"Who didn’t know him?" A conversation with gymnastics coach Bev Plocki on Nassar scandal
The fallout from scandals of sex abuse by disgraced doctor Larry Nassar at Michigan State University and as a member of the USA Gymnastics medical team have had innumerable ripple effects at the University of Michigan. The Daily spoke to women’s gymnastics coach Bev Plocki, in her 29th season on campus as one of the winningest coaches in the country, about this “moment of reckoning” for her team and the gymnastics community.
Plocki: The reality of this situation is that it’s so incredibly widespread. Everyone on our team, in our entire gymnastics community has been affected by it. Everybody knows at least someone who has been a victim. We’re all deeply saddened by what’s gone on and what these victims have had to say. We really hope, now, that since it’s over and since — I don’t even know what to call him, I certainly won’t call him Dr. Nassar—he’ll be gone for good, I hope everyone will be able to move on and heal. It’s the amount of support that is out there that’s the light at the end of a really dark tunnel. It has strengthened the community and bond between these athletes that are behind everyone affected.
TMD: How do I know that what happened at MSU won’t happen here?
Plocki: I think that we’re doing everything in our power … I mean the reality of the answer is that we can’t issue any guarantees. But for myself personally, I have tried very hard—and my athletes know this—to create a culture of open communication. They know my cell phone is on 24 hours a day, it’s by my bed, if they need me at two o’clock in the morning, I’ll be there. We’ve created that culture of encouraging them to come forward no matter what it is. My place is to be there for them, to make them feel safe, and to care. But I won’t overstep my boundaries.
TMD: This is year 29 now for you at the University, and many of the survivors we heard at the trial spoke about three decades of abuse. What kinds of things have you seen in your time here?
Plocki: I would never speak publicly about anyone’s issue, but I can tell you in 29 years, we’ve dealt with a lot of things, from personal tragedy to homesickness to something that’s happened in childhood or after. We can’t prevent people from having personal traumatic events, especially if they don’t have anything to do with their time at the University. But we have plans in place to help anybody that comes forward, with anything they might be dealing with.
TMD: Did you know him? How well?
Plocki: Who didn’t know him? I know he did his undergraduate work here at Michigan, but beyond that, I didn’t know him here. I would not classify him as a friend, but he was acquaintances with everybody in our world. He was all over the place, so you’d run into him here, there, and he was always a very friendly person. That was part of his grooming, he was very kind, giving, accommodating. Other than seeing him in other venues … It makes me very happy to say we’ve never utilized his services or referred student-athletes to him. We utilize our own training staff.
TMD: Another wrinkle in this story is Michigan State’s involvement in the case, that officials created a culture that enabled this abuse and assault. What kinds of conversations have you been in among coaches, or in the Big Ten?
Plocki: We’re in the middle of our season, and so it’s not a pleasant thing for anyone to pick up the phone and speak about. I can only speak to our policies and procedures here, and it’s not appropriate for me to speak for anyone else. All I can really say is that Mr. Nassar was a master manipulator, and the number of children and young women that he fooled, the number of adults—be it parents or colleagues—it amazes me. I don’t know the specifics of any of that, so I’m not comfortable pointing fingers or placing blame.
TMD: Have you found that this moment of reckoning has affected your season at all?
Plocki: We’ve had three competitions, two that went well and this last one that didn’t go very well. If it’s affected us, I couldn’t put my finger on it. We want all of our focus and energy to be on our training and preparation. Outside here, I don’t have control over what else might be going on. I think everybody is appropriately concerned and disturbed, but it hasn’t impacted us as a team.
TMD: College coaches at schools like UCLA have spoken recently about their teams serving as safe havens for elite gymnasts, many of whom are survivors of abuse. Can you speak to that?
Plocki: Yeah, a place for people to come to heal. Athletes involved at the elite level or at the (Karolyi) training camps—a lot of people spoke up who didn’t have great experiences there—I have not gone back and spoken to girls, I haven’t tried to initiate. In general, elite level gymnastics is taxing, physically, emotionally and mentally. It’s hard on their bodies, there’s so much more pressure at level...for the most part, athletes that participated in that that come to college find a refreshing change and a positive way to complete their career. It’s not about the individual competing, it’s the first genuine team these girls have been a part of. Even if a teammate outscored them, they can be genuinely happy. A lot of kids that end their elite careers there are just burnt out.
TMD: The light at the end of the tunnel you mentioned is empowerment, and that many survivors now have a voice. Have you noticed a shift on the team from when people first spoke out?
Plocki: Yes. This is the power and control this man had. There were so many victims I knew who wanted to know if there were support groups to support him, it was like peeling back the onion. It was peeling it back until even some of the victims realized they did undergo those experiences, that they were hurt, that this guy is a monster.
People ask me if people might not want their children to join gymnastics. But gymnastics did not do this. Larry Nassar did this. Rather than shying away from gymnastics, what I would love to see is an overwhelming support for—just like these victims have come forward—I would love to see students at the University of Michigan come to Crisler (Arena) in teal shirts in a show of support in a show of strength for survivors and what they went through.
TMD: Moving forward, what structural changes have to be made in the gymnastics community?
Plocki: All of that is being discussed at the highest levels right now. I sit on the board of directors for collegiate women’s gymnastics and it’s really like, “Well, what can we do?” This is so widespread, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a program where someone isn’t a survivor or knows one. It’s hit everyone, and we’re thinking about what we can do as a collegiate gymnastics force. I don’t know what rule changes or policies will be yet, but I can guarantee you that USA Gymnastics and probably every college administration and club is having those conversations right now.
Beyond the fact that my heart breaks for every single person ever victimized by them, it saddens me that this monster has put a black cloud over this beautiful sport. So many of us have these children’s best interests at heart, and are doing things the right way. We can’t give him the power to overshadow the good, but I’m not denying that there’s bad. It just saddens me to be a part of something that’s been a positive part of my life. He was a monster, but the monster has been caged.