Who Was Larry Nassar? : Believed How did former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar sexually abuse hundreds of girls and women for decades? To understand how he got away with it, we have to begin with the doctor in his prime, when everyone thought of him as Larry, the good guy.
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The Good Guy

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The Good Guy

The Good Guy

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KATE WELLS, HOST:

Before we get started here, we just want to tell you we will be talking about difficult subject matter that might be disturbing for some listeners. This is a podcast about sexual abuse. There's also some swearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Individual all-around, and the Americans could lose the team gold.

LINDSEY SMITH, HOST:

It's July 23, 1996. I'm 11. My little sister and I are jumping on my grandma's slip-covered couches watching the Olympics. The U.S. women's gymnastics team is kicking ass. Back in '96, they'd never won team gold. They needed one last thing to win, a really good score on the vault. Kerri Strug is the last to go. She's short, got a pixie haircut. And now she's the only one who can win the team gold. On her first try, Kerri Strug botches the landing, and it's right on her butt.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: I don't know the last time Kerri Strug did something like that. This is her event.

SMITH: I didn't understand the scoring, but I knew falling was really bad.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: This is scary.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And she - wait. She is limping. Kerri is hurt.

SMITH: Her coaches say she's got to get back out there. She's only got one more shot. Kerri walks back to the vault, limps a little. And her eyes are focused.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: She knows what to do. She will go when she is ready.

SMITH: Kerri stretches her arms all the way up, takes a couple of breaths and then barrels towards the vault like her ankle doesn't even hurt. She sticks the landing beautifully. But as the crowd goes nuts, Kerri falls to her knees, crawls away from the vault.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Kerri Strug is hurt. She is hurt badly.

SMITH: She winces, holds back tears. Her coaches pick Kerri up, help her walk off the competition floor. And then her score comes in.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: We have got to find out if she - a 9.712. She has done it. Kerri Strug has won the gold medal for the United States team.

SMITH: The crowd is freaking out. Kerri is not. She's clearly in a lot of pain. On that TV screen, there's a young trainer helping to hold Kerri up. I got her, I got her, I got her, he says. Pause that. That guy - that guy right there, that's Larry Nassar. We didn't know then what we know now, that hundreds of women and girls would come forward to accuse him of sexual abuse. Larry Nassar will go on to become one of the worst serial pedophiles in U.S. sports history.

But right now, in this moment, he's a baby-faced, up-and-coming trainer with the Olympic team. This moment will launch his career. He'll be one of the most respected doctors in Olympic gymnastics. And that's where we're going to start this story, with Larry the good guy. From Michigan Radio and NPR, I'm Lindsey Smith.

WELLS: And I'm Kate Wells. This is BELIEVED.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You were lucky if you had an injury where you got to go see Larry.

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JORDYN WIEBER: I started seeing Larry Nassar at the age of 8 right here in my hometown of Lansing.

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LARRY NASSAR: People have pain, pain, pain. They come see me, their pain goes away. Like, I've been called the body whisperer.

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ANYA GILLENGERTEN: Larry gave us gifts - backpacks, shirts, a water bottle.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I heard words such as you'll love him; he can fix anyone or anything.

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NASSAR: And that's how I've made my reputation, is very in tune to the person's body.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I remember out of the corner of my eye seeing potentially an erection.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Do you ever get aroused during those exams?

NASSAR: Do I get aroused during the exams?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And I was like, OK, so I'm going to have to do that more.

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WIEBER: Nobody was protecting us.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I think my parents believed him.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I knew it was always going to happen.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: What if no one believes me? What if everyone thinks I'm lying?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Those fears go through your head the whole time. What if I'm not believed?

WELLS: What if I'm not believed? In this podcast, we want to show you how this guy got away from parents, police and powerful institutions for decades because once you know that, you will understand how they missed it and how you might have missed it, too. I've reported on the Larry Nassar case for the last couple of years.

And so much of what you saw on the news was about his horrific crimes. And when you're watching this guy in shackles and an orange jumpsuit, it is really easy to forget why everybody trusted him. So in this first episode, we are going to show you how he earned that trust. This is a training video Nassar put up on YouTube a few years ago.

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NASSAR: An activity I like to use as a strength test as well as a strengthening exercise is what's called the double leg lower down test. The athlete raises their legs up towards the ceiling, (laughter) and then the coach...

