LANSING, Mich. — The youngest survivors of Larry Nassar's abuse were teenagers when they confronted the former Michigan State University sports doctor in a Lansing courtroom in January 2018.
Emily Morales, Megan Ginter and Katelynne Hall, all 18 at the time, were three of the 156 women who gave victim impact statements about Nassar's sexual abuse.
Nassar abused all three when they went to him for treatment of gymnastics injuries. Morales was 11 with nagging back pain. Ginter was 13 with hip pain no one could diagnose or fix. Hall went to him at 13 with a stress fracture.
It's been five years since Nassar's abuse was first made public when the Indianapolis Star, a part of the USA TODAY Network, published a story about two women accusing the former doctor of sexual abuse on Sept. 12, 2016.
Nassar is serving an effective life sentence in federal prison.
And these three young women are in college.
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Morales aims to be a gymnastics coach. Ginter is debating between nursing and law school after she graduates with her bachelor's degree. Hall wants to be an entrepreneur and open her own business.
They're healing. They're growing. They're moving on with their lives.
Prioritizing mental health
After confronting Nassar at his sentencing hearing, Morales, who is now 22 and living in Allendale, Michigan, thought she would feel a wave of peace. He apologized. She could forgive him.
“I feel like that definitely helped me to at least be able to say, conceptually, like OK, he said sorry, that means now I get to forgive him and move on with my life,” Morales said in June. “I figured I would just go off to college, live in California, my depression would just go away, my anxiety would just go away, I’d be a nurse – like everything was going to be great and I would never struggle again.”
It didn’t happen that way. She said she felt depressed and anxious all the time.
“The hardest part was just trying to figure out what is it actually going to take to get me out of this, because I couldn’t get out of it,” Morales said. “I just really felt so stuck.”
Morales said she did what she had to do to make it through the rest of her senior year of high school. She spent the summer after as a counselor at a Christian family camp in northern Michigan, then flew to San Diego to start her pre-nursing degree at Point Loma Nazarene University.
She jumped into campus activities, excited for a new chapter of her life.
It was too much too soon.
“It was just go, go, go all the time and I just drowned,” Morales said. “I just couldn’t do it. My mental health really plummeted until I was not safe.”
Morales said she was having suicidal thoughts, so she took a semester off, moved in with her sister in Chicago and did an intensive outpatient therapy program.
She then transferred to Grand Valley State University and changed her major to exercise science. Morales figured it would prepare her to be a gymnastics coach, something she had always dreamed of doing.
Until Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January 2018, Morales said she wanted nothing to do with Nassar’s criminal cases. She hadn’t read any articles, watched any videos or asked questions.
But once she saw videos of the women and girls who had already given impact statements, she was shocked at how much their experiences mirrored her own.
Morales asked the Attorney General’s office to be added to the list of women giving victim impact statements. A total of 156 women spoke over a seven-day period. Morales spoke on day six.
“I felt like for me to eventually be able to have closure, I needed him to apologize to me,” Morales said. “And he did.”
After a full course load her first year at Grand Valley, she considered returning to intensive outpatient therapy. Now she’s taking things slower.
“If I graduate in five years, but I have good healthy habits, I figure out how to go to the gym and do workouts that I love and take care of my body and I learn how to cook and how to fuel my body with good foods, and just learn to be an adult and not focus solely on school and stress myself out until I’m burned out every semester,” Morales said, “I would much rather do that.”
Morales said she is scoring lower than she has in years on depression and anxiety screenings. She’s more confident. Things have settled down.
She’s slowly adding classes and activities into her schedule. She started coaching gymnastics at Champion Gymnastics in Holland, Michigan.
The kids range from 8 to 12 and are goofy and sweet, but old enough to know how to take corrections and apply the drills to their routines, Morales said.
“I definitely get a lot of joy out of it, it doesn’t always feel like work,” Morales said.
Morales said she wants to normalize the idea that it’s OK to take a semester off school and get a job and prioritize going to therapy and exercising and taking care of themselves.
“I went to intensive outpatient (therapy) and talked about my feelings, all day long for five weeks. And it sucked. It sounds kind of taboo, but that’s how I got to where I am today,” Morales said. “I just want other people to hear that and be like, ‘Oh wait, that’s an option?’ Because I didn’t even think it was an option.”
Becoming an advocate
In a weird way, recovering from Nassar’s abuse led Megan Ginter to her future career.
Being a voice and advocate for other survivors has been the outlet that has helped her the most in her recovery, Ginter said. She started working as an advocate a few months after Nassar’s sentencing.
“So much of my life has become advocating for survivors of sexual assault,” Ginter said. “That’s the one thing that’s healed me the most. Helping other people.”
Ginter, an Ohio State University senior, is majoring in psychology and is debating whether to go into law or nursing after she graduates with her bachelor’s degree next spring.
