The first time I received a message from Larry Nassar, I felt honored. I was a college student who had just started what would eventually become a career writing about gymnastics. In the gym world, I was nobody. And the world-famous doctor for the national women's gymnastics team in the United States wanted to talk to me?
Nassar was such a passionate sports fan. His job was to help gymnasts recover from injuries and keep them healthy so they could win medals at world championships and the Olympic Games, but they invested much more than their duties required. If someone fell and tore an Achilles tendon or dislocated a knee in one of the national team's high-level training fields, he let me know, along with his comment. "There are no days off all week, it's hard," he confided. "[National team coordinator] Martha Karolyi expects too much of them and wonders why they are hurt in the worlds."
I'm not a gymnast. Nassar never treated me, and every exchange in person we shared was professional and friendly. I never asked myself why he "chose" me to be his gossip partner, but I loved all the internal data he gave me. And, like thousands of other people, when I first heard about allegations of sexual abuse against him, I thought, "Larry ?! Absolutely not."
Later, I realized why those thousands of us had the same answer, including many girls and women who did not even realize that the " treatment "that I was doing was abuse. Nassar used his charm and his position as national team doctor to make all of his gossip buddies, his special friend, his best friend, so that when the world he built collapsed one day, he had an army of followers defending him. Even after he was convicted of possession of child pornography, even after the number of alleged victims increased by more than 150, even after the impact statements of the sick and cathartic victim last week in Michigan, some of them continue defending it
One of his followers was Trinea Gonczar a 37-year-old woman who met Nassar when he was 6. Nassar, who was not yet a doctor, when they met, "tried" Gonczar more than 800 times, from his early childhood until he was an adult. But until a few weeks ago, Gonczar believed that his "treatments" were legitimate, and that those who considered them mistreatment, including some of his closest friends, were "confused."
Although we now know that Nassar abused at least 4 of the 5 members of the 2012 Olympic team, and at least 3 of the 5 members of the 2016 team , most of the victims of Nassar were not Olympians gymnasts of caliber. For each Simone Biles Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas there are dozens of women like Gonczar. Most of them grew up in the Lansing area. They were gymnasts or figure skaters or volleyball players, or they were not athletes at all. They went to Michigan State University, or their parents were close to Nassar because they went to school together or lived on the same street.
One reason why Nassar was so "successful" in abusing hundreds of women for more than three decades was because he used his personal relationships to build trust in the community and to convince people that what they were doing was legitimate. And when someone raised the alarm and reported Nassar – as the softball player Tiffany Thomas Lopez did it in 2000 as did the gymnast Rachael Denhollander in 2004 and as MSU student Amanda Thomashow did in 2014 – Nassar's numerous friends were there to silence them.
When Thomashow spoke, Nassar's colleagues told the Title IX investigator that he was investigating his complaint that Thomashow was not familiar with osteopathic medicine and ] would not know the "nuanced difference" between a legitimate procedure and a sexual assault. Thomashow was a medical student at that time. Thomashow's mother went to medical school with Nassar, and also sent her youngest daughter, Jessica, who competed in gymnastics as a child, to see him with a rib injury when he was 9. Jessica Thomashow is now 17 years old and says that Nassar abused her multiple times.
The sisters of Thomashow were 2 of the 89 women who spoke at Nassar's sentencing hearing in Ingham County during a four-day period last week a hearing is expected to end Wednesday after nearly 160 survivors have addressed him and Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.
For all these women and girls who spoke at the sentencing hearing, there are countless people behind them who were not mistreated, but who they were victims of Nassar's manipulation. Among them were many parents who sat in Nassar's examination rooms while unknowingly abusing their daughters. "You made all of us involuntary parents accomplices," Gonczar's mother told Nassar at the hearing. Gym Trainer Tom Brennan who once called Nassar his mentor, expressed his "unfathomable guilt" for referring hundreds of child athletes to Nassar.
