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The day a young gymnast tried to tell MSU about sexual abuse

Apr 27, 2017

What happens when a child reports sexual abuse, but adults don’t believe them?

Today, more than 80 women and girls say they were abused by Dr. Larry Nassar, a former Olympic team physician who was also a beloved Michigan State University professor and sports doctor.

One of those women says she tried to come forward about that abuse 20 years ago, but wound up believing she was the problem.

A private meeting in the coach’s office, admitting something is wrong

When Larissa Boyce was in high school, back in the late 90s, she wanted to be a collegiate-level gymnast.

She trained with the Spartan youth gymnastics team at Michigan State University, which meant she got to practice at the campus facilities, wear the soft velvety green MSU leotard, and best of all, work with Coach Kathie Klages, a legend in Michigan gymnastics world. Klages was a red-haired one-woman steam engine who fought hard to make MSU’s program the best it could be – even though that was, at times, a bit of an uphill battle.

“The best kids keep going to the best—the schools that have won a national championship,” Klages said in an interview with MSU radio two years ago. “So, we keep striving every single year to get better! So that’s one of the things that I think is pretty hard to do. But we keep trying.”

And Klages was always clear about one thing: The most important part of her job, and the best part, was earning the respect of her athletes. Those relationships ran deep. Some of her former athletes, decades after their collegiate careers, still think of her as a stand-in mom. Somebody who pushed hard, sure, but who had their backs and molded them into badass women.

Larissa Boyce, as a child, practicing gymnastics
Credit C/O Larissa Boyce

Larissa Boyce says she felt like she could trust Coach Klages with anything, even the stuff that scared her. And one day, she says, she told her coach: look, something is wrong.  

“It was in her office,” Boyce says. “And I remember telling her that I felt uncomfortable with what he was doing.”

After others leave the room, treatments that felt “very sexual”

He, in this case, is Dr. Larry Nassar—a name you probably know by now.

Nassar, with his nerdy glasses, cargo shorts and Midwest twang, was the doctor for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team. He was also a professor and team doctor at MSU. He wasn't just a guy respected for his expertise, but widely loved by his athletes and academic colleagues alike.

And Larissa Boyce would see him for her lower back pain.

“And there were some trainers in there, and he told them to leave the room,” she says. “And I remember them looking at each other like, this is weird? And he said, ‘It’s ok, she’s a patient of mine at the [private] clinic, too.’ And I remember him taking his gloves off, and he started using his thumb.”

Boyce practicing gymnastics
Credit C/O Larissa Boyce

Boyce says Nassar would use his fingers to penetrate her vagina. At first, she says, she squirmed and tried to move away, at least so she wasn’t looking at him directly. But Dr. Nassar told her not to move away, she says.  

“It felt very, um, very sexual,” she says, slowly. “Because I mean it started—he was looking right at me. And I think that’s when I tried to scooch away and like turn over, so I didn’t have to look at him.”

Boyce says this penetration happened at first once a week, then every two weeks.

She could tell Dr. Nassar was aroused during those treatments, she says. And he would ask about her sex life with her boyfriend.

After questioning other gymnasts, another girl comes forward, too

Eventually, Boyce says she told her coach, Kathie Klages, that Dr. Nassar was penetrating her during treatment.

“And um, she just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “And said that I must be misunderstanding it, or reading into what he was doing. And I said that I wasn’t.”

Boyce's childhood gymnastics photos
Credit C/O Larissa Boyce

Coach Klages at this point had worked alongside Nassar for years. They were close friends. When alums talk about Klages as their stand-in mom, Dr. Nassar is often recalled as part of that same tight-knit gymnastics family: a genuinely nice, avuncular kind of guy who, unlike some of the less sympathetic trainers, made athletes feel like he actually cared about them.

And beyond their friendship, history, and shared mission, Coach Klages also knew having Dr. Nassar, with his Olympic pedigree, was a selling point for recruits.

So with Larissa Boyce still sitting there in her office, Coach Klages started pulling in other members of the youth team, two or three at a time, Boyce says. Asking each of them, in front of Boyce: has anything uncomfortable ever happened with you and Dr. Nassar?

All of them said no.  Except for one.

In court filings, one other former gymnast says she told Klages that yes, she too was being penetrated by Nassar during treatment.

“So she kept that girl in the office with me,” Boyce says. “We were both saying we were really embarrassed. And we felt like we were in trouble. And I remember the rest of practice, I think I just went into the bathroom and cried.”

Everyone was looking at her like she was a liar, Boyce says, like she was trying to get attention.

She says after a couple hours of this, Coach Klages called in a few members of the MSU college gymnastics team, too, to talk with Boyce about how medical treatments could somehow get close to private areas, but were never intended as sexual.

