at the heart of gold

Erin Lee Carr Tackles the ‘Whiplash’ of Abuse at the Heart of USA Gymnastics

Photo: HBO

At the Heart of Gold opens with what, to many gymnastics fans, is a familiar sensation. A gymnast stands alone at the end of the vault runway, silent and focused. She salutes the judges, takes a deep breath, and begins to sprint, her muscles contracting and rippling as she pounds her feet into the floor. Just before she arrives at the springboard, you stop breathing, almost unconsciously. What happens in the next few seconds will make the difference between a stick and a fall, between safety and injury, between victory and defeat. Holding your breath won’t change the outcome, but you do it anyway.

The athlete in question is Shannon Miller, then the nation’s most-decorated gymnast, who at this 2000 meet was attempting to qualify for her third Olympic team. Holding your breath doesn’t change the outcome: Miller lands her vault and falls down, her crying and whimpering audible. A crowd of people in tracksuits and polo shirts gather around her, trying to assess the damage and formulate a plan. There’s Miller’s longtime coach Steve Nunno. There’s the charismatic king of American gymnastics Bela Karolyi. And, of course, there’s team trainer Larry Nassar.

In the 14 months since Nassar’s story exploded into the national consciousness with a week of well-covered victim-impact statements at his sentencing hearing, some of the nation’s finest journalists have reported on the scope of the damage he did and how he did it. At the Heart of Gold, which premieres on HBO May 3, is the latest attempt to make sense of what, to many observers, seems utterly senseless: How could someone get away with hurting so many children for so long, under the watchful eyes of so many adults?

As Miller lies on her back on the mat, one of the men says they’re going to move her off the competition floor and into the back room of the arena. “No, no,” she says, shaking her head.

Director Erin Lee Carr says she opened the film with that archival footage of Miller’s doomed vault and its aftermath because for her, it symbolizes the progression of abuse that made Nassar’s crimes possible. At the Heart of Gold sketches the cultural landscape of the sport, where child safety was sacrificed on the altar of global gymnastics dominance. Where coaches wield enormous power and athletes are in constant pain. Where obedience is prized and athletes might expect to be yelled at or punished if they fail to train through the pain. In that landscape, it’s easy to see how a sports doctor was able to use the promise of a friendly ear and compassionate medical care as a cover for sexual abuse.

“It was emotional abuse that led into physical abuse that led into sexual abuse,” Carr told Vulture in a phone interview. “[Miller] does not want to go in the back room with Larry Nassar. Is that because he’s a predator, or because she’s been told over and over again to be strong? We have no way of knowing, but it’s this open mystery that I want you to think about.”

One strength of Carr’s film is the clarity with which it presents the numerous cultural and institutional failures that made Nassar’s abuse possible — without ever wavering from the fact that Nassar himself was a monster. In interviews with numerous survivors, we learn about Nassar’s method. He played the nice guy, the friendly grown-up gymnasts could turn to when their coaches were too hard on them. He promised to heal them, taking advantage of the young athletes’ ambition and desire to recover so they could keep training. He presented his abuse — penetrating girls vaginally and sometimes anally, without lubrication or gloves — as a legitimate medical practice, often doing it while the girls’ parents were in the room.

But Carr spends just as much time on how institutions that employed Nassar — USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, the Michigan gym club Twistars, the Karolyi training facility in Texas — failed to stop him. In early edits, Carr says, she envisioned “a shapeshifting ball,” that would allow her to tell a story about “a circle of enablers.” “You think it’s the Karolyis,” she said, “then, oh wait, it’s MSU; oh wait, it’s [Twistars head coach John] Geddert; oh wait, it’s USAG. To create this whiplash of like, ‘Oh, it’s everybody.’”

Carr says she wanted to make sure she devoted some time to everyone who could have stopped Nassar and failed to act, from MSU coach Kathie Klages, one of the earliest authority figures to hear (and deny) a report of his abuse, to William Strampel, a former dean at MSU who ignored the treatment protocols put in place after Nassar was the subject of a Title IX investigation. She wanted “to call out enablers directly, including some of the lesser-known people, because it’s easy to fault MSU as an institution, but you really need to see what a gymnastics coach like Kathie Klages did in that particular moment when a survivor was reporting abuse.” Klages has been charged with lying to investigators in the Nassar case, and Strampel has been charged with multiple sex crimes of his own.

