Larry Nassar's fate was sealed on January 24, 2018, after a widely publicized court hearing that lasted seven days. "I just signed your death warrant," Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said after sentencing him to up to 175 years in prison. During Nassar's trial, more than 150 women detailed decades of gut-wrenching sexual abuse by the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, among them Olympic gold-medalist Aly Raisman: "You caused me a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional pain. You took advantage of our passions and our dreams," she said, looking right at him with strength and grit.
At the same time that Nassar was rightly being brought to justice, many predators within the competitive gymnastics world were walking free. And still are.
GoodHousekeeping.com spoke in-depth with three former gymnasts — Becca Seaborn, Courtney Kiehl, and Kaylin Brietzke — who survived years of abusive encounters with their coaches. All three were molested as little girls by the very men who trained them, day in and day out, and who built up their hopes for Olympic glory and gold medals.
Their stories reveal how sexual misconduct in the world of gymnastics goes far, far beyond a single perpetrator offering so-called "medical treatment," as Nassar did. In 2016, the IndyStar reported that over the last two decades, 368 gymnasts have alleged some form of sexual offense by their coaches, gym owners, and others working in the sport — including many cases which USA Gymnastics knew of but failed to report to police. On average, a sexual offense was made toward a gymnast every 20 days, according to the publication.
Now, even with their shattered dreams and haunting pain, Seaborn, Kiehl, and Brietzke are sharing the horrific details of their experiences so that other children, including their own, never have to suffer at the hands of the coaches, and parents can understand some of the warning signs.
Note: These accounts share very explicit details about sexual abuse and may be upsetting for some to read.
Seaborn felt "destined for greatness" until, she says, her coach Mark Schiefelbein began touching her and videotaping her inappropriately when she was just 10 years old, at Esprit gymnasium in Tennessee. Now 27, the pregnant mother of one believes her abuse could have been prevented by USAG — and she's calling for change.
My parents put me in gymnastics when I was two and a half years old, because I had a ridiculous amount of energy. And as I got older, the sport fit my competitive nature. I loved being challenged and gymnastics made me feel strong and proud, especially after nailing a new trick. My favorite event was bars, because I felt like I was flying. Like I could defy gravity, like anything was possible.
Mark Schiefelbein took that away from me. I met him in 2000 when I was 10 at Let It Shine gym in Franklin, Tennessee, about a 15-minute drive from our home in Brentwood. Mark was known for getting results. My bar routine improved under him and I felt destined for greatness, maybe even the Olympics. So when he left Let It Shine to start his own gym, Esprit, and told my family, "She'll excel under my coaching," we followed him.
I spent four or five days a week with him and our practices were five hours long. He was a tough coach. Everything had to be his way. We asked permission to use the bathroom and eat snacks. The first time he abused me was in 2001, at Esprit gym. I was still just 10. We were doing frog stretches — where you lay on the ground, straddle your legs, and bend your knees — and he pushed me down and touched me over my leotard. I asked him to move his fingers and he said, "Oh, sorry."
It spiraled out of control. He'd place a mat between us and the parental viewing area and slip his fingers under my leotard while we stretched. He'd pull my leotard aside and say, "Oh, that's what I shouldn't be touching when I'm stretching. Let me touch it, so I know what not to touch when I'm stretching you."
It happened on a regular basis. He'd say things like, "Let me touch it for 10 seconds, and I promise I won't do it again for a month." I'm thinking, Okay, I don't want him to do this again, anything to make him not do it again. I felt helpless.
Another time, he asked me to put my hand in his pocket because there was a surprise in there for me. It was his erect penis. I'd never felt a penis before.
Shortly before my 12th birthday, he pulled out a video camera at the gym and said, "I want to record what your vagina looks like, so I know what not to touch next time." I'd do anything to make him stop. But, the next day at practice, he said the video footage was blurry and we needed to do it again. I said, "What you are doing to me is wrong." He responded, "No, it's not. In the Bible it says you can't have sex before you're married, and that's not what this is."
Police never found the footage and, to this day, I wonder if he uploaded the videos to a website. I'll never know for sure.
Every time I told him no, he'd use fear tactics against me. He ignored me, yelled at me, and refused to talk to me or coach me. When I had a stress fracture in my back in the summer of 2002 and required a back brace for four months, he accused me of making it up and being a "baby." I tried to tell my mom I wanted to quit, but I wouldn't give her a reason. Mark told me, "This is your fault and no one will believe you, if you tell. No one will want to be your friend and you'll get in trouble."
