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Larry Nassar, a sexual predator disguised as a healer

4 min

Chicago (AFP)

To a generation of young gymnasts, he was known simply as "Larry" -- a miracle worker of sorts whose medical skills helped propel the American national team to a string of Olympic victories.

That was the myth.

The real Lawrence Nassar, as a Michigan court heard in a flood of harrowing testimony over the past week, was a serial predator who earned the trust of teen and pre-teen athletes, and molested them in the guise of treatment.

In a highly-competitive environment where any perceived weakness could end dreams, Nassar used his status as the respected team doctor of USA Gymnastics to win over his victims.

They included four of the "Fierce Five" 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning squad: Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney, as well as scores of female athletes at Michigan State University, where he worked.

On Wednesday, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in jail for criminal sexual conduct -- adding to a previous child pornography conviction of 60 years.

There to watch the 54-year-old fall was an army of survivors, women and girls who took the stand one after the other to detail his abuse and make sure he was held to account.

Nassar's operating method was always the same: he told the teens -- and initially argued as his defense in court -- that he was inserting fingers into their vagina or anus to re-adjust their bodies, and relieve pain and other ailments.

"I didn't say anything to anyone, of course," testified the former gymnast Emily Meinke. "He was a medical professional, and I had no reason not to trust him."

"After all, he had created a facade of trust and compassion."

- 'Pretended to be my friend' -

Until the allegations against him became public, Nassar's message to anyone who would listen was clear and consistent: he was protecting athletes "not just physically, but mentally."

"The physical injuries they almost always can recover from," Nassar said in 2013 on the gymnastics podcast GymCastic.

"It's the mental injuries that leads to scars that keep coming back and haunt them later."

During the marathon seven days of sentencing hearings, many victims spoke of the scars he left them.

"You pretended to be my friend. You snuck me food and candy, when you knew food was being restricted," Olympian Jamie Dantzscher told him.

"You manipulated me into thinking you were the good guy and helping me, while sexually abusing me over, and over and over, for your own twisted sexual pleasure."

As he listened to the women's testimony, the bespectacled Nassar sat hunched over, rarely looking up at victims and padding his eyes with tissue.

Prior to his sentencing, Nassar offered an apology, turning to face the survivors seated behind him.

"I will carry your words with me for the rest of my days," he said, as some in the courtroom could be heard weeping.

Michigan state judge Rosemarie Aquilina offered Nassar's own words in rebuttal -- giving a glimpse into his mindset.

She read parts of a letter Nassar wrote last week complaining his mental health might not endure the parade of victim statements, and insisting -- despite his guilty plea -- that he had been providing legitimate medical treatment all along.

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," he added in the letter read by the judge, causing an audible gasp in the courtroom.

- Early warnings -

Nassar first joined the medical staff of the USA Gymnastics national team in 1986, and 10 years later was appointed as its national medical coordinator.

In 1997, he joined the faculty of Michigan State University (MSU) and was a physician at the university's sports clinic.

He developed a stellar reputation -- a married father of three girls who was said to be a "guiding medical force" at four Olympic Games, according to one biography by the Midwestern chapter of USA Gymnastics.

"He has received numerous state, regional and national awards for his countless hours of dedicated service to the athletes in our sport," the biography glowed.

But even as his reputation grew, there were early warning signs.

In 1997, a parent raised concerns with John Geddert, a star coach and owner of Twistars athletic club in Michigan where Nassar was treating gymnasts, according to a lawsuit.

Geddert was suspended Monday by USA Gymnastics pending an investigation.

In 2000, an MSU athlete told trainers about Nassar's abuse, according to another lawsuit. She claims MSU staff did not believe her.

In 2014, a patient filed an official university complaint, triggering an investigation, which cleared Nassar of serious wrongdoing.

The question now for survivors -- as reflected by the US Olympic Committee's announcement Wednesday of an independent inquiry -- is who knew about Nassar's conduct, and what could have been done to stop him.

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