Book Excerpt: The Girls

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The Girls

The inside story of how serial predator Larry Nassar got away with abusing hundreds of gymnasts for decades — and how a team of brave women banded together to bring him down.

We think of Larry Nassar as the despicable sexual predator of Olympic gymnasts — but there is an astonishing, untold story. For decades, in a small-town gym in Michigan, he honed his manipulations on generations of aspiring gymnasts. Kids from the neighborhood. Girls with hopes of a college scholarship. Athletes and parents with a dream. In The Girls, these brave women for the first time describe Nassar’s increasingly bold predations through the years, recount their warning calls unheeded, and demonstrate their resiliency in the face of a nightmare.

The Girls is a profound exploration of trust, ambition, betrayal, and self-discovery. Award-winning journalist Abigail Pesta unveils this deeply reported narrative at a time when the nation is wrestling with the implications of the MeToo movement. How do the women who grew up with Nassar reconcile the monster in the news with the man they once trusted? In The Girls, we learn that their answers to that wrenching question are as rich, insightful, and varied as the human experience itself:

EXCERPT:

The First Survivor

In an excerpt from the new book The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down by Abigail Pesta, the first known survivor of Larry Nassar’s abuse, Sara Teristi, tells her story for the first time, providing profound new insight into the early days of a coach who mentally and physically abused his young athletes, she says, making them vulnerable to Nassar’s sexual abuse. The coach, John Geddert, went on to work with Nassar for nearly thirty years, becoming an Olympic coach, alongside Nassar as Olympic doctor.

Sara Teristi saw the making of a monster. She watched a man transform from doctor to predator, starting decades ago when he gained access to a gym full of little girls. She was one of those girls. She may have been his very first target.

Her fateful march toward Larry Nassar—the most prolific sex criminal in American sports history—began when she was in kindergarten, a typical kid growing up in a tiny town along the banks of the Grand River in Michigan. As an only child, she liked to entertain herself by looking for turtles, cattails, and puffball mushrooms in a creek near her home. These were the days before cell phones and i-things, and she and her friends often played outside until dusk, when their parents would ring a cowbell to call them home for dinner. The kids played tag in the yard or ghost in the graveyard in an actual graveyard, jumping out to scare each other from behind the tombstones. If the streetlights came on and Sara hadn’t heard the clank of the cowbell, she knew it was time to head home. At night, she slept beneath a poster of rock star Pat Benatar.

Her town, Dimondale, was so small, it didn’t need any stoplights. Just a few miles from the city of Lansing, the town made a name for itself back in the sixties for its horseshoe-pitching prowess, producing champion pitchers. Some people called it “the horseshoe capital of the world.” Today, people paddle down the river in kayaks and canoes, shop at the farmers’ market.

As a child, Sara lived just outside town, in a neighborhood known as Copville because of its proximity to the police post. Several cops lived in the area, her father among them. When her dad would come home from work, looking for a little peace and quiet, Sara would be bouncing around the house, bursting with energy. An exuberant kid, she had a hard time sitting still, especially when Dad came home in his state trooper uniform. And so, in September 1980, when she was five years old, her mother enrolled her in a gymnastics class, hoping she could burn off some energy there.

The class was part of a youth gymnastics program at Michigan State University, in nearby East Lansing. Sara’s mom would drive her there on Saturdays in her powder-blue Datsun 210, and Sara, wearing her auburn hair in braids like Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie, would bound into the gym in her leotard. She embraced the sport. If anything, it made her more energetic, not less. She cartwheeled up and down the halls of her family’s ranch house, rattling vases and photo frames. She did handstands against the door of the coat closet, causing the dog to bark like crazy in confusion. She used her bed as a trampoline, bouncing so high, she scraped her nose on the ceiling. In class at the gym, she learned how to master the balance beam and uneven bars, how to spin and flip and fly.