My performance in the sport suffered; I especially had trouble learning new tricks. And my mom began noticing a change in my personality. I was no longer her competitive, spunky kid. I became sullen, quiet, uninterested. I stopped loving gymnastics and I stopped loving myself. Every time I arrived for practice, he insisted I hug him before starting. I was tired of giving him hugs.
Mark had become extremely close with my parents. He was invited over for dinner, and he went to baseball games with my family. He even came to church with us on occasion. He'd engrained himself in our lives, all while abusing me under their noses. In September 2002, he was over at our house and began teasing me about a boy I liked from the neighborhood. I couldn't handle him anymore, so I hit him upside the head. He was furious. He told my mom, "Well this changes our relationship and I need to leave here, because I'm losing my cool."
Mom thought that was weird, Their relationship? When he left, she asked me, straightforward, "Is he touching you inappropriately?" I said, "Yes, and I didn't know how to tell you." That night, I sat on her lap in a chair in the living room and we cried, holding each other. I remember thinking, Will my mom be grossed out by me? But she held me tight and made me feel safe. As a mom now, I can't imagine how hard it would be to ask your child that question. I have so much respect for my mom.
The next day, September 9, we went to the police. They set up a sting operation to record a phone call in which I asked Mark if he'd destroyed the video tapes [Editor's Note: Court documents obtained by GoodHousekeeping.com confirm the "perp phone call" took place on September 10, 2002. When Seaborn said, "Just promise me you destroyed them, okay?" Schiefelbein responded, "Whatever." The Brentwood Police Department then executed a search warrant for Esprit Gymnastics and Schiefelbein's residence. Approximately 79 videotapes were discovered. In court, a detective stated Schiefelbein "zoomed" the camera in on Seaborn's clothed vaginal area more than 200 times, when she was not doing anything of a "gymnastics nature." None of the videotapes showing Seaborn's uncovered vaginal area were ever found.]
He was arrested that day. In July 2003, a jury found him guilty. That September, he was sentenced to 96 years in prison. [Editor's Note: A jury convicted him of seven counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor. His sentence was later reduced to 36 years.]
I did a lot of therapy and counseling. I had nightmares of him breaking into my house, hiding in my bedroom, kidnapping me, and hurting me. I also had trouble trusting men growing up, and dating was out of the question. Every time a guy liked me, I got scared, because I didn't know what it meant. I had my first real kiss at 18 with my first boyfriend, who later became my husband. I met Bryan on Halloween my freshman year at Brigham Young University. I was dressed as the teenage mutant ninja Michelangelo and he was a nurse.
When we went on our first date I told him right off the bat, "This is what happened to me. I don't want to kiss, I want to take it extremely slow." He said, "I promise I won't pressure you into anything." I felt comfortable and I trusted him completely. I knew early on, this was the guy I'd marry. On June 15, 2009, we got engaged. We were married two months later.
The first time I was intimate with Bryan was hard. I felt re-victimized, because I'd never been in a real sexual situation. Bryan never made me feel crazy for being nervous or for asking for a minute to gather my composure. When I'd randomly think about the abuse or when memories would come flooding back, he was patient and helped me work through it. I feel so lucky that he's my husband. Our daughter Harper will be 4 on February 11 and we're expecting a baby boy, Jude, in March.
I now see things through my mom's eyes. Harper started preschool this year and I struggled, emotionally, not watching her every minute of every day. We call her Becca 2.0, because she has that same crazy energy I had as a little girl, so I enrolled her in a bouncing tots class once a week for 30 minutes in Glen Carbon, Illinois, where we live. She loves it. I have a mental battle with myself, though, like, How can you do this to your own kid? This is the sport [where the abuse] happened to you, so why are you letting her do gym? But I realize I have to take a step back and not let my fears and life experience hold her back from doing something she loves. Although, truthfully, I hope she never gets serious about gymnastics.
I was invited by Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly come forward with sexual abuse accusations against former Team USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, to his sentencing hearing on January 24. She said reading my story in the IndyStar in August 2016 gave her the strength to come forward.
The sad part about the abuse endured by me and by the victims of Larry Nassar is that it all could have been prevented. In both cases, USA Gymnastics (USAG) knew about the abuse and did nothing for a very long time. They had a two-inch thick file of complaints against Mark and still allowed him to coach. And this wasn't limited to one coach or one doctor, it happened over and over and over again. USAG was looking out for medals and money, not for the wellbeing of children. It's time for change. [Editor's Note: GoodHousekeeping.com has reviewed the file of complaints compiled by USAG, which was never forwarded to authorities. USAG publicly committed in June 2017 to investigate and institute reforms to better prevent and report any future suspected abuse. The organization also just announced the creation of a fund to support victims.]
