book reviews

Repost: Aly Raisman’s Fierce: How Competing for Myself Changed Everything

Just found this review that I posted on December 9, 2017, when Bill, his mom, and I were visiting Berlin. Since I’m migrating book reviews to this blog, I am sharing it again, as is. Pretend it’s still 2017.

I’m sitting here in snowy Berlin.  Bill and his mom are out taking a walk and I’m enjoying some alone time.  I’ve gotten out of the habit of being around people, so it’s good to have some time to myself.

I know I should go out and enjoy Berlin, but right now it just seems wiser to take some time to relax. Although I bought “premium” Internet access, the net is very slow.  It’s as bad as the “free” access is.  That’s probably the only “ding” I can count against this apartment hotel.  If I pay for faster Internet, I should get it.

This morning, I finished reading 23 year Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman’s book, Fierce: How Competing for Myself Changed Everything.  Although I have never been able to so much as turn a cartwheel myself, I have had a long fascination with women’s gymnastics.  It always amazes me to see gymnasts seemingly doing the impossible with their tiny bodies.  Aly Raisman and her teammates are less than half my age, but they have already accomplished so much.  Besides being an amazing gymnast, Raisman is a leader, having served as captain of the U.S. women’s gymnastics teams in both 2012 and 2016.  I thought her book was well done, too.

Raisman got her start in gymnastics when she was only 18 months old.  Her mother, a former gymnast herself, took baby Aly to a “mommy & me” gymnastics class.  Young Aly proved to be a natural in the sport.

Aly Raisman at the 2016 Olympics.

As Aly grew older, her family grew larger.  Aly is the oldest of four.  Brother Brett was born second, and next came adopted sisters Chloe and Madison, who are also biological sisters to each other.  The family makes their home in Needham, Massachusetts.

One thing that really struck me about Aly’s writing is that she comes across as a very positive person, even though she was one of many gymnasts who was victimized by convicted sex pest, Larry Nassar. Nassar was once the official team doctor for the elite women’s gymnasts, but he recently had a tremendous fall from grace when gymnasts started accusing him of molesting them under the guise of providing care.  Raisman doesn’t provide details about what Nassar did during his “treatments”, which is certainly her prerogative.

Raisman mostly focuses her book on what it took to be an Olympic champion as well as her turn on Dancing With The Stars.  I was very impressed by Raisman’s very upbeat outlook on everything, even as she explains how difficult high level gymnastics is.  She and her very dedicated coach, Mihai Brestyan, worked together to make her the star she is.  When Raisman made the U.S. team, they worked with Martha Karolyi, who is presented in a very positive light in this book.  I have read other gymnast tells alls about the Karolyis and Martha and Bela Karolyi are often presented as extremely tough and even abusive taskmasters.  But Raisman seems to have had a good experience with them.

I was surprised by Raisman’s apparently healthy relationship with food.  She worked with a nutritionist, who helped her get the most out of nutrition, but Raisman also enjoyed her pizza and the occasional candy bar.  I had heard and read so much about how the Karolyis often forced their gymnasts to work out on very little food.  I guess they aren’t as strict now… or maybe they’re only like that with their own gymnasts.  I appreciated Raisman’s candor about her important good nutrition is to powerful performances.

Parts of this book are somewhat negative.  For instance, Raisman writes about her decision to give up her amateur status.  She had been pressured to sign with a college so that she could compete at the collegiate level.  She did sign with the University of Florida, but then changed her mind.  Raisman wrote that the coach basically told her that they expected to see her fail on a challenging vault.  I was interested in Raisman’s comments about college, since until very recently, the University of Florida’s coach was Rhonda Faehn, who was herself an elite gymnast.  I remember watching Faehn when she made the 1988 Olympic team.  The University of Florida’s gymnastics team is now led by Coach Jenny Ester Rowland, who starred in the cheesy 1986 flop, American Anthem.  She played a twelve year old gymnast named Tracy Prescott.

Raisman also has some negative comments about USA Gymnastics.  Apparently, they turned a blind eye to Larry Nassar’s abuses and were neglectful of the athletes.  I had actually read a lot of about some of the less savory aspects of USA Gymnastics.  Nassar was not the only person involved with that sport who was accused of molesting girls.  Former coach Don Peters was also accused of having sexually abusing gymnasts.  I had also read that the organization was very political and some athletes were treated unfairly.

Overall, I think Fierce is a very well-written book that is sure to please gymnastics fans.  Even though I am old enough to be Aly’s mother, I have tremendous admiration for her.  However, looking at pictures of her when she was a little girl make me feel older than dirt!  If you like to read life stories about athletes, I think Raisman’s book is worth the read.

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book reviews

A review of Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, by John Barr and Dan Murphy

I just finished my fourth book about former doctor turned sex pest, Larry Nassar. This one, entitled Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, was written by John Barr and Dan Murphy, two very experienced reporters who have both worked for ESPN. ESPN, for my non-American readers, is a very well respected and long established all sports cable television channel. Not surprisingly, this book about Larry Nassar’s crimes is the best researched of the four I’ve written so far. It’s also extremely well-written.

