Unalome Chronicles: Mattie Larson, Former US National Team Gymnast & Sexual Assault Prevention Activist

Mattie Larson was a consistent star in the world of gymnastics over the course of her athletic career, qualifying and competing for the most prestigious teams around the world at the highest levels. In 2018, along with 156 other women, Mattie courageously testified against Larry Nassar, her former US National Team Gymnastics doctor and serial sexual assaulter. As a result of this trial, which was one of the largest sexual assault investigations in US history, Nassar was sent to prison on account of hundreds of sex crimes. After the trial, Mattie went on to pass and amend bills with the US Congress in Washington, DC, to increase the protections of children from sexual assault. Testifying face-to-face with her abuser in court was one of the most difficult things Mattie has had to face, however, speaking her truth re-instilled her sense of self-worth and confidence that had been lacking for so long.

Facts & Backstory…

Mattie’s Gymnastics Career History:
In 2006, at age 14, Mattie qualified for the Junior International Elite Team, and in 2007 she became a member the US National Team, where she would remain competing through 2011. At the international elite competition, she made a name for herself as she won the gold in the Vault exercise and bronze in the All-Around (all four exercises combined). In 2007, she also competed on the international stage at the Pan American Games, where she won gold on the Floor exercise, with a show-stopping performance, as well as won the gold in the All-Around. After this competition, she was named the United States Olympic Committee Athlete of the Month. In 2008, still on the National Team, Mattie joined the US Olympic training squad, but due to a severe leg injury, she could not join the team. Competing with a double-sprained ankle at the Gymnix World Cup in 2009, Mattie still took home gold medals on both the Floor and Beam exercises. In 2009, Mattie had to sit out the World Championships due to injuries, but came back in 2010 to win the all-around title at the Cover Girl Classic, still competing on the National Team. That same year, she won the gold on Floor, the bronze on the Uneven Bars and the silver in the All-Around at the US National Championships and was selected to be a member of the US Team for the World Championships. In 2012, Mattie joined the UCLA gymnastics team where she competed through 2014 and received her BA degree in Psychology.

Sexual Assault Case & Bills Passed in Washington, DC: 
On January 24th, 2018, Larry Nassar, the former physician for the US National Gymnastics Team, was sentenced to 40–175 years in prison for hundreds of sex crimes that he committed with impunity over the course of decades. 156 brave women, including Mattie Larson, testified against the serial child molester for the sexual assault crimes committed against them. After the trial, Mattie went on to speak publicly about her experience, being interviewed on Good Morning America, Vice News, Megyn Kelly NBC News, CNN with Michaela Pereira, and Sports Illustrated. Mattie also, along with a small group of women who shared the same abuser, passed a new bill in Washington DC, with Senator Dianne Feinstein, called “Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act of 2017” and amended the “Ted Stevens Amateur and Olympic Sports Act,” further protecting young athletes from sexual abuse.

Let’s hear from Mattie about speaking her truth…

It took an incredible amount of courage and strength to speak your truth about your sexual assault story and to confront your assaulter face-to-face in court. Describe your journey coming to this place within yourself to be able to accomplish something so courageous, not just for yourself, but for the other victims.
It’s been a very windy journey. Growing up, I was a kid who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. However, as I started spending more time in the gym than anywhere else, I started to lose my sense of voice. I was often verbally punished by my coaches and was often not believed if I had a serious physical injury. Gymnastics is a sport where the average peak point for athletes is pretty young, especially for females — most female gymnasts retire between the ages of 18 and 21. I first starting competing at the age of 5 and at 10, I was leaving school early to train. In middle school, I was spending more time with my coaches than with my parents, so they inevitably had a huge influence on my character at that time. Unfortunately, this influence was a negative one. It wasn’t until I left for college at 19 that I realized how quiet and closed off I had become, as a result of being silenced by my coaches for so many years. Testifying against my abuser in court and talking about my past to people who make positive changes in the world, has really made me feel like I have my power back. I am no longer that little girl who’s afraid to ask my coaches to even use the restroom. I thought that if I could find the courage within myself to speak up for what is right, it may inspire others to do the same for themselves.

