Faced with two dozen felony charges including human trafficking and criminal sexual conduct, former U.S. Olympic gymnastics coach John Geddert killed himself on Thursday. The suicide left the gymnastics world reeling after gymnasts had fought for years to bring him to justice for the mental and physical abuse they said they endured at his hands. They thought the time had finally come.
“John abused countless girls over the years; his suicide victimized us all over again,” said Sara Teristi, a former gymnast who trained under Geddert in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “I am thankful that the survivors will not have to endure a lengthy and painful trial, but I am saddened that the chance to see justice served has been stolen from us. We deserve better.”
Geddert was a hard-driving coach, running a high-level gymnastics club, Twistars, where he churned out star athletes in Lansing, Michigan. Over the years, he rose to become coach of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, ultimately bringing home the team gold. He also worked closely with Olympic doctor Larry Nassar, one of the most prolific sexual predators of our time, for nearly three decades. Nassar volunteered at Geddert’s gym, where the doctor sexually abused hundreds of girls in a back room while pretending to treat them.
Nassar is now behind bars for life. Geddert had been under investigation by law enforcement ever since Nassar’s sentencing in Michigan in 2018, when gymnasts spoke out about the abusive culture at his gym. In my own reporting for my book on the Nassar survivors, The Girls, a dozen gymnasts from across the decades described how they were berated, shoved, punished, mocked, and blamed for their injuries by Geddert. They told me how he enabled Nassar, making them vulnerable to the doctor’s sexual abuse.
Geddert was suspended by USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the sport, in January 2018. He then announced his retirement, saying in a letter to parents that the suspension was based on false allegations.
On Thursday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced 24 criminal charges against 63-year-old Geddert, including human trafficking, continuing criminal enterprise, criminal sexual conduct, and lying to a police officer during a violent crime investigation.
The attorney general said in a statement that Geddert’s treatment of young gymnasts “constitutes human trafficking as he reportedly subjected his athletes to forced labor or services under extreme conditions that contributed to them suffering injuries and harm. Geddert then neglected those injuries that were reported to him by the victims and used coercion, intimidation, threats, and physical force to get them to perform to the standard he expected.” The criminal sexual conduct charges stemmed from Geddert’s reportedly digitally penetrating a victim who was “at least 13 but less than 16 years of age,” according to the charging documents. An attorney for Geddert did not respond to a request for comment.
Soon after, the attorney general released another statement, saying, “My office has been notified that the body of John Geddert was found late this afternoon after taking his own life. This is a tragic end to a tragic story for everyone involved.”
When Teristi, who is the first known survivor of Nassar’s abuse, first heard the news of the charges against Geddert, she thought justice might finally be served—but then came the news of the suicide. “I am beyond furious at his cowardly actions today,” she said. “I was hopeful a trial would bring focus to abusive coaching in high-level athletes; now I feel our experiences will soon be forgotten.”
Teristi shared her story for the first time in my book, providing groundbreaking insight into the relationship between Geddert and Nassar and the culture at the gym. She described how Geddert had witnessed her being sexually abused in the late ’80s, when Nassar began inappropriately touching her bare chest. She said Geddert did not report the abuse but rather mocked her body. She had developed a lump on her chest from a rib injury, and Geddert called it her “third boob.” Then he began calling her by the nickname Third Boob, embarrassing her in front of the other girls at the gym. If Geddert had reported the abuse decades ago, she told me, hundreds of girls might have been spared.
Teristi was there from the first day Nassar began working with Geddert, in late 1988. She told me that she saw Nassar, a medical student at Michigan State University at the time, learn to ingratiate himself with Geddert. She said she saw Nassar figure out, over time, that the way to maintain his access to the girls was to keep Geddert happy, which meant clearing girls to train with injuries. Geddert was furious when the girls got injured, Teristi said. He blamed the girls for getting hurt, saying it was their fault because they weren’t concentrating. So the girls learned to hide their injuries. Teristi said she and the girls were “brainwashed.”
