Inside the Powerful ESPYs Moment When Aly Raisman and Over 100 Athletes Accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award
On Wednesday evening, the 2018 ESPYs closed with one of the most powerful visuals of the #MeToo and Time’s Up era: U.S. Olympic gymnasts Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, Jamie Dantzscher, and more than 100 athletes who spoke out about Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse took the stage of the L.A. Live to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. The appearance marked the first time the survivors had assembled en masse since Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January, when more than 160 girls, women, and parents traveled to a Lansing, Michigan, courtroom to face Nassar and read their victim-impact statements—a display of strength and unity more remarkable than any athletic feat.
After a standing ovation Wednesday evening, Sarah Klein, the first known gymnast to be abused by Nassar, told the audience, “Make no mistake, we are here on this stage to present an image for the world to see, a portrait of survival, a new vision of courage. . .telling our stories of abuse over and over and over again in graphic detail is not easy. We’re sacrificing privacy, we’re being judged and scrutinized, and it’s grueling and it’s painful but it is time. We must start caring about children’s safety more than we care about adults’ reputations.”
Nassar’s abuse was not limited to gymnasts. While employed by Michigan State University, Nassar treated all kinds of athletes. In May, the Associated Press reported that “other cases involved participants in soccer, figure skating, rowing, softball, cheerleading, wrestling, diving, dance, and track and field.”
Tiffany Thomas Lopez, a former softball player abused by Nassar as a student at Michigan State University, said, “The amount of loss that we’ve endured over the years is almost immeasurable. . .I’m here to tell you that you cannot silence the strong forever.”
When Raisman took the microphone, she addressed Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who sentenced Nassar in January and was sitting in the audience.
“You helped us rediscover the power that we possess. . .If just one adult had listened, believed, and acted, the people standing before you on this stage would have never met him. . .To all the survivors out there, don't let anyone rewrite your story. the truth does matter, you matter, and you are not alone.”
Speaking to Vanity Fair Wednesday afternoon, Dantzscher said, “It’s amazing that people are finally listening and paying attention to something that’s been going on for so long and has been covered up.” For the bronze-medal-winning U.S. Olympic gymnast, the Arthur Ashe Award represents a major cultural change from 2016, when Dantzscher first shared her story of abuse. “Almost nobody believed me—so fast-forward to this year, it’s pretty incredible what’s happened. It’s actually hard to take in, but it’s amazing that people are being so supportive. We’re not going to stop fighting for change and we’re not going to stop fighting for the [United States Olympic Committee] and U.S.A. Gymnastics to be held accountable for what they did.” (U.S.A. Gymnastics declined to comment to the Indianapolis Star in May when they published a story about the cover-up allegations. The U.S.O.C. has denied any cover-up, but admitted to failing the gymnasts preyed upon by Nassar.)
Dantzscher said she met many fellow accusers in January at Nassar’s hearing—where the former physician for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes. Dantzscher was looking forward to the reunion, even if it would be emotionally charged. “The bond we have is not something I can really explain. . . . They are just such an amazing group of strong women and it’s an honor to be sharing this award with them.”
For Jordyn Wieber, the gold-medal-winning gymnast who competed in 2012’s Summer Olympics, the ESPYs experience was similarly loaded.
“It’s kind of a mixed feeling I have—this was something horrible that happened to all of us and is obviously a huge tragedy in our sport and in sports in general. But at the same time we’re receiving this award for the good that has come out of what happened to us, and the change that we’ve been pushing for to protect children in the future. That’s something to celebrate and be positive and happy about, despite all the negativity that we’ve been experiencing the past year and a half. . . . I never thought this would be a part of my life, but at the same time it’s like I said, a very weird mix of emotions—positivity but also anger and hurt and pain. It’s a very emotional experience to see all the girls again.”
During Tuesday’s rehearsals, ESPY executive producer Maura Mandt said she was nervous about the presentation—coordinating the moment was the most ambitious undertaking of her 23-year history with the award show. “I feel very protective of these women,” explained Mandt.
Wieber never planned on speaking publicly about her own experience with Nassar—let alone appear on any stage because of it. She had planned to keep her own allegations against Nassar anonymous, until she was inspired by other women reading their statements last January. “I felt like I had a responsibility and a duty to lend my voice. It was so clear how powerful everybody’s voice was, and how each voice contributed. In terms of the laws and the policies [in sports] that are in place that need to be changed, I really felt like I needed to fight for those changes. I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy and I knew it was going to be a daunting task. But I wanted to do it just because I love this sport so much.” Wieber, who is now a gymnastics coach at U.C.L.A, said, “I want to make sure that it’s safe for everyone to do gymnastics in the future so they can enjoy it and have fun and be successful at the same time. That was more important than protecting myself and staying private about it.”
Jennifer Garner, who met the survivors on Tuesday evening, said that she had been honored when asked to present the Arthur Ashe Award, even before hearing who the recipients were because the tennis icon and trail blazer remains “one of the prime examples of what a true athlete should be, in character and in inspiring others, in humility, in sportsmanship, and in excellence. So I was excited and ready to be a part of that moment, but when I found out that these women were being honored, I immediately felt overwhelmed by feelings of awe and admiration for these women who have already endured so much. They’re once again exposing themselves while harnessing their power in order to help young athletes everywhere.”
“The minute I saw all of them together in one room, it truly took my breath away,” said Garner. “When I had the opportunity to address the group, I just said, ‘I’m in awe of your courage and your strength. Thank you for being here and being here with each other and showing us all what humanity is about—what it is to be an army for good and for right.” Knowing how emotional Wednesday would be, Garner told the group, “You all have the emotions you need to have. I’m going to get us through this. I’ve got your back. So don’t worry.”
Garner was so moved by the women’s courage that, after dress rehearsals, she spoke to her youngest children “about adults, appropriate behavior, and trusting that voice inside of you that tells you something is not right about the situation. We talked about sticking up for your friends and how sometimes it’s easier to stick up for your friend than it is for yourself. That is not a conversation I would have had this morning with my two younger kids without having been steeped in this for the last few days. We have to find ways to put sunlight into these areas of darkness so that this doesn’t keep happening. So that kids know that it’s safe to talk to a grown-up, and grown-ups know that it’s safe to fight for what their kids are telling them.”
Mandt explained that this year’s Arthur Ashe recipients received a diamond-studded cuff rather than the trophy awarded to past recipients, such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Caitlyn Jenner, and Nelson Mandela. “I was thinking about what would be meaningful for these women, what they could keep with them, and also what we could send to everyone,” said Mandt, explaining that the ESPYs would be sending cuffs to the survivors who have chosen to remain anonymous. In planning, Mandt asked this year’s host Danica Patrick—the first woman to host the show in its 26 years—for ideas on empowering jewelry, and Patrick put Mandt in touch with a designer. “Diamonds are the indestructible stone and they represent power and strength. So each cuff is engraved with the word ‘courage’—with the diamond in the center of the “o.” Though Mandt was clear that Wednesday’s presentation was about more than any award: “I want these women to have the moment of being recognized and honor that they deserve because they’re changing the world for us.”