How has speaking your truth changed you internally?
Testifying a year ago was the first time I was proud of myself in a reeeeally long time. Being a professional athlete my whole life, I have always based my self-worth on my outward achievements — I was proud of myself if I learned a new gymnastics skill or if I won a competition. When I stopped competing about five years ago, that sense of self-worth was stripped away. Testifying in front of my abuser was one of the first times since I retired from gymnastics that I was genuinely so proud of myself and it had nothing to do with winning a medal. That was huge for me.

Talk about what speaking your truth has accomplished on a larger scale and about the bill you were instrumental in passing in Washington?
Around January of 2017 I, along with a small group of women who shared the same abuser, met with Senator Dianne Feinstein in Washington, DC. We shared our sexual assault stories with her and about two months later, a group of fifteen Senators introduced a bipartisan bill after hearing our stories. The bill was passed and requires amateur athletics governing bodies to immediately report sex-abuse allegations to local or federal law enforcement, or a child-welfare agency designated by the Justice Department. (It’s insane how that wasn’t already a law, right?!) The bill also amends the Ted Stevens Amateur and Olympic Sports Act, which governs amateur athletics governing bodies, to make it safe and easy for victims to report abuse, and also mandates oversight of member gymnasiums, to ensure that strong sexual-abuse prevention policies are implemented. For example, USA Gymnastics would implement and enforce policies to ensure hired coaches and personnel are trained in sexual abuse prevention. It was a really incredible feeling to not only be listened to and believed, but to work with people in a position of power make concrete changes to prevent what happened to me, happening to other young athletes.

What can a girl who has suffered similar trauma do to feel more empowered and in control of her future?
Everyone’s experience with trauma and sexual assault is different and I can only speak from my own experience. In my case, I felt dirty, disposable, and less-than after my traumas. I started to heal slowly by setting small goals for myself, working alongside a therapist that I trusted. And when I say I started out slowly, I mean it! Things such as simply leaving my apartment, turning to healthier outlets such as exercise or art instead of booze when I felt down, and the biggest one for me…reaching out for help when I needed it. I had to get out of the mindset that I was a burden to my friends and family if I reached out for help. That’s why our loved ones are here for us — to be with us through the good and bad. Sometimes I think, “Shit, if I made it through those traumatic experiences, I can make it through (insert challenge at hand).” I remind myself that however horrific those experiences were, I have had and will continue to have so many more positive experiences in my life. We can always find small ways to empower ourselves every day. Although I felt so much stronger after confronting my abuser in court, it doesn’t have to take something that big to make you feel powerful. Unalome hit the nail on the head…authentic self-expression really IS a superpower. I think it’s important for women to share stories of their tribulations and accomplishments because I know from my own experience, other women’s stories have inspired me to keep pushing forward. I love how Unalome inspires female artisans and entrepreneurs to work with one another to create something beautiful. After all, us gals gotta stick together! 🙂

Connect with Mattie: @MATTLARZ

Photos 1 by @CAMBRIA_FODEN

March 7, 2019

(Original article from UNALOME)

Tumbling Into Joy

Growing up in Chicago is tough — that goes for any kid. However, growing up in my home in Chicago with my mom and stepdad was even tougher. I was born on August 18, 1988 to a timid mother and a drug-addicted father. My father was in the picture for the first six months of my life before he broke into my grandmother’s home, and stole her VCR, VHS, jewelry, and most of her valuables to pawn, just to buy more drugs. My grandmother got rid of him quickly. Six months after he disappeared, my mom met my stepdad. He moved into our home, and soon they got married. I hadn’t even turned two years old.

My mom dropped out of high school which made it hard for her to keep up with the bills. She made just enough selling the food stamps we got from being on welfare, though, that meant we were lucky if we made it a whole week with dinner each night. I dreaded going to grammar school because the kids used to jump on my siblings and me and talk about our clothes. They’d call us “pissy kids,” which wasn’t true. My mom made sure we were clean, but the kids just saw our faded shirts and worn-out shoes. We couldn’t deny that.

My second-grade school picture, 1995.

My stepdad was a great father, at least for a while. He’d play around with my siblings and me, and help us with our homework each night. That all changed when he started drinking heavy liquor. We’d get whippings for anything — even if we got out of bed after we were told to go to sleep. He’d often get into arguments with my mom when he was drunk. Sometimes, he’d beat her, and all we could do was watch. I’d cry loudly to try to get his attention, but it was no use. I remember my screams echoing off the walls the night I saw my mom lying on the floor, with an extension cord wrapped around her neck. Back then, I was no match for my burly, angry drunk of a stepdad.