Although hugs still make me cringe and, once in a while, Mark will pop up in my dreams, I'm no longer angry. What he did to me was terrible and no one deserves that kind of abuse, but I feel strong, because I was able to stop him. I don't let what Mark took away from me define me as a person. He didn't win.
I'm married. I have an amazing husband. I have a child. I have another child on the way. What he did to me is not who I am, but what he chose to do to me is who he is. I let my experience be a stepping stone into who I would become — and I love the person.
Now, I'm teaching my daughter that same sentiment. Love yourself, always.
Kiehl, 27, was only 12 when she says Robert Shawler began molesting her at Cal West Gymnastics — where he co-coached with his wife Kristin — in Fremont, California, in 2002. Robert, who in 2005 pleaded no contest to two counts of child molestation, was sentenced to three years in prison. Today, he is on the California sex offender registry. Kiehl, a sexual abuse lawyer, has dedicated her life to helping survivors get justice.
Looking back there were signs. Nothing big, but small moments that gave me pause. Like, during a team trip to Hawaii, when Robert literally gave me the shirt off his back to wear when it got cold — something my dad might do for my mom. Or, for my birthday, when he got me a subscription to International Gymnasts; when he started calling my mom Joycie, instead of Joyce; when he made sure to be the good cop in the gym, while Kristin was really hard on me. He was grooming me.
Robert started touching me in early 2002, when I was 12. The first time it happened, I was wearing my favorite bright orange and yellow leotard with flowers on it. My hip flexor was sore, so I laid on my back near our tumble track, a long trampoline, which was blocked by a wall from the bleachers where parents sat. He was stretching me out and slipped his hand underneath my leotard. It was over pretty quick.
I remember thinking, Did that just happen? What was that? But I knew one thing for sure: It was wrong. Afterward, we went back to warming up like nothing had happened, like this was totally standard. It was back to business, as usual. I never came forward, because I was afraid of losing gymnastics and losing my team.
It happened pretty much every day, five days a week, for the next year or so when I was spending two or three hours in the morning at the gym and another five or six hours in the evening. I tried to count the exact number for detectives years later, but couldn't count that high. We never talked about it. I'd think to myself, Does he think this is something I want? Does he think this is something that's supposed to be good for me? It was almost always in the morning and we were usually alone, doing hip flexor stretches. Kristin would be working in the front office or would come in after we were done.
One time he said, "We're going to try something a little different, let me soothe you." He had me lay on my back in the middle of the floor and got down on his knees, facing me. I could feel him pulling my leotard to the side, examining me in an almost scientific way. I remember staring up at the ceiling, waiting for it to be over. Then, he gave me three $.50 coupons for Jamba Juice, which was the one thing Robert and Kristin were okay with us drinking, since it's kind of healthy. I remember being worried, like, Is it bad I took them? Is this like me getting money for what he just did to me?
I never used them.
Another time, he followed me into the bathroom and touched me. Another time, I was on bars doing a routine and couldn't hit my handstand. When I landed he grabbed my arm and said, "If you don't do this right, I'm going to have to do this." He pulled me in and touched me on the outside of my leotard.
A few months ago, I found an old journal where I'd chronicled everything. I was so confused about his behavior and I kept misspelling vagina, that's how young I was. I wasn't sleeping much at the time. I was constantly anxious about going to the gym and I dreaded practice, but I'd convince myself it wasn't that big of a deal. I saw, in my own writing, how depressed and devastated I was. But gymnastics was my life and I was terrified of losing that.
About a year after the abuse started, I sent him an email that said something like, "I'm uncomfortable doing these hip flexor stretches." The next morning he told me, "I got your email, we won't do those anymore, but make sure you delete that email and then go to the trash bin and make sure it's fully off of your computer. Delete it. Delete it."
In January 2004, just before my 14th birthday, Cal West hosted a meet at our gym. I was talking to four teammates about Robert, when one girl said he asked her not to wear trunks, which is underwear for a leotard. Another girl said he touched her crotch. Then another girl said, "Well, that happened to me too." I said, "Me too." I said, "Let's not tell anyone for now." The next morning I had a one-on-one workout with him and he spotted me while I did a handstand. I felt his hand slide up a little bit too far and I squirmed. He said I had a bad attitude and kicked me out of practice, told me to go to the locker room, and come back only when I was ready to work. I sat on a bench, shaking and breathing heavily, because I knew it was time to tell my mom everything when she came to pick me up. I was really, really scared.
