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Jan312018

Former MSU softball player says she gave up the sport in wake of Nassar allegations

ABC News(LANSING, Mich.) -- At the age of 8, Tiffany Thomas Lopez's mother promised to buy her a purple bicycle if she tried out for a softball team in her California town.

"I tried it and I thought, 'This is kind of fun and my arm is not too bad. I'm going to continue with this and see where it goes,'" Thomas, now a mother of two, told ABC's 20/20.

Her prowess in softball eventually won her a full scholarship to Michigan State University, where she says she was not only repeatedly sexually assaulted by Dr. Larry Nassar, but that he and some coaches at MSU caused her to give up the sport she loved.

Thomas Lopez was one of 156 women who either spoke in a Michigan court or had their victim impact statements read on their behalf at Nassar's seven-day sentencing hearing that ended Wednesday with the former USA Olympic gymnastics team doctor being sent to prison for up to 175 years on charges stemming from his guilty pleas to multiple counts of sexual misconduct. The punishment is in addition to the 60 years he received in December after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography.

She was one of nearly two dozen women to speak with 20/20 following Nassar's sentencing Wednesday in Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing. She is suing Nasser and MSU.

"I would love to sit here and tell you that I felt so good and felt so empowered, but I was so terrified that I displaced myself from that moment in order to get through it and to be in front of him and to say those words," she said of facing Nassar in court.

"And not that they didn't have meaning, they definitely had meaning," she said of her victim impact statement. "But in order for me to stand there in front of him and not allow him to see me crack and fold, I knew that I had to do that in order to make my point be heard and for it to really hit his heart."

She said that for nearly two decades she had waited for someone to listen to her, for someone to finally believe she wasn't "crazy" for suspecting Nassar had molested her under the pretense of performing medical treatments.

She recalled getting her scholarship to Michigan State University, and what a "big deal" is was.

"Not only for myself, though, but for my family, for my parents...," she said.

Arriving at Michigan State University

She remembered arriving at MSU in 1999 and marveling at the architecture, the greenery, the river that runs through the campus.

"It was just aesthetically pleasing to your eye, calming in a sense, just really beautiful," she said.

In her freshman year on the Spartans' women's softball team, she earned a starting position and represented the school on the USA Junior Olympic team that won the silver medal in Taiwan.

But then a lower back injury she suffered in her freshman year got worse and she was sent to Nassar, the school's sports medicine doctor, for treatment.

"Talking about Dr. Nassar on Michigan State's campus was referring to this man as a god," Thomas Lopez said. "I felt honored. I felt really not worthy, like I thought, 'I'm just a softball player, and this is the gymnast holy grail, so to speak, of a man who, you know, fixes all things. And he wants to see me? I felt completely honored."

She described Nassar as "really nice" and that he seemed "genuine in his words."

"I trusted Dr.Nassar, I would have trusted him with my child, until now. Absolutely," she said. "He laid down the red carpet for me. I'm assuming he did that with everyone, but it felt real. It felt actual, it felt he really did care."

She said in her initial appointments, Nassar did everything "by the book."

In subsequent exams, she says she began to notice red flags, explaining that Nassar began touching her in her most private areas, even while her team therapist was in the room.

"After the doctor's appointment, I would always feel uneasy," she said. "I mean, I'm coming out of the training room from seeing Dr. Nassar, feeling uncomfortable about what had just taken place, but immediately having to switch gears in my head because I need to be on the field. I need to be game ready to go. There's not time for me to have any type of lapse in judgment when I'm fighting for my spot on the field."

Told doctors treatments were wrong

While at a softball tournament in Florida, she said she suffered excruciating pain and went to seek treatment from a team trainer, but nothing would alleviate her suffering.

"I said, 'This is not really working. Maybe you can do what Dr. Nassar's been doing?'" Thomas Lopez said.

She said she illustrated to the trainer how Nassar would treat her.

"She turned bright red, and she gasped, and she started to cry," she recalled. "And she said, 'That's not right.' She said, 'That's definitely not right.' She said, 'You need to tell someone this.'

In her lawsuit, Thomas Lopez says she eventually went to a supervising trainer and told her.

She said the supervising trainer mentioned that she realized Thomas Lopez's mother had recently died and that her father was alone in California.

Thomas Lopez said the supervising trainer told her that if she filed a complaint "this is going to cast a burden over your family. It's going to cause a lot of heartache for you. You're going to be all over the news, and so is Dr. Nassar."

She said the supervising trainer went on, saying, "'This is actual medical treatment, but if you believe that it's not, you can file a complaint. But what is it going to do to his family, though? What is it going to do to the school? The school's going to be in the news.'"

Thomas Lopez said the conversation "made me feel like I was the predator and the pervert because how could I think that 'intervaginal manipulations' were anything but."

She said she was told, "You're crazy to think that this is not medical treatment."

She said she dropped any idea of filing a complaint, but began making excuses to skip treatments with Nassar.

Last straw

She said the last straw came when she went to see Nassar with the assistant trainer who had told her the doctor's treatments were wrong and had suggested she tell someone.

"Maybe about 10 minutes into that doctor's appointment, I looked up at my trainer and I didn't say anything to her," she said. "She looked down at me and she had my hand, and I said 'Why?' I can only just mouth 'Why?' She told me 'I'm so sorry.'

"I just hopped off the table and I ran out," she said. "I can remember seeing athletes looking at me like, 'What's wrong with her?' I'm in tears. I'm not saying anything. I'm like pulling at my clothes and trying to put my sweatshirt back on. I knew that that would be the last time that I would allow him to put his hands on me, medical treatment, valid procedure or not. He was not going to touch me ever again."

Soon after, she signed a medically inactive document, ending her softball career at MSU. By 2001, she dropped out of school and went home to California.

She said it wasn't until 2016 that she saw Nassar's face again, this time on a TV newscast of him being arrested on suspicion of child molestation.

Learning the truth

"It wasn't until that moment that I knew that my reality was real. I wasn't crazy," she said. "All these years later, almost 20 years later, I was not crazy."

She immediately went on the Internet and found an Indianapolis Star investigative report in which Rachael Denhollander detailed being abused repeatedly by Nassar.

"After finding her on the Internet, it was like ... it was relaxing in a sense, terrifying," she said. "I felt like I had someone else who would believe me finally because our stories were ridiculously similar, way too spot-on."

Now that Nassar will likely spend the rest of his life in prison, Thomas Lopez says she wants those who dismissed athletes' concerns and enabled Nasser to abuse so many, like the supervising trainer Thomas Lopez says discouraged her from filing a complaint, to be held accountable too.

"The obvious thing about my story that I would like people to take away is that, it's never too late to speak up," she said. "It's never too late to take your power back. It's never too late, ever, to stand up for yourself and that's what I feel like I'm doing now."

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