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McKayla Maroney on reality of being a gymnast: 'It was a perfect breeding ground for' abuse

The retired gymnast says the former USA Gymnastics coaches only cared about athletes being "skinny" and winning gold "for their own ego."
/ Source: TODAY

Retired gymnast McKayla Maroney has endured sexual abuse, an eating disorder, the death of her father and hackers releasing nude photos of her online, but the Olympic medalist feels like she has reached the other side after years of heartbreak and struggle.

"I want to be looked at as someone who just keeps going, because that’s what we have to do in this life," Maroney told Elle in a story for the magazine's October issue. “For so long, I was surviving. Now I feel I’m actually living.”

McKayla Maroney
Former Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney has opened up about her abuse by former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar and the conditions she believes allowed him to operate freely. JC Olivera / Getty Images

While Maroney is known for her viral "not impressed" expression that became a meme at the 2012 Olympics (and is now part of a recent Geico commercial), she also has become an advocate for sexual abuse survivors.

She is one of hundreds of athletes who was sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who is now serving life in prison. She said he molested her at one of her first training camps for the national team.

"He was like, ‘You know, to be a great athlete, we sometimes have to do things that other people wouldn’t do,’” she said. "Basically, he was silencing me and saying, ‘This is what it takes to be great.’”

"We were being abused at the same location, same day,” her former Olympic teammate, Aly Raisman, told Elle. "We helped each other survive."

The abuse took place at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas, which was run by former national team coach Bela Karolyi and his wife, Marta. The site was the USA Gymnastics training facility from 2001-18 before the scandal involving Nassar resulted in it being shuttered for good.

"We were not treated like Olympians, we were treated like we were in a military camp," Maroney said. "It was a perfect breeding ground for Larry Nassar to sneak in. Our coaches were so focused on us being skinny and us being the best to get the gold medal for their own ego."

She added that she and her teammates were "mad" and "all hated it" when they had to go see Nassar, to the point where they expected the abuse.

Maroney persevered to win team gold at the 2012 Olympics as well as her famous silver medal in the vault, when her spontaneous reaction to finishing second while standing on the podium became an online sensation.

She seemed like a lock to come back for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but ended up retiring at just 20 years old after a series of setbacks away from competition.

Maroney was one of numerous celebrities whose nude photos were released online in 2014 by hackers who stole the pictures she had taken of herself as a minor. The fallout included Maroney being shunned by many other gymnasts whose parents told them to stay away from her.

"When you go to the Olympics, people see you as a little girl and that’s all they want to see you as," she said. "Anything else is vile to them. It’s like, ‘How could you? You’re a role model.' I was no longer respected."

She also developed an eater disorder in 2018 after speaking out against Nassar, which included a forceful statement at his trial in Michigan.

"I already had that obsessive control thing, so it just switched from gymnastics to food,” she said. "I forgot I had ever even been successful at gymnastics, because I went from being great to feeling like, ‘Oh my God, I’m ugly, I’m gaining weight, I’m suffering with food, and I just went through all this abuse."

A year later, she enrolled in an online course for people with eating disorders to address the issue before enduring the death of her father from an addiction to pain pills.

She has used spirituality and her love of music, as a budding singer-songwriter, to help her keep going through all the hard times.

"I am becoming the best version of myself," she posted in a graphic on Instagram last month.