As the oldest of six kids, I was responsible for changing diapers, cooking, washing clothes every night, and making sure everyone did their homework. If their grades started to slip, I’d get a whipping and be on punishment for a minimum of two weeks. It was my fault if they got in any trouble, because as their big brother, I had to make sure they were on task with everything.

The first time I truly felt some hope was when I was eight years old.

My family and I went to the annual Bud Billiken Day Parade, the largest African-American parade in the United States, thrown to symbolize unity. Every year since 1929, people line the sidewalks to watch and wave to all the marching bands, dancing groups, drill teams, tumbling groups, and more.

The Jesse White Tumbling Team was there that day — performing right in front of me. The guys in the front of the line stretched out the long foam mat they carried, and one by one, the ones who were far behind flew to the mat with flips and landings that were so…amazing. I so badly wanted to follow them through the parade route and watch them for miles.

Every year after that, I went to the parade just to watch the Jesse White Tumblers perform.

Me (left), my sister, and my brother in the late 1990s.

After the parade, my fascination with tumbling grew. I’d go outside and watch the teenage boys across the street tumble and would try their moves on my own. My mom would watch me from the porch and challenge me to do a variety of flips. I wouldn’t have gotten so good without her support.

When I was about 12 years old, my cousin called me. He said the tumblers were performing at his school, and if I wanted to see them, I’d have to come as soon as possible. I ran to my mom and begged her for the bus fare. When I rushed into the school, I was blown away by their performance. After the show, one of the tumblers was passing out brochures with a call for auditions happening that day. I thought nothing of it, but when I got home, I gave the flyer to my mom, who then arranged for my aunt to take me to the tryout.

I remember I was number 1,065 during the audition. It seemed like I had an easier time doing what the coaches asked. First, I was asked to do a back handspring, then another one, followed by a back tuck and a series of back handsprings. It was so easy. My mom asked me to do things way harder than what the coaches were asking. When I was packing up to leave, the coach asked if I could do a full twist. I could, and I did.

After the training, they told me I made the team. I’d never everbeen happier — but there was much more in store than I could imagine.

My first show was when I was 13 at a Lebron James’ high school basketball game. It was one of his last games before he went pro. From that moment forward, I was living my best life. I traveled to almost every state in the country and all over the world including Israel, Europe, Hawaii, Belize, and the Cayman Islands. I was like an adult, being able to pay for everything. We didn’t have to worry about food anymore, or if we had enough for bills, or where we’d stay.

Performing at a tumbling show with my team (I’m flying over).

Things was moving up. The environment in my house was also changing for good. My mom and stepdad still got into arguments, but he controlled his anger now. He wanted to be a better man and father, so he made up his mind that he was never going to hit my mom again, and he kept his word. It gave me peace to know that I could leave home, and my mom and siblings would be safe and happy. After I graduated high school in 2007, I quit the tumbling team and attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

But it was not meant to be so smooth.

After being responsible for my younger siblings since I was five years old, I began having anxiety thinking about how my family would live without me. Sadly, it had just been a few months after moving into my dorm when I found out that my family was homeless and living in a shelter.

I soon dropped out of school, helped my family move into a new place, and rejoined the tumbling team in the summer of 2008. I worked there full time until 2014 when I got a job at Office Max. Though I longed to further my education at college, I never regretted my decision. Family came first.

So, what’s the end of my story? In early 2013, I reconnected with a girl I used to date in high school. While we cared about each other, we couldn’t make it work. About six months after our breakup, I found out my ex-girlfriend was pregnant with a little girl. I offered to take her full time because I wanted to raise her in a better environment than what I had been brought up in.

I remember going to the hospital and holding my daughter for the first time. It changed me instantly. After bringing her home, I’d pray every day and go over every scenario of how I’d raise her. I thought of how I was going to talk to her about bullying. I imagined teaching her not to judge a person based on what they have or don’t have and how to treat people fairly — no matter how they treated her. There I was, planning all my daughter’s life lessons when she wasn’t even a week old! But I’m glad I did. My daughter has been my biggest joy.

Me and my daughter, Pais’ leigh.

Adding to that joy, I married my beautiful wife Charity in 2016. I had known Charity since childhood, and I knew I wanted her to be mine from the day we met. While it didn’t work out early in my journey, we reconnected in 2016. God orchestrated every event in my life and I am forever grateful to have this beautiful family.