If Ginter goes into nursing, she said she wants to be a sexual assault nurse examiner, which is who she works with most frequently now in her job as an advocate. If she goes to law school, she wants to work for the Attorney General’s office prosecuting perpetrators of sexual assault.
Ginter's often asked if she’s been abused herself, which allows her to connect with the people she meets. It helps them – and her – to be able to share her experiences and how she’s grown from them.
“I enjoy any job that’s compassionate,” Ginter said. “I’ve been working at a nursing home for a while, I enjoy taking care of people, emotionally or physically. That’s what I like to do, this experience showed me that.”
Ginter was referred to Nassar at 13 by an Ohio State University gymnastics coach after a string of doctors couldn’t diagnose or heal her chronic hip pain. She saw Nassar twice, then he referred her to another doctor.
Since then, Ginter has had three hip surgeries and the pain remains.
“For a while [the pain] was a huge trigger,” Ginter said. “It was difficult to still have pain and recognize and realize the pain is what got me into this situation, almost.”
Ginter hadn’t planned on giving a victim impact statement; she just wanted closure. But she attended a gathering for survivors just before Nassar’s sentencing hearing began. She met another survivor who also hadn’t planned to speak. They bonded, and Ginter realized she needed to speak.
“Even if not for myself, for other women abused by him,” she said. “I felt like I had to do it. And I’m so glad I did. I can’t imagine healing the same way I did without going to court.”
But in the time after Nassar’s sentencing, Ginter struggled. She was a senior in high school and the sudden recipient of unwanted attention. It was overwhelming, especially as someone on the shyer side.
“I would have people I didn’t know stare at me in the hall,” Ginter said. “It was something I was not ready to open back up about, and I was basically forced to.”
Ginter had never been an advocate for therapy before, but with enough time, antidepressants and therapists, Ginter said she's had what she needs to heal. Therapy changed her life, she said.
“I really am glad that I went through all of this,” Ginter said. “I wish the sexual assault didn’t happen to me. It had a big negative impact as well. But it demonstrated I can overcome things.”
At the get-together prior to Nassar’s sentencing, the women all received little rocks with words painted on them. Hers said resilient. She plans to get a tattoo of it.
“It speaks to me,” Ginter said. “When I feel weak, I have to stop and remember what I overcame. … I’ve come to see I’m resilient”
Ginter said she wants other survivors to know it was not their fault, regardless of the circumstances.
“That’s something that took me a long time to come to terms with,” she said. “I felt dirty, used, like I somehow was the cause. Now I do not feel like that at all.”
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Finding a new passion
Unlike Ginter and Morales, Katelynne Hall needed to get away from anything that reminded her of Nassar to heal.
Formerly an exercise science major at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Hall, who is 21, switched to visual communication technology after Nassar’s sentencing in 2018.
Hall was in her freshman year at BGSU at that point. Dealing with Nassar on top of school was too much, she said. Her grades began to suffer. At one point, she was close to academic probation. She struggled to focus.
Once she found a good therapist, things changed. She lives at home with her parents, about 15 minutes from campus, something she said helps immensely in her recovery.
“It took me a lot to get where I’m at now,” Hall said. “I still feel like I’m always going to hold a piece of that. You hold it with you. It’s never going to go away completely. I’m definitely healing still, but I’m definitely getting better.”
Withdrawing from the exercise science program helped in her recovery more than she thought it would, she said. It had reminded her too much of her abuse.
“I think the triggers are the hardest part,” Hall said. “I think a lot of people like to think you’re good, you’ve healed from it, but one little thing that happens can throw off your whole day.”
When she took a required entrepreneurship class for her new major, it ignited a passion in her she hadn’t felt since she was a gymnast.
Hall has elevated her GPA and is able to focus more on school. She has plans to open her own business after she graduates in the spring. She aims to open a coffee shop with a bar and grill in the back. Something with a speakeasy-type feel, she said.
Hall first went to Nassar when she was 8 years old for heel pain. But she started seeing him more regularly for back pain when she turned 13, and that is when the abuse began, she said. Nassar abused her for more than three years, until she was 16 and quit gymnastics.
In December 2017, when she finally told her parents about Nassar’s abuse, she was coaching gymnastics for younger girls.
“It was almost the fact of, if I don’t speak out, this could happen to them,” Hall said.
Hall said she is glad she decided to give a victim impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing.
“It helped a little bit with the healing process, being able to come out and talk about it,” Hall said. “For the longest time, I kept it bottled up inside.”
Being able to speak out about her abuse with a strong group of women behind her was an “amazing feeling,” Hall said.
“The sister survivors inspired me,” Hall said. “I know how much it helped me and how much power it made me feel again. You don’t feel like you have any of that.”
If you're a victim of sexual assault you can call the national sexual assault hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
The national sexual assault hotline has an online messaging option and is available 24/7.
Follow Kara Berg on Twitter: @karaberg95.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Sexual abuse survivors share recovery after doctor Nassar sentence