On March 24th, the Minnesota Hillel hosted gymnast Aly Raisman for a question-and-answer session. The event, titled “Fierce: How Competing For Myself Changed Everything,” was presented in partnership with the Interfraternity Council, the Pan Hellenic Council, and the Aurora Center, a resource center for survivors of sexual assault, stalking, and relationship violence.
Raisman is a two-time Olympian, having led the US women’s gymnastics team to a gold medal at both the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics. Individually, she is the 2012 gold medalist on the floor exercise and has a total of six Olympic medals. Her book, whose title inspired the event’s name, is largely a reflection of what her experiences competing in gymnastics have taught her. The 23-year-old warns against comparing yourself to others, a mentality which is unfortunately ingrained in the sport of gymnastics. She emphasizes that there are more important things in life than being number one. As her mom taught her, “People will always remember you for what kind of person you are, not your place on the podium.”
Raisman admits that her journey toward self-acceptance is an ongoing process, and it hasn’t been easy. Earlier this year, she was one of hundreds of gymnasts who came forward about sexual abuse she’d experienced at the hands of Larry Nassar, the official team doctor for USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee. Most of the victims, including Raisman, were little girls when the abuse began. Though the child molester will finally be going to prison, she is not resting.
Determined to spread awareness and change attitudes surrounding sexual assault, Raisman has become an advocate. She recently partnered with Darkness to Light, a program that aims to educate people about child sexual abuse. She encourages everyone to take the course and firmly believes that change starts with every person. According to her, everyone should feel affected by sexual abuse; it shouldn’t just impact the survivors. If only the survivors care, then meaningful change will never be enacted. Given that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are molested before the age of 18, Raisman wants education about sexual abuse – what constitutes an appropriate touch – to start with children.
Raisman believes the remedy to the stigma around sexual assault is to create a culture of genuine support rather than one of victim-shaming. Support can be as simple as telling a victim who shares their experience, “I believe you,” and “I support you.” She is adamant that we need to talk about these issues more, and that women need to empower and look out for each other at parties. However, she emphasizes that you wear to a party doesn’t matter – “women do not have to be modest to be respected.”
To that end, Raisman is disgusted – but not surprised – at the way universities handle sexual assault accusations. Of all the young women that have shared their experiences with her, Raisman says she has never heard of a college handling the situation correctly.
In addition to advocating for changes to campus culture, Raisman is steadfast in her criticism of the way the gymnastics community has handled the Nassar scandal. Kerry Perry, the new CEO of USA Gymnastics, needs to sit down with the survivors and hear what they have to say. Raisman is in contact with the girls who currently train at the USAG camp, and they report that absolutely nothing has changed. She advocates for an independent investigation into the scandal – rather than telling gymnasts to stop wearing leotards for their safety, a solution that she finds outrageous.
Both inside and outside of the issue of sexual abuse, Raisman’s overall aim is to promote a culture of kindness and support. “Everyone is dealing with something,” she says, “so be kind.” She encourages people who are struggling with any issue to talk to their families or a therapist (which she is open about doing). One of her mantras: “You will never go wrong if you are doing the right thing and being a good person.”