On my wedding day in 2016, with my wife Charity and some other family members.

Throughout my teenage years, I’d ask God, “Why me?” As an adult, I realize that God’s purpose for my life was much bigger than the trials that seemed to stand in my way. Despite my circumstances, I’m happy that I was able to escape poverty and abuse, and start a family whom I have vowed to give a better life than what I had. In fact, it is because of my circumstances that I have lived a beautiful story.

This is the story of Deon Allen

Deon now lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his daughter and wife Charity. Coming from a poor family in Chicago, Illinois, Deon lived in a violent, poor home where he had to watch his alcoholic stepdad beat his mom constantly. After joining the Jesse White Tumbling Team, he was able to provide for his family and learned to forgive those who’ve hurt him along the way. Deon is currently working on creating a tumbling team in Nashville. His initiative is to help anyone whose family is struggling like he did. He is the Campus Supervisor at Croft Middle Design Center where he serves as security, making sure there’s no bullying or kids ditching class. He upholds the meaning of a true leader.

Deon performing tumbling.

| Writer: Star Johnson | Editors: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |

Life Log #184

This story first touched our hearts on October 13, 2018.

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An In-Depth Analysis of the Sport of Gymnastics

U.S. gymnast Alexander Artemev performing ‘Flares’ on pommel horse.

My hopes in writing this entry are to give people that do not know a lot about the sport of artistic gymnastics, a better idea as to what gymnasts do, how the sport is competed/judged, how gymnastics has evolved over the years and what the future holds for the sport I spent fourteen years of my life in. My goal is to give someone that does not frequently follow artistic gymnastics insight in to how to watch and appreciate gymnastics. Just a quick note, there are six different types of gymnastics: men’s artistic, women’s artistic, rhythmic, trampoline, tumbling and acrobatic gymnastics. Men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics will be the focal point of this essay since they are the ones that I know the most about.

So, what are the differences between men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics you might ask? There are many. The biggest differences between both sports are the apparatus. Men compete on a total of six different apparatus while women compete only on four. The men’s events include (in Olympic order): Floor Exercise, Pommel Horse, Still Rings, Vault, Parallel Bars and Horizontal Bar. The women’s events consist of: Vault, Uneven Bars, Balance Beam and Floor Exercise. The men and women’s floor exercise event is almost the same, however women include dancing in their routines while men’s routines are strictly tumbling. Men’s and women’s vault is also very similar, it is the same vault but the men’s vault table is two notches higher in competition. Aside from these two events the rest of the apparatus are one of a kind. Starting with the men’s events, I would like to discuss pommel horse. Pommel horse was always my favorite event to compete and train because it required precise rhythm and hand placements. The pommel horse itself is about four feet tall and is a leather rectangular prism. On top of the pommel horse are two pommels usually made of wood but sometimes plastic. Pommel horse is arguably the most difficult of the six men’s apparatus because it is non-stop and requires extreme precision. Still rings is the next event to be discussed. These are pretty self-explanatory, the still rings are just two rings that hang from the ceiling and the gymnast must keep them as still as possible throughout his routine. Still rings routines are comprised mostly of strength elements so it can be just as difficult as pommel horse, but in a different way. Skipping vault, the next apparatus are the parallel bars which are also fairly self-explanatory. The parallel bars are two bars that run parallel to each other , typically made of wood. The bars are around six feet above the ground and are supported by metal rails. The last men’s event is the horizontal bar, one of the most exciting events for spectators because of the dangerous release moves performed with ease by the gymnasts. The horizontal bar is one metal bar about nine feet off the ground and is surprisingly flexible so the gymnasts can gain height on their release moves and dismounts. The last two girls events to discuss are the uneven bars and balance beam. The uneven bars are similar to the parallel bars except farther apart and each bar is at a different height (one is around five feet and the other is eight feet tall). The uneven bars require grace, technique and power in order to succeed. The last women’s apparatus is the balance beam. The balance beam might be the scariest event to do and watch in both men’s and women’s gymnastics. The beam is only four inches wide and is almost seventeen feet long. The women have to be extremely precise when performing on the balance beam and somehow the women make flipping on a four inch beam look easy.

U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas salvaging a fall on beam.