“So, when I told them, you know, what was happening, that’s when I remember them looking at each other and walking out and going to talk to Kathie about what I said,” Boyce says.

Michigan Radio reached out to several members of the college team from around this time period. Just two of them got back to us, and neither say they remember this conversation.

Finally, at the end of the day, Boyce says Coach Klages sat down with her for a talk.  

“And she was sitting in her office in her chair behind her desk. And said, ‘Well you know, I could file this, but there’s going to be very serious consequences. For you and Dr. Nassar.’ I remember just, like, looking out the window behind her. And um, just not even wanting to look at her," Boyce says. 

Deciding that she was the one with a dirty mindand defending Nassar

Boyce says it felt like the whole youth program knew she’d done something wrong. After that day, she says, the Spartan youth gymnasts were no longer allowed to go down to the trainer’s area, where Dr. Nassar worked.

And Boyce says she wanted more than anything for all the shame and trouble to just be done. So she told herself, you know, maybe I am the problem here.

“What is wrong with me, and why am I thinking what he’s doing is sexual? And this adult that I look up to is saying I’m wrong,” she says.

On top of that, she still wanted to do gymnastics in college.

“And Kathie [Klages] told my parents I had a chance of that," Boyce says. "And so if she’s telling me I’m wrong, then I had to make myself start believing that, and there was something wrong with me, and I just have a dirty mind.”

Afterwards, when Dr. Nassar confronted Boyce about her complaints, she apologized to him. Boyce recalls leaving gymnastics not long after that, but says she continued to see Dr. Nassar for two more years. And she says the abuse didn’t stop.

Twenty years later, the sex abuse scandal breaks open

In 2016, Larissa Boyce is grown up and married to Adam Boyce, a teacher and  fellow MSU alum. They’re living not too far from East Lansing, and their four kids are, like them, major MSU fans with matching Spartan jerseys.

Then, the sexual abuse allegations against Nassar hit the news in September. Dozens of Nassar’s former patients come forward, saying they were sexually abused under the guise of treatment, including vaginal penetration.

But Boyce wasn’t one of them.

“My initial reaction was defending him,” she says. “Because I had been told that I misunderstood it and that [those treatments were] a medical procedure. So that was my reality for the past however many years. That’s what I had to tell myself.”

She stuck to that story for months, she says, even as her mother-in-law pressed her to just go talk to a lawyer, because what could be the harm?

Meanwhile, Boyce says, she started having sudden health problems. First, it was shingles. Then her hair started falling out. Sleep was impossible.

Her husband, Adam Boyce, says she started sharing memories of her treatment with Dr. Nassar.

“And I’ll never forget, when we were sitting in the kitchen, and she said, ‘I just had an awful memory that was very vivid. And I know what happened was not right.’”

In January 2017 Larissa Boyce, along with dozens of others, filed a lawsuit against Nassar, Coach Klages, and MSU, among others.

And the other youth gymnast from that day, the one who says she also told Coach Klages she’d been abused, joined that suit. Using the pseudonym “Jane IMSU Doe,” she claims Coach Klages told her there was “no reason” to bring up Nassar’s conduct.

Here’s an excerpt from Jane IMSU Doe’s court filing:

“On at least one occasion, Plaintiff specifically declined the intervaginal “treatment,” but 

Defendant Nassar held her down and performed the “procedure” against Plaintiff’s will…As a result of MSU gymnastics head coach Kathie Klages being informed by a fellow athlete of Defendant Nassar’s conduct, Jane IMSU Doe was asked by Klages if Nassar had performed the “procedure” involving digital vaginal and anal penetration on her (Jane IMSU Doe), and Jane IMSU Doe responded in the affirmative. Klages told Jane IMSU Doe that there is no reason to bring up Nassar’s conduct.”

After 27 years on the job, MSU suspended Coach Kathie Klages in February 2017. She retired the next day and issued a statement through her attorney saying she would never put her athletes in harm’s way, much less stop them from reporting abuse. 

We reached out to Klages’ current attorneys about this story. We told them what Boyce recalls about reporting this alleged abuse to Klages in the late 90s. They declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Dr. Nassar’s attorneys also declined to comment.

For Larissa Boyce, it’s surreal to relive all of this, 20 years later.

Boyce and her husband say they'll always be a part of the MSU community, and they hope the University can become a leader in stopping abuse.
Credit MSU

“But it makes me feel like my intuitions were right,” she says. “And I feel validated that I knew what was happening was wrong. And another adult told me I was wrong.” 

Boyce and her family still love Michigan State. What they want from all of this, Larissa and Adam say, is for MSU to use this abuse scandal to do better—to go to other universities and institutions and say, hey, this can happen to you, too. You can be fooled by someone who seems totally trustworthy. So you have to be a place where there are trusted adults and where allegations like this never get ignored.