Over the next few years, she moved up to an advanced group and began practicing alongside girls more than twice her age. Her coach was hard-driving, serious. If Sara was afraid to learn a new skill, he would order her to go stand in a corner. She understood. There was no room for fear if you wanted to be a good gymnast. Plus, standing in the corner was embarrassing, so she would try again until she got it right. In 1984, when she was ten years old, her coach recommended that she try out for a spot at a gymnastics club in Lansing called Great Lakes Gymnastics. “They can take you to the next level,” he said. At private clubs such as this one, scattered across the country, girls can train to compete in state, national, and sometimes international meets. They can get on track for a college scholarship. Or maybe, for a lucky few, the Olympics. Jordyn Wieber, who won Olympic gold with her team in 2012, grew up in a town just down the road from Dimondale. There is always the dream.

Sara wanted to go for it. Still, she was nervous about the prospect of joining the new club. For a couple of nights before the tryouts, she lay awake in bed, trying to will herself to sleep. When she arrived for the big day, she was surprised at the scene: the gym was tucked away in a musty old warehouse, with plastic buckets strewn about the floor, catching drips from the leaky ceiling. The grim place was a far cry from the gleaming gym at Michigan State, stocked with shiny new equipment. But there was an ambitious coach at this new gym, John Geddert, who had competed as a gymnast at Central Michigan University and then coached at a top gymnastics club, Marvateens Gymnastics, in Maryland, before returning to Michigan, where he grew up. Sara wanted to learn from him. He was gaining a reputation for training stellar athletes. Indeed, he would one day become a head coach for the 2012 US Olympic Team. Over the years, he would coach more than twenty US National Team members and help gymnasts secure more than $7 million worth of college scholarships, according to his LinkedIn page. But for many girls, it would come at a high price.

When Sara met him, John Geddert was just getting going in his career. She recalls stepping into the gym, walking past a lineup of photos on the walls—girls with scholarships. She imagined herself getting her own scholarship one day. All she had to do was survive this gym. At the tryouts, John’s wife, Kathryn, one of several coaches on hand, guided her, asking her to perform a range of difficult skills. Sara knew that the coaches would want to see whether she was scared to do hard things. She showed no fear. She leaped and twirled her way through the tryouts. Afterward, she waited. A few seemingly endless days later, she heard the news: she had been accepted. It was the happiest day of her young life.

Little did she know, she was about to go down the rabbit hole into a surreal universe in which she would lose sight of her boundaries, her body, herself.

Sara tells me this story on a misty spring day in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lives now. We sit in a pebbled outdoor courtyard at an art museum, a quiet, serene setting she chose because she does not want to tell this story in her house. She doesn’t want this tale anywhere near her home, her children. She is nervous about telling it. This is the first time she has confided in anyone, aside from her husband, about the depths of her childhood experience. She hopes that by sharing her life story for the first time in this book, she will help people understand how predators hunt their prey. Her goal is to protect children in the future. She is in her early forties now, a mother of two young boys. She wears a metal knee brace from old gymnastics injuries. Physical pain is a part of her everyday life, as it has been for decades. And then there are the psychological scars.

“People don’t understand how many broken girls it takes to produce an elite athlete,” she says, delivering the haunting words while sitting with the perfect posture of an athlete. “A coach can easily go through three hundred girls or more.”

At Great Lakes Gymnastics, Sara entered a new world—a boot camp. The training was far more intense than at her previous gym, where she had practiced just one day a week. Here, she attended three practices a week after school, each lasting for three hours or more. Still, she welcomed the challenge. She wanted to prove she could hack it, especially since the new gym was more expensive for her parents, who both worked and were not wealthy. She wanted to help repay them with a college scholarship. They were making a lot of sacrifices so she could pursue her passion, and she knew it.

Sara begins to get emotional as she tells me this, then quickly regroups and continues. When the coaches yelled at her during practice, which they often did, she says, she would strive to do better. She especially wanted to please John Geddert. A muscular, domineering man with a strong, chiseled jaw, he exuded confidence and power. Sara knew he could carry her far in the sport if she impressed him. She became focused on making John proud. (The girls at the gym all called him by his first name, and so I am doing so here as well.)

She soon learned that he was hard to please. He intimidated the young gymnasts, ruling by fear. “He would throw clipboards at the girls if they messed up,” she tells me. “He would call them worthless.” Her first experience with his temper, she recalls, came when she was trying to do a roundoff / back handspring / back tuck. She took off poorly and ended up landing on her head, getting a rug burn on her face. “He was supposed to spot me,” which could have prevented the fall, she says. “But he was angry that I had started off wrong. He turned his back and walked away.” She got up alone, her face throbbing. Instead of being mad at her coach for failing to spot her, she was mad at herself. Lesson learned, she thought: it was her fault. The coaches often yelled at the girls for not concentrating or trying hard enough. Injuries meant you weren’t focusing. If you got hurt, the blame was on you.

