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Harrowing true story behind Netflix's Athlete A

Athlete A looks into a harrowing chain of abuse within USA gymnastics

Maggie Nichols in ATHLETE A.
Published: Tuesday, 23rd June 2020 at 6:45 pm

Landing on Netflix tomorrow is hard-hitting documentary Athlete A, an examination of the 2016 sexual abuse scandal within USA Gymnastics.


Directed by husband-and-wife team Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk, the film follows the Indianapolis Star investigative journalists who broke the story of physician Larry Nassar's numerous assaults on young female gymnasts and USA Gymnastics attempts to cover up his abuse.

If you're interested in reading up on the full story before watching Athlete A, you can find out more about the Indianapolis Star's investigation below.

What is the true story behind Athlete A?

Athlete A looks at the two-year investigation into the USA Olympian gymnasts' physician Larry Nassar, who was accused of assaulting at least 250 young women and girls from 1992 onwards.

The title of the documentary refers to Maggie Nichols, a 22-year-old gymnast who is the first of Nassar's victims to report his abuse to the USA Gymnastics staff.

In June 2015, Nichols complained to USA Gymnastics about Nassar's conduct, which involved invasive "intravaginal adjustments" during medical examinations at the Karolyi Racnch – USA Gymnastics National Team Training Centre where parents weren't allowed.

CEO and President of USA Gymnastics Steve Penny was alerted and instead of telling the authorities, as was legally required, he hired an outside firm to conduct a private investigation and dropped Nichols from the organisation.

Larry Nassar
Larry Nassar (Getty Images) Getty Images

In 2016, the Indianapolis Star began their own investigation into how top executives at USA Gymnastics swept allegations of sexual abuse under the rug. As a result of the article, two former gymnasts – 2000 Olympian Rachael Denhollander and another anonymous woman – told the newspaper that they had been sexually abused by Larry Nassar, with Denhollander saying that he had abused her on five doctor's visits when she was 15.

As a result of these articles, over 500 women came forward to accuse Nassar of abuse, with many stating that the "emotionally abusive environment" at the Karolyi Ranch gave Nassar an opportunity to take advantage of the gymnasts training there.

In November 2016, Nassar was indicted on several state charges of sexual assault of a child from 1998 to 2005 and charged with 22 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with minors.

He was arrested in December 2016 after the FBI found over 37,000 photos of child pornography on his computer hard drive, resulting in his medical license being revoked for three years.

Nassar pleaded guilty in 2017 to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with minors and was sentenced in 2018 to between 40 and 175 years in prison.

Over 150 federal and state lawsuits have since been filed against Nassar, the US Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, while in 2017, Penny was forced to resign and arrested the following year on a charge of evidence tampering.

The chairman of USA Gymnastic's board Paul Parrilla, Jay Binder (vice chairman) and Bitsy Kelley (treasurer) resigned in 2018 after coming under intense pressure by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Who was involved in uncovering the abuse?

Four investigative journalists from the Indianapolis Star feature heavily in the documentary – Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, Tim Evans and Steve Berta.

They were the journalists whose report revealed the extent of USA Gymnastic's cover-up of sexual abuse allegations and caused a domino effect of accusations against Nassar.

How accurate is Athlete A?

Rachael Denhollander in ATHLETE A
Rachael Denhollander in ATHLETE A

Athlete A's directors Cohen and Shenk began working on the documentary before Nassar was convicted and was made as the case against the sex offender "reached its emotional crescendo" according to the Indianapolis Star – as over 200 survivors gave victim impact statements in 2018.

The paper also says that the directing duo made "nearly a dozen" visits to Indianapolis after the newspaper published its initial report in 2016.

“Having the time and the opportunity to speak to (people) in the film was kind of the chance of a lifetime — to watch that amazing wave unfold and have it lead up to the victim impact statements and then of course reverberate beyond that," Shenk told the Indianapolis Star.

As Cohen and Shenk worked closely with Nassar's victims, the victim's lawyers, the Indianapolis Star and the police detectives involved, it seems as though the duo took as many steps as possible to tell the victims' story accurately.

"These are really difficult stories to tell," Cohen said to the IndyStar. "As filmmakers, we think long and hard about whether we have the fortitude to go into them, because you spend upwards of two years of your life really living alongside the survivors and their families, in their trauma.

"You really have to build trust with the survivors and the survivor families, which is a huge commitment and something we take very seriously."


Athlete A will be available to stream on Netflix from Wednesday 24th June onwards. Check out our lists of the best TV shows on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix, or see what else is on with our TV Guide.


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