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CLARENCE PAGE: Larry Nassar scandal shows how the ‘twisties’ can take different forms

As I watched Simone Biles and three other U.S. Olympic gymnasts tell a Senate committee of how badly their complaints of sexual abuse had been handled by the FBI, I was reminded of the day Biles abruptly withdrew from her event at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

The multiple gold medal winner cited “mental health” reasons but fortunately bounced back into Olympic competition later. But her explanation at a news conference that she got “a little bit lost in the air” stuck with me.

I learned about something called “the twisties,” a gymnasts’ term for a midair moment during their aerial jumps, twists and turns when they suddenly and uncontrollably lose awareness of where the heck they are in their routine.

Indeed. As I watched her and her fellow medal-winning gymnasts McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols share their horrific and heartbreaking stories of sexual abuse by since-convicted team doctor Larry Nassar, it was painfully obvious that gymnasts aren’t the only ones who get lost in the air.

Behind the glitter and glory of the grand games lurked one of the biggest child sex scandals in American history. Hundreds of girls and women, including most of the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics teams, were molested by Nassar, who is now serving what amounts to life in prison for multiple sex crimes.

Now, as the young women’s testimony made painfully clear, we need to demand answers to a lot more questions about the FBI and the sports system that failed to protect them, including USA Gymnastics, the sport’s official governing body and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

“To be clear, I blame Larry Nassar,” Biles said tearfully, “and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse.”

Maroney, an Olympian in 2012, offered graphic examples of Nassar’s repeated abuses, including a harrowing ordeal with Nassar “molesting me for hours” when they were in Tokyo for a competition.

But compounding her mental and physical abuse, she said, was the apparent indifference she heard on the other end of the line in 2015, when she was 19 years old and reporting her ordeal to the FBI — before she had even told her mother what Nassar had done. She said the agent’s response was, “Is that all?”

Worse, she said, the FBI didn’t document her charges for 17 months in a report that also made false claims about what she said.

But a new day of reckoning may be upon us, thanks in part to the women who courageously came forward to report Nassar’s abuses. Maroney’s allegations appear to be supported by a July report from the Department of Justice’s inspector general that details failures of the FBI’s Indianapolis field office in its response to allegations against Nassar.

Michael Langeman, the agent who interviewed Maroney, was fired a week before the hearing, according to news reports, and his former boss, Jay Abbott, retired in 2018.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, who became director after the Nassar case was bungled, apologized for the “totally unacceptable” failures in his agency. That’s good, for starters.

Yes, it’s not only gymnasts who get the “twisties.” Sometimes the people we trust to look out for their interests can be “more than a little bit lost in the air” too.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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