Mattie Larson, Former US National Team Gymnast & Sexual Assault Prevention Activist
Mattie Larson was a consistent star in the world of gymnastics over the course of her athletic career, qualifying and competing for the most prestigious teams around the world at the highest levels. In 2018, along with 156 other women, Mattie courageously testified against Larry Nassar, her former US National Team Gymnastics doctor and serial sexual assaulter. As a result of this trial, which was one of the largest sexual assault investigations in US history, Nassar was sent to prison on account of hundreds of sex crimes. After the trial, Mattie went on to pass and amend bills with the US Congress in Washington, DC, to increase the protections of children from sexual assault. Testifying face-to-face with her abuser in court was one of the most difficult things Mattie has had to face, however, speaking her truth re-instilled her sense of self-worth and confidence that had been lacking for so long.
Facts & Backstory...
Mattie's Gymnastics Career History:
In 2006, at age 14, Mattie qualified for the Junior International Elite Team, and in 2007 she became a member the US National Team, where she would remain competing through 2011. At the international elite competition, she made a name for herself as she won the gold in the Vault exercise and bronze in the All-Around (all four exercises combined). In 2007, she also competed on the international stage at the Pan American Games, where she won gold on the Floor exercise, with a show-stopping performance, as well as won the gold in the All-Around. After this competition, she was named the United States Olympic Committee Athlete of the Month. In 2008, still on the National Team, Mattie joined the US Olympic training squad, but due to a severe leg injury, she could not join the team. Competing with a double-sprained ankle at the Gymnix World Cup in 2009, Mattie still took home gold medals on both the Floor and Beam exercises. In 2009, Mattie had to sit out the World Championships due to injuries, but came back in 2010 to win the all-around title at the Cover Girl Classic, still competing on the National Team. That same year, she won the gold on Floor, the bronze on the Uneven Bars and the silver in the All-Around at the US National Championships and was selected to be a member of the US Team for the World Championships. In 2012, Mattie joined the UCLA gymnastics team where she competed through 2014 and received her BA degree in Psychology.
Sexual Assault Case & Bills Passed in Washington, DC:
On January 24th, 2018, Larry Nassar, the former physician for the US National Gymnastics Team, was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for hundreds of sex crimes that he committed with impunity over the course of decades. 156 brave women, including Mattie Larson, testified against the serial child molester for the sexual assault crimes committed against them. After the trial, Mattie went on to speak publicly about her experience, being interviewed on Good Morning America, Vice News, Megyn Kelly NBC News, CNN with Michaela Pereira, and Sports Illustrated. Mattie also, along with a small group of women who shared the same abuser, passed a new bill in Washington DC, with Senator Dianne Feinstein, called “Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act of 2017” and amended the “Ted Stevens Amateur and Olympic Sports Act,” further protecting young athletes from sexual abuse.
Let's hear from Mattie about speaking her truth...
It took an incredible amount of courage and strength to speak your truth about your sexual assault story and to confront your assaulter face-to-face in court. Describe your journey coming to this place within yourself to be able to accomplish something so courageous, not just for yourself, but for the other victims.
It's been a very windy journey. Growing up, I was a kid who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. However, as I started spending more time in the gym than anywhere else, I started to lose my sense of voice. I was often verbally punished by my coaches and was often not believed if I had a serious physical injury. Gymnastics is a sport where the average peak point for athletes is pretty young, especially for females - most female gymnasts retire between the ages of 18 and 21. I first starting competing at the age of 5 and at 10, I was leaving school early to train. In middle school, I was spending more time with my coaches than with my parents, so they inevitably had a huge influence on my character at that time. Unfortunately, this influence was a negative one. It wasn’t until I left for college at 19 that I realized how quiet and closed off I had become, as a result of being silenced by my coaches for so many years. Testifying against my abuser in court and talking about my past to people who make positive changes in the world, has really made me feel like I have my power back. I am no longer that little girl who’s afraid to ask my coaches to even use the restroom. I thought that if I could find the courage within myself to speak up for what is right, it may inspire others to do the same for themselves.
How has speaking your truth changed you internally?
Testifying a year ago was the first time I was proud of myself in a reeeeally long time. Being a professional athlete my whole life, I have always based my self-worth on my outward achievements – I was proud of myself if I learned a new gymnastics skill or if I won a competition. When I stopped competing about five years ago, that sense of self-worth was stripped away. Testifying in front of my abuser was one of the first times since I retired from gymnastics that I was genuinely so proud of myself and it had nothing to do with winning a medal. That was huge for me.
Talk about what speaking your truth has accomplished on a larger scale and about the bill you were instrumental in passing in Washington?
Around January of 2017 I, along with a small group of women who shared the same abuser, met with Senator Dianne Feinstein in Washington, DC. We shared our sexual assault stories with her and about two months later, a group of fifteen Senators introduced a bipartisan bill after hearing our stories. The bill was passed and requires amateur athletics governing bodies to immediately report sex-abuse allegations to local or federal law enforcement, or a child-welfare agency designated by the Justice Department. (It’s insane how that wasn’t already a law, right?!) The bill also amends the Ted Stevens Amateur and Olympic Sports Act, which governs amateur athletics governing bodies, to make it safe and easy for victims to report abuse, and also mandates oversight of member gymnasiums, to ensure that strong sexual-abuse prevention policies are implemented. For example, USA Gymnastics would implement and enforce policies to ensure hired coaches and personnel are trained in sexual abuse prevention. It was a really incredible feeling to not only be listened to and believed, but to work with people in a position of power make concrete changes to prevent what happened to me, happening to other young athletes.
What can a girl who has suffered similar trauma do to feel more empowered and in control of her future?
Everyone’s experience with trauma and sexual assault is different and I can only speak from my own experience. In my case, I felt dirty, disposable, and less-than after my traumas. I started to heal slowly by setting small goals for myself, working alongside a therapist that I trusted. And when I say I started out slowly, I mean it! Things such as simply leaving my apartment, turning to healthier outlets such as exercise or art instead of booze when I felt down, and the biggest one for me...reaching out for help when I needed it. I had to get out of the mindset that I was a burden to my friends and family if I reached out for help. That’s why our loved ones are here for us – to be with us through the good and bad. Sometimes I think, “Shit, if I made it through those traumatic experiences, I can make it through (insert challenge at hand).” I remind myself that however horrific those experiences were, I have had and will continue to have so many more positive experiences in my life. We can always find small ways to empower ourselves every day. Although I felt so much stronger after confronting my abuser in court, it doesn’t have to take something that big to make you feel powerful. Unalome hit the nail on the head...authentic self-expression really IS a superpower. I think it’s important for women to share stories of their tribulations and accomplishments because I know from my own experience, other women’s stories have inspired me to keep pushing forward. I love how Unalome inspires female artisans and entrepreneurs to work with one another to create something beautiful. After all, us gals gotta stick together! :)
Connect with Mattie: @MATTLARZ
Photos 1 by @CAMBRIA_FODEN
March 7, 2019