gymnastics was like a family to all of us for our whole, entire lives,” she said. “I started doing gymnastics when I was about 2 years old. It’s very hard to speak up against people you were taught to worship, that they had the only right way. When you realize things aren’t right, it’s scary.”
A beacon for survivors
The public perception of Raisman solely as a six-time medalist was brief. The two-time Olympic team captain, who has more medals than any US gymnast not named Shannon Miller (six to Miller’s seven), led the most successful American squad in history — it won nine medals in Rio — then threw out first pitches and dropped ceremonial first pucks, appeared on “Dancing with the Stars” and posed in ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue, and met countless overjoyed young faces.
Many see her differently since the release of her memoir, “Fierce,” last November. She revealed how, after an investigator came to her Needham home in 2015 to talk about Nassar, she realized his treatment had been abuse. She confronted him in January, in a Lansing, Mich., courtroom, to deliver a withering appraisal.
“Larry, you do realize that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force,” she said, turning to Nassar with a disgusted look, “and you are nothing.”
She has become a beacon for survivors at speaking engagements, at conferences, and on the street.
“I have incredible people sharing their stories with me,” she said. “Each person who shares their story with me, I want to make sure they’re heard, and believed. In order to do that, I have to have the energy to listen to them and be there for them, as much as I can, even if it’s for 30 seconds in the veggie section of the market.
“I know how it feels when you share your story, how important it is for people to listen and care.”
Raisman makes it clear whenever she speaks publicly: Even though Nassar’s time ran out, the problem did not go away. It extends far beyond one vile doctor, one troubled sport, one reeling organization, one college campus, one community.
Jessica O’Beirne, host of the GymCastic podcast, believes Raisman has a future in sports leadership or politics.
“Already, she has changed the world,” O’Beirne said. “I’d say she’s the most important figure in gymnastics, next to Nadia [Comaneci], for all-time. She has transcended the sport.”
Frustration and a lawsuit
The US Olympic Committee announced Feb. 2 that the Boston-based law firm of Ropes & Gray would investigate how Nassar’s abuses went unchecked in USA Gymnastics. Raisman is frustrated with a lack of progress and openness.
In March, she sued USA Gymnastics, the USOC, and Nassar, alleging the organizations failed to protect their athletes from the man who abused them under the guise of medical treatment. She wants to know what they knew, so that she can find out why, beginning in 2010, she was abused at multiple locations, including London at the 2012 Games and the Karolyi Ranch, the former national gymnastics training facility in Texas.
“It’s a shame things are taking so long,” she said. “If USA Gymnastics was transparent and let everyone know exactly what happened and was really honest, I’d be happy to work with them.
“Hopefully one day we’ll get the answers. Once we get the answers, we can make change so this doesn’t happen again.”
The legal situation is why new USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland rebuffed Raisman’s attempt to meet with her after a Senate hearing on sex abuse in July; Hirshland later told USA Today it was a misunderstanding, and that she asked Raisman for a redo via email.
Raisman said Hirshland and new USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry “need to be leaders. Part of being a good leader is meeting with survivors and talking to them.”
In a statement, USA Gymnastics called Raisman “one of our most decorated athletes” and a “passionate ambassador for young women,” adding that the organization “looks forward to the day when our legal situation is resolved, so we can join together with Aly and other survivors for additional positive change.”
Regarding the lack of an invitation to the US Championships in Boston, USA Gymnastics said it welcomes alumni to attend, posted information on its alumni Facebook page last month, and sent information to Hall of Fame members, but does not directly invite athletes to events except for special recognition, as the 2008 team will get this year. (When Anaheim was announced as the site of last year’s nationals, two 2012 Olympians from Orange County, Calif. — Sam Mikulak and Raisman’s gold medal-winning teammate, Kyla Ross — were on hand for the ceremony.)
Raisman acknowledged that, as a Hall of Famer, she gets two free tickets to this week’s event, but, she added, “I wouldn’t really count that as an invite.”
Making a difference
Raisman plans to be at TD Garden Sunday to watch her 2016 teammate, Simone Biles, compete in her first major meet since earning five medals of her own in Rio. A third Olympics is not currently on Raisman’s radar.
