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New abuse claims surface years after San Jose State cleared trainer

For five years, she said she didn’t understand what was happening when Scott Shaw slipped his hand under her sports bra or into her underwear during routine sports massages.

She knew Shaw, San Jose State University’s head athletic trainer, had sought her out after gymnastics practices even though he was assigned to the men’s basketball team. But she always thought it was because he “was there to listen and take care of me.”

Then, a year after graduating in 2019, she discovered, that’s just what Larry Nassar had done. And she began to realize the shock of what Shaw had done to her.

The former San Jose State athlete’s heartbreaking realization came in a series of conversations with Rachael Denhollander — the first of hundreds of gymnasts to publicly accuse Nassar, USA Gymnastics’ fatherly team doctor, of molesting them under the guise of treatment for almost three decades. It became one of the worst sex-abuse sports scandals of all time.

Now, the connection between the two women, a courageous gymnast turned sexual abuse advocate and a young athlete who considered herself sheltered and naïve, is producing another powerful revelation. The younger woman is the first athlete to publicly accuse Shaw of abusing her in the decade after San Jose State brushed away similar allegations from more than a dozen female athletes and excused his behavior as a “bona fide means of treating muscle injury.”

It’s clear now, she said, the university let her down and should have known she could be next.

“It was never something I thought he would do to me,” said the woman, who said she is speaking out now in part to hold university officials to account for allowing Shaw’s abuse to continue. “What I am trying to figure out is why was it OK for Scott to be at San Jose State?”

The Bay Area News Group is not identifying the woman at her request. In an exclusive interview this past week, she said she is so embarrassed and unsettled by what happened that she had not had the nerve to tell her parents “to protect their sanity.”

Her allegations are spelled out — along with those of other former San Jose State athletes — in legal claims with the California State University system filed as a precursor to a lawsuit for sexual abuse and discrimination.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, center, sits in the courtroom as Larry Nassar is sentenced, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, in Lansing, Mich. The former sports doctor who admitted molesting some of the nation’s top gymnasts for years was sentenced Wednesday to 40 to 175 years in prison as the judge declared: “I just signed your death warrant.” The sentence capped a remarkable seven-day hearing in which scores of Nassar’s victims were able to confront him face to face in the Michigan courtroom. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) 

She had opened up a year ago when Denhollander — now a Louisville, Kentucky, lawyer — reached out to support San Jose State female athletes after an exposé in USA Today revealed the university had renewed an investigation into decade-old claims from 17 swimmers that Shaw sexually abused them during treatments.

A number of San Jose State swimmers called to share their stories with Denhollander after she contacted their old swim coach, Sage Hopkins, who led the push for a new investigation and had been warning leaders in the school’s athletics department for years about his ongoing concerns about Shaw.

Weeks later, Denhollander, 36, got another call. It was the San Jose State former gymnast who at the time said she still supported Shaw.

“When you’ve been groomed to believe this is the safe person and this person is taking care of you, it is very difficult to trust your own intuition when something doesn’t feel right,” said Denhollander, who was molested by Nassar during examinations when she was 15.

At first, the gymnast said, she only wanted to talk to Denhollander about problems with a former gymnastics coach and her feelings that San Jose State’s athletic department – overseen by Athletic Director Marie Tuite – ignored female sports in favor of the football team.

“And then I mentioned there was a time with Scott, I don’t think it is a big deal, but I think I should tell you just in case,” said the woman, who was 17 when she first met Shaw during her freshman year in 2014.

She described how Shaw once positioned himself in front of her as she lay face-down on the massage table. She said his genitals were close to her face so that she could see an erection under his pants. The allegations are detailed in her legal claim.

“I was almost embarrassed and shocked that this was happening,” the woman said in an interview. But, she added, she tried to rationalize it by thinking “guys just get that sometimes randomly.”

Denhollander said she just listened when the woman recounted what happened because the memories had to be her own.

“She didn’t have any context to put her experience into,” Denhollander said. “All she knew was what all of us knew when it came to Larry: ‘I’m hurting. My coach is an angry person.’ And along comes this doctor and trainer who says he’s going to take care of me.”

The woman said she cried for several days after sharing the story with Denhollander, but it was in part for thinking badly about Shaw.

“I felt like a horrible person thinking that way of him because he helped me so much,” she said, feeling she had betrayed the one person at San Jose State she was able to confide in.

