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Raisman urges education to help prevent child abuse

Raisman urges education to help prevent child abuse

Two-time Olympian gymnast recounted her life and career experiences as a guest speaker at UAlbany Monday
Raisman urges education to help prevent child abuse
Two-time Team USA Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, right, discusses her life and career with Kathryn Zox at SEFCU Arena Monday.

ALBANY -- Aly Raisman has signed a few autographs in her day.

This is what happens when you're a multiple medalist in gymnastics at two Olympic Games and captain Team USA to the only back-to-back team gold medals ever.

Her signature means something to a lot of people.

It was never meant as much, though, as it does every time somebody joins the Flip the Switch movement urging people to learn how to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse and help prevent it through a program called Stewards of Children. Raisman personally signs each certificate of training, a program she herself has participated in and knows as well as anyone how vital it is.

Raisman, 24, was one of 156 women who provided victim impact statements at the sentencing hearing of Larry Nassar, the long-time Team USA doctor who was convicted as a serial child molester in the summer of 2017.

Monday night, she spoke in front of several thousand who attended the latest installment of UAlbany's Speaker Series at SEFCU Arena, drawing a standing ovation on her way in and her way out from a crowd well-mixed in gender and age. Some young girls practiced gymnastics moves in the aisle before Raisman arrived; between the ovations, her message went well beyond gymnastics.

"When I was watching it [Stewards of Children], you're learning so much, but you're also frustrated, because if the adults around me had been educated, then perhaps the abuse wouldn't have gotten to me and so many other people.

"I don't think a lot of people know that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. And those are just kids that speak up. Many of them don't."

That has been a particularly horrifying development in gymnastics, as evidenced by the Nassar trial and sentencing, during which it was revealed through testimony of abuse covering decades. USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee have come under well-deserved fire for how they let this happen.

It's a sport that invites abuse of all kinds, since gymnasts usually flourish at a young, impressionable age, and are subject to obsessive control by coaches, who dictate diet habits and wield body-shaming as a powerful weapon.

That can come from a variety of directions.

Raisman said that, because of her muscular arms and shoulders, she felt self-conscious about her body all the way back to middle school, when she sometimes bested the boys during recess tests of physical prowess.

"The boys in my class would make fun of me," she said. "I would play games with them at recess, and sometimes I was better than them. I had the school record in middle school for doing the most pull-ups, and the boys in my class didn't like that."

"So they would make fun of me in front of everybody. They would say my muscles look disgusting, they would say that it looks like I was on steroids. So I was very self-conscious for a long time about wearing tanktops, until after the 2016 Olympics. From fifth grade. That just shows how powerful your words are."

It was the power of Raisman's words, along with the dozens of other victim statements, that brought to light the level of monstrous behavior Nassar engaged in over the years, ostensibly in the course of treating injuries.

The words didn't stop there.

Raisman and many other Team USA gymnasts have continued to blast the governing bodies of the sport to promote culture change.

In March, she signed on with the non-profit organization Darkness to Light, whose mission is to educate people on the red flags of child molestation, particularly in youth sports, and help prevent it.

Because of her high profile, she's in constant demand to speak out on this issue, which she's happy and obliged to do, while seeking the delicate balance between that responsibility and an even keel in her busy life.

"I'm learning that you can't please everyone," she said. "Coming from the sport of gymnastics, where the whole purpose is to make the judges happy and everyone around you happy, it's been hard for me to say, 'Well, this person's upset, so I should just do this.' If I said yes to everyting, I would be in the hospital.

"I'm grateful that people are listening to me, but I also want people to realize that it's hard and I'm human. It's OK to say no."

As Raisman points out, the abusers "thrive on silence."

They thrive on the ignorance of otherwise well-meaning people who aren't aware of the warning signs.

So she refuses to remain silent. She encourages people to educate themselves, especially through the Stewards of Children training.

One question moderator Kathryn Zox passed along from a gymnast in the audience asked what Raisman would change in her life. She was sexually abused, starting at the age of 15. She put herself through the gut-wrenching experience of facing her abuser in a courtroom, and recounting what he had done to her.

And her answer to the question was "Nothing."

"I could sit here and dwell on, obviously, I wish none of the abuse happened to anybody, or I wish I never got injured or never had a hard day, but that's not possible," she said. "All the hard times make you stronger, and as hard as it has been, I feel like I'll come out a bettter person, and I feel very lucky to have the platform that I have, and hopefully I can help people and people can see that I'm human and doing the best that I can."

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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