I sought comment from John Geddert, via his attorneys, on the experiences Sara and other gymnasts shared in this book but did not receive a response.

A light rain begins to fall as Sara speaks. We move our chairs under the branches of a leafy tree for cover, then continue our conversation as the rain drips around us. Sara recalls how the girls learned to hide injuries from their coaches. “If you said you were hurt, you would be called a liar,” she recalls. She saw girls training with bloody sores on their hands, with broken fingers and toes. She got used to seeing things like that. She got used to the shouting, the insults from coaches.

“You’re not trying!”

“You’re useless!”

“You’re lazy!”

She also learned the consequences if she didn’t perform perfectly—extra laps and leg lifts repeated time and again, until she thought she would collapse. Body weight was another stress point. The coaches weighed the girls regularly, and if they didn’t “make weight,” they would be sentenced to running laps around the parking lot in their leotards. Sara remembers the humiliation of running around the parking lot in public, on display as a young girl in her skintight bodysuit, with cars driving by and honking, guys catcalling.

Sometimes she was ridiculed inside the gym as well. For instance, when she did handsprings, she had a hard time keeping her legs together due to a birth defect that made her legs curve slightly outward. She remembers John mocking her, making sexual jokes with another coach. “He said the boys would love me because I couldn’t keep my legs together,” she says. “I was just ten years old, but I knew what that meant.” She felt mortified as the two men snickered, her face turning a deep red. She didn’t know what to say; she was a child.

She tried to avoid John’s wrath. He could be volatile, and fearsome, she says, recalling a day when she didn’t do well on the vault at practice. He took it out on her, getting physical. “As I was sprinting at full speed down the vault runway to try again, he shoved me midsprint,” she says. “I tripped and went flying sideways, landing on the steel cables supporting the uneven bars.” Bruised, she got up to try again, feeling ashamed, blaming herself.

Sara didn’t tell her parents about the rough treatment at the gym because as far as she knew, this was the norm if you wanted to become a top gymnast. She had no frame of reference. She trusted the adults around her. All of it just made her more driven to impress her coach.

Looking back today, Sara describes the experience as “brainwashing.” She was a young girl; John was an adult man. The power dynamic was imbalanced. If she did not please him, he could choose to ignore her instead of helping her advance. He had all the control. If she didn’t perform well, he made her feel like she was nothing. She felt she could never do enough to earn his respect, so she became obsessed with trying to get it. “I was a perfectionist,” she says. “And he was a drill sergeant.” As her world grew ever more focused on gymnastics, everything became about him and his opinion of her. “I would’ve done anything to make John happy,” she says. “Eventually, I saw him more than I saw my own parents. Any child wants to make the adults in their life happy.”

She began training for five hours on Saturdays in addition to the three after-school practices. The gym moved to a new space, but it wasn’t much better than the old: a rented gymnasium in an empty high school that was stifling hot in the summer, with no air conditioning. To try to stay cool, Sara would take ice-cold showers when she got home, then stand naked in front of a fan to dry off. “One day, after five or six hours of practice, the heat really got to me,” she recalls. “I felt dizzy, so I asked one of the coaches if I could go to the bathroom.” She walked into the restroom and lay down on the floor, hoping she wouldn’t get yelled at for taking a break. She got busted immediately. “John came in and said, ‘You’re faking it. Get up!’” she says. “He always walked in on the girls in the bathroom. If he noticed you weren’t in the gym, he’d go searching for you in the bathroom.”

She had no privacy. In retrospect, she says, this is part of how she began to lose a sense of boundaries.

