The Tragedy Of McKayla Maroney Explained - Grunge (2024)

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The Tragedy Of McKayla Maroney Explained - Grunge (1)

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ByBrian Boone/

Gymnast McKayla Maroney helped the U.S. win multiple medals in the Olympics, but behind and after that glory lurked some truly tragic and horrifying circ*mstances. In between two gold medal-winning performances at the 2011 and 2013 gymnastics World Championships, Maroney served as a core member of the 2012 U.S. women's gymnastics squad. Also known as the "Fierce Five," Maroney and her teammates won the team gold medal at the London Summer Olympics. In the solo vault event, Maroney took a silver medal, and her reaction on the podium — contorting her face in disappointment and displeasure — fueled a globally famous photo and a meme. The whole "Fierce Five" phenomenon is among the most memorable moments from Summer Olympics history.

Finishing in second place at the Olympics didn't take away from Maroney's status as one of the most influential female athletes of the past century. Nor is that remotely the worst thing that's happened in the life of the American gymnast. Here's a look into the sometimes tragic world of champion athlete McKayla Maroney.

The following article includes allegations of addiction, eating disorders, and sexual assault.

McKayla Maroney endured a lot of injuries while pursuing Olympic gold

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Gymnasts hurl themselves through the air and over equipment with speed and precision, and that takes a tremendous physical toll. Even before she took home gold and silver medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, McKayla Maroney had suffered many serious injuries. In June 2012, Maroney fell on her head during a floor exercise, which resulted in a concussion and a broken nose bone. During pre-Olympics qualifiers, Maroney competed with an already broken toe, an injury exacerbated during a beam dismount. "It was already broken," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I just split it more."

Showing howthe Olympics can get pretty messed upfor athletes, Maroney participated in the 2012 games needing surgery, which she delayed until after a gymnastics tour; on the second night of that, Maroney suffered a tibia break, one ofthe most painful injuries a person can get, while ending an uneven bars routine. That injury required the surgical placement of corrective screws.

Maroney ramped up her preparations for the 2016 Summer Olympics in 2013, competing in the Secret U.S. Classic and the World Championships, winning the vault event in both meets. Following those competitions, Maroney told Elle that she felt "completely broken" physically. Doctors also diagnosed an avulsion fracture in her knee. That would require extensive time off from gymnastics for surgery and recovery, and Maroney opted to walk away from the sport in her early twenties.

McKayla Maroney was repeatedly abused by gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar

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When McKayla Maroney was 13, she began training with USA Gymnastics at the Karolyi Ranch training facility, and attended an examination by team doctor Larry."That was the first day I was abused," Maroney told NBC News' "Dateline" in 2018. More than 140 women would ultimately bring forth accusations against Nassar, who, under the auspice of medical care, molested his patients. Maroney alleged that Nassar molested her during all Karolyi Ranch visits and competitions over five years, with acts of abuse numbering in the "hundreds," according to Maroney.

In 2018, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, but the investigation that led to his downfall was allegedly mishandled and slowed down by the FBI. During a congressional hearing on the matter, Maroney provided unflinching and harrowing testimony about the systemic sexual abuse she suffered and how the FBI treated her poorly. "After telling my entire story of abuse to the FBI in the summer of 2015, not only did the FBI not report my abuse, but when they eventually documented my report 17 months later, they made entirely false claims about what I said," Maroney testified (via ABC News). "They chose to lie about what I said and protect a serial child molester rather than protect not only me, but countless others."

Attempts were made to silence McKayla Maroney

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When allegations that USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar abused many young female athletes surfaced in 2016, the organization's lawyers negotiated a deal with McKayla Maroney to keep the situation as quiet as possible, or to at least prevent the star gymnast from publicly speaking about it. Maroney agreed to a financial settlement of $1.25 million, with the caveat that she sign a confidentiality document covering the whole legal proceeding. "They were willing to engage in a systematic cover-up of the entire matter," Maroney's attorney John Manly told ESPN in December 2017, when he filed a new civil suit against USA Gymnastics on his client's behalf.

Putting her name on that agreement, Manly said, amounted to coercion. Maroney claims to have only signed it in order to access the settlement money, which the new lawsuit said she needed to fund "lifesaving psychological treatment and care" (per USA Today) to rehabilitate herself from the long-standing effects of Nassar's abuse. At the time of the settlement, Maroney attested, she was in a state of emotional duress over trauma endured from Nassar's assaults. The settlement, according to the 2017 suit, was part of a "plan to keep the sexual abuse of Nassar quiet, and allow Nassar to quietly leave USAG, further silencing his victims."

Nude photos of McKayla Maroney were released without consent

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Sometime in 2014, gymnast McKayla Maroney was the victim of a hacking scheme. Unidentified parties allegedly lifted personal photographs from Maroney's digital accounts and devices, which were subsequently handed out to an adult website. The pictures, of a p*rnographic or nude nature, were briefly available on that website, and then copied to others as well as appearing on social media channels, before Maroney filed legal papers to forcibly remove them.

According to Maroney's filing, the p*rnographic websites violated copyright law — Maroney was the de facto rights holder of the images, having created them, and she didn't consent to their distribution. As soon as the initial website got a cease-and-desist letter from Maroney's legal team, they removed the pictures, primarily because continuing to host them would've been illegal under anti-child p*rnography law — Maroney was under the age of 18 when the photos were snapped.