As a physician at Michigan State University, Nassar turned the city of Lansing into his personal playground, exploiting his status as an "Olympic doctor" to win the trust and loyalty of an entire community. When USA Gymnastics allowed him to retire, instead of firing him after member of the national team Maggie Nichols made accusations of abuse in 2015, Nassar wrote on Facebook that he was resigning so he could concentrate on running for the school board in the city of Holt. By the time elections were held a year later, dozens of women had accused him of sexual abuse, and Michigan's attorney general and the FBI had opened investigations into his behavior. And yet, Nassar managed to secure more than 20 percent of the vote.
Nassar's legions of adult admirers and enablers worked hard to discredit those allegations. When 2000 Olympic bronze medalist bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher became the first to make public his accusations, hundreds of people used social networks to send their support to Nassar, and call Dantzscher a liar. And in December 2016, when the FBI arrested Nassar on federal charges of child pornography, his lifelong friend Kathie Klages, then director of the MSU women's gym program, pressured her gymnasts to sign a sympathy card saying that they supported him.
One of these gymnasts was Lindsey Lemke, then a junior in her second season at MSU. In high school, Lemke was trained in Twistars, the gym that employed Nassar as a visiting physician some nights a week. Twistars is owned by a trainer named John Geddert, and many of Nassar's victims claim that Geddert knew of the serial sexual abuse of Nassar's children, and at least one described him as the "Bonnie to Geddert's Clyde." Lemke was treated by Nassar for more than a decade, for various injuries, and believes that he kept her deliberately wounded in order to continue his abuse. He retired from gymnastics this fall because of the same problems that Nassar failed – or did not choose – to heal.
Lemke depended on Nassar, whom he considered the "good boy" on difficult and intense days in the gym. This is a sentiment shared by almost all the athletes who spoke at the sentencing hearing. As he was for me, he was his confidant. He listened to them, reassured them, gave them sweets and gifts and cured their pain (or so they thought). Nassar was the Olympic doctor, the man Bela Karolyi handed him to the wound Kerri Strug after his infamous injury to the vault in the 1996 games, the legend that only treated the best of the best. The parents and coaches had the honor of sending their children with him because it meant that his children were special, and they trusted everything he said or did without question.
Nassar will surely spend the rest of his life in prison. This will be an incomplete portion of justice unless institutions such as MSU and USA Gymnastics, which ignored and silenced the victims who tried to present themselves, are ultimately held accountable. During the exhausting sentencing hearing, I heard dozens of parents, siblings, coaches, friends and teammates blame themselves for not knowing or stopping the abuse their loved ones suffered. I wondered how many people could be so blind for so long. And then I remembered my own relationship with Nassar. I know they were under his spell, too.
He is a manipulator, a narcissist and a predator who created an army of admirers and confidants thousands of people. Every time they caught Nassar, every time a girl or a woman tried to talk about their abuse, that army would make excuses and get defensive, insisting that Larry was the last person in the world to do something like that. For decades, it worked. But thanks to the persistence and courage of the women who came forward and fought like hell to be heard, the power that he had over so many finally arose.
It is not easy to believe that a man he once respected, or even loved, could hurt someone, let alone be responsible for the worst system of sexual abuse in the history of American sports. Making us respect and love him was part of his plan, which is why many people choose to believe him for his victims, and what is worse, why so many people were willing to cover it up and even to empower it, creating an environment and a culture that allowed Nassar prosper.
When most people hear about the Nassar case, they inevitably ask: "Why did not anyone speak before?" As former gymnast Twistars Bailey Lorencen recalled in her statement on Monday, the Nassar enablers closed reports of abuse, and publicly called the first victims to present liars. "He took 37,000 pornographic images of children on his computer so that people could believe that Nassar could do something like this," Lorencen said at the hearing. "And you wonder why nobody wanted to talk?" They tried it for decades. But nobody was listening.
Lauren Hopkins is editor-in-chief of The Gymternet and has been writing about gymnastics since 2010. She is an Emmy Award-winning digital sports coverage producer. the 2016 Olympic Games of NBC Olympics.
This piece is part of the new HuffPost Opinion section. For more information on how to present an idea, go here.
Need help? Visit RAINN National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or National Sexual Assault Center Resources on Sexual Violence website .