Twistars, USAG face backlash, Nassar litigation

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Twistars USA, a Michigan gymnastics club where Larry Nassar sexually assaulted girls, recently launched plans to host the Winter Wonderland Invitational near Lansing during the second weekend in January.

Registration hasn't even opened for the competition but some in the gymnastics community are astonished that the Twistars event is advertised online as being sanctioned by USA Gymnastics — another defendant in the civil lawsuits filed by scores of women who accused Nassar of sexual abuse.

Though Michigan State University reached a historic $500 million settlement in principle with 332 accusers in May, other institutions named in the suits have not resolved the litigation. The settlement calls for $425 million to be distributed to the women who have brought claims against Nassar, and another $75 million to be set aside for future claims for other possible victims.

Twistars USA and USA Gymnastics are facing backlash after the Larry Nassar litigation.

Among them is USAG — gymnastics' national governing body, which will be in mediation on Friday in New York City with lawyers representing about 150 Nassar accusers. Other defendants include Twistars, its owner John Geddert and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Geddert, one of Michigan's most accomplished women's gymnastics coaches, has been suspended by USAG and is under investigation by the Eaton County Sheriff's Department. 

The current situation at Twistars leaves some of Nassar's victims shocked to learn that USAG has apparently sanctioned the meet.

"I'm speechless," said Sarah Klein, believed to be the first girl to be assaulted by Nassar.  "It's like a little slap on the wrist and then you are back on the game. You don’t get a slap on the wrist when girls were penetrated on your watch."

John Manly, a California-based lawyer representing most of the victims in the case, called it "despicable," saying that many young women were hurt at Twistars, yet Geddert and his family still own the club.

"It’s shocking it's still open," Manly said, "And it's even more shocking that the governing body that is the subject of lawsuits of dozens of little girls who were abused there now is allowing them to hold events again."

"It really gives you a view into the heart of USAG’s leadership," Manly added. "They just don’t think this is a big deal."

Kathryn Geddert, John Geddert's wife and the new owner of Twistars, did not respond to requests for comment.

USAG officials also did not respond to requests for comment.

Some former gymnasts, who were victims of Nassar, say it's a tricky situation to navigate.

Larissa Boyce -- who says she told former MSU head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages about Nassar's abuse in 1997 -- said she has mixed feelings about the situation.

"I feel for the girls who have trained," said Boyce. "I don’t want their opportunities to be cut off when they have worked so hard. But I still believe USAG needs to take ownership of the wrong choices they made and not doing the right thing. Right now it’s hard. I want the girls to succeed and it’s the only avenue they have."

While many of Nassar's crimes occurred at Michigan State, those who testified at his sentencing hearings earlier this year said abuse also happened at other places, including Twistars, the Olympic games and the Karolyi Ranch, a training center in Texas used by USAG. 

Michigan State failed them but USAG, USOC, Twistars and Geddert also failed them too, according to lawsuits filed against them.

Friday's mediation is the fourth such session with USAG, said Manly. Previous attempts to settle the suit against USAG were unsuccessful.

USOC has declined to participate in mediation, Manly said. Depositions are being taken in a lawsuit against the committee in California and discovery will begin in Michigan in the fall. Trials could commence in both states in 2019.

“While not yet involved in mediation discussions, we have not ruled out participating when the time is right," said Patrick Sandusky, a USOC spokesman.  "We will continue to take the necessary steps to protect, support and empower America’s athletes.”

On Friday, Manly said, lawyers for the accusers will try to reach a financial settlement with USAG and get more information about Nassar's abuse.

"How did this happen? We still don't know," Manly said. "All of the documents turned over to Congress are still private. There needs to be a public airing of who knew what when so the victims know how this happened to them, so it never happens again."

What is known is that elite gymnasts began talking about Nassar's behavior years ago, and reports reached several high-raking officials in the gymnastics community.

In 2011, before the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, McKayla Maroney said that after Nassar gave her a sleeping pill on the flight, she awoke in his hotel room and he gave her a "treatment." At the time, she was 15 and not yet an Olympic gold medalist. In a statement read at Nassar's January sentencing in Ingham County, Maroney said on that night, "I thought I was going to die."

The next day, while in a vehicle with Geddert, trainer Debbie Van Horn and other gymnasts, Maroney announced that Nassar had "fingered her" the night before, said Manly, who is representing Maroney.

"No one said anything," Manly said. "One of the athletes turned around and said, 'Don’t ever say anything bad about him again.'  She was very young. It worked. She was silent."

Nassar and Van Horn both were charged in June in connection with allegations of abuse at the Karolyi Ranch gymnastics training center in Texas.

In June 2015, at the Karolyi Ranch, world champion Maggie Nichols told Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman that Nassar had touched her again, Manly said.

Nichols' coach overhead and reported it to Rhonda Faehn, the former head of USAG women's gymnastics program, according to Manly, who said Faehn told Steve Penny, former USAG president. 

Instead of calling police, Manly said, Penny hired an investigator to speak with Nichols and Raisman. They suggested talking to Maroney. The investigator's report recommended that USAG go to the police. USAG reported to the FBI weeks later, Manly said.

 But no one called  Michigan State, where Nassar was employed and was the subject of an active investigation by the MSU police department, based on a 2014 report made by Amanda Thomashow, Manly said. 

"“If anybody had picked up the phone from the FBI or USA Gymnastics or USOC and notified Michigan State University, (Nassar) would have been out of circulation, under arrest and dozens if not hundreds of little girls could have been saved from the horrors that were committed upon them," Manly said.

"As a direct result of that, dozens of little girls were abused for 15 more months," said Manly. "There are over 50 women and girls who were abused after that and filed claims."

The upcoming competition at Twistars  and the USAG mediation with Nassar's victims come as the US Gymnastics Championships began Thursday in Boston and two more Olympic gymnasts, Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross, revealed they were assaulted by Nassar.

Kocian posted on Twitter: "Today I am honored to speak out and join the incredible army of women as we continue to fight for change from USAG and USOC."