WELLS: This guy looks like your typical suburban dad. He is silly. He is friendly. He is good at his job. He is a white guy in a polo shirt with his cellphone holstered to his belt.

SMITH: Videos like this are why I can't stop thinking about this case. As a mom, when I think about my two sweet little girls, I just - I really hope I would be able to spot someone like Larry Nassar. But I don't know.

WELLS: And that's the thing, right? You are not stupid. You're an extremely good, vigilant mom. And we all think that we have these really good bullshit detectors. But I listened back to tapes of Larry Nassar before he got caught. And my bullshit detector does not go off. We're going to let you hear what I'm talking about, coming up in just a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: Listen to this podcast from a few years ago. It's hosted by Jessica O'Beirne. It's a cult hit. It's called "Gymcastic."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "GYMCASTIC")

JESSICA O'BEIRNE: This is the No. 1 gymnastics podcast ever in the history of humankind, bringing you the most fascinating people in the gym-ternet (ph).

WELLS: So after that '96 Olympics with Kerri Strug, Nassar goes from being a trainer with the Olympic team to its top doctor. He also becomes a professor of medicine at Michigan State University. Anybody who is anybody in gymnastics knows who this guy is. So if you could get Larry on your gymnastics podcast, that was a get, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCST, "GYMCASTIC")

O'BEIRNE: I'm just going to tell you that I'm totally biased in this interview - completely and totally biased because I just love Larry Nassar. And I don't know when he sleeps, honestly. But he's just - he's great. I'm going to stop going on and on about how awesome he is because...

WELLS: On the podcast, Jessica says that watching Larry work is like watching an Inspector Gadget. He is always doing a million things at once. But Larry told Jessica he had one very simple motto.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "GYMCASTIC")

NASSAR: Gymnast first, gymnast first, gymnast first - nothing, nothing, nothing gets in the way of gymnast first. Gymnast-centered - their health, physical and mental, then comes everyone else. Everything else is secondary.

WELLS: This attitude made Larry a unicorn because in gymnastics, even the best careers are brutal and short. By the time your kid is 2, coaches are watching like hawks for something that they can mold. By age 6, they know which kids have it and which ones don't. And by the time you're out of college, your body is just done, man. You are Brett Favre doing infomercials. So for those fleeting years in between, no matter how bad you're hurt, you suck it up. But on that podcast, Larry talked about pushing back against screaming coaches and demanding parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "GYMCASTIC")

NASSAR: You have to protect your athletes. You have to let them know that we care. You have to - not let them know, but let them feel it. Let them understand it. Let them breathe it. It's there. You know, it's not just a pat on the back, you know what I mean? It has to be sincere.

WELLS: Larry was the guy who saw you, who protected you. This is how he earned your trust.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "GYMCASTIC")

NASSAR: And if you screw up once with one of those gymnasts, it'll spread like wildfire. If you do something where you break their train of trust, you're done.

SMITH: Maybe you noticed we're calling him Larry. That's what most everyone called him, coaches, patients, their parents. It tells you something about how much they trusted him.

WELLS: And I want you to be able to separate this guy, Larry, in your mind from the Nassar on the news - because that guy, in court, he doesn't have any power anymore. But when it's one-on-one, when it's Larry, this beloved dude, that's where his power came from. It was always just one on one.

SMITH: Dawn Homer called him Larry.

DAWN HOMER: Who did I trust to keep his eye on her? Larry. I knew Larry would not let her be hurt.

SMITH: Dawn first met Larry in the late 1980s. Up until the very end, she thought of Larry as family. Her three girls were little then, munchkins doing tumbling class for fun. Larry was an athletic trainer working at their gym on top of his work for USA Gymnastics. Dawn just wanted the girls to burn off some extra energy, especially her oldest, Trinea. She was jumping off the back of way too many couches.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME VIDEO)

SMITH: This is a home video from the early '90s. Trinea's wearing the team leotard, long sleeves, red and white stripes. Dawn would watch from the bleachers with a mix of awe and fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME VIDEO)

HOMER: Then she would just give a little nod, just set her bottom lip, and off she would go.

SMITH: Dawn would watch Trinea launch her tiny body from the springboard into the air, arms thrusting off the vault.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

HOMER: It was always just amazing to think that, geez, that's my little girl out there jumping around.

TRINEA GONCZAR: And winning.

HOMER: And winning.