Another former gymnast, Izzy Hutchins, told me how she trained and competed with a fractured leg and fractured elbow as a child at Twistars, for fear of getting in trouble by Geddert for being injured. She didn’t realize her bones were broken at the time, but she knew she was in excruciating pain, and she told Nassar, who just taped her up and cheered her on instead of treating her. When Hutchins was unable to perform a floor routine at practice on her broken leg, Geddert mocked her, ordering her to do the routine substituting simple somersaults on the ground for difficult flips in the air. He gathered the girls around to watch, including her younger sister, Ireland. Hutchins, humiliated, ran to the locker room, and Geddert followed her, ordering her out of his gym. Her mother and father told me that the manipulations and lies of Nassar and Geddert tore their family apart.
When Hutchins heard about the charges against Geddert, “I was relieved. It had been so long,” she said. “I got a call from the attorney general’s office saying, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get him.’ They said, ‘Do you still want to participate if this goes to trial?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Then came another call from the attorney general’s office—a devastating one. “She called me and said, ‘Izzy, are you in a good place right now? Are you in a safe place?’ She told me that he took his life, he’s gone, he’s dead. I was standing in my living room and literally fell to my knees. I thanked her for calling me and letting me know. I hung up and I started sobbing and I don’t know why. I don’t wish death on my worst enemies, even Larry Nassar, so it’s hard, but at the same time, I’m kind of pissed. With Larry, I wanted my power back, what he took from me. If anything, it was more so with John. He took more from me, beating down my mentality and how I thought of myself. I’m still trying to deal with it. You’re a child hearing over and over, ‘You’re not good enough.’ Now, the world was finally going to see what he had done. He was going to pay for that and take responsibility for that.”
Hutchins’ mother, Lisa Sandwisch-Taylor, said, “He was a coward, and he took that away from all of us. I just wanted to look at him and have him admit what an asshole he was, how he pitted us against us each other, how he told me I was wrong when I thought Izzy was injured. He has stolen our closure.”
Added her daughter, “He’s never going to be able to hurt another girl again. All he did was solidify his guilt.”
Shelby Root is another former gymnast who told her story for the first time in my book, offering crucial insight into Geddert and the culture of the gym. She described an experience with Geddert that differed from those of the Nassar survivors but shows how the world of gymnastics can create a damaging environment on many levels. She said that in the ’80s, Geddert groomed her for a sexual relationship that he initiated when she left his gym for college at age 18. Like most gymnasts who had grown up immersed in training, she was isolated, vulnerable, and had been taught to trust and obey her coach. She thought he loved her. She imagined they would get married one day. Instead, she told me, he discarded her. His actions left her feeling suicidal, she says, and damaged her relationships for years to come. His actions also violated the code of conduct of Olympic watchdog SafeSport.
The abuses of Nassar and Geddert have had far-reaching effects on the families who trusted the two men. Christy Lemke-Akeo, the mother of former gymnast Lindsey Lemke, who has described abuse by Geddert including his hitting her with a mat and berating her for injuring her ankle as a child, said the suicide came as a shock. She had expected to see Geddert try to dismiss the testimony of the gymnasts in court. “I thought he would go to court and try to belittle all the girls that were testifying against him,” she said. “Lindsey and I had just talked about that.” Of his suicide, she said, “What a coward. I never thought in 1 million years John would do that, but there must’ve been something in the charges that he felt really guilty about.”
Jamie White, a Michigan attorney who represents dozens of survivors in the Nassar case and played a key role in securing a $500 million settlement from Michigan State University—where Nassar worked in addition to serving as Olympic doctor—said he hopes the tragic events can spur “a time for reflection and learning, because the true goal of the events leading up to today should be to educate communities and ensure an episode like this never occurs again. This community and the victims deserve accountability.”
In addition to the Geddert investigation, the Michigan attorney general has been separately investigating Michigan State University for its handling of Nassar, saying in a statement Thursday that the investigation “remains inconclusive, as nearly 6,000 documents in the possession of the university have not been released to investigators.”
The Nassar survivors want to see those documents. They want full accountability, not just for Nassar and Geddert but for all who enabled them. Said Sandwisch-Taylor, “This is not over yet.”