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How Lindsey Lemke and the sister survivors overcame 30 years of abuse

Lemke gymnast

Photo courtesy Jeffrey A. Camarati for Go Heels. 

Content warning: This article contains graphic depictions of sexual abuse, violence and descriptions of emotional abuse and psychological trauma.

Lindsey Lemke stood tall in her gold and white two-piece gown. 

At the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly awards ceremony, she looked around the theater.

Lemke wiped a stray tear, but soon another one fell. As she stood crying on the stage, she felt immense pride. 

She is a "sister survivor" — one of the women who spoke out against Larry Nassar.

"I was so dang proud of myself for sticking to my gut and doing what was right — coming forward with my story and holding people accountable, even if it meant sacrificing so much on my end," Lemke said.

More than 140 sister survivors stood on that stage to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Pictures of the women affected by Nassar’s abuse flashed across the stage while the survivors stood hand-in-hand. 

For 30 years, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar abused athletes, molesting them under the guise of treatment. Lemke suffered at his hands for over a decade. 

“The tears, sadness, pain, guilt, frustrations, depression, anxiety, sleepless nights —  it was all so worth it in that moment,” Lemke said. “Being courageous and coming out with my story was so tough for many different reasons that many others didn’t really have to worry about since I was a current MSU athlete at the time.” 

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Lemke. 

A game of cat and mouse

There she goes again, cartwheeling and somersaulting across the living room floor. 

Lemke was a hyper child. Her parents enrolled her in dance classes, hoping to help Lemke get rid of the extra energy. She did tap, ballet and jazz, but the gymnastics gym on the other side of her dance studio’s window always caught her eye.

At 6 years old, Lemke started practicing gymnastics, and by 7, it was evident that she had a talent for the sport. Her parents moved her to John Geddert’s Twistars Gymnastics Club — 90 minutes away from their home in Michigan — because colleges recruited heavily from the gym.

That’s when it all began. Geddert only accepted one doctor’s notes in order to excuse a gymnast from practice — his longtime friend Larry Nassar. 

“If I brought in a doctor’s note from someone else that said my foot was broken, and Larry said it was fine and it’s just sprained, even if I had X-rays from another doctor, he would take Larry’s note of my sprained foot over that," Lemke said.

When Lemke’s back issues flared up at age 10, she began seeing Nassar regularly for treatments. 

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“During the time, I depended on Larry because I thought he was helping me," Lemke said. 

Nassar signed off on allowing injured gymnasts to practice. In return, they became dependent on him. UNC Exercise and Sport Science professor and sports lawyer Barbara Osborne said he masqueraded the abuse as treatment. 

Nassar claimed Lemke's muscles were tightening. To relieve the tension, he said he had to locate the pressure points and press against them while massaging the muscle. However, the doctor never mentioned digitally penetrating her. 

“He never told us where he was going to insert so, he never said like, ‘Hey I’m going to push in your crotch,'" Lemke said. 

Nassar neglected to use gloves, medical lubricant or to inform the parents of the treatment. Consent was nonexistent. 

"It was all based on what he thought he was okay,” Lemke said. 

‘It’s not moral’

For years, rumors echoed throughout the sport, but no one listened. Even when Rachael Denhollander stepped forward in September 2016 about Nassar's abuse, Lemke didn’t believe what happened to Denhollander was happening to her. 

“I knew he was doing that to me, what Rachael was describing, but he wasn’t trying to hurt me,” Lemke said. “It was a treatment.”

One December morning in 2016 changed everything. FBI agents discovered more than 37,000 child pornography images and tapes, one of which included Nassar himself, on computer disks he had attempted to discard.

That's when it finally hit her.

Before reporting the abuse to the police, Lemke said she told MSU head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages about what Nassar did to her. She said Klages’ response shocked her. 

The coach defended the abuser.

“At the time, I didn’t really understand,” Lemke said. “But, it ended up after all this stuff came out that she knew about it way back in the '90s, so she was protecting Larry to protect herself.”

Three weeks after Lemke spoke with the police, she went public with her story while still competing for MSU gymnastics. 

One night, UNC gymnastics head coach Derek Galvin saw a familiar face on the news — his former gymnast Lemke. 

“I can’t even imagine the emotions that someone goes through in an experience like that, and to just deal with that in itself takes an extreme amount of courage," Galvin said. “Lindsey was becoming a force to be reckoned with, and I am proud of that.” 

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey A. Camarati 

Lemke only stayed at UNC for three semesters, from 2014 to 2015, before transferring to compete at MSU to be closer to home.

Galvin noticed Lemke's mood swings, thinking that it was homesickness. He said he supported her transferring, but unknowingly, he sent her back to Nassar. 

“It’s been arguably the most damaging and embarrassing thing involving youth sports ever, and I think college sports, too,” Galvin said. “That’s a stain that’ll be on gymnastics for a long, long time.”

More women came forward, and in January 2018, what were supposed to be 50 women sharing their impact statements in court turned into over 150. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina used the trial to give the women the closure they deserved. 

Lemke said she originally wasn’t supposed to testify. However, as she made a list during the trial of what she would say if she ever spoke to Nassar or his enablers again, she realized it was pointless unless she spoke up.

Lemke said she showed up on day three of the trial fired up. 

“If these people think that they can just live their life, Kathie gets to keep her pension, John gets to keep Twistars and keep making money off of people, that’s not fair,” Lemke said. “Lives were lost over this, and you think you just get to skate by and keep benefitting from it?” 

“It’s not moral.” 

‘You're never alone’

While Nassar is behind bars, the people who protected him still walk free.

Geddert stepped down and signed his gym over to his wife, allowing him to still collect a profit. Klages has been charged with lying to investigators.

Former MSU president Lou Ann Simon has been charged with felony and misdemeanor charges for lying to police officers during the investigation.

The sister survivors refuse to back down until everyone is held accountable.

It’s all for the girl that’s been silenced, ignored, and has fallen victim to abuse.

“You’re never alone and your voice holds validation,” Lemke said. “Your voice is your truth.”