date of testimony: January 17th 2018
location of testimony: Lansing, Michigan
I would like to start, Your Honor — I know you said earlier that you’re just doing your job, but I would still like to begin by thanking you for having us here and for just allowing us this opportunity to be heard.
THE COURT: I appreciate that. Thank you so much. What would you like me to know?
MS. WILLIAMS: As of yesterday, I was identified as victim 118. But today, inspired by the courage of my fellow survivors, I’m not afraid to say that my name is Chelsea Williams, formerly and better known to Mr. Nassar as Chelsea Kroll.
And I’m a survivor. There’s so many raw emotions surrounding this situation that trying to logically and succinctly convey the depths of suffering I’ve endured can seem like an insurmountable task. My aim for the statement is to try to constructively move through some of those emotions by naming exactly what has happened to me.
I hope that the statement, along with those of the other survivors, can help move us forward toward justice, because I want change and we need change.
Before I begin I feel it is necessary to frame what happened to me in light of some relevant aspects of the culture of elite gymnastics; discipline and obedience. Because of the extreme physical and mental demands of elite gymnastics, training requires strict discipline in order to achieve results. The skills that gymnasts perform in competition are the result of thousands of hours of concentrated effort and intense work directed by a team of coaches. And in the gymnastics culture I and other victims experienced, these coaches are trusted and obeyed without question. Human beings rightfully fear walking a narrow log across a river, for instance, because they may lose their balance, fall, and injure themselves before they make it across. A gymnast is trained to trust her coach, even in the face of a similar danger, when she mounts the balance beam and proceeds to not only walk but also tumble across it. She does what her coach tells her to do with her body even though she might fall. If she does, she’s instructed to get back up. If she hurts herself, she’s instructed to get back up and try again, and she does.
In addition, all of us have been training since childhood. I began gymnastics when I was five years old. This results in a lifetime of obedience and engrained trust in coaches and staff that cannot be underestimated as a factor in this case of abuse.
Pain. Elite gymnastics is the result of decades of extreme physical conditioning. This level of conditioning results in incredible strength and athletic bodies, but also in a huge variety of injuries sustained over the course of a career. I have personally suffered a torn Achilles tendon, several broken bones, five abdominal tears, and a series of knee surgeries including an osteotomy, a procedure that entailed breaking my femur and realigning my leg. I witnessed close friends and teammates suffer ACL tears, life-altering back injuries, and career-ending shoulder surgeries.
Most people, even if they were not interested in gymnastics, are familiar with the actions of Kerri Strug at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She performed a winning vault on a severely injured ankle to help the American team win the gold. The media painted her story as special and heroic, which it certainly was. However, her actions were not necessarily extraordinary. She was an elite gymnast. She was conditioned for over a decade to be perfect in terms of her form and power as a vaulter, but she was also trained to be obedient to the needs of her coach and her team and to bear unimaginable pain as if it were normal.
Silence. One of the most prevalent attitudes taught to young gymnasts engaged in the culture of gymnastics is silent suffering. From the beginning we are taught to soldier on through intense training sessions, through the emotional roller coaster of competition, through injury and fatigue, through pain. The stone faces you see on Olympic gymnasts mid competition is as a result of this conditioning.
Pain was a fact of life for me because of gymnastics, but so was silence. I learned early on that pain was not an excuse and that it was shameful to even mention it. Pain was weakness, and so I learned to bear it for years, through injuries that woke me up at night, that throbbed so much I would mistake them for my own heartbeat, that ached so badly I felt like someone had taken a hammer to my joints. Injuries that certainly would have sounded loud, insistent alarm bells for anybody else. To ask for help, to admit that something hurt, I had to be suffering such extreme and unmitigated pain that I could barely function.
These problematic cultural aspects of elite gymnastics, obedience, unimaginable pain, and silent suffering, were expertly manipulated by Larry Nassar to identify, abuse, and control his victims, not once, but systematically over their lifetimes in the sport. I was one of the people he repeatedly assaulted, and I was one of many. What follows is a description of what he did to me.
