The passage of time hasn’t done much to soothe their pain. If anything, Gina and John Nichols are angrier that another grim anniversary has come and gone, stretching their wait for justice into a sixth excruciating year.
The new documentary “Athlete A” tells the whole story. How the Nichols’ daughter, Maggie, was the first athlete to report that USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar had sexually abused her. How that organization — and others — did not immediately act on that information in 2015, leaving Nassar free to molest other girls. How Nassar went to prison, but many of his enablers have not been held accountable.
“Some people say, ‘Get over it. It’s been five years,’ ” said Gina Nichols, of Little Canada. “They can’t understand why we’re still upset. But justice hasn’t been served. We’re still fighting this. It’s still very raw for us.”
Filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk spent 2½ years making “Athlete A,” named for the alias that protected Nichols’ identity in early court documents. The film, which begins streaming Wednesday on Netflix, details how USA Gymnastics’ lust for medals and money allowed Nassar to victimize countless athletes.
Maggie, Gina and John Nichols are featured prominently, along with two other abused gymnasts — Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher — and the investigative reporters at the Indianapolis Star who told their stories. The Nichols family hopes “Athlete A” will bring more public awareness to the coverup, which has not been as widely covered as Nassar’s shocking crimes.
Gina and John Nichols said they knew before the 2016 Olympic trials that Maggie would not make the team for the Rio Olympics, as punishment for blowing the whistle on Nassar. They recall being lied to, shunned and kept in the dark by USA Gymnastics and U.S. Olympic Committee officials.
USA Gymnastics has denied engaging in a coverup, saying in a 2018 statement that it “kept the matter confidential because of the FBI’s directive not to interfere with the investigation.” Maggie Nichols has sued USA Gymnastics, claiming it failed to supervise Nassar and protect her; the organization has denied wrongdoing.
A congressional report last year said USA Gymnastics and the USOC “knowingly concealed abuse by Nassar,’’ and those organizations and the FBI “had opportunities to stop Nassar but failed to do so.’’
The film also follows Maggie Nichols during her stellar career at Oklahoma, as she became the most dominant athlete in the history of college women’s gymnastics. Though Maggie said she had “a lot to think about” when she was approached by the filmmakers, she believes the documentary will give fresh power and voice to the survivors as they keep pushing for full accountability.
“People know how difficult it was to do this film,” said Nichols, who completed her college career last spring with two NCAA all-around titles and two team championships. “I still have so many emotions: heartbreak, anger, disappointment, feeling I was failed by USA Gymnastics.
“It’s an extremely powerful film. It’s going to open the eyes of so many people.”
The fury — and sometimes, the tears — still flow freely whenever John and Gina Nichols talk about the crime and its aftermath. Nassar, the longtime team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, sexually abused hundreds of girls over many years under the guise of medical treatment. USA Gymnastics officials were told about Maggie’s abuse on June 17, 2015.
According to Maggie’s parents, Steve Penny, then the CEO of USA Gymnastics, assured them he would report it to law enforcement and told them not to do so themselves. Penny did not call the FBI until July, and it was several more months before the FBI contacted Maggie for an interview.
Whenever John and Gina Nichols asked about the investigation, they said they were told to stay quiet. Maggie became a top contender for the Olympic team, winning team gold at the 2015 world championships and fighting back from a knee injury to place sixth at the 2016 Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif. She was not even picked as an alternate for the Rio Games, which surprised many people — but not her parents.
“At the big events, NBC would have us miked up, and there would be cameras following us,” John Nichols said. “When we got to San Jose, our seats weren’t even with the other parents. There were no mikes, no cameras on us.
“We knew then it was a done deal, that Maggie wasn’t going to make the team. She was a threat to [USA Gymnastics] because she reported it.”
“Athlete A’’ describes a culture in which USA Gymnastics allowed Nassar to victimize athletes and turned teenage girls into commodities. Gina Nichols said parents were banned from the Karolyi Ranch, the Olympic training center where much of the abuse occurred, and were not even told Nassar was treating their daughters.
She feels Maggie was left unprotected by every institution except the University of Oklahoma, where Maggie flourished, and Twin City Twisters, the Champlin gym where she became a champion. Even the FBI disappointed Nassar’s victims. Its handling of the case has been investigated by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice; that report has not been released, and more than 120 survivors signed a letter last week asking that it be made public.
In a statement, the inspector general’s office said “the victims and the public should rest assured our findings will be made public at the end of our investigation.’’
Several leaders of USA Gymnastics and the USOC resigned or were fired in the wake of the scandal. The Nichols family and other survivors want everyone involved to face justice — including potential criminal charges — and seek full disclosure of what happened, so reforms can be made to protect athletes.
The survivors have not settled with USA Gymnastics, which is in bankruptcy. Penny has been charged with a felony for tampering with evidence and is awaiting trial.
“Every single person who knew about this and didn’t come forward needs to be held accountable,” Gina Nichols said. “We consider them accomplices to a crime. We can’t let them get away with it. Too many people have been hurt.”
Late last year, Gina and Maggie Nichols got their first look at “Athlete A.” Gina wept, as she has so many times before.
Maggie felt empowered. With “Athlete A” amplifying survivors’ voices around the world, she hopes justice might finally be within reach.
“I know the army of people fighting for what is right,” she said. “They won’t back down. And when the film comes out, and more people hear the whole story, I think a lot more will be fighting for justice, too.’’