Denhollander said the women’s emotions reminded her of the Nassar case “because it was couched in ‘but he was the one taking care of me,’ ” she said.

Larry Nassar listens as Rachael Denhollander gives her victim impact statement Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, in Eaton County Circuit Court, the second and final day of victim impact statements in Judge Janet Cunningham’s courtroom in Charlotte, Mich. He will be sentenced Monday. (Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP) Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal archives

Nassar, a former Michigan State physician and USA Gymnastics national team doctor who tried to justify his sexual abuse of athletes as proper medical treatment, is serving a 175-year sentence.

After talking to Denhollander, the San Jose State athlete said she watched the documentary “Athlete A” that featured Denhollander’s role in helping expose Nassar.

And that’s when the young athlete realized the worst.

The woman discovered while watching the film that the gymnasts’ descriptions of their interactions with Nassar were “completely the same of what Scott did to me and how he took advantage,” she said in an interview. “I shouldn’t be sugar-coating what happened to me.”

According to her tort claim, the first assault occurred when the woman was a minor and continued throughout her time at San Jose State.

Shaw would massage the woman’s breast tissue underneath her bra, the claim said. When massaging her hip or lower back, Shaw would place electrical stimulation pads under her underwear or he would massage her groin area and touch her front pubic bone under her underwear, it said.

In the tort, the woman said most of her sessions with Shaw were scheduled when the training room was empty.

After San Jose State’s original investigation had cleared Shaw in 2010, he had agreed not to treat the Spartan female swimmers, according to emails obtained by the Bay Area News Group, but it isn’t clear whether the school required other restrictions or precautions to keep him away from women athletes. Despite continued warnings from Hopkins, who sued the university last month claiming he was retaliated against for blowing the whistle, the athletic department promoted Shaw to director of sports medicine in 2018.

“The red flags were all there,” Denhollander said. “By the time (the former gymnast) was being abused there had been a dozen direct warnings and multiple attempts to re-raise those warnings over a period of years.”

Caitlin Macky, who swam at San Jose State from 2007 to 2011 and was among those who brought the original allegations, wondered if anything would ever happen after the university’s initial investigation.

“I guess to be human is to err and this is a really big error and people in power are just going to let this happen,” said Macky, who is one of the former athletes who filed legal claims this year to hold the university accountable.

On April 15, San Jose State President Mary Papazian announced the new investigation had substantiated claims against Shaw from at least 10 female athletes, including two since 2017, and that the school had started yet another probe into what went wrong. The latest investigation is being led by a Newport Beach employment litigation lawyer and overseen by the California State University’s Human Resources department.

“I am determined that we will learn from the past and never repeat it,” Papazian said in a letter to the campus community.

FILE – In this Jan. 24, 2018, file photo, former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, center, is hugged after giving her victim impact statement during the seventh day of Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing in Lansing, Mich. At right is Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis. Michigan State University announced Wednesday, May 16, 2018, that it has reached a $500 million settlement with hundreds of women and girls who say they were sexually assaulted by sports Nassar in the worst sex-abuse case in sports history. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File) Carlos Osorio/Associated Press archives

Denhollander criticized San Jose State and the CSU system’s latest inquiry, calling it “nothing more than a smokescreen.” She said they need to waive the attorney-client privilege of those involved in the investigation so everything that is learned is made public.

In a brief meeting on the doorstep of his San Jose home last week, Shaw told the Bay Area News Group that there was “a lot more” to the story. He declined to answer further questions without consulting his new lawyer, whom he declined to identify. Shaw resigned in August 2020, eight months before a second investigation implicated him. He has not been arrested or charged with a crime in connection with the case.

The former gymnast who now lives in the South Bay told the Bay Area News Group she was not part of the university’s most recent investigation. But she said she has been interviewed by federal authorities reviewing the case, which has reportedly attracted the attention of the FBI and attorneys from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

She said she was partially motivated to speak out to ensure San Jose State officials fully explain how she could have been victimized five years after the initial allegations.

“There were multiple girls who spoke up years before I was there and yet he was one of the first trainers that I met,” she said.

She said she worries there are other women who are too afraid to let anyone know what happened to them.

By talking now, she hopes to represent those who have remained silent.

Until the results of the latest investigation are revealed, the gymnast said she doesn’t know what to tell parents when they ask her if they should send their kids to San Jose State.

“I just wish people knew,” she said, “what we all had to go through.”

Staff writer Julia Prodis Sulek contributed to this report.

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