Jessica Howard, a Hall of Fame Gymnast, Testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing
Jessica Howard, a three-time national rhythmic gymnastics champion who won an Olympic medal in 2000 and retired after being involved with USA Gymnastics’ leadership for many years, spoke out through tears Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of young athletes. Howard informed senators that people in positions of authority at USA Gymnastics fostered an environment of fear and intimidation that turned world-class gymnasts into easy prey for predators like Nassar. Howard is both a Hall of Fame gymnast as well as mother of two daughters competing in gymnastics herself as an author columnist fitness expert and fitness expert – something she told them in tears on Tuesday.
Howard said she began training in the Vaganova technique as an elite gymnast at age five. By age 16, she had won national titles across all four disciplines as an elite gymnast and set multiple world records in club, ball, ribbon and hoop competitions. Gymnastics can be physically demanding; Howard found the most demanding part to be leading up to the Olympics by qualifying enough points and qualifying as part of Team USA.
At 15, she experienced a hip injury and her coaches sent her to Nassar for treatment. From the beginning, however, he began abusing her, even while misrepresenting it as medical treatment. Unfortunately for her and her parents alike, no one accompanied them on her first appointment with him.
Abuse continued at appointments every month over 16 years, she reported. She recalls seeing an image of Kerri Strug limping from the 1996 Olympic Games and thinking, ‘She shouldn’t vault again but she does.”
Howard knew when she read an Indianapolis Star article in 2017 revealing USA Gymnastics was covering up abuse allegations against coaches, it would be her moment. So she began gathering evidence – such as diary entries from her teens years and opinions of pelvic floor specialists; eventually consulting her mother about this strategy who in turn advised that in order to be believed, evidence must be produced.
Over the last year, 133 women have spoken publicly about their experiences with Nassar and were often emotional as they shared them with audiences. All were victims and activists for reform in the athletic organization that oversees Olympic gymnastics and figure skating; its head, Steve Penny resigned following an investigation into allegations he attempted to tamper with it; many of his successors have since also left as they too have since taken steps away from leadership positions within this body.
Holly Olmstead, a former collegiate gymnast and now assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University, believes the resignations of Penny and his successors are only part of what needs to happen for reforming gymnastics.
Olmstead believes that as more seasoned athletes such as Simone Biles and Aly Raisman step forward as leaders of their organizations, their influence will alter its culture. She anticipates increased transparency and accountability – including reporting all abuse allegations to law enforcement and child welfare authorities immediately.