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Survivors Project: Olivia Cowan's Story

Olivia Cowan was sexually abused by now-imprisoned gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar when she became his patient at age 13. The abuse continued, many times with her mother in the room, over the course of three years.

"If I think too much about it, it is truly like I am back in that room."

Olivia was one of many women and girls who testified against Nassar in court. Many said their parents were in the room as Nassar abused them. She was one of 180 survivors who sued Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee.

Olivia has found healing in therapy, yoga and hearing from other survivors.

"Hearing their stories and being able to connect to them is so comforting and such a beautiful resource for the world." 

The following is Olivia's account in her own words and edited for clarity.

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I was around the age of 13 when the abuse started. 

I was sexually abused by the former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. 

I saw him as a patient for roughly three years. 

He diagnosed me with a few lower back fractures and assured me and my mom and my coaches that if I were to follow his treatment plan that I would someday be pain free and able to continue on the path of being a gymnast, which I loved so much. 

The first day that I walked into his office, he talked about his long-standing reputation as an Olympic gymnastics doctor and brought up names of people that in my mind at that age were some of my heroes. 

My mom and I sat through that first appointment with such hope. 

I felt so grateful that I was being given the opportunity to be seen by him and to be under his watchful eye of healing. 

On that second visit, he brought me in, and my mom was with me the whole time in the room. And he wanted to work on the IT band on the outside of my leg. 

He just explained that I was having some lower back spasms because that outer muscle on my leg was really quite tight. 

So he positioned me on the bed and I laid under a sheet of paper. 

And he had casual conversation with my mom for roughly 35 to 40 minutes at a time, while he on one hand penetrated me vaginally and anally. 

I was just so confused that he was hurting me in areas that were so private to me. 

But because of who he was, I never, never for a second even doubted him. 

It felt horrible and yet I was confused, but I laid there for often times 30 to 40 minutes at a time, just talking myself through the end of that appointment. 

He used that pain on my leg to distract me from the pain vaginally as a young child. Having [my mom] in the room was part of his plan. She was there every step of the way, but she could not see what he was doing under the sheet of paper. 

That was his set-up, that was his way of making me feel at ease and totally distracting her from what he was doing. 

You have to remember he had been doing this to women for over 20 years before I was a patient of his. 

At that point, he had completely perfected his manipulations. I’m sure that any question that would have come up from my mother or me, he would absolutely know how to handle it, because I’m sure he had in the past. 

If I think too much about it, it is truly like I am back in that room.

I’ll never forget the moment. I was driving and I had a message from one of my gymnastic coaches. 

I hadn’t talked to her in years. And she sent me a message saying it’s an emergency.

I called her and she said have you seen the news? And I said no and she sent me a link. 

It was a link of Rachel Denhollander, who was the first woman to come forward. 

I get chills thinking of it, because it was like her story was mine. 

The way she was able to put those graphic things into words, made me realize that something was wrong. 

I think I had about a 30-minute drive home thinking, "Oh my gosh, how am I even going to explain this to, you know, my husband, my mom. Where do I even begin?" 

I had previously shared with my husband when we were engaged that I had a horrible back injury. That I saw this really reputable doctor and that it was really uncomfortable but he had to penetrate me vaginally. 

And at that moment he said, well, that is absolutely wrong. 

You know, how could you say that that is medical practice? 

I got really, really upset with him. 

"How dare you think that? You know what was happening in that treatment room, and that's what needed to happen to heal my back." 

The day that I saw Rachel Denhollander, I started there. 

I shared the video that she had created with the IndyStar and I just cried. 

And he knew, he knew that that all the dots had connected and that it was starting to surface. 

At that moment, I knew something was kind of happening, but I still was trying to talk myself into the treatment that I thought was legitimate for 13 years. 

For the next 24 hours after that I really, really thought long and hard about if I wanted to contact somebody, and my worst fear in that moment was ruining him.

He was my light in shining armor. 

And so you form this beautiful relationship with somebody who you think is healing you. 