On the drive home, I burst out, "He touches girls!" For the next 15 minutes, I told her every single detail. I couldn't keep it in anymore. She was very calm and said, "We're going to call your dad and have him come home from work." We met at a local coffee shop, sat in the back room and ordered madeleine cookies, my favorite treat. My dad said, "I know this is uncomfortable, but it's important we know everything."
Two days later, my parents and I met with Kristin at a Denny's and I told her everything. I thought I was protecting her in some way. She looked at me and said, "I'm sorry, I'm just a little shell-shocked right now." We left and went to the police.
One year later, in April 2005, I read a victim impact statement before the judge sentenced him to three years in prison. I was shaking, seeing Robert in a jumpsuit, sitting there, not far away from me. It was totally overwhelming. I stood up and I almost collapsed. Thankfully, my dad was there and caught me. He gave a statement too. Robert ended up only serving about two and a half years. Kristin now coaches gymnastics at a new gym, about a 30-minute drive from Cal West. I hear they have a family now.
I still don't sleep well. I have nightmares and my anxiety is bad. Robert would play John Mayer in the gym all the time, so when I'd hear "No Such Thing" on the radio, it sent me into a panic attack. I did a lot of therapy and it helped with those triggers, but I'm still healing. It's hard knowing Robert and Kristin are both out there, living normally. It's like their lives were disrupted for maybe a few years and that was it. It's not like they moved far. She's at a new gym, 19 miles away. To me, it speaks volumes about how they saw the situation, for them there was no shame, no need to get away.
I graduated from UCLA in 2012 with a degree in sociology. I met my boyfriend, Demetrius, there, and I can talk to him about everything. He makes me feel so incredibly supported and safe. We have a dog, Argent, who helped me get through some health issues likely related to my trauma. I can't even begin to put into words how much Argent has helps me through the pain. When I'm worried or anxious, I look at him and he helps me let go of those feelings. I got a law degree from Penn State and, last year, realized how I want to use my education. With USA Gymnastics in the limelight, I wanted to draw on my experience as a survivor and tie that into my role as a lawyer. I now work as a sexual abuse attorney with Paul Mones, who represents survivors of sexual abuse around the country, including the hundreds of people who had been sexually abused as children by Boy Scout leaders.
The trauma from the abuse and the anger from losing gymnastics, the thing I loved most in the world at the time, is something I'll always have to manage. But I move forward and work to make something good out of my horrible experience by helping others. This is my story and I know I always have the power to decide how it turns out.
[Editor's Note: Kristin confirmed she is still married to Robert and provided this comment to GoodHousekeeping.com: "By going through this experience, through this ordeal, and that in combination with the things that have come to light at USAG, I am extra vigilant about the kids' safety and that's what I've brought to this new endeavor (at the gym where I work now). The kids' safety is top of the list."]
Brietzke loved gymnastics "more than anything," she says, until her coach James Bell was arrested for inappropriately touching her at age 7 at the YMCA in Newport, Rhode Island. When he posted bail and fled the state in 2004, Brietzke lived in fear until the FBI finally caught him in April 2015. After years of battling depression and anxiety, the new mom, now 24, says she's finally found peace.
I don't remember a time when I wasn't dreaming of the Olympics. I was obsessed with U.S. gymnast Carly Patterson. When she came out with a leotard that had her signature on the hip, I just had to have one. It was the coolest thing ever. She was so good at such a young age, and we had similar body types with strong legs and broad shoulders. I thought, Hey, she looks like me! If she can make it to the Olympics, I can too!
I basically grew up at the YMCA near our home in Newport, Rhode Island. I went there before school for two hours and after school for three hours every week day. My dad lived in Georgia and my mom worked all the time, so my gym family became my real family. I felt so empowered there, like a fearless machine leaping on beam and swinging on bars. I could accomplish anything.
Around 2000, James Bell started coaching me. I was 7 years old. Everyone talked so highly of him because he really knew his stuff. I was getting new skills and moving up in the ranks. But he had his reins tight the minute he got there. He began grooming me: He'd pull me aside and tell me I was doing well. He'd give me a confidence boost every chance he could. If we were doing a new drill, I was the one demonstrating with him. He made me feel special in little ways like that.
I didn't think much of his unusual stretching methods. When he grabbed places he shouldn't or stretched our legs by using his feet to hold us open, I thought Oh, that's just how he coaches, that's just how he does it.
He stacked a pile of blue mats in the middle of the gym so parents couldn't see him touching us from their viewing area. He'd abuse me with my mom only feet away; it didn't matter. We'd get called into the changing rooms to do "muscle checks," where he touched us on top of our leotards. He'd have us touch him too. I didn't know it was wrong. When my mom would ask me how practice was after picking me up, I'd always say, "Oh, it's good!" My dad wasn't around at the time, so I didn't know if that was normal male behavior. I just thought that's how men did things.