The first time Larry Nassar assaulted me I was 16 years old at USA Gymnastics elite nationals. I had been experiencing lower back pain and I was in a lot of pain after this particular training session.
My coach walked me into a small room in the arena, not the main training room, where I was greeted by Larry Nassar and another member of the USAG athletic training staff who I am told is still employed by them.
My coach went back into the arena at this point. Mr. Nassar said he had recently used a new treatment on a few girls with lower back injuries and he felt that it had helped them. He said that it was an unconventional treatment, but if I trusted him, he felt that it could help me too. He performed this treatment on me at least two times at this event without the consent of my coach or my parents.
Mr. Nassar had me lay face down on a training table with my legs slightly straddled. He pulled my leotard aside and inserted his glove-less hand inside of my vagina. He massaged inside of me in different areas and in a circular motion for what I would estimate to be 20 to 30 minutes before removing his hand. After he was done he thanked me for trusting him.
As I left that room I felt such confusion and embarrassment because I had never been touched in that internal area before. I had no idea what happened. I had no idea what to tell my parents or my coach after the treatment. Should I tell my parents what he did to me? How would I even describe it? I didn’t have the words at 16 or maybe even 20.
But I do now.
As I walked back into the arena to gather my belongings, I remember thinking, it’s Larry. He would never hurt you. Keep moving and see how you feel tomorrow. Maybe it will work. I had two days standing between me and my first USA National senior elite competition and I would have done just about anything to take the pain away. In my young, soldier-trained mind the only option that made sense to me was to block out my back pain and everything associated with it, including that tiny room with Larry Nassar.
Later in my life it was recommended that I go see Mr. Nassar for evaluation of a calf injury. I was experiencing a very severe throbbing and burning sensation in my calf that would not subsist to any degree. The throbbing would wake me from sleep in the middle of the night and I would feel a seething burn during simple tasks such as walking to the mailbox. I had seen several prominent physicians and physical therapists in Ann Arbor who were unable to find the source of my pain or give me any relief of it. It had been recommended and supported by these other professionals that I see Mr. Nassar as none of them could seem to help me. I was then connected with him via e-mail and he promptly got me on his schedule a few weeks later.
Upon examining me and performing several tests and manipulations Mr. Nassar very casually referenced using the procedure he had used to treat my lower back pain when I was younger to treat my calf pain. He mentioned that the treatment may not work at first. However, he felt confident that each treatment would begin to build on each other as we continued our visits. I found it strange that he would be using the same treatment on my calf as he did my back, but after exhausting so many other resources, I did not question his suggestion to perform this procedure again.
I believe there were several reasons for this. For one, I had already justified it so many years ago as a child. Knowing that he was still performing this treatment over a decade later actually made me more comfortable with the idea of receiving it again. I assumed that this procedure had become a widely known and accepted treatment since he was still using it. Perhaps this is why I got in to see him and especially why I got in to see him so quickly. It gave him the opportunity to repeat the abuse.
I saw Mr. Nassar once a month for two years at the MSU Sports Clinic in which he abused me over 20 times. Each time that he performed the procedure it seemed rehearsed as if he had done it so many times it became commonplace. Mr. Nassar would have me lie down on a training table with my legs slightly straddled. He would instruct me to wear loose fitting shorts so he could easily pull them aside and insert his gloveless hand inside of my vagina. He would massage inside of me in different areas and in a circular motion for 20 to 45 minutes depending on the appointment.
One time in particular stands out vividly in my mind. I was scheduled for the last appointment of the day on a late Friday afternoon in winter. The clinic had been running behind schedule and there was not a patient room available for me. The nurse led me to a supply room where she took my vitals and stated that I would eventually be moved to a patient room when one became available. I was never moved to a patient room.