Safety Tips those Gymnasts Must Follow During Practice Sessions

Gymnastics is definitely not the safest sport. When you swing, jump, and flip from many feet off the ground, there are chances you might fall or injure yourself. The risk is mostly seen with the territory, but it also adds up to the beauty of the sport. There is a sense of accomplishment that gymnasts feel after they have conquered the skill effectively. As the risk of injury is very high, it is crucial to maintaining safety at all times.

We are going to discuss a few safety tips that you must follow to keep yourself away from any form of danger.

Using Correct MattingMats are essential in gymnastics. If you fall, they will help in lessening the impact by cushioning it. You won’t hurt your ankles and knees badly when you use these mats. As there are high chances of falls, floor padding is more than necessary. Landing on a hard surface could be life-threatening as well. When you are practising any of the skills in gymnastics, make sure that you have a gymnastics carpet or mat to provide adequate support.

Training with Your Instructor PresentInstructors and coaches are there for a reason. They aim to keep you safe while you are training. They will help you better your technique in order to learn the skill better and avoid falls. If you see that your coach is not keeping an eye on you directly, it is better to avoid those skills that are dangerous. Go for the easy ones instead.

Trying a New Skill without Supervision Is a Big No-NoAs mentioned earlier, you need to practice when your coach is present. But, sometimes they aren’t directly watching you. At such a time, go for the ones that you think you can handle. When you are trying out a new skill, you must make sure that you do not perform it without with instructor by your side. When you are not prepared enough, the chances of falling will be highest. If you want to keep doing what you do, you shouldn’t be taking unnecessary risks.

No Running Round the GymAt times, you need to run to perform a particular skill. But when you are not supposed to do so, it is better to avoid running. If you run unnecessarily, it will put your friends at risk. The gym has many obstacles, like bar supports, walls, and mats. If you do not pay much attention, you might injure yourself or somebody else in the process. You also wouldn’t want to collide with another fellow gymnast when he/she is performing. Keep this facto in mind, and it may save a life.

Stretching Before PracticingIt may not be a major tip, but it is also very crucial. If you do not stretch before you engage in some of the tricky skills like backbend cartwheel, your body may remain tight. It could cause pulls or strains.

Make sure that you keep all these points in mind the next time you go for your practice. It will you in countless silent ways.

FLARE R[EVOLUTION]

I make a video every day on a variety of things, and here’s one on the BEST bodyweight exercise you can learn (beside a back walkover): The FLARE. Go ahead and subscribe if you haven’t already…https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCx7p3BDXwZipPsqqadBj_XQ

and like and share it on YT: https://youtu.be/kc6WtOqTmAs

We have an awesome training group on FB if you’d like to join as well: https://www.facebook.com/groups/283847185446625

Coach Lee 👽👊🐉 Read more…

Flares are not difficult. They just take a LOT of work! In my opinion as a coach of various disciplines, it is THE BEST skill to develop because it requires the body to adapt in strength, mobility, and flexibility in more areas than any other skill. I believe this is why the pommel horse is admitted by even the most elite gymnasts to be the most challenging event in gymnastics. Why are flares the BEST bodyweight movement? What makes them so tough? And how do we learn them efficiently? Let’s dive in.

The flare requires tremendous leg and hip mobility first and foremost. The extent to which the legs can split is called passive flexibility. The angle of split a person can achieve without any help is called active flexibility, or mobility. A person’s passive flexibility is almost always more than their mobility. So just to do flares, one already needs to be able to almost do full splits. This is why we train the Leg Iron Cross in Ninja Strength!

The flare also requires tremendous arm mobility. Shoulder extension is how far up behind your back you can lift your arms. In a really good flare, the arms are perpendicular to the body. How far up can you lift your arms behind your back?

The flare also requires tremendous core strength, from the rectus femoris all the way up to the rectus abdominus, i.e. the hip flexors up to the upper abs. Everything between those muscle groups is engaged, including the transverse abdominus, or the laughing muscles. Sitting on the floor in a straddle with the hands in the middle and doing seated straddle leg lifts is a good way of developing the upper leg and lower abdominal muscles to do this skill, as well as V ups.

Show us your flare progress! It’ll be one of the best exercises you train, I guarantee it! And go ahead and Subscribe to keep unlocking more training levels: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCx7p3BDXwZipPsqqadBj_XQ?sub_confirmation=1

Watch and like on Youtube: https://youtu.be/kc6WtOqTmAs

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