“I’ll always love gymnastics,’’ she said. “That’s why I’m speaking out. I lived through it, and I know there’s a better way. I feel right now I’m in a good place in my life. Right now, pushing for change is more important than being on the competition floor.
“I’m grateful that when I think of the Olympics and I think of my teammates, I think of the fun times we had together. It doesn’t mix with all the horrible stuff that happened with Nassar. It’s separate for me.
“I’m not going to let what happened take away from those experiences.”
She has partnered with Aerie clothing, Life is Good clothing, and Olay skin care for body-positive campaigns, but her work with Darkness to Light, the country’s largest child abuse advocacy organization, seems most poignant.
She has raised funds for 3,000 (and counting) parents, coaches, and teachers to take a two-hour course (at a $10 cost). She signs a certificate and mails it out when the course is finished, said Darkness to Light CEO Katelyn Brewer. Raisman’s involvement has been “tremendous,” Brewer added, because it destigmatizes “a really hard topic people ignore all the time.”
Signing the completed @d2lorg #FlipTheSwitch certificates. 42 million Americans are survivors of child sexual abuse. One child being abused is too many. One time is too many. Abuse is NEVER ok. Take the course and educate yourself to help protect children. Thank you in advance for being part of the change that is so desperately needed. I am covering the costs for everyone so the course is FREE. I will personally sign your completed certificate. Please share this course to help spread the word. Go to FlipTheSwitchcampaign.org to get certified.
“It takes a lot to be able to have this conversation publicly,” Brewer said, noting that parents who want their children to succeed at an elite level in sports can be reticent to make waves.
At Exxcel Gymnastics and Climbing in Newton, where Raisman trained until age 10, team director Melissa Flemming looks with a newfound pride at the banners, photos, and news articles on the walls.
“I think the girls have the illusion they need to be perfect,” Flemming said, “and through her public struggles with this, she is teaching them — and us — that it’s OK to not be OK all the time.”
Robin Ewald, of Weston, has brought her 13-year-old daughter Katelyn to Exxel for practices and Olympic watch parties, where the girls wore “Team Aly” shirts and cheered in front of the TV. They cheered at the “Rally for Aly” parades in Needham after the 2012 and 2016 Games, when Raisman was compartmentalizing her abuse, breathing deep, and sticking her landings.
“I think it’s very important for her to come forward,” Katelyn Ewald said. “It helps people not be afraid.”
Ewald’s mother said Raisman’s story has “without a doubt” changed the conversation with her four children, who are between 12 and 15.
“I thought my children were so sheltered,” Ewald said. “But they’re not. They’re not.”
Space to relax
Raisman’s support system — including her parents Rick and Lynn, her younger siblings Brett, Chloe, and Madison, and her agents at Octagon — has helped her find balance. That has been especially important the more she takes on.
Discussing her abuse publicly means thinking about it, reliving it, and fighting its draining effects. In the space of a week last month, she accepted ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs along with 140 other survivors and attended the Senate hearing in Washington. For someone whose scars are still healing, it was exhausting. She felt tired for weeks.
“I’m learning to say, ‘Today, I can’t think about it or talk about it. Today, I want to do something else,’ ” Raisman said.
“The last few months of the summer, I was doing as much as I could and exhausting myself. I felt the pressure to do as much as I could to create change. I realized if I’m not taking care of myself, I can’t help. It’s made a really big difference.
“I think I’ll always be pushing for change. We live in a world where some people do not care about sexual abuse. It’s not right.”
She is learning to be happy after speaking her truth. She does meditation, acupuncture, and therapy, has gotten into gardening with her mother (“it’s really therapeutic”), and more than ever, she enjoys getaways at her family’s house on Cape Cod. The neighbors are welcoming. Kids cruise the street on bicycles. Raisman unplugs and relaxes with her family and friends.
“The other morning, one of our neighbors, she’s 10 years old, she ran across the street and asked us for syrup,” Raisman said. “It was really cute how it’s a community and everyone works together. You’re making breakfast, you run out of something, you run to your neighbor’s house.”
In moments such as those, her life is safe and firstname.lastname@example.org@mattyports