At the core of this film, though, are the survivors. Carr includes compelling interviews with Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who oversaw Nassar’s gripping and nauseating multiday sentencing hearing, and with Mick Grewal, an attorney who represents dozens of Nassar survivors. But Carr says her goal was to interview as many survivors as possible, taking care to assemble a women-heavy crew behind her camera to make her subjects as comfortable she could. At the end of the film, we get to see footage of those same survivors standing up in court and reading their impact statements before Nassar, Judge Aquilina, and a courtroom full of other girls and women who suffered like they did.

There’s Trinea Gonczar, who was abused hundreds of times and assured other gymnasts that what Nassar was doing to them was a legitimate treatment. There’s Larissa Boyce, a Michigan gymnast who told Kathie Klages in 1997 that Nassar was abusing her, only to have her coach recruit other teammates to shame her into silence. And there’s Isabell Hutchins, who trained at Twistars under John Geddert, whom Hutchins describes as an emotionally and psychologically abusive coach. (Geddert and the gym have been sued by dozens of Nassar survivors, and he has been under investigation for over a year in connection with the case.)

Geddert sent Hutchins to Nassar when she complained of pain in her shin; Nassar taped her up and told her nothing was seriously wrong. Hutchins, who was barely a teenager at the time, kept training, and her shin kept hurting, so she kept going back to Nassar, who kept abusing her, first in a treatment room at Twistars and then in the basement of his home. The pain kept getting worse, but Nassar told her she could keep training, that his “treatment” would help.

“A prestigious Olympic doctor is telling you nothing’s wrong so you kind of think you’re crazy,” an adult Hutchins says in At the Heart of Gold. “I mean it makes you wonder: What really is pain?”

Hutchins was one of the last to be interviewed by Carr, who says she was “spellbound” by the teen gymnast and the woman she became. Carr includes footage of Hutchins training and competing for Twistars, and she was a truly gifted athlete. It is one thing to see still photos of the survivors taken at the time of the abuse, as you did if you watched the sentencing hearings, but it’s quite another to see video footage of them working so hard in the gym. It should not matter that Hutchins was good at gymnastics, that she was a talented tumbler with sharp movements and clean lines. Her suffering is no more tragic than that of a child without such talent. But watching those videos, seeing with your own eyes how good she was, does convey a sense of the potential that was crushed by an abuser and the people who enabled him.

As we learn in Carr’s documentary, Hutchins eventually told Geddert that the pain in her shin was unbearable, and she pulled out of an upcoming competition. He flew into a rage and threw her out of the gym for good. She went to the emergency room, where an X-ray revealed that her shin was broken. “Like splintered,” she tells Carr’s camera. “It looks like a nail was hammering into my leg and it just kept splintering off pieces. Because I just kept tumbling on it.”

At the Heart of Gold is a film about girls and pain. It’s about adults inflicting pain on children and telling them it’s for their own good, or telling them it’s not real, or telling them to toughen up and take it because it’s the only way to win. It’s about adults wounding the young people in their care — and the other adults who help them get away with it. And it’s about the pain of recovering, telling the truth about what happened to you, and seeking justice.

At times it’s painful to watch all that whiplash, and for Carr, it was painful to make, too. “I remember getting back from [the sentencing hearing in] Michigan and I felt changed as a person,” she says, remembering that listening to so many victim-impact statements left her wondering if she could ever again feel happiness, or trust. “And then I think about the survivors and I think, ‘How do they do anything?’ They’re these remarkable women who are having lives and having babies and having jobs and being advocates. Like, you are the truest hero I have ever met.”

Miller says she rarely interacted with Larry Nassar during her time as a gymnast, but she has recently led reform efforts within USA Gymnastics in the wake of testimonies of abuse from her peers.
Erin Lee Carr on the ‘Whiplash’ of Abuse in USA Gymnastics