Gymnast Lindsey Lemke Was Allegedly Sexually Abused by Her Doctor Starting at 13. Now She's Speaking Out.
In an exclusive interview, the gymnast alleges years of horrors at the hands of doctor Larry Nassar.
Jul 12, 2017
Gymnast Lindsey Lemke can’t remember the first time sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused her. She was only 13, a rising star at a top Michigan gym, when she started seeing him for back pain. She does know that each visit went roughly the same way: “He would have me lie on my stomach on a table,” she says, “then he’d massage my back, using his elbows and forearms.” Nassar would work his way toward her butt — before kneading her vagina over her clothes. Then he’d slip a hand down the back of her underwear and start stroking her bare skin. Finally, he’d push a finger inside her.
“My muscles were so inflamed,” says Lindsey, now 21. “He told me that if he inserted a finger and pressure-pointed a certain area, it would make it feel better.”
Lindsey saw Nassar at a clinic at Michigan State University, where he was a professor. He was also the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team physician. He’d offered to treat her after his normal office hours to accommodate her family’s schedule.
She’d call him from her cell as her mother dropped her off and Nassar would let her in through a side door. Then he’d penetrate her for 15 to 20 minutes, massaging her back with his other hand. He never wore gloves. He never used medical lube.
She estimates that Nassar performed his “treatment” on her some 600 times, according to her lawsuit against him, invading her with his fingers three times a week for four years. When it started, she was an eighth-grader who spent 30 hours a week in the gym and had never so much as held hands with a boy. Nassar was in his 40s, a celebrated physician with a wife and three kids. It never occurred to Lindsey that he was violating her. “When it first started happening, it hurt. I hadn’t had anything like that done before,” says Lindsey. “But I thought it was a legit medical treatment. ... Who was I to question him?”
When she started seeing Nassar for back pain, Lindsey was 13. She says he abused her up to 600 times.
As Lindsey was allegedly being sexually abused by Larry Nassar, similar cases were playing out all over the country. Young female gymnasts claim to have been molested with sickening regularity by their coaches or other authority figures. According to the Indianapolis Star, which blew open this pattern of abuse in 2016, at least 368 women and girls have come forward over the past 20 years.
A former gymnast named Rachael Denhollander, now in her early 30s, publicly accused Larry Nassar after reading one of the Star’s reports. Dozens of others soon piled on, their claims eerily similar: penetration of the vagina, and sometimes the anus, with his fingers, under the guise of medical treatment. Rachael, who was 15 at the time, says he also unhooked her bra and fondled her breasts, and that she saw his erection protruding through his pants. Jamie Dantzscher, 35, a bronze medalist at the 2000 Olympics, says Nassar sexually abused her all over the world.
Nassar has maintained that his treatment was standard osteopathic procedure. (Via his lawyer, he declined to comment for this article.) But the American Osteopathic Association, which cannot comment on pending legal cases, has said that intra-pelvic procedures are rarely used and are by no means a common treatment for back pain. Still, Nassar defended his actions to William Strampel, the dean of the Osteopathic College at MSU, who told him, according to emails obtained by Lindsey’s lawyers, “I am on your side” — even after being made aware of abuse allegations.
Last December, Nassar was arrested for possessing thousands of images of child pornography. He now faces criminal sexual-abuse charges and lawsuits from more than 100 alleged victims, whose claims against him stretch back to the ’90s. One victim was 6 years old.
Lindsey was in kindergarten when she started taking gymnastics at a local gym in Bay City, Michigan. “I never wanted to take my leotard off,” she recalls. “I used to sleep in it. I’d do round-offs and back handsprings in the yard, in the dining room.” Seeing Lindsey’s potential, her coach referred her to a prestigious gym in Lansing called Twistars. Soon, her mom, a dental assistant, was driving three hours round-trip after school every day to get her there and home.