A few months after he became my coach, I arrived at practice early and he picked me up and held me against his hip, like a baby. I was 7. He kissed me on the mouth. That was the first time I felt violated. Well, that was weird, I thought to myself. He could sense that, I think, because he told me, "That's our little secret."
I developed anger issues and had trouble obeying authority figures at school. I couldn't maintain friendships and relationships. When someone told me what to do, I lashed out. One of my teachers told my mom I wasn't just acting out — something was clearly wrong. The abuse continued almost every day at practice for two years, until I switched gyms, going to Aim High Academy, when I turned 9 in 2003. I bottled up the painful truth for three more years, lashing out at anyone in charge, until a former teammate's mother told my mom to ask me about Coach Jim. My mom was like, "What the heck?!"
I remember the day she found out the truth like it was yesterday. We were driving to practice at my new gym and my mom asked me, "Did coach Jim ever touch you down there?" I was sitting in the back seat and I could see her face in the rearview mirror. She was so distraught. She pulled over and started crying. We immediately turned the car around and went to the police station.
Coming forward as a kid is tough. I felt like hundreds of male detectives were asking me the same questions over and over again. I was like, Really?! I hate men! I had to talk about penises and private parts and I was just humiliated. Jim was arrested in August 2003, but got out on bail. When my mom told me he'd fled, I was terrified he'd come find me. [Editor's Note: According to a Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General press release, Bell was put on the Rhode Island and FBI Most Wanted List after failing to appear for a pretrial conference on July 15, 2004.] It sounds weird, but knowing he was missing was more memorable than the actual abuse. Maybe because I was older or maybe because I didn't know the abuse was wrong at the time. It was a different kind of torture.
I lived every moment of my life in fear. When I walked around downtown Newport, I saw him across the street. But a truck would pass in front of me and the person would be gone. When I went underwater at the community swimming pool, I'd see him standing across the pool through my goggles. When I came up for air, no one was there. I thought I saw his van driving around all the time.
Sleep was tough; I insisted on keeping the door cracked open. I had nightmares that always involved a man.
At 15, I was spending most nights with my boyfriend Zack, who is now my husband. In the middle of the night, I'd shoot up out of bed, sweat pouring down me, screaming. Zack was the one to calm me down. He was a constant for me, and he helped me recover. He was there through my depression and anxiety and anger and fear.
That fear lasted for over a decade, until the FBI finally tracked Jim down in Washington in April 2015. I was in a Victoria's Secret with my mother-in-law, scrolling through Facebook, when I saw his mugshot on my timeline. My heart leapt out of my chest. It was a news article saying he'd had a stroke and the nurse taking care of him recognized him from the FBI Most Wanted List. I walked out of Victoria's Secret, the anger, sadness, and hurt from my childhood flooding back to me.
I didn't feel relief, though. I didn't feel any type of closure until I read my victim impact statement to him in a Rhode Island court room in December 2015. Jim was sobbing and he said, "I'm sorry for all the pain I've caused." I thought to myself, Bite me. He was sentenced to 20 years, with eight years to serve in prison and the remainder suspended with probation.
Watching the Nassar trial, and seeing all the families torn apart by his actions, brought back painful memories I'd spent years trying to stuff down. It honestly makes me want to go to my lawyer and say let's go after USAG, because they obviously can't figure their sh*t out. And they need to. I don't know if there's an answer to this problem of abuse in gymnastics, but it starts with addressing issues within the umbrella organization, USAG. Do they realize how many real people, real families, real 7-year-old girls could have avoided torturous abuse had they intervened in a proper, timely manner? It's hurtful. And it's time to change.
I see the world differently now. Some people walk around the mall and see a little girl holding hands with a grown man and say, "Oh my gosh that's so cute!" Not me. The first thing I think is, "That man better be her father." You never know what people are or who they are. I trusted Jim and my mom trusted him with her child. I can only imagine what she went through, finding out I'd been abused for two years, under her care.
Zack and I got married in May 2015, and on October 15, we had our baby girl, Zara. I'm finally in a good place. But it was like I'd picked up a book 20 years ago and could never get past a certain page, so I put it down. But I always picked it back up. Finally, I'm done with that horrible book. Now, I have a new story. My daughter, Zara. And I'll do whatever it takes to make the world a safer place for her.
If you or someone you know is at risk of being sexually abused, contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network's (RAINN) National Sexual Assault hotline for help (800-656-HOPE/4673). Visit www.RAINN.org for more information.