Athlete A: A Tough But Essential Watch

Rachael Denhollander in ATHLETE A. Photo credit: NETFLIX © 2020

Athlete A, recently released on Netflix, is a tough but essential watch that follows reporters from The Indianapolis Star investigating the abuse scandal.

I know what you’re thinking.  What sets this film apart from last year’s At the Heart of Gold?  Both films follow a similar subject: the USA Gymnastics (USAG) abuse scandal.  This film in particular looks at it from the reporters’ point of view.  Only two athletes are interviewed to any extend and there is a montage of clips from inside the courtroom.

Maggie Nichols spent her life on a path to making the national gymnastics team.  Her eyes were on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  Alas, it was not meant to be when because of reporting team doctor Larry Nassar.  She was just one athlete but the cookie was about to crumble.

At the same time that the gymnast was reporting the doctor, a team of Indy Star reporters were on a mission of a different kind.  Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, and Tim Evans were looking into how (USAG) protected predatory coaches by turning a blind eye.  The coaches moved from gym to gym without ever suffering any repercussions. USAG had a responsibility to report the abuse to proper authorities but they failed to do so.

The dominoes started to fall as soon as their article was published.  First, Rachael Denhollander decided to speak up about her encounter with Nassar.  This was soon followed by Jessica Howard.  Jamie Dantzcher would contact the paper through her attorney.  But it doesn’t end with three abuse victims.  No, there were 500 reported cases in all including 9 Olympians.  And again, the USAG leadership looked the other way.

If you’re a gymnastics fan, you know the names of Bela and Marta Karolyi.  The duo were longtime coaches for the American national team.  Their coaching careers ended because of the scandal.  That they didn’t focus on the athletes’ well-being is a shame.  Winning medals are great and all but so is an athlete’s emotional health.

In a way, the Indy Star gets the Spotlight treatment of its own.  Only this time, it’s a documentary and not a narrative feature.  Regardless, it’s a devastating look at the world of gymnastics.  That three gymnasts even fought the system is a miracle in its own right.  They didn’t do it alone, of course.  Without police detective Lt. Andrea Munford, prosecuting attorney Angela Povilaitis, and Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, there would be no justice.

It is a real shame that USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic Committee, and the FBI allowed Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse to take place for too many years.  All the reports from gymnasts were to no avail when leadership continually refused to take action.  How many careers came to an early end because gymnasts decided it wasn’t worth it?  How many people at the helm knew but did nothing?  The fact that USAG head Steve Penny chose to plead the fifth tells us everything we needed to know!

Holly Sorensen created Make It Or Break It, which premiered on then-ABC Family in 2009.  The series followed four gymnasts who hoped to compete in the Olympics.  Never mind that the series ended before we got closure.  There was a lot of drama on the series but one thing that they touched on was a coach sexually molesting a gymnast.  The series concluded in 2012 but I don’t think anyone could have believed how close they were to what really happens.  That it isn’t so far from real life isn’t so much of a shock in 2020.  Though people that read Jen Sey’s book would have known in 2008 because she opens up on her experiences.

This documentary doesn’t happen without 1986 national champion Jen Sey reaching out to the filmmakers.  All anyone–by which, I mean the once-every-four-years gymanstics fans–really knew about was Nassar abusing gymnasts.  That it was a scandal that was wider reaching shouldn’t be so shocking but it sadly is.

Athlete A spotlights systemic abuse and institutionalized corruption that took place for far too long.

DIRECTORS:  Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
FEATURING:  Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, Tim Evans, Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzcher, Jessica Howard, Andrea Munford, Angela Povilaitis

Netflix launched Athlete A on June 24. Grade: 4.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.