Later Mr. Nassar entered the supply room and began his usual appointment protocol. The nurse came into the room and alerted us that we would be the only people left in the practice. In the middle of his exam he left the room for 20 minutes without explanation, even upon reentering the room. He then performed the procedure on me for what I would estimate to be 45 minutes, the longest amount of time I can remember him performing it. I left the MSU clinic approximately two hours after my scheduled appointment time. Part of me wondered why he had spent so much time with me on a Friday night, especially when he had a family waiting for him at home. Another part of me wondered what he was doing for those 20 unanswered minutes. Was he pleasuring himself? I quickly, almost habitually, brushed aside both thoughts thinking yet again, it’s Larry, he would never hurt you. I got in my car, drove back to Ann Arbor, and simply felt grateful that he had spent so much time trying to help me.
One small yet significant detail that strengthened my trust in Mr. Nassar’s intentions were the actual treatment rooms designated to him at the MSU Sports Medicine facility. His particular treatment rooms were adorned with photos of Olympic gymnasts and other prominent athletes who he claimed to medically treat. I would walk into his room thinking that if he treated all these athletes, gymnasts, that I was undoubtedly in the right hands. I knew all of the gymnasts staring back at me from those walls. Several of them former competitors, a few of them former teammates, and many of them outspoken survivors of his abuse. It was as if he created a shrine of his conquests, of his victims, in hopes that this overt display would deter anybody from thinking that he was, in fact, a predator.
He paraded around his office talking about the many Olympians he had treated. He would return from world championships or the Olympics and give me pins telling me he was thinking of me. In the middle of treatment sessions he would trade stories with me about USA Gymnastics, sharing a mutual disdain of the organization. He blamed the toxic culture of USAG and the demands that they placed on athletes for the injuries that some of us, including myself, were still combating a decade later. He would discuss adult topics with me such as his favorite choice of beer or his plans for Friday night and even crack oral sex jokes. Mr. Nassar used these casual conversation pieces to slyly transition the trust that he had built with me as a 16 year old girl into a sort of friendship with me as a 20 something adult.
Though he abused me at two very different points in my life, both in age and circumstance, there are several common threads that tie both incidents together. Both injuries brought with them such a heightened level of pain, a pain that created the deepest sense of helplessness and desperation that I can ever remember feeling. I had exhausted all other resources for pain relief. I felt so alone, so isolated, as if no one could help me.
Mr. Nassar was aware of this inequity. It is so hard to process why I would go to such lengths to alleviate pain, why I had that extreme mentality, especially as a 16 year old girl. I think for a while I thought something was wrong with me or that it was my fault. I am only now just starting to see how this mentality was cultivated and groomed through my years as a gymnast and how it evolved through time. It is my belief that Mr. Nassar recognized it when I was 16 years old. He capitalized on it when I was an adult.
I picture me face down on that table at the MSU Sports Clinic and I just remember feeling like that little 16 year old girl again, laying on the training table at USAG Nationals in such pain, just looking for someone to take care of her. It was that desperation, that helplessness that Mr. Nassar used as his tools to abuse me at least two times as a minor and over 20 times as an adult. He manipulated me with such ease, with such finesse. This is, perhaps, what scares me the most about him.
Throughout the past year I have heard a myriad of questions surrounding the timing of survivors coming forward and of sharing their stories. I read comments such as why did these girls not report this earlier? Why now? How could they not know he was assaulting them?
Speaking as a survivor of this man’s systematic abuse, I do not believe these questions are relevant any longer. If you’re still asking these questions, then you do not have an informed
understanding of what has happened here and what has been happening for years. You have no concept of the culture of gymnastics, a culture that promotes fear of challenging authority, an environment that often breeds physical and mental abuse, and a system designed to limit parental involvement.
You have no idea what this man is capable of doing and how he used the weaknesses of this culture to satisfy his own demented needs. You have no idea what he managed to do bluntly in the face of authority. You have no idea what he continued to do even as survivors reported incidents and authorities became aware and in some instances were aware from the very beginning of what he was doing. You have no idea how creepily intelligent he is and how he used this intelligence, both of the nuances of the sport and of the individuals he targeted, to manipulate little girls and young women alike.