“The coaches worked me really hard,” remembers Lindsey. “It was driven into your brain that when you go to a meet, you win — there is nothing else. They’d yell at you for missing one turn.” Her mother told her she could quit if it got too tough, but Lindsey loved gymnastics and was determined to make level 10, one notch below the Olympics. After three years, her family moved to Lansing to be closer to Twistars, and she began training before and after school — up to seven hours a day. At 10, she went on a “hot streak,” winning state and national championships in floor exercise and uneven bars. At 11, she reached level 10. The next year, she rolled her ankle landing a back two-and-a-half twist in practice. That’s when she first met Nassar, who she says treated all the girls at Twistars. “He seemed very genuine,” Lindsey recalls, “not creepy.” He sent her for X-rays and told her that her foot was broken and would need four to six weeks to heal.
At 13, when her back started aching, she returned to him. “My pain was so extreme that it hurt to breathe, to bend down, to stand up,” she recalls. “Even sleeping was painful.” Nassar diagnosed her with a medical condition in which her vertebrae grew unevenly. He told her she’d eventually grow out of it. In the meantime, he said, his treatments would loosen her muscles.
Lindsey started seeing him several times a week, the treatments eventually moving to a makeshift clinic in the basement of his house, several doors down from Lindsey’s dad’s place. “He had a normal massage table,” says Lindsey. There were toys everywhere for his kids.
From the beginning, Nassar offered a listening ear and thoughtful gestures. “If you had a bad day with a coach, he would talk to you about it,” she says. “If I got in a fight with my mom, I could talk to him.” Sometimes, she’d spill her problems on his massage table. Other times she’d call or text him. He lavished her with gifts, including T-shirts and pins he brought back from the Olympics. At one point, her pain became so extreme, she thought about quitting, but Nassar convinced her to stick with it.
He also cultivated a close relationship with her parents, socializing with them in the neighborhood and declining to bill their health insurer, saying that he saw their daughter’s potential and wanted to help. Lindsey’s mom, Christy Lemke-Akeo, was so grateful for the thoughtfulness of this high-profile doctor that she bought him bottles of his favorite scotch. The friendship Nassar forged with her parents is one reason Lindsey never bothered to share what happened during her treatments. “I assumed they knew,” she says, “because they were just like, ‘All right, going to get groceries! Hope it makes you feel better!’”
The Nassar case illuminates a horrifying dynamic at play in elite sports, whereby athletes who have been taught to win at all costs become susceptible — along with their parents — to manipulation by men who have the power to lead them to victory. Top coaches and doctors are elevated to godlike status, enjoying hours upon hours of unfettered access to sheltered young girls. “Predators groom not only the child but also the community and the parents,” says Barbara Dorris, the victims’ managing director at the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group. These authority figures go unquestioned by athletes afraid to rock the boat.
“You’re not allowed to speak up,” says Dominique Moceanu, an Olympic gold medalist who criticizes the culture of elite gymnastics in her memoir, Off Balance. Adds Courtney Kiehl, a former gymnast and executive director of Abused Children Heard Everywhere, “It’s an environment where you ask your coach for permission to go to the bathroom, to get water. You really believe that what they’re doing is in your best interest and will help you achieve your goals.”
Gymnasts, like many competitive athletes, are also isolated from their peers, forgoing typical teen activities like dating to dedicate themselves to training. And male coaches sometimes legitimately need to grab them to prevent falls. As Lindsey explains: “If I’m flying through the air, and I’m gonna land on my head, and you have to touch my butt to stop me, that’s fine.”
Experts say it’s common for childhood abuse victims to not fully realize what’s happening. “Their brains are still developing,” says Brian Pinero, vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the U.S.’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization. “If someone tells them something is OK, they have no frame of reference. Kids are impressionable.”
Which is why Lindsey made the decision to go public — to help other young women recognize the signs of a predator. “A friend posted something on Facebook about how [the victims] were stupid not to realize it was happening,” she says. “I got mad. I said, ‘Look, the gymnastics world is different from anything you can comprehend. You have no idea the things that we go through, that our parents go through.’”
In the case of Nassar, some alleged victims did speak up but it wasn’t enough to stop him. In 2014, Michigan State investigated a complaint, which was ultimately dismissed. (MSU declined to comment.) And Lindsey’s lawsuit claims that in 2015, USA Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, fired him as the national team physician on suspicions of abuse ... but never told MSU. (USA Gymnastics says it reported Nassar to the FBI.)