"I was so ashamed, like, 'Holy s***, even my aunt is seeing that now.' It was so f***ed up," Maroney told Elle of her victimization in the "Celebgate" mass-hacking scandal, in which dozens of celebrities had their private photographs stolen and shared online. Maroney even endured victim-blaming for the leak, noticing that while training in gymnastics facilities at the time, mothers told their young daughters to stay away from the Olympian. "I was no longer respected."

McKayla Maroney was shamed for cosmetic surgeries she didn't even get

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McKayla Maroney is one among many athletes who don't look anything like they used to. Her appearance has changed between 2012, when she was a teenage gymnastics sensation, and her adulthood — maturity and the passage of time will make a person look different. But the changes are such that Maroney was the subject of much unfounded social media chatter, with many coming to the conclusion that the athlete underwent elective cosmetic surgery procedures.

Maroney was criticized for getting some work done, and she hadn't even had the surgeries. "I haven't. And I've posted a picture on Instagram last night that was like, how do I make my face look like I didn't do anything to my face when I literally have not done anything to my face?" Maroney explained to Seventeen in 2016, attributing the shift to aging and adopting more sophisticated makeup techniques. "And for people saying that, for the most part — it would kind of hurt my feelings when you haven't done anything."

After gymnastics, McKayla Maroney had an eating disorder

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McKayla Maroney stopped internationally competing in the body-conscious world of gymnastics not long after the 2012 Summer Olympics. She possessed the appropriate mental profile for the demanding sport, but following her retirement, and the extremely stressful and heavily scrutinized experience of publicly calling out USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar for years of sexual abuse, Maroney developed an eating disorder. "I already had that obsessive control thing, so it just switched from gymnastics to food," she told Elle. The disordered eating first manifested with a series of medically questionable diets and then self-starvation, all while coping with and worsening body image issues. "I forgot I had ever even been successful at gymnastics, because I went from being great to feeling like, 'Oh my G**, I'm so ugly, I'm gaining weight, I'm suffering with food, and I just went through all this abuse."

The disordered eating began in 2017, and Maroney subsequently became withdrawn from her family and the public. In 2019, she ended a social media hiatus and joined an online eating disorder recovery program.

McKayla Maroney's father died from the effects of opioids

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In January 2019, McKayla Maroney announced on her Instagram (via People) that her father, Mike Maroney, had died. "Love u dad. I can't believe it's real. I don't want to. I'll miss you forever. Rest In Peace. You were the most incredible dad," she wrote. The cause of death wasn't reported at the time; Maroney would later reveal that her father died as a result of a long-term, well-hidden addiction to opioids. The gymnast believes the elder Maroney began abusing pain pills to help himself cope when he learned of his daughter's sexual abuse in the USA Gymnastics program. "I think he probably self-medicated with opioids, Xanax, things like that," Maroney told Elle in 2024. "And we didn't know because he felt like the attention shouldn't be on him."

Maroney came clean about his substance abuse problems to his daughter in January 2019. He outlined a detoxification plan to break his addiction, undertaken without medical intervention. Getting off opioids was such a shock to his system that it killed him — the detox process ended Maroney's life at age 59. Along with experiencing profound grief, Maroney's latent eating disorder was triggered, and she didn't eat for 10 days to appear thin at her father's funeral.

Medical issues led to severe insomnia

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For McKayla Maroney, just about the entirety of the summer of 2023 was spent dealing with what she called on an Instagram post"wacko health issues and food sensitivities." Maroney estimates that she slept all of 10 nights across a three-month period, a shockingly low amount considering how essential sleep is for a healthy life."I'd like to say it was a nightmare, but you have to sleep to have nightmares," Maroney wrote. The insomnia was so frustrating and serious that Maroney sought medical attention. Numerous medical professionals and many blood tests couldn't pinpoint the cause, until the source of the insomnia was identified: Maroney has a histamine intolerance.

Histamine is an immune system chemical that helps the body deal with allergens and foreign substances; an intolerance makes for too much of the stuff in the bloodstream, leading to fatigue, itchiness, headaches, heart issues, anxiety, and gastrointestinal distress. For Maroney, itchiness was the most prominent symptom, and it made her feel "like I was getting bit by mosquitos all night," and hence the insomnia. At the same time, Maroney was also diagnosed with a moderate case of an iron deficiency, extreme fatigue caused by oxalate-packed foods (including potatoes and spinach), and neuropathy, or nerve problems, which contributed to her insomnia.

Gymnastics destroyed McKayla Maroney's body and psyche

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McKayla Maroney announced her sort-of retirement from gymnastics in 2016. "I don't want anybody to ever think that McKayla is retiring," she said on the "GymCastic" podcast (via NBC News). "The only difference is I'm not competing anymore." That statement was carefully worded and complex, befitting Maroney's mixed feelings about the sport. Replying to a May 2021 post on X, formerly known as Twitter,of a video of her performanceat the 2012 Olympics, in which an announcer quipped that she had "an easy day" that day, Maroney pointed out that she was working with multiple injuries at the time."Lots of gymnasts really compete with crazy injuries, it's never an easy day lol."

In the end, Maroney was left feeling traumatized and undone by her experiences with USA Gymnastics, particularly due to the assaults perpetrated by the organization's doctor, Larry Nassar. "I was never informed about the costs and wish I would've known some of them. For example, that it would take me five full years to mentally and physically heal from the intensity of what I went through," she said on X, formerly known as Twitter (via

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, an eating disorder, or has been a victim of sexual assault, contact the relevant resources below:

The Tragedy Of McKayla Maroney Explained - Grunge (2024)
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