Written by: Harleigh Thompson and Emily Donnelly
“Athlete A” is a Netflix documentary directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shene that reflects on the horrors of USA Gymnastics, a training facility used to train USA Olympians. In this documentary, the victims of this esteemed institution speak of the tribulations they endured while under the care and guidance of the faculty and staff. In the documentary, Maggie Nichols, Jamie Dantzscher, Rachael Denhollander, and Jennifer Sey are interviewed. All of which are former gymnasts that trained with USA Gymnastics and were under the care of Larry Nassar and the Karolyi’s. These interviews are placed in this documentary to give the girls a voice, to allow them an outlet to let their stories and point of view be heard. All problems associated with USA Gymnastics stem from the failure to report. At the beginning of the documentary, attention is brought to Steve Penny, the CEO and President of USA Gymnastics. It is stated that there are 54 sexual assault complaint files on coaches within the institution, all of which have gone without reporting to authorities. This is due to the policy regarding sexual assault allegations, which under the policy are considered heresy if not signed by the victim, victim’s parents, or a witness to the abuse. The documentary, also, brings awareness to the brutality that is associated with gymnastics by introducing the audience to Marta and Bela Karolyi, a couple from Romania that has come to improve the US team. Their methods of discipline are extremely physical. It is stated by Geza Pozar, the Karolyi Choreographer that Bela would slap the girls, while Marta would leave her ring impressions on their faces. The brutality did not just stop at physical abuse, it also came in the form of mental and emotional abuse. The Karolyi’s believed in total control, and it is believed that they make the girls weigh every day. Much of the documentary covers the heinous crimes of Lawrence Nassar, the USA Gymnastics personal doctor. This figure, that the girls are told to trust with their health and their bodies, abuses his victims sexually. The documentary traces this by speaking with four of his victims. Maggie being the most recent, her story is the start of it all. Her story is the one that caught the attention of the Indy Star, the newspaper that begin the investigation on USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar. The three former gymnasts that are interviewed and come forward only build on her story.
Maggie Nichols, a former USA Gymnastic gymnast, is the opening interview of the documentary. The documentary begins with videos of a gymnast with a voice-over from Nichols talking about her dreams of being an Olympian and how much gymnastics means to her. This shows that while Maggie Nichols is a well-known name and is an athlete, she is still a young girl; she is still human. This girl is someone’s daughter, someone’s friend; she has aspirations and dreams, just like any other young adult. Later in the documentary, the audience learns that all these dreams are ripped from her because of Nassar and Penny. These interviews and this result are shown to the audience in hopes of igniting anger towards Nassar and Penny for taking away essentially a child’s dream while feeling sympathy for this girl who lost practically everything because she decided to use her voice and speak out against the horror that is Larry Nassar.
Rachael is a former gymnast interviewed who helped kick-start the fight against Dr. Nassar because of her 100-page report against she wrote to support the case Dr. Nassar showing how much she cared about this issue and how much Nassar impacted her. The documentary shows Rachael as a strong, determined, yet at times vulnerable woman. Rachael is shown to be strong when she agreed to testify but is shown to be vulnerable when talking about the hate comments she received. This plays a part in getting the viewers’ attention because we want to sympathize with her vulnerability while encouraging her for her courage and determination.
In a short video towards the end of the documentary, Nassar is questioned by a detective. In this video, he begins to use medical terminology. This is a tactic he uses to make those above him feel smaller. He even goes as far as telling the detective she wouldn’t understand his words. The documentary places this video to show that even a nice guy can be vindictive. Nassar is seen to the public as a faithful doctor in the community. He volunteers his time and talents to this sport, and these girls are “slandering” his name. He is seen almost saintly, and him manipulating this detective by using big medical words just shows that their view of this man is wrong. The directors are attempting to show the audience that even people with such a good outward appearance can be cruel and manipulative.
Certain scenes in the documentary have music which raises the uneasiness of the viewer. One example of music being used this way is when they showed a clip introducing the 2015 USA gymnastics team. During this scene, the sounds of cheering can be heard and everybody looks happy but the background music during this part is somberly creating a disjointed feeling. The disjointed feeling caused by the contrast highlights that the USA gymnastics organization might seem great on the outside but hid horrible actions in the background. Another way music is used is to add weight to the victim impact statements given in the trial is because chorus music is played in the background. The music gives this scene an almost sacred and somber feeling because chorus music is typically played to give weight and sacredness to something. In the documentary’s case, the music was meant to put more meaning to what the survivors were saying. The survivors’ words finally mattering was something that they did not have before this trial.