ROCKDALE – One of the more than 150 women who spoke out against former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar in a courtroom in Michigan last week has local ties.
Olivia Cowan works as a salon consultant at Professional Salon Concepts in Rockdale and lives in Shorewood with her husband and two daughters – ages 2 and 4.
She also sought help from a man who was characterized by the case’s prosecutor as “possibly the most prolific serial child sex abuser in history.”
“The hardest battle I will continue to face is even in the situations you feel most safe, you can never let your guard down,” Cowan said as she testified against the 54-year-old Nassar, who was sentenced Wednesday to 40 to 175 year in prison for molesting young female athletes under the guise of giving medical treatment. “If you can’t trust a world-renowned doctor, who in this world can you trust?”
During her testimony, Cowan not only condemned Nassar but also called out Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, where Nassar was employed for years, for allowing his abuse to go on as long as it did and subject the athletes abused to “an afterlife of pain and agony.”
She said testifying in front of Nassar was a painful experience but also a freeing one. Cowan decided to come forward because “future generations deserve better than what we’ve experienced in this situation.”
“Just being able to know that starting on that day our voices were going to be heard was the best, most relieving feeling,” Cowan said. “But being in front of him was like reliving the pain all over again.”
USA Gymnastics trains Olympic athletes, and Olympians Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and McKayla Maroney were among the women and girls who described Nassar’s abuse.
“MSU knew what was being done to these athletes, and decided to turn a blind eye to keep their reputation strong and their pockets full,” Cowan said in court. “We can see how you’re handling this matter, and I can tell you, from a mother’s experience, that I expect better effort from my two young children.”
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told Nassar, “I just signed your death warrant,” as she sentenced him and praised the victims who appeared in her court, calling them “sister survivors.”
“It is my honor and privilege to sentence you. You do not deserve to walk outside a prison ever again,” said Aquilina, who called his actions “precise, calculated, manipulative, devious, despicable.”
Cowan is from Frankfort, Michigan, and trained as a gymnast for
16 years. She went to see Nassar after a coach referred her to him for her lower back injury.
She said two of her fellow teammates also went to him for treatment about the same time. Cowan was 13.
Aquilina ensured every survivor’s voice was heard, Cowan said, and she acted with grace. Nassar’s most recent sentencing provided Cowan with a bit of closure.
Later in the day Wednesday, Michigan State University, which has asked the state attorney general to conduct a review of how the university handled the Nassar case, announced President Lou Anna Simon’s resignation amid mounting pressure. The U.S. Olympic Committee’s CEO also announced an independent inquiry Wednesday.
“I think that’s honestly why I woke up today,” Cowan said of Simon’s stepping down. “These organizations need sound systems in place. To me, you can have the best system, but with the wrong people, the systems are no good.”
She said USA Gymnastics and MSU are on the right paths but have long ways to go. The organizations deserve a fresh start – just as do the survivors, Cowan said.
In addition to the Michigan sentence, Nassar must serve a 60-year federal sentence for child pornography crimes. With credit for good behavior, he could complete that sentence in about 55 years. By then, he would be more than 100 years old if still alive.
He also is scheduled to be sentenced next week on more assault convictions in Eaton County, Michigan.
Prosecutor Angela Povilaitis said competitive gymnastics provided the “perfect place” for his crimes because victims saw him as a “god.”
“It takes some kind of sick perversion to not only assault a child but to do so with her parent in the room, to do so while a lineup of eager young gymnasts waited,” Povilaitis said.
She urged people to believe young victims of sexual abuse no matter who they accuse and praised journalists, including those at the Indianapolis Star. The newspaper’s 2016 investigation of how USA Gymnastics handled sexual abuse allegations against coaches prompted a former gymnast to alert the paper to Nassar.
Although Nassar’s work with gymnasts received the most attention, the allegations against him spanned more than a dozen sports over 25 years.
At one point, Nassar turned to the courtroom gallery to make a brief statement. He said the victims’ accounts had “shaken me to my core.”
The 54-year-old said “no words” could describe how sorry he is.
“I will carry your words with me for the rest of my days,” he said as many of his accusers wept.
The judge then read from a letter that Nassar had written to her that raised questions about whether he was truly remorseful.
The victims who packed the courtroom gasped as they heard passages that included “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” and another in which Nassar said the “stories” about him were fabricated.
He also defended his actions with the athletes as “medical, not sexual.”
“I was a good doctor because my treatment worked, and those patients that are now speaking out were the same ones that praised and came back over and over, and referred family and friends to see me,” Nassar wrote.
Nassar pleaded guilty to assaulting seven people in the Lansing, Michigan, area, including in the basement of his home and at his MSU office. But the sentencing hearing was open to anyone who said they were a victim.
Accusers said he would use his ungloved hands to penetrate them, often without explanation, while they were on a table seeking help for various injuries.
The accusers, many of whom were children, said they trusted Nassar and were in denial about what was happening or were afraid to speak up. He sometimes used a sheet or his body to block the view of any parent in the room.
“The complaints should’ve been enough for you to open your eyes and ears and to ensure that there was intentional follow through involved to protect the women under your care,” Cowan said to the courtroom of Nassar’s employers. “You failed all of us.”
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.