We need to stop asking questions and start taking action to prevent abuse of this magnitude or any magnitude from ever happening again.
The aftermath of Larry Nassar’s actions as well as USAG and MSU complicities are vast and multi-faceted. Through many sessions of therapy I am reliving these moments week after week, day after day, hour after hour in an attempt to unravel the web that was created and perpetrated by each of them. I am finally able to clearly see how MSU and USAG enabled Larry Nassar’s pedophilic behavior, exacerbating a situation that could have been resolved many years ago.
It is difficult enough to process that I was abused by a predator, but to know that there were other people in the room when the abuse was happening and that there were people who could have stopped the abuse or reported it but didn’t, that is perhaps the most difficult truth to swallow. No man should have been able to conduct this procedure without the expressed consent of a parent. The fact that this was not properly flagged earlier by these organizations which are entrusted to safeguard athletes, many of whom are children, the very fact that this man was ever alone in a room with little girls is reprehensible.
More accountability should have been there. It was not. More accountability needs to be there in the future.
With the help of my support system I am learning to let myself work through this, hopeful that I will find healing accompanied by change in the end, but this abuse has had and undoubtedly will have a profoundly negative impact on my life. It has left me ridden with sadness, serve anxiety, and an inability to execute my personal and professional responsibilities.
There will never be a time when I am not recovering. There will never be a time when I can leave this in the past.
Your Honor, may I address the defendant?
I speak to you now, Mr. Nassar. Recently you have described this situation as a match that turned into a forest fire out of control. I suppose you meant to use this analogy to rationalize your horrific behavior as if it were all blown out of proportion.
My question to you is this, what if you had just lit a single match? What if you had only performed this horrifying procedure on one single girl? Would it matter? Would you get away with it? That’s what I believe you were hoping. That each girl you assaulted would be just one isolated voice, impossible to hear. But I believe that we all matter no matter how many or how few of us there may be.
You have said that now is the time for healing. I remember you using similar words at USAG Nationals and at the MSU Sports Clinic. You’re still attempting to use the same manipulative tactics in the courtroom. You’re still attempting to prey on our weaknesses even behind bars.
We had given you our deepest level of trust, a trust that you would take care of our bodies and heal them to the best of your ability. You violated our trust to the highest degree. The damage that has been caused is a direct result of your actions, and you do not get to decide when we are ready to heal. We may never fully heal, and you need to face the truth and the consequences that accompany it.
Your Honor, if I have to live with this for the rest of my life, Mr. Nassar, the defendant, deserves a sentence that will affect him for the rest of his life, and that sentence should be multiplied by however many girls and women he assaulted who will also carry this for the rest of their lives. I believe justice can be a catalyst for change, and the first step toward creating the change that is necessary is by not allowing Mr. Nassar to be a free man in our society ever again.
We may have been silenced for years, but it is this silence that will forever bond us in a sisterhood. It is this silence that has challenged us to find our voice. We have found it. We are using it. I just ask that you hear us. Thank you.
THE COURT: Ma’am, I have heard you and all the others, and I have to say that your speech encompasses — you were the 44th victim I’ve heard.
Your speech is comprehensive of every statement that’s been made to me so far. I suspect also of those who will come after you.
As you were speaking there were several survivor victims and their families who also nodded at several points that you made. You all share that same feeling against defendant, and your words are very powerful.
You talked about the sport saying get up and try again. Well, you have gotten back up and you are not going down again. I heard that in what you said. There was a lot of strength and courage there, and you survivors have stopped the enabling, and that’s really empowering for all of you. I feel that you’re letting go of some of what you have. I know you have work to do, but being here, reading what you’ve done, thinking about it, publicly speaking it, asking for more accountability will help make the changes that are necessary.
I can’t thank you enough for the time that must have — that must have taken you hours and it must have been painful to write parts of those, your descriptions are so vivid, and are the same pictures that I’ve had over and over again from the victims, now all of you survivors.
I hope that you can put this behind you.
He will be behind bars for the rest of his life. I wish you joy and peace. Thank you.