Gymnast Aly Raisman Shares Story as Olympics Star, Voice for Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Before she won six Olympic medals and led Team USA at the past two Summer Games, Aly Raisman was a young gymnast who was told she didn’t need a leotard for competition, since she hadn’t mastered the floor routine. That turned out to be the event for which she earned gold in 2012 and silver in 2016.
“I sort of always surpassed (my coaches’) expectations, because I think it’s always important to be a hard worker than be born with this crazy talent,” she told a crowd of Terps last night in the Stamp Student Union. She came to campus for the Hear the Turtle event presented by Student Entertainment Events; the series welcomes speakers who can discuss issues that impact students.
Raisman has worked to overcome obstacles on and off the mat. One of hundreds of gymnasts sexually abused by convicted former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, she’s using her platform to advocate for survivors and has actively promoted systemic changes in gymnastics and efforts to prevent such abuse in youth sports.
“As hard as it is to be honest about what you’re going through, I think you’d be surprised by how many people around you can relate to you,” Raisman said. “You’re really not alone.”
Other topics she discussed at last night’s event:
On being an elite athlete: Raisman, who’s been involved in gymnastics since attending Mommy and Me classes as a 2-year-old, said the most difficult part of competing on the Olympic stage is the pressure to win. Only five athletes made the team (it’ll be cut to four in 2020), and the role is mentally and physically draining. But keeping perspective is key, she said. “People will always remember you for the kind of person you are rather than what place you are on the podium.”
On coming forward about sexual abuse: While sharing her story was difficult because she didn’t know how people would react—including those with USA Gymnastics—Raisman did it anyway because the issue is “so much bigger than myself.” So many women—and men, she noted—are survivors of sexual abuse, and she doesn’t think it should be swept under the rug. “Everyone’s story matters,” she said. “I knew if I came forward, I’d hopefully add some pressure.”
On wellness and mental health: Taking time for yourself each day is crucial, Raisman said. She has turned to therapy, journaling and a meditation app to help her process her thoughts and emotions, and she emphasized the importance of a good support system. “If you don’t have five minutes in your day, then you need to take an hour,” she said.
On positive body image and looking as you please without judgment: Wearing what you want, when you want should never be viewed as an invitation for sexual advances, Raisman said. And women shouldn’t shame women for the way they look or dress. “People will say, ‘Oh, well you’re wearing a leotard, so it’s your fault,’” she said. “It’s never your fault.”
On what’s next: Raisman has partnered with the nonprofit Darkness to Light and the Flip the Switch campaign to encourage adults involved in youth sports to complete a sexual abuse prevention training program. Now she’s working on a project with Lifetime to share stories of victims; she’ll be an executive producer of the TV show and is looking forward to continuing to educate the public on the issue. “It’s really important for me to use my platform to give people a voice,” she said.