To keep up with the demands of training and school, she became extremely regimented, doing homework late into the night. She sought perfection at school, just as she did in sports, and always made the honor roll. “If I got anything less than an A, I freaked out,” she says. As she tells her story, I’m surprised to hear about her fierce drive at such a young age. So often you hear that parents are the ones who push their children into elite sports. Not so for Sara. She pushed herself. Her parents were proud of her, she says, but they just wanted her to be happy; they didn’t force her into hours of hard-core training each week. In fact, they worried that it was getting rather overwhelming. She was sacrificing social activities and slumber parties to keep up with all the training and schoolwork. But as far as her parents knew, Sara loved the sport, and so they believed all was well. She never told them otherwise. She didn’t mention how her coaches belittled her, made sexual remarks, or threw things at the girls. She thought it was just the way top coaches behaved. This isolated little universe was the only one she knew. She told herself, Suck it up. Endure. This is what it takes to be the best.

As she moved through middle school, she won state-level competitions and placed among the top three athletes in five-state regionals. John began picking her to go to all the important “away” meets. She enjoyed traveling around the country for competitions. She shares with me a funny essay she wrote as a kid about an incident at one of the meets—a glimpse of the good times amid the rigors of training:

“It was about one o’clock in the morning on a foggy night. My gymnastics team had just finished competing in the Georgia Classic Invitational earlier in the day, and we decided to treat ourselves to a night out. The only hot spot open on a Sunday night at one in the morning was the local Bowl-A-Rama. So all fifteen of us headed for the dimly lit parking lot. Just as we began descending down the stairs, a piercing laugh broke into our conversations. We rushed down the stairs to see what the commotion was about. To our amazement, we found three guys dancing in the parking lot, two were butt naked. We stood there just gasping at the alarming sight. The two guys spotted us and ran inside. After the stun of what we saw wore off, we proceeded to the minivans and the bowling alley. A few minutes later the guys emerged from their rooms, fully dressed this time, and proceeded to follow us. Because of our coach Kathie’s scenic route driving, we managed to lose them in the old back roads. We finished off the night by bowling for two hours, making fools of ourselves the whole time. When we got back to the motel, there was no sign that the guys were even there, except for a pink shirt, which laid still on the wet pavement.”

The coach Sara mentioned in her essay was Kathie Klages, who went on to become the head coach of the gymnastics team at Michigan State.

Sara’s star was rising. She often trained with John’s select group of top gymnasts—the girls who got the majority of his time and attention at the gym. At the same time, the pressure was mounting. One time when she flubbed on the vault at a competition, John was furious, she recalls. “He picked up the springboard and threw it at me. I felt it hit my leg from behind. This was like a forty-or fifty-pound plank. I stumbled and fell forward, with my leg bleeding,” she says. “He said, ‘Oh, it must have slipped.’” She tried to brush it off. She knew she was on the verge of joining his top posse for good. This was her dream—and her nightmare. She feared him as much as she craved his approval.

And then, at twelve years old, she crashed.

She suffered an injury so extreme, she could not possibly hide it from the coaches. It happened while she was doing a dismount from a balance beam—a cartwheel at the end of the beam followed by a jump off backward. The beam was elevated on a platform, with a pit of foam blocks below. As she jumped from the beam after the cartwheel, she felt her body twisting in a way that it should not. “You fall a lot in gymnastics, so you become aware of your body and how to position it so you won’t get injured,” she says. But in that moment, she didn’t think she needed to readjust herself. “I thought I would be fine because I’d be landing in the foam pit.”

She was the opposite of fine. She landed on her backside with such force that her feet flew up over the front of her head and her chin smashed into her sternum—actually breaking the bone. She didn’t know she had broken anything at the time. She just knew that the shock and pain were so great, she could hardly move. Still, she tried to pull herself up out of the pit to get back on the balance beam. “I didn’t want to get in trouble,” she says. “I knew I would be blamed.” John would be mad. She had to buck up.

As she tried to hoist herself out of the pit, she hoped no one would notice that she was moving in slow motion. “It was like trying to pull myself up out of a swimming pool,” she says. It felt more like quicksand. John noticed and asked what was taking her so long. “I said I was hurt; he said I was lying and to get up and do it again,” she says. Adding to the horror, she says, “I could feel my whole rib cage moving around in my chest. I could barely breathe. I couldn’t take a regular breath, only super-short, shallow ones.” That’s because breathing made her lungs expand, which made her rib cage move. Still, she tried get back up on that beam. She collapsed instead.

