Athlete A movie review & film summary (2020)

The three moments that hit me the hardest were images I had seen before but now, thanks to the careful, utterly compelling context of the film, I understood them in a new way. The first was the iconic moment from the 1996 Olympics, when Kerri Strug won the gold for the US Team with an extraordinary vault, almost perfectly executed despite a severe injury. It was one of the highlights not just of the Olympics but of any athletic event of the year, and she was universally praised for her courage and dedication, called the ultimate competitive athlete. Watching it again, narrated by Jennifer Sey, author of Chalked Up, about her experiences as an elite gymnast, I no longer saw courage and dedication. I saw a young woman in terrible pain, Karolyi not checking to see how she was, just calling out, “You can do it!” 

The second, just glimpsed in passing, was a sign that said “Women’s Gymnastics.” It’s a reminder that we overlook just how young these competitors are. And the third was McKayla Maroney’s scowl at the 2016 Olympics when she received her silver medal. It was a humorous meme at the time, even imitated by then-President Obama. But knowing she was abused by Nassar hundreds of times, including the very first time she saw him, suggests that the scowl may have been more than a pout over coming in second.

Cohen and Shenk show us that the Karolyi style of training was designed to keep the girls quiet and compliant, focused on their physical strength by keeping them emotionally unsure. Away from parents, teachers, and friends, the Karolyis were everything to the girls. The young athletes were taught to follow orders. The Karolyis weighed the girls every day and called them “pigs” if they gained weight. It is not a coincidence that Nassar used candy to help gain their confidence. 

One former gymnast says, “The line between tough coaching and abuse gets blurred.” This may be what it takes to win gold at the Olympics, but is it worth the cost?

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