SMITH: Did you catch that? Trinea flashes her mom smile and says, and winning. Trinea loved winning. But in gymnastics, winning means sacrifice. Her mom, Dawn, remembers the coaches hosting a big meeting at the gym.

HOMER: They said, 100 percent of your children will be injured - 100 percent. Whether it's a sprained toe or a broken back, you're going to have everything in between. So we have a trainer that's available for the Great Lakes Gymnastics girls. So my mind, I'm thinking, yes, we're in good shape here. If Trinea gets injured, there's somebody there to help take care of her.

SMITH: That somebody was Larry Nassar. He'd make you laugh while he iced down your bruises, taped up your shin splints. We talked to Trinea too. She says he even smuggled in candy in his equipment bag.

GONCZAR: He'd walk in with his big old duffel bag.

HOMER: (Laughter).

GONCZAR: And it always smelled. Like, why not get a flippin' new duffel bag, bro? It's disgusting. But he'd walk in. And you know, we'd get - you know, you'd come back. And if you were sad or crying, you'd get a Skittle.

SMITH: One skittle - just one. She liked strawberry the best. And she needed Larry. They all needed Larry. Gymnastics is punishing. Spend enough hours hoisting your body up and over those wooden gymnastics bars, eventually the skin on your palms rips right open.

GONCZAR: It is extremely painful. You bleed. I mean, it's - it's not your favorite moment. But the only way to get through the rip is to do the bars on the rip.

SMITH: Trinea's mom Dawn remembers the big, end-of-season gymnastics parties where girls had to hold out their hands, show their rips, to get into the party.

HOMER: They were badges of glory - glory. That's how gymnastics gets in their head.

SMITH: Trinea's worst injury happened this summer before sixth grade, when she flung right off the upper bar, landed on her face, chin and neck. She remembers laying still on the mat in a pool of her own blood until an ambulance came. Trinea broke her nose. She was in an arm sling, a neck brace. Kids at school thought she'd been in a car accident. And through it all, who was there to help her heal? Larry.

GONCZAR: 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. So - you know, 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.

SMITH: Larry's was the first face she saw after waking up from an emergency surgery when she was 16. She was so relieved when Larry said, you're going to be OK, kid. Trinea and Dawn watched Larry's career take off. After the '96 Olympics in Atlanta, the one where he helped Kerri Strug bring home the gold, Larry brought back all kinds of gifts and mementos to give his club girls back home in Michigan.

Trinea remembers worrying Larry was getting so famous, he might leave her gym - because the truth is you could know Larry all your life, like Trinea and Dawn did, and never think of him as anything but the good guy. We're going to come back to Trinea's story in a later episode.

WELLS: But for now, what you have to know is that Trinea and Dawn were not alone. If your parents couldn't pay Larry Nassar, he would treat you for free. The youngest of five in a devout Catholic family, Larry taught Sunday school. Once, his family says, he ran barefoot across the street in the winter to help a neighbor having a heart attack.

SMITH: It took decades to expose Larry Nassar, to break the good-guy spell - not that lots of women and girls didn't try.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I remember just feeling embarrassed - like, oh, my God. I made this report. It was a mistake, and he's going to be mad at me. My parents are going to be mad at me. The police are going to be mad at me.

SMITH: How Larry talks his way out of trouble with the police, that's next time on BELIEVED. If you want to know more about this story, head to michaganradio.org/believed. There you can find out how that podcast host, Jessica O'Beirne feels about her interview with Larry Nassar now and why she thinks everybody needs to hear it.

WELLS: If you're listening on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a review. It'll help more people find the show.

SMITH: This week's show was reported by me, Lindsey Smith, and Kate Wells, produced by Juliet Hinely with help from Paulette Parker, edited by Sarah Hulett with help from Alison MacAdam, engineered and mixed by Bob Skon.

WELLS: Jennifer Guerra is the show's executive producer. Zoe Clark is our program director. Our theme music is by Paul Brill. Special thanks to Emma Winowiecki, Jodi Westrick, Rebecca Williams, Vince Duffy, Amy Tardif, Len Niehoff, Nisa Khan, Hannah Rubenstein, Lara Moehlman and Meg Kramer (ph) - and of course, the folks at NPR, Mark Memmott, Ashley Messenger, Camille Smiley, N’Jeri Eaton and Ramtin Arablouei.

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