When there comes a point where you think maybe there's a reason to doubt that, it's like your world is crashing down on you. 

You hear stories about his wife and children and all of the travels that they are doing. 

That was really, really tough and is still tough, to be honest with you. 

Not that I feel guilt or shame for coming forward, but his life is over. 

It’s been two years now. And, it’s been a journey. 

I question my intuition, a lot. That’s given to a woman on purpose, and when it doesn’t serve you, even in one moment, you second guess it. 

I’m a mother of two young daughters, and my role as their mother is, keep them safe. 

There is not a day that, you know, these triggers don’t come back. 

Those feelings will be with me forever.

It was horrifying for [my mother]. It was her worst nightmare come true. 

If I were in her shoes, I would be so crushed. Knowing that I was there and that I was asking good questions, and looking back, she did everything in her power to keep me safe. 

Just the guilt and the shame that she still feels is sad to see.

 But I know that, after two years of going through this, she sees such strength in me, that I have created something powerful. 

That is probably the only thing that helps her sleep at night when those thoughts are on her mind. 

I have always kept a small piece of me and that piece has never been given to anybody. 

To know full heartedly that this abuse has trickled into so many parts of my life. 

Therapy was a huge part of my healing process. 

I knew right away that I needed therapy, but putting that into play was challenging for me. 

The thought of having to re-live each detail, graphically, with somebody that I did not know and that I had not formed trust with yet, it definitely brought about a lot of anxiety. 

But once you feel confident in that person ... it really helped me understand the feelings that I was having and the outlets that I could turn to when I was in need. 

And I am forever grateful. 

strategies that helped me were, for one, just giving myself a little bit of grace. 

Days where, you know, it was literally one foot in front of the other and that was just the best that I could do that day. 

Starting my day every day with something positive has really helped … whether it is a podcast or a favorite song or just setting my intentions for that day. 

And knowing if I get sidetracked in those emotions, that it is OK. It is okay to not always feel strong and empowered. 

It was really and truly retraining my brain and coaching myself moment by moment through breath work – just thinking of the things that I am grateful for. Visualizing people in my life that are meaningful and authentic and huge supporters. 

Another thing that I found to be really helpful was practicing yoga. 

Channeling my energy into positive movement has been the best healing for me.

And the releases that I got through sometimes tears or just detoxing my body during yoga was very, very impactful for me. 

The day that I took the stand to read my victim impact statement, I literally felt like an elephant released from my chest. 

To stand in front of him and, you know, relive that was horrifying. However, I am so glad that I did it. 

It really showed me every step of the way when he did have an opportunity to respond, what a manipulative person he is. And that he was truly sick. 

He is a sick individual that did not seek help, and his actions are absolutely what got him to what he is dealing with now, Which is a jail cell for the rest of his life. 

On the civil end, it was a necessity because the people that stood behind Larry Nassar and did not listen to the women that came forward and brought concerns and police reports and told individuals at Michigan State University as well as the USOC. And they turned a blind eye. 

And each one of them is, in my mind, just as much a criminal as Larry Nassar. It’s about time that that stops. And that there’s protocols in place that bring about change … so that this never happens again. 

I would like to tell anybody out that maybe going through a similar walk of life that you matter. 

The process of healing is so important so you can get to the other side, which is so bright. 

There were definitely times where in my weakest moments I wondered why I was here. 

And if you have those similar feelings, it is one foot in front of the other and each bad day is only 24 hours. And the next day is a fresh start. 

And talking about it may not be for you, but ... just giving yourself grace and just coaching yourself through each moment, because there are so many great moments to live for. 

After I checked out the project I knew that I had to be a part of it. Because there were a lot of lonely nights that I lay awake in bed feeling like I was the only person feeling this way. 

Hearing their stories and being able to connect to them is so comforting and such a beautiful resource for the world. 

The future is so bright. ... If you look at the positive things, regardless of how big or small they are in your life, you will also realize that this world is good and that there are so many good people out there and there is a lot to be grateful for.

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