Only a small fraction of Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s new memoir, Fierce (Little, Brown, Nov.) is about Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics who is accused of sexually abusing Raisman, teammate McKayla Maroney, and more than 100 other gymnasts in his care. But Raisman—captain of the 2012 and 2016 gold medal-winning Olympic teams—is the most prominent gymnast to make the accusation to date and her revelation, at least briefly, overshadowed the rest of her story. Raisman appeared on both CBS’s 60 Minutes and NBC’s Today show in advance of the book’s release today.
“I wanted to talk about what happened but I didn’t know how comfortable I would feel coming forward about it,” Raisman said. She didn’t even bring it up when she met with her publisher a year ago to discuss the topics she wanted to cover—not just the medals and her Olympic experiences in London and Rio de Janeiro, but body image, nutrition, and the pressure to be perfect.
“I never mentioned anything about Larry,” said Raisman, “but all the self-reflecting that I did while I was writing started me thinking about certain incidents that made me feel that I have to share my story.”
In her book, Raisman, one of the most accomplished gymnasts in Olympic history, details the grueling training that led to her winning six Olympic medals. Only one American gymnast, Shannon Miller, has more.
Now 23, Raisman started gymnastics at 18 months, when her mother, who had been a high school gymnast herself, enrolled her in a “Mommy and Me” tumbling class. Working her way up from forward rolls and cartwheels to become an elite gymnast meant sacrificing family vacations, school activities, and socializing with friends. She earned a reputation as a hard-working straight arrow; her 2016 teammates nicknamed her “Grandma.”
In addition to the grueling workout schedule, Raisman details the pressure young gymnasts feel to uphold an impossible standard of perfection. She recounts an episode following a 2010 meet in Italy, where Raisman won her first all-around title. At the banquet afterwards, a USAG staffer called her out for eating a slice of pizza. “Aly, you are never allowed to do that again, as long as you’re competing,” the unnamed staff person said. Raisman called her mother in tears, worried a slice of pizza would prevent her from being chosen for another national team.
Worse still, Raisman says, is that though candy and snacks were so strictly forbidden the girls took to hiding them in their luggage like contraband, USAG never had anyone on staff to advise its elite gymnasts on what they should be eating to fuel their growing bodies. “We had no sports dietitian and there still isn’t one,” Raisman said. “Hopefully, me talking about it will make them change that.”
Though Raisman worked with a professional writer, Blythe Lawrence, to help shape her story, she said she carried her perfectionist tendencies into the writing process. “So many times I would work on something for 11 or 12 hours and, by the next day, I would want to change it again to make it better or clearer,” Raisman said. “I treated it like I was training for the Olympics.”
Her favorite parts to write were not her medal-winning moments but the moments of fun she shared with her family and teammates. She recounts her first meeting with Simone Biles, who told her that watching Raisman on TV at the 2012 Olympics made her think,“ ‘Hmmm, she has boobs. So do I! And she’s not that great on bars. Neither am I! If she can make it, maybe I can, too.’ ” Raisman said the two became instant friends.
Although Raisman stopped training following the London Olympics—taking time to appear on Dancing with the Stars—she was staging a comeback with an eye toward making the 2016 Olympics when an investigator came to her home in suburban Boston during the summer of 2015. The investigator wanted to talk about Nassar, specifically whether he had ever done anything during their treatment sessions to make Raisman feel uncomfortable. Though Raisman had heard whispers, she wanted to believe Nassar, who had always presented himself as a friend, was innocent. “There seemed to be so many reasons not to speak up,” Raisman writes. “Who was I, a mere teenager with no medical training, to question his methods?”
Nassar resigned from his position with USA Gymnastics a few months later after a former gymnast accused him of sexual assault and dozens of others came forward with similar allegations. In July, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of possessing child pornography. He is in jail now, awaiting trial on criminal sexual conduct charges brought by seven gymnasts; in addition, a civil lawsuit has been joined by more than 130 gymnasts. Raisman would not say whether she had joined the civil suit or intended to pursue criminal charges against Nassar. What she wants most now is to ensure the system that protected Nassar for decades changes immediately.
“I worked on the ‘survivor’ chapter forever. I kept the details of how he sexually assaulted me brief, because what I really wanted to explain was how he got away with it. I thought he cared about me but he manipulated me,” Raisman said. “It’s important to talk about this. If you know the statistics—one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually assaulted before they reach 18—you realize if you don’t talk about it, nothing will change. And I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”
The scandal led to the resignation of USAG president Steve Penny and the adoption of a new policy that requires the reporting of suspicions of sexual abuse. A new president, Kerry Perry, was announced last week (though Raisman’s mother, Lynn, said on 60 Minutes that simply changing one official is not enough). “I think USA Gymnastics put winning and money and having good PR in front of everything else,” Aly said. “I love gymnastics so much and have so many wonderful experiences from the sport, so many incredible memories and friendships, but it’s still not okay what I went through. Nothing is more important than the safety of the athletes.”