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U.S. news

McKayla Maroney