Since this is my fourth review about this topic, I’m not going to go too much into detail what Larry Nassar did. By now, we all know that he sexually molested hundreds of women under the guise of providing them “medical treatment”. He was labeled a genius– doctor to gymnastic stars– and his office was littered with photos and autographs of famous young women athletes he’d “helped” with his controversial pelvic floor treatments. His victims included people such as Simone Biles, and every single one of the “Fierce Five” gymnastics team that competed at the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012. But they also included people were comparative “nobodies”, like Rachael Denhollander, who was interviewed extensively for this book, as well as past stars like Tasha Schwikert and Jamie Dantzscher, and even a very young friend of Nassar’s family, Kyle Stephens, who was not an athlete.

Barr and Murphy conducted many interviews to gather material for this book, but they really concentrated on Rachael Denhollander’s and Jamie Dantzscher’s stories. I have already read and reviewed Denhollander’s own book, What is A Girl Worth?, also an excellent read. But what made Start by Believing even better than Denhollander’s book was that the journalists also shared Jamie Dantzscher’s story. I remembered watching Dantzscher, strangely enough, when she was on an ESPN gymnastics special back in 1997. I remember I was fresh from Armenia, staying at my eldest sister’s house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I turned on the TV to see the most famous gymnasts of the day flipping and tumbling to rock music.

The first time I remember ever seeing 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher…

I was too busy with graduate school during the 2000 Sydney Olympics to watch Dantzscher go for the gold. I later read that the women’s gymnastics team had a rather poor showing there. China was awarded the bronze medal ahead of them, but it later came out that the Chinese team had broken some rules which stripped them of their team medal for women’s gymnastics. The U.S. team was later awarded the bronze medal ten years after the fact. I also didn’t know that Jamie Dantzscher had been forced out of the competition. Her very large family had scrimped and saved to come to Australia to see her perform, all for naught. As they were enjoying their time Down Under, Jamie’s father, John, and sister, Jennifer, were broadsided by a bus while running an errand. Jennifer suffered cuts and bruises, but John Dantzscher was badly hurt to the point at which it was feared he would die. He spent weeks in a Sydney hospital before he could go back to California to relearn everything that made him independent. Years later, Jamie’s sister, Jennifer, died from asthma related causes.

It turns out Jamie Dantzscher is a Latter-day Saint. However, she apparently uses a lot of foul language and is unusually outspoken. During the 2000 Olympics, she came under fire for criticizing famed women’s gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi, calling him a “puppeteer”. She was also one of the very first women to take legal action against Larry Nassar, although she did so anonymously at first. Barr and Murphy did a great job of sharing Jamie Dantzscher’s brave story. I came away from their book with more respect and admiration for Jamie than I previously had.

The authors also share Rachael Denhollander’s story, which, because I had already read her book, felt a little like a rerun. However, had I not read What is a Girl Worth?, I think I would have really appreciated how Barr and Murphy explained her situation. To a lesser extent, the authors share the stories of a wide array of gymnasts who were victimized by Larry Nassar, and they explain how Nassar was able to get away with his crimes for as long as he had. Larry Nassar is a world class manipulator who used every trick in the book to get people to trust him and believe in what he was doing, even when the abuse was obvious and had been reported for years before his career fell into a shambles and he lost the right to freedom.

Maybe I should be angry and horrified reading books about Larry Nassar’s sex crimes, but when I read Start By Believing, I felt an odd sense of power and pride for the victims who became victors. This book is about brave women who came forward to bring a monster to justice, many of whom eventually became friends in the process. I often like to say that something good comes out of almost every situation. Despite Larry Nassar’s despicable acts of abuse against women, many of the women involved in this case have formed a kind of sisterhood. And they all got to watch their abuser FINALLY meet justice. Frankly, as someone who has also been repeatedly screwed over and abused by other people, I found it an unusually empowering and inspiring read.

I also liked the fact that Barr and Murphy had clearly read a lot of other, earlier books about the abuses suffered in gymnastics. They specifically mention Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan, Chalked Up, by Jennifer Sey, and Off Balance, by Dominique Moceanu. I have read all three of these books, and though Sey and Moceanu were not victimized by Larry Nassar, they were both elite gymnasts who suffered abuse from their coaches. Joan Ryan was a sports reporter in San Francisco before her book about the celebrated abuses in women’s gymnastics and figure skating exploded in 1995. All three books are outstanding, and well worth reading. I especially enjoyed the life stories, because even when they are about a common topic, like abuse in gymnastics, there are interesting side stories. Dominique Moceanu, for instance, is the daughter of Romanian immigrants who had escaped Nicholai Ceausescu’s horrifying regime. Jennifer Sey is about my age, and I can relate to what it was like for her to grow up in the 70s and 80s, when parents were a hell of a lot less hands on and obsessed with safety as they are now.

And finally, Barr and Murphy include several interesting color photos. The one that made me stop and pause the longest was the picture of several tiny gymnasts pushing former coach, John Geddert, in his blue Corvette as part of their athletic training. Geddert was well known for his aggressive, abusive tactics to get his women to win, but I had no idea that he’d employed making them push him in his very expensive sports car. Talk about an asshole!

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading about Larry Nassar’s crimes, I think I would put Start By Believing at the top of the required reading list. In fact, I think it’s my favorite of the four books I’ve read so far, followed closely by Rachael Denhollander’s book, because Start By Believing is so comprehensive, extremely professionally written, yet very engaging, and it’s so well-researched. Highly recommended with five stars!

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