In one of the most powerful and emotional moments in the ESPY Awards’ history, more than 100 survivors of the disgraced doctor Larry Nassar, were honored for their courage in making their stories heard — even when no one would listen.
Jennifer Garner presented the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to the 140 of the hundreds of child athletes who have spoken out about the horrific sexual abuse they experienced while under the care of the now-imprisoned Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor.
The group of victims, including Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, took to the stage after a heartwrenching video introduction.
As the large group of “sister survivors” made their way onto the stage at the Microsoft Theater, they were given a standing ovation by the country’s top sports stars, many of whom stopped clapping only to wipe away their tears.
Three of Nassar’s victims, Raisman, Sarah Klein, and Tiffany Thomas Lopez, described the horrific experience of being ignored when they reported sexual abuse.
“The ripple effect of our actions, or inactions, can be enormous, spanning generations. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this nightmare is that it could have been avoided,” Raisman said. “Whether you act or do nothing, you are shaping the world that we live in. Impacting others. All we needed was one adult to have the integrity stand between us and Larry Nassar.”
She added: “If just one adult had listened, believed and acted, the people standing before you on this stage would have never have met him.”
Klein, a former gymnast, said she was first abused by Nassar more than three decades ago.
“Speaking up and speaking out is not easy. Telling our stories of abuse over and over and over again, in graphic detail, is not easy,” she said. “We’re sacrificing privacy and being judged and scrutinized, and it is painful, but it is time. “
Lopez, a softball player, spoke about the need for people to become more engaged in uncomfortable conversations, especially when it comes to sexual abuse — which affects people of all races.
“There are a lot of conversations in our society that we tiptoe around as if they’re something to avoid,” she said. “Sexual abuse claims victims come in every race, showing no discrimination.”
But appearing on stage in front of a national audience to share their stories was a step forward in their healing, Lopez said.
“Tonight,” Lopez explained, “we stand here and it feels like we’re finally winning.”
In January, dozens of victims appeared at Michigan’s Ingham County Circuit Courtroom to read impact statements during Nassar’s sentencing hearing. It was there that Raisman spoke directly to Nassar during the trial.
“You never healed me. You took advantage of our passions and our dreams,” Raisman, 24, told Nassar. “Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice. Well, you know what Larry, I have my power and my voice, and I will use them.”
Raisman also thanked Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during the awards show for allowing the victims to face Nassar in the courtroom.
“Thank you, Judge Aquilina, for honoring our voices. For too long, we were ignored, and you helped us to rediscover the power we each possess,” Raisman said. “You may never meet the hundreds of children you saved, but know they exist.”
Before closing their group acceptance speech, Raisman had a powerful message for other survivors.
“We may suffer alone,” she said, “but we survive together.”
Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison in December after pleading guilty to child pornography charges, then sentenced to 40 to 175 years in January after pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual assault of minors.
Raisman has become a voice for those abused but she said in PEOPLE’s February cover story that coming to terms with what happened to her has been difficult. “You never really want to say, ‘I was sexually abused,’ ” she says, “but you have to process it. You can’t push it aside forever, which is what I did for a long time. I’m still processing it and coping with it.”
One of the ways that Raisman copes with her past is to be a clear voice for change in the sport. “You lose a part of yourself when you’re abused,” she says. “I lost a part of myself, and I’m getting it back by speaking out.”
“I’m just starting to realize how strong I am,” she adds, “and I won’t be silenced.
Leading up to the ceremony, vice president and editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine, Alison Overholt, praised the courage of the athletes who helped to bring down the predator doctor.
“We are honored to recognize the courage of these women at the 2018 ESPYS,” Overholt explained, “to acknowledge the power of their voices, and to shine a very well-deserved spotlight on what speaking up, fighting back and demanding accountability can accomplish.”
Overholt continued: “They have shown us all what it truly means to speak truth to power, and through their bravery, they are making change for future generations. By honoring this group who spoke out, we aim to honor all of those who are survivors of abuse.”