'Athlete A' a lesson in courage, the importance of women in power, and journalism's critical role

OU’s Maggie Nichols watches as teammates compete on the uneven bars during the Perfect 10 Challenge, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, at Cox Convention Center. 

It seems impossible that one could revisit Maggie Nichols’ decision and not feel inspired.

Speak with her mother, Gina, and you will feel her anger.

Speak with both of them and you will come away with a better understanding of what University of Oklahoma gymnastics meant to Nichols in the wake of the USA Gymnastics sexual assault scandal.

OU was a haven, a soft landing place, and part of Nichols’ important platform for the greater good.

Even if the basic details are familiar to you, to watch the new Netflix documentary “Athlete A” is to see the heartbreaking picture of what all took place before Nichols soared as a Sooner.

She commanded the world know her as she won two NCAA all-around titles, smashed records and stuck Perfect 10s the past four seasons. She is increasingly known as the best NCAA female gymnast of all-time.

But to watch her story interwoven with others who suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, how it affected them and changed their lives’ trajectories, gives better context of their bravery.

In 2015, Nichols reported Nassar’s abuse to USA Gymnastics. The organization sat on the information for weeks and increasingly revealed itself as rotten. She wasn’t even 18 years old yet.

Nichols is still just 22. She was an OU sophomore when she published the 2018 letter saying she had been “Athlete A” all along — the first to report Nassar’s abuse to USA Gymnastics.

Nassar is disgraced and imprisoned now. USA Gymnastics fell into bankruptcy and its former CEO, Steve Penny, is awaiting trial for tampering with evidence related to the Nassar case.

Maggie Nichols was robbed, but then she roared, and gave the world so much more than gold medals.

She reported Nassar’s abuse to USA Gymnastics in hopes the organization would stand as her advocate, not adversary. The documentary paints a clear picture that her decision fatally damaged her chance of making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.

The rest of the film is an important lesson in perspective. What Nichols became at OU as a symbol of courage was far more important than any Olympic stint.

Watch “Athlete A” and you will come to know the infinite possibilities once a person overcomes fear and prioritizes justice.

It’s a slam-dunk argument that women should hold more positions of power. Michigan State police detective Andrea Munford grilled Nassar almost to tears during an initial investigation, while he was not under arrest. Then she and lead prosecutor Angie Povilaitis doggedly pursued the case.

They explain the reasoning behind their request that more than 100 women give impact statements during Nassar’s sentencing, where he could hear them. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina paved the path for them to do that, and slammed the gavel on Nassar’s fate.

Women of power were critical in deconstructing USA Gymnastics, a corrupt body that was operating to keep women pinned down.

USA Gymnastics should have been the good side. They weren’t. They were the American nightmare.

Marisa Kwiatkowski, the Indianapolis Star reporter who was in the ground floor of the investigation and remains pushing forward, still plays a critical factor in checking the organization.

The public reporting on Nassar began with basic newspaper stuff: Kwiatkowski’s background work on nearby schools failing to report child abuse and a tip line at the end of one of the paper’s stories, which inspired a key victim to come forward.

In that vein, “Athlete A” is also staunch defense of local journalism. Continual drone shots of the Star’s building are no accident. The paper’s work, which stunningly did not claim a Pulitzer Prize, is arguably the greatest recent example of what a scrappy, resourced newsroom can do to stem evil.

The B-roll that shows newspapers being dropped off at mailboxes and printed in bulk is an eerie and important detail “Athlete A” directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk included. It’s no accident. Papers across the nation are being printed less frequently by the year. They have fewer bylines in them. This downsizing only serves organizations like USA Gymnastics, which hope to operate in the weeds without consequence.

Early in its investigation, The Star earnestly bought Kwiatkowski a plane ticket to Georgia to retrieve public records they feared might be sealed. Bigger newspaper budgets matter.

While The Star is helping finish the fight, the paper didn’t start it.

That responsibility rested with victims like Nichols, as well as Rachel Denhollander, who was the first to publicly accuse Nassar of his crimes and would deliver a 40-minute impact statement during his sentencing.

They spoke up. Some knew damn well there would be consequences. Others probably didn’t consider the depths USA Gymnastics would sink to keep victims quiet.

The athletes are more than victims now. They’re survivors and advocates who can help others in a fight they know how to win.

They’re examples that courage, and a little ink, can stretch for miles.

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