The good guy

It’s the 1996 Olympics. The U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team is on the verge of winning their first team gold medal. Kerri Strug is their last chance. She sprints toward the vault, launches into the air, and falls on the landing.

Clearly injured, Strug limps back to the mat. Sprints, launches, and sticks the landing. Her score is announced: The team has won gold. But as cheers erupt from the crowd, Kerri Strug collapses. Crawls off the mat. A young trainer helps support her. “I got her, I got her,” he yells.

That trainer? That’s Larry Nassar.

Nassar assists Kerri Strug during the 1996 Olympics. Credit: NBC Sports
Nassar assists Kerri Strug during the 1996 Olympics. Credit: NBC Sports

Now, when most people picture Larry Nassar, they probably think of a gaunt, black-haired man in glasses, handcuffs, and an orange jumpsuit. He’s one of the worst serial pedophiles in U.S. history. Nearly 500 women and girls say they were abused by Nassar, according to attorneys.

Nassar MSU headshot

It’s easy to forget that before the handcuffs, Larry Nassar looked like a regular guy — your typical, suburban dad. He was silly and friendly, good at his job. He was a white guy in a polo shirt with his cell phone holstered to his belt.

Everyone trusted Larry. He was beloved by parents and coaches. He was the guy who could keep a gymnast smiling while he worked on a sprained wrist or sore knee.

Trinea Gonczar was one of those gymnasts. She first met Larry in the late 1980s, when he was an athletic trainer at her local gym.

“He taped my ankles, he taped my shins, he taped my wrists, he worked on my shoulder…and it works. It actually makes you better,” she says. “So you know what I mean? You don’t become the Olympic team doctor by taping ankles well, you have to be able to make these girls comfortable enough to compete and to compete well and to win most likely. So he was, like in his own weird, goofy, Larry way, like magic.”

In a sport where devastating injuries are common and expected, Larry Nassar’s approach was different. Even when his career took off, he always had one rule: “Gymnast first, gymnast first, gymnast first.”

“If you break their train of trust, you’re done. Because they’ll never trust you again. And they’ll tell the other gymnasts.” - Larry Nassar

Larry was so well known throughout the gymnastics world, that when he was a guest on the popular podcast GymCastic in 2013, host Jessica O’Beirne was thrilled.

“I’m just going to tell you that I’m totally biased in the interview!” she told listeners. “Completely and totally biased. Because I just love Larry Nassar.

“He looks like Inspector Gadget when he’s working. He’s super kind and accommodating to everyone. I’m super biased and I think he’s awesome.”

GymCastic Episode #63

Throughout the episode, Nassar talks about how hard he worked to build trust with his patients.

“The most important, by far, aspect of injury that we need to protect the athlete from is the mental injury,” said Nassar. “The physical injuries, they can almost always recover from. It’s the mental injuries that leave the scars that keep coming back and haunt them later.”

O’Beirne had known Larry for years, having worked with him as a student athletic training intern in the 1990s.

So when the allegations about Nassar first came out in 2016, O’Beirne said, “In a way, I was completely shocked. And in a way, I wasn’t at all.

“He was in the perfect position to do this. I know this is the person you have to worry about, who has the position and power to groom people,” she said in a 2017 interview with Michigan Radio.

"The physical injuries, they can almost always recover from. It’s the mental injuries that leave the scars that keep coming back and haunt them later." - Larry Nassar

Today, O’Beirne’s Twitter page is full of support for the survivors that have come forward, and GymCastic has been a platform for gymnastics enthusiasts to discuss what the Nassar scandal means for the sport. Since the first lawsuit was filed against Nassar in September 2016, the podcast has had at least 38 episodes discussing sexual abuse.

And despite her personal feelings about that 2013 interview now, O’Beirne kept it up on the GymCastic website.

“I just wanted to just destroy the interview, throw it in the trash, pretend it never happened, and apologize to everyone. And at the same time, I knew that I couldn’t do that.”

She couldn’t take it down, she said, because now it was “a piece of evidence.” Not criminal evidence that could come up in court, but historical evidence: proof, she said, of a mistake we keep making over and over again.

“If you or a loved one have experienced sexual abuse, get help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) or the Michigan Sexual Assault Hotline (855-VOICES4). Both programs are free and confidential.”