Standing on stage and sharing her story, no matter how many times she has done it, never gets easier for Sarah Klein, the first-known survivor of sexual abuse by former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
Klein was 8 when Nassar began molesting her in 1988. Now, at 40, she has become a mother figure for hundreds of other survivors of Nassar’s abuse and an advocate for survivors everywhere.
She will present her story at Pacific Lutheran University on Wednesday night at the Anderson University Center in Tacoma. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. and is free to the public.
“It’s a tragic story, but finding a way in which that story can be used for good has been a huge part of my healing process,” Klein said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Going from a scared, withdrawn, deeply affected young woman to a woman now who is strong and who is healing and is coming out the other side and who is using my story to help others on their journey has been really important.
“It never gets easier to put your most private experience out there for an audience to listen to,” she added, “but it’s in that vulnerability that you’re able to connect with others … and my goal is to leave every person in that audience changed in some way.”
Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison in January 2018. Klein was among the more than 150 women who confronted Nassar at his trial, and as a lawyer and mother of a 4-year-old daughter she continues to support other survivors.
Klein was invited to the Tacoma campus by PLU kinesiology professor Dr. Colleen Hacker, who has been the mental-skills coach for U.S. women’s soccer and hockey teams at six Olympic Games. They met when both were speakers during the ESPN Women’s Sports Summit in Southern California in October 2018.
“Sarah, as a mother, as a lawyer, as an advocate, as a survivor, her story is just so powerful and compelling and impactful,” Hacker said. “I give her all the credit. She’s in the eye of the storm … and she’s an indefatigable advocate. It speaks volumes how committed she is with this education and advocacy that she acquiesced to my request.”
Klein said sexual-assault awareness is particularly important on college campuses, citing a statistic that one in four female students have reported being assaulted.
“Universities and institutions in general are starting to do better, but for the most part it’s borne out of reactivity instead of proactivity,” Klein said. “They don’t want to be another Michigan State or another Boy Scouts. But how about we just want to be doing the very best we can because we’re human beings, you know? It’s not about limiting liability or exposure — it’s about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing.”
Many of Klein’s speaking engagements happen at places where incidents of abuse have happened, and her presence there is meant to offer a sort of course correction. That’s not the case at PLU, she said.
“They’re having the conversation because they care about their students and they care about athlete safety,” she said. “They clearly get it. They’re bringing in someone to talk about a really tough subject because they get it and because it’s about the total person and they want to put the total person out into the world to be the charge-makers. And I’m just so impressed by that and so supportive of that. … They’re being proactive just to be proactive. That’s very refreshing to me, and it’s a very different vibe with the conversation I get to have and hopefully I will leave them inspired in some way to go out and do better.”
Hacker said she expects a large audience Wednesday night, with top PLU administrators, local pro sports leaders and youth coaches among those who have committed to attend.
“If you have children, if you are working with children, if your life intersects with leaders in the community — if you’re involved with young people, you need to hear this message,” Hacker said. “Silence and denial are not going to move us forward. We’ve got to be honest and confront reality … education and truth are the answer. We have to speak, and we have to tell our stories — and we have to listen, and then we have to make structural changes. And all that is possible.”
Fallout from the Nassar scandal continues. The former Michigan State gymnastics coach, Kathie Klags, was found guilty of lying to investigators about her knowledge of Nassar’s abuse, and USA Gymnastics made recent headlines when it filed for bankruptcy protection.
“I always say that Larry Nassar changed the course of my life, and for a long time I thought it was for the worse,” Klein said. “Now standing here and being able to be vulnerable with you, I can say he changed the course of my life for the better, because I’m giving you my story to take out in the world and do better with it.”
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