John’s wife, Kathryn, drove her to the hospital. Sara tried to stay still, to avoid being jostled amid the searing pain. “Even the smallest movement was painful,” she recalls. In the emergency room, she learned the terrible news: her sternum had been broken in two places. John came to visit after practice that night; she remembers only that he looked pale and that she felt gutted. She thought it was all her fault. Three long days in the hospital followed. The doctors wrapped her chest and said her bones would eventually grow back together, but it would take time.

Everything hurt. She couldn’t move her shoulders. Bending over felt like torture. One day before she left the hospital, she tried to put her pants on and passed out from the pain. Back at home, she lay in her bed for weeks, unable to sit up on her own. When she finally returned to school, people looked at her as if they were afraid she would break. “In the halls, the teachers were terrified that kids would bump me,” she says. “I had to go to class early so I could have the halls to myself.” Lunch was solo too: “I ate lunch in the principal’s office, not the cafeteria.” All the while, she was thinking, When can I get back to the gym?

It took six months. “When the doctor cleared me, I was so happy,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to get back.”

Her parents thought she should quit. “You don’t have to keep going,” her mom said. But Sara convinced her family to let her continue. She had invested years in the sport; she didn’t want to give up now.

“I went running back to the gym and told John, ‘My doctor cleared me!’” she says, her eyes misting at the thought of it. Then she cautioned him, “But the doctor said I need to take it easy at first.”

This did not compute with John. His reply, she says, shook her: “No you don’t.” He went on to rant that “doctors don’t know what they’re talking about; they don’t know anything about gymnastics,” she recalls. “Those were his exact words.”

Astoundingly, during her first day back at the gym after breaking her sternum, she was expected to start where she had left off. John didn’t go easy on her, sending her to practice on the vault and bars. She fell on her back, on her hands; everything felt out of whack. John noticed. When she landed on her hands and knees after a vault, he came and sat on her back, pinning her down, she recalls. “He was sitting on my back, riding me in a sexual way,” she says. “He said, ‘Ooh, baby, you like it like that!’ He wanted to humiliate me because I didn’t land on my feet.” All this, while she tried to come back from a major injury.

Her body had changed during her time off—in many ways. For one, she had grown more than an inch. In addition, her upper body strength had weakened due to the injury. Most alarming, her sternum had grown back together crooked and overlapping, causing constant pain in both her chest and back. “My body felt broken. I felt like I had to learn everything all over again,” she says. “Everything hurt so much.” Still, she would not think of walking away. “You’re conditioned not to quit. That’s drilled into your head. You’re told to be tough, be strong,” she says. “And I loved the rush of gymnastics,” she adds. “I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie. You get addicted to it. Nailing those tricks, it’s a rush.”

She tried valiantly to get back to form, but it wasn’t happening quickly, and she felt lost. She knew she was fading in John’s eyes. “I wasn’t on the same trajectory that I once was,” she says. “He was disappointed in me. I could feel it.” That hurt even more than the physical pain. She begins to get emotional as she tells me this, then checks herself. In fact, when she sees an empathetic look on my face, she asks that I please not express any sympathy as she recounts her story, because it makes it harder for her; she doesn’t want to get upset. I realize that it’s all part of the boot camp she grew up in—no crying. I try to refrain from reacting to the wrenching things she is telling me.

She continues her tale, telling me she became even more driven to get John’s approval. She had climbed so high at the gym before the injury knocked her down. She refused to let it all slip away. “It had been within reach,” she says. “I wanted it back.”

John, meanwhile, was gaining in national prominence. He had a number of Level 10 gymnasts now—the highest level in the Junior Olympics, the competitive program run by USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the sport. He wanted Olympians. Sara recalls that he brought in a sports psychologist from Michigan State to help the girls learn to focus at competitions, to block out sounds and distractions around them, to win.

And then one day, Larry Nassar walked in the door.

About the Author: This story is an excerpt from the new book The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down by Abigail Pesta. Copyright © 2019. Published by arrangement with Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Pesta is an investigative journalist who has lived and worked around the world, from London to Hong Kong. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME, NBC News, and many others. She has received six Front Page Awards, five National Headliner Awards, four Clarion Awards, three New York Press Club Awards, and many others.

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