by co-directors Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk
In 2017, Jen Sey, the 1986 U.S. national women’s gymnastics champion, asked us if we would be interested in telling the story that would reveal the toxic culture that permeates elite gymnastics. At the time, Larry Nassar, the infamous osteopathic “gymnastics” doctor stood accused of sexually assaulting several current and former athletes at Michigan State and in the U.S. Olympic program. Having previously made Audrie & Daisy, a documentary about two high school girls who had been sexually assaulted, we took a deep breath. It’s unsettling material.
We knew about Nassar’s crimes, but we didn’t know that his criminal activity was only the tip of the iceberg. We learned that the cover-up of abuse perpetrated by staff of USA Gymnastics (USAG) had been going on for decades and that, if we started filming right away, we might witness the unraveling of the leadership of the sport. Jen Sey, who would become a producer of Athlete A, had written a memoir, Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics in 2008, about systemic psychological and physical mistreatment inside USAG. Working with Jen, we were confident that we could make a contemporary film about abuse in the sport that had strong historical ties, which reverberated back decades.
We really got hooked on this project when we began to envision a warm, human story filled with an ensemble cast of people coming together to bend the arc of justice in the right direction. Athlete A tells the story of the tireless investigative reporters and brave gymnasts who together helped send Larry Nassar to prison and exposed the decades-long abusive culture of USAG. The story reminds us Americans of the value of the pursuit of truth. With the help of hard-working journalists, discerning law enforcement officials, and determined prosecutors, this group of women fought back against their abusers and prevailed.
We were floored by the experience of getting to know the survivors and their families. We are also big fans of films such as All the President’s Men and Spotlight, which highlight the heroic work of journalists. Fact-finding is difficult, painstaking, and often, thankless work. Speaking out against your abuser is frightening and painful. Athlete A is a marriage of these two worlds. We were privileged to be entrusted with the opportunity to document this special collaboration between journalists and key survivors such as Rachael Denhollander (the first Nassar-survivor to call the IndyStar reporters and to go public with her story), Jamie Dantzscher (an Olympian who was willing to take us through the looking glass by relating her own harrowing experience at the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia), and Maggie Nichols (who was dubbed “Athlete A” by USAG because she was the first to report Nassar internally, a year before the public knew anything.)
Like many Americans, we are also fans of watching women’s gymnastics every four years as part of the Olympic games. In their sport, gymnasts show us what is possible by defying the laws of gravity. In their commitment and performances, our American Olympians serve as inspiring reminders of the dazzling potential that we humans possess to break free of our own limitations. But, along the path to winning medals, wooing sponsors, and making money, something went awry in the Olympic movement. Those in power first took advantage of and, later, attempted to silence scores of young athletes. Fortunately, these athletes and their supporters reminded us once again of the breathtaking power of human courage by speaking truth to power. Athlete A is their story.