Jacksonville native among gymnasts accusing doctor of sexual abuse

Jessica Howard says she regrets trusting doctor, USA Gymnastics

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Three former elite U.S. gymnasts, including a Jacksonville native, have come forward to say they were sexually abused by a former doctor currently facing trial on a separate matter. 

Three-time U.S. rhythmic gymnastics champion Jessica Howard, who is from Jacksonville, 2000 Olympian Jamie Dantzscher and former national team member Jeanette Antolin appeared on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, detailing what they claimed is sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar.

All three accused Nassar, a volunteer team doctor for USA Gymnastics for almost three decades before his tenure ended in July 2015, of touching them inappropriately while he disguised the abuse as treatment.

Howard, who was an up-and-coming rhythmic gymnastics star in 1999, said hip pain led USA Gymnastics to send her to Nassar at the well-known Karolyi Ranch for treatment. She said that looking back, she realizes something was wrong from the first session.

“He asked me to wear loose shorts and no underwear. I thought that was weird, but I just did what he asked me to,” Howard said. “When you are 15 years old and your entire dream is on the line, and all you have to do is work as hard as you possibly can, so that you might be able to achieve it, you do anything you have to do.”

From there, she said, things escalated. Now, she and others with similar accusations are speaking out.

Dantzscher, who helped the U.S. team earn a team bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics, filed a lawsuit against Nassar in California last September as "Jane Doe." She gave up her anonymity for "60 Minutes" and described how she was sent to visit Nassar to receive treatment for lower back pain.

"He would put his fingers inside of me, move my leg around," Dantzscher said. "He would tell me I was going to feel a pop and that that would put my hips back and help my back pain."

Dantzscher said she saw Nassar for treatment regularly from her early teens until the Olympics, when she was 18. Dantzscher said she typically saw Nassar alone, which is in violation of USA Gymnastics policy.

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny and others have been named as co-defendants in Dantzscher's civil suit. The suit says the organization negligently suppressed, concealed or failed to disclose knowledge that Nassar had engaged in sexual conduct with team members. Nassar's attorneys have denied any wrongdoing by the doctor.

USA Gymnastics said it is "appalled that anyone would exploit a child in this manner." The organization fired Nassar two years ago after going to federal authorities following an investigation into possible abuse by the doctor, leading the FBI to conduct its own investigation.

Howard said there is a systemic problem with USA Gymnastics and that if she had a child, she would seriously consider pulling him or her out of the sport until things change with the governing body.

“With USA Gymnastics, you don't expect that you are in any danger. You expect that there are policies and procedures in place that are going to protect you as an athlete,” Howard said. “Looking at that now, I regret very, very deeply having been so trustful.”

Nassar, who also treated gymnasts at Michigan State University, faces charges in two cases so far, although they're not related to his work with athletes. Nassar was ordered to stand trial on charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct after a woman described how he sexually abused her for years during her childhood.

The 25-year-old woman who testified Friday said her parents were friends with Nassar and that he repeatedly abused her from age 6 until age 12 during family visits to his home in Holt, near Lansing.

Nassar has pleaded not guilty.

In federal court, Nassar is charged with possessing thousands of images of child pornography and trying to destroy possible evidence.

Local coach tries to calm fears

After the allegations surfaced in the “60 Minutes” report, the president at Beaches Gymnastics took to social media to try to ease any concerns parents of her gymnasts might have.

“Let this not become a taboo subject. We want to educate the parents, the children, the coaches and everybody in the sport about this,” Olivia Gill said.

Gill said she has worked many summer camps at the Karolyi Ranch and said her experiences have been nothing but positive.

Still, she said she is proud of the women speaking out and hopes it teaches the younger generation to do the same.
Howard said she hopes for that as well.

“I hope that there is extreme change in the sport and it can grow in a way that will benefit young athletes instead of hurting them for their future lives,” Howard said.

Former Olympic swimmer offers warning

After the "60 Minutes" report, News4Jax spoke Monday with a former Olympic swimming medalist from Jacksonville. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, CEO of Champion Women -- a nonprofit that advocates for girls and women in sports -- said she saw sexual abuse between a coach and an athlete on her way to the Olympics as a swimmer. 

"I got a front-row seat to just how destructive that was, absolutely between him and her, but also for the entire team," she said.

In 2013, that man was banned by USA Swimming. 

In this week's "60 Minutes" report, the three women said there was an emotionally abusive environment at the national team training camps at a Texas ranch. They said the circumstances provided Nassar an opportunity to take advantage of them and made them afraid to speak up about physical or emotional pain.

"They are willing, almost, (to say),'What do I have to do to get there?' A lot of times they think, 'This medical treatment, it may be weird, but it's the price that I have to pay in order to be able to get there,'" Hogshead-Makar said. 

In a statement posted Sunday night on Twitter, USA Gymnastics said about the allegations, in part: “We work every day to help young people fulfill their potential in a safe environment, and keeping them safe requires as much diligence and attention as training for competition.”

Hogshead-Makar said parents need to be aware of who is around their children.

"Parents have the idea that their children are as protected as they are in school or their kids as protected as they would be in the workforce. That's not true," she said.

Hogshead-Makar’s organization hopes there will be an independent governing body to oversee amateur athletic organizations to help get more sexual assault allegations reported. Champion Women is working with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to help push legislation to that effect.