How Rachael Denhollander and Jordyn Wieber, two former USA Gymnasts are empowering others to come forward about sexual assault

By Carolyne Croy

As I sat backstage at the Miami University Television News Studio, I could feel the anticipation in the air as my fellow classmates, and I waited for the press briefing to begin. The students and professors who surrounded were eager to hear from Rachael Denhollander and Jordyn Wieber, former USA gymnasts, and two of more than 250 survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual assault. When Denhollander and Wieber walked into the studio, the whole room went quiet; phones were silenced, talking ceased, as everyone waited to hear from two brave women who sparked retributive justice in one of the largest sexual abuse scandals in sports history.

 

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Photo: Erin Poplin

 

Denhollander and Wieber took their seats in front of the camera and were introduced to the live studio audience by the news-casters. The intro tune sounded, and cameras began rolling. Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to accuse Larry Nassar, former USA gymnastics team doctor and now a convicted serial rapist, of sexual assault in 2016. Denhollander recalls her thought process about deciding to come forward and notes that she felt a “sense of responsibility” to bring it into the light. She remembers feeling as if she didn’t come forward, he would continue his abuse.  

Jordyn Wieber, a former Olympic gold medalist, recalls the same sense of responsibility to come forward. Wieber was empowered by Denhollander’s bravery and notes her coming forward as the main reason she was able to speak out herself.

“I saw all the other girls telling their stories and speaking out, and at that point, I felt a real sense of responsibility,” Wieber said. She also admitted that coming forward was part of her own healing process, “…not only something for other people to be inspired by, but for my own healing process, and being able to look at our abuser in the eye and say this is how you affected me … because a lot of other survivors don’t get that chance.”

 

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Photo: Erin Poplin

 

USA gymnastics failed these women as Larry Nassar remained on staff as a USA Gymnastics National Team Doctor for years as the assault continued and intensified. When asked about what kind of leadership USA Gymnastics need for the future, Denhollander and Wieber agreed that USA gymnastics needs someone who makes safety a priority, “Someone who is going to put safety and the health of athletes in front of everything…maybe someone who is a child safety expert. Someone who is going to make that safety a number one priority.”

Wieber is adamant that the path towards USA Gymnastics moving forward remains unclear in many ways. “There are still so many unanswered questions about how this was allowed to happen.” She notes that the first step if for USA gymnastics to take “full responsibility for what happened” and let it be known that “new people are going to come in and completely change the system and make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Wieber adds that new leadership for USA gymnastics must allow for more transparency and show that health and safety take priority over winning. It makes a statement that all sports teams should take into account when choosing their leaders, “If that can start changing, then those ideas sort of seep into clubs around the country…coaches continually mimic other coaches. So we sort of had to restart the idea of what makes a good coach. How do we treat our athletes? What are the priorities? That will totally transform gymnastics and the environment that is gymnastics. ”

 

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Photo: Erin Poplin

 

Reports of sexual assault are on the rise, and reported sexual assaults are at a higher number than ever before. Denhollander and Wieber were asked why they felt this number was on the rise, “I’d like to think its because they’re feeling more able to speak out against their abuser or tell their story…as a result of the Me Too movement and seeing that all the girls who stood up in the courtroom inspired and encouraged others to do the same.”

And that is what Empowerment is all about.

Empower: verb; to make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

By coming forward and sharing their own stories to the world, Denhollander, Wieber, and more than 250 other survivors empowered sexual assault survivors all over the world to come forward with their stories and report their abusers. These brave women began an Empowerment Revolution that is encouraging and supporting survivors all over the world to share their stories.

When asked about how to Empower others to have the courage to come forward, Wieber reflected on her own experience. “First and foremost, you have to do it on your own. You have to do it when you’re ready to do it. You can’t force somebody to do it when they aren’t ready…everyone has their own timeline or process, and we can’t judge each other.”

 

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Photo: Erin Poplin

 

Considering college campuses are a hub for sexual assault, Wieber and Denhollander gave advice to all college students on how they can be an Ally and supporter of survivor. 

“Understanding that you guys as students have a strong voice and you guys have a powerful position, and you guys can band together and decide the culture that you guys want from your campus, and you guys can stand up for what you believe in,” she said. 

 

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Photo: Erin Poplin

 

Rachael Denhollander is a mother of four, who currently lives in Louisville Kentucky where she practices law. She continues to speak across the country advocating for a change in leadership for USA Gymnastics. Jordyn Weiber is a volunteer assistant coach for the women’s gymnastics team at UCLA. Both Denhollander and Wieber have high hopes for the future of USA gymnastics and sports teams all over the world, “I envision a better environment and a safer environment for little girls because I love the sport of gymnastics. That has been sort of my motivating factor through all of this…telling my story isn’t necessarily easy or fun to do, but I understand how important it is because I do care about this sport, and I do want it to be safe.”

We can all learn from what Denhollander and Wieber have experienced, and take their advice on how to empower survivors to come forward about their sexual assault. These brave women sparked retributive justice in one of the largest sexual abuse scandals in sports history. Following in their example, we can spark an empowerment revolution to end sexual assault and encourage survivors to speak out.