Inside Exxcel Gymnastics, young girls crowd around a photo collage, boxing each other out for the best view of their hometown Olympian plastered across the wall. Among the cluster of pictures in this Newton, Massachusetts, gym is an image of 10-year-old Aly Raisman, so determined to hold her position, her little arms holding up the entire weight of her body, while her legs and toes point to the ceiling.
Back then, Raisman was not the most skilled. Just strong. She was smaller than everyone and burned to beat everyone, whether it was press handstands or chin-ups. “Can we do a contest?! Can we do a contest?!” she’d exclaim. If she did 20 chin-ups yesterday, she’d pull off 21 the next day, even if it was not a contest.
She was seven years old.
There are also black-and-white newspaper photos of 22-year-old Raisman, roaring, as she wins gold at the 2016 Olympics, next to headlines like: “Gold Fever!” and “Alexandra the Great!” The young girls who train at the gym had huddled around a television that year, cheering Raisman’s every move in navy T-shirts that said “Team Aly.”
The girls see that Raisman was just like them: Poised. Relentless. Driven by dreams bigger than their bodies. “She is a hero,” says 10-year-old Stella Bjork. Ally Chilton, 13, gushes that she shares the same name as Raisman. “She’s really calm under pressure, which I find really inspiring,” Chilton says. “Competitions are really stressful and it’s hard to stay calm. But she does it.”
Throughout her career, Raisman kept everyone calm. She was a leader in a sport of individuals, telling nervous teammates to “Trust your training. Just breathe” before competitions. “She is there for people more than she is for herself,” says Maggie Nichols, a close friend and USA teammate since 2013, who now competes for the University of Oklahoma.
That is how Raisman found herself standing in front of a podium in a courtroom in January. Shoulders back, teeth clenched. Laser eyes, stiff upper lip. It was her time to speak. In this moment, Raisman was fighting not for herself but for the safety of girls everywhere; girls just like those at Exxcel.
Aly Raisman gives her victim impact statement in Lansing, Mich., during sentencing for former sports doctor Larry Nassar. (Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via USA TODAY)
Raisman didn’t stutter or flinch. Her words were quick, calculated, piercing. She hung on to each syllable a little bit longer as she stared Larry Nassar, the man who abused her and allegedly more than 200 athletes, dead in the eye, over and over, during these sentencing hearings.
Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice. Well, you know what, Larry? I have both power and voice, and I am only beginning to just use them.
Lyndsy Gamet, a survivor who testified the day before, was moved by Raisman’s words. “When Aly spoke, it made me feel proud,” Gamet says. “I was proud that she would put [herself] out there for little girls to look up to. It showed the nation that it was OK to share your truth.”
And to demand change.
I will not rest until every last trace of your influence on this sport has been destroyed like the cancer it is.
Raisman grew louder, more forceful. She was in control now.
Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere.
There were also dozens and dozens of testimonies from women you may not know. Women who are now wading in the trenches—not for headlines but for the back-breaking work of ensuring this moment becomes a movement. They are calling themselves an Army of Survivors.
“It gave me more power than I ever had in my life,” Gamet says of her own testimony. “In that moment you understood how impactful one voice can be.”
And another and another. There was Rachael Denhollander, who refused to be silenced despite losing her church and her closest friends. There was Mattie Larson, who said she was so desperate to escape Nassar’s abuse at the Karolyi Ranch that she purposely tried to give herself a concussion.
Raisman, who hadn’t planned to speak in court until she heard the girls and women before her, has become one of the movement’s boldest leaders. Last November, the 24-year-old publicly disclosed that Nassar sexually abused her beginning in 2010, when she was 15, at various locations, including the U.S. national team training facility at Karolyi Ranch in Texas and the 2012 London Games. She sued the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics in March of this year for failing to stop Nassar’s abuse. The lawsuit alleges those institutions seemed to protect a predator and ignore the children and young adults he abused. Before Nassar’s sentencing, Olympic teammates Simone Biles, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas came forward and said they were also abused by Nassar.