Her latest collection with Aerie will benefit the nation's leading advocate for the prevention of child sexual abuse.

By Kylie Gilbert
Feb 22, 2021 @ 11:40 am
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Credit: Andrew Buda

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman may be retired, but she's doing everything she can to make gymnastics safer for young girls who aspire to be the next Aly or Simone.

In 2017, Raisman released her book Fierce, describing the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of the USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and in 2018, delivered her powerful testimony at Nassar's 2018 sentencing hearing. (He has since been convicted and has been sentenced to 175 years in prison.) Since then, she's been working to provide young athletes with the abuse-free environment she wishes she had by speaking out against USA Gymnastics and working with organizations like Darkness to Light, the nation's leading advocate for the prevention of child sexual abuse. She's also become a vocal mental health advocate, shedding light on the often silent mental health struggles that survivors of sexual abuse experience.

As an Aerie ambassador since 2018, she has always released collections that are deeply personal, both in design and cause. (In a previous collection, a sports bra was printed with 'Trust Yourself', something Raisman says was hard to do after the abuse she experienced.) Her newest capsule collection, OFFLINE by Aerie x Aly Raisman, available March 4, will be Raisman's third collaboration with the brand that has benefited Darkness to Light.

Credit: Andrew Buda

Ahead of the collection launch, we talked to Raisman about her journey to healing — and why the fight for justice is far from over.

You've been involved with Darkness to Light since 2018. What are they, and you, doing to ensure athletes have abuse-free environments?

I started working with Darkness to Light very soon after I spoke in court a couple of years ago. They actually reached out after they saw all of us speak and it's just been really incredible to be able to learn from them. I've taken the course that they have and I really believe in it. It's something I wish that every single adult took because if we want to prevent child sexual abuse, we have to have the adults educated — we can't expect the children to know something's wrong. One of the things we're working on is the Flip the Switch campaign, which offers training for free because we recognize trying to convince adults to take training is hard, especially when it's about sexual abuse. A lot of people don't want to talk about it or think about it. So the collaborations with Aerie are so amazing because it donates a lot of money to the campaign and allows people to take this training for free, which is so important.

Simone Biles said in a recent 60 Minutes interview that she wouldn't feel comfortable with her future daughter being part of USA gymnastics because she's not confident the abuse won't happen again. Do you feel the same?

I've thought a lot about this question and, you know, I realized it's not the sport [that's the problem]. I love gymnastics so much and it has brought me so many incredible lessons and friendships and so many amazing experiences. So it's not the sport, it's the corrupt system — that's the problem. It's the organization, it's the people that enable these things to happen. And so you know, I agree with Simone that USA gymnastics, the United States Olympic Committee, haven't done what we've been asking them to do to ensure this doesn't happen again. A really important thing that has not been done that we've been asking for for years is: We want answers. It's so important to have an independent investigation because you can't say that things are better if we don't understand who knew exactly what, when, how this happened and what [aspects] of the system were flawed or corrupt that allowed this to go on for so long. And it's really important for us to understand that for us to be able to believe in a better USA gymnastics. And they still haven't done that. In fact, I feel like they're still trying to get away from acting like they did anything wrong, which is not okay.

I also think it's important to recognize that the way survivors feel can be greatly impacted by how their abuse is handled or not handled. Ours has been really poorly handled. So it really impacts survivors because this has been going on for so long and we're still having to talk about it in interviews because nothing has changed. It's always triggering when you have to talk about it; when you see things in the news about it. It's taking years and years and years, when it should not, it shouldn't be like that.

You've been outspoken about the anxiety and PTSD you've experienced as a result of your experience and you've also been a big mental health advocate these past few years. What do you want people to know about the healing process and what has that looked like for you as of late?

The last couple of months I'm starting to feel a little bit more like myself, but I have, you know, ups and downs just like everyone else. Healing isn't one size fits all and every day I feel differently. Some days I feel calmer and other days I feel triggered by the smallest things. I still get triggered often, but I think that's normal when there's so much trauma that I've experienced. I'm trying to take it day by day, but multiple times a week I will spend time writing in a journal and talking to an expert, and just really working on myself, but it's a process.

But I'm also hoping to help educate people that healing takes a long time and abuse isn't something that you just suffer in the moment; it can really carry on with you. And I think a really important thing for people to understand is that survivors being supported and heard and believed is really, really crucial to their healing because when you've gone through abuse, there's often so much gaslighting. There's a lot of manipulation. It's really can be very confusing. You start to second-guess your own thoughts. You start to feel like you can't trust yourself anymore. You don't know what's right. I just hope that we get to a point one day where when a survivor shares their story publicly, people understand that you can't know what anyone else is going through. We just have to be compassionate.

You recently partnered with Woodward gymnastics camp, which you actually attended when you were younger, to help with their program and also champion a safer environment for the campers. All staff will undergo Darkness to Light training, but how else are you helping to create a different experience for this next generation? I imagine mental health is much more of a conversation.

We want the kids to have fun and recognize that they're more than just an athlete, whether it's a gymnast or a skateboarder or whatever they come to camp for. It's also important to recognize that when the kids come to camp, they may be struggling with, you know, being bullied back home or maybe they're having trouble with something going on at home or at their gym. So we want to give tools to help kids so that they really trust their gut, and empower them to ask questions. I wish I asked more questions growing up. I'm trying to learn from the things I wish I had when I was younger by talking to other survivors or other athletes.

I definitely think the [mental health] conversation is getting so much better — I have seen a shift even in the way I feel talking about [mental health]. In the first interview I did a couple of years ago talking about anxiety and depression, I felt really embarrassed and now I don't feel like that at all. If anything, it feels freeing. I know that so many people are experiencing it, so it just feels nice to be able to connect with people and it makes it a little easier to navigate because I don't feel like I'm suffering alone.

Some people are saying that it's a new era for gymnastics right now; there are all of these fun routines going viral and it's more joy-filled and less uptight. What's your take on that?

I'm not competing anymore so it's hard to say, but I think it's so great to see the collegiate gymnasts and how their routines, I mean, they look like they're having so much fun. I think that it's sort of like anything else — of course, there are a lot of gymnasts that might be enjoying themselves and may feel like there are certain parts of [the sport] that are better. But there are also a lot of collegiate gymnasts that have spoken out in the last few years about different types of abuse, including verbal abuse. And it's the same with the elite world — there are some coaches that I hear from the gymnasts that are great, and certain coaches that aren't. So, it's hard to generalize, but overall, it's really nice to see. There was so much about abuse, and we're so grateful for the support, but I think it's also really great for the fans to see gymnasts having fun as well.

But again, it's important that we also recognize that the leadership still at USA gymnastics is not doing the right thing. They need to investigate and they have to be transparent about what happened and why it happened. In fact, Darkness to Light had been working with USA Gymnastics for about six years. And they said they weren't doing the things they were suggesting and so they decided not to work with them anymore — they just want to put out a press release [and be done with it]. You can look at their press statements that they put out now and they're very similar to what they were decades ago. It's just a lot of the same talk, but no action behind it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.