It’s an example of gross — and possibly knowing — neglect. It’s also a pattern that has repeated in sports like swimming, which weathered its own scandal in 2010 after ABC News reported on the systemic abuse of young female swimmers. USA Swimming subsequently banned dozens of coaches, including a former head of the national team.
In September 2016, the MSU women’s gymnastics team was called into an urgent meeting. Lindsey was now 20 and had transferred to MSU on a full scholarship after spending a year at the University of North Carolina. Officials announced that there were allegations against Nassar. “They said we weren’t allowed to tell anybody,” says Lindsey.
Not long after, the Indianapolis Star ran Rachael Denhollander’s story. Lindsey’s first thought was that Rachael must have failed as a gymnast and was taking it out on Nassar. Lindsey’s mom asked her directly if Nassar had abused her and she said no. She still believed his “treatment” was medical. He was her trusted confidante — she just couldn’t see him as a villain.
But after he was arrested, she began poring over press reports. Suddenly, her sessions felt more menacing: “He took me into his basement because he didn’t want his wife and kids to be around. He never billed our insurance because then there was no evidence that [he was treating me]. ... It all came together.”
Since Lindsey’s personal epiphany, national progress on protecting young athletes has been made. In March, alleged victims, including Jamie Dantzscher, testified before Congress in support of a bill that would require sports organizations to report abuse claims to law enforcement (that’s not currently required). That same month, the head of USA Gymnastics resigned amid allegations that the organization didn’t do enough to combat sexual abuse. At press time, Nassar was in jail awaiting trial on sexual assault and federal child pornography charges.
Lindsey, meanwhile, has been working with a therapist and leaning on her strong support system, which includes assistant coaches at MSU and her boyfriend of three years. Now a senior in college, she’s still a star gymnast — and is considering becoming a coach. The sport that put her in harm’s way, she says, also fortified her. “Growing up, I was never allowed to feel sorry for myself,” she says. “I think that’s honestly what’s helping me now.”
Are Coaches the New Priests?
A timeline of sexual abuse scandals in sports.
1995, Paul Hickson: The former British Olympic swimming coach was sentenced to 17 years for raping two and indecently assaulting 13 female high school and college-age swimmers.
2010, Andrew King: An elite women's swimming coach in California, King was first accused of sexual abuse in the '70s. He pled no contest in 2010 to 20 counts of child molestation.
2012, Philip Foglietta: A successful football coach at Poly Prep, a Brooklyn private school, Foglietta was accused of groping and raping boys for decades beginning in the late '60s. He died in 1998. The school settled with 12 plaintiffs in 2012.
2012, Jerry Sandusky: In a scandal that brought down legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, assistant coach Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys.
2015, Marvin Sharp: USA Gymnastics' 2010 Coach of the Year, Sharp was charged with four counts of child molestation and reportedly took illicit photos of his young athletes. He committed suicide in jail.
2016, Kurt Ludwigsen: The former Nyack College women's softball coach admitted to having "unwanted physical sexual contact" with seven of his athlete after being charged with 200 counts of forcible touching. Because the charges were misdemeanors, he was sentenced to six years' probation.
What to Do if You've Been Abused
Even if you didn't know it at the time.
1. Seek out a professional. It’s common to repress memories of sexual abuse, says Brian Pinero, vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). Once you realize what happened, RAINN can refer you to your local sexual-assault center, where an advocate can connect you with a trained local therapist.
2. Carefully consider whom to tell. Some friends and relatives may question you or think you misremembered, which can be painful and impede your healing, says Pinero. A therapist can help you decide whom to tell and how to tell them.
3. Don't beat yourself up. Remind yourself over and over that you didn’t do anything wrong. “Lots of victims think that the abuse was their fault or they should have said something,” Pinero says. “You did nothing to deserve this.”
4. Explore legal options. If you’re interested in making a report, a RAINN staffer versed in the laws of your state can help (depending on when the abuse happened, the statute of limitations may have passed). If you choose not to speak up, that’s also fine. Says Pinero: “We help point victims to what they want, on their terms.” —Emily C. Johnson
Photographed by Ian Allen
This article was originally published as "We All Trusted Him" in the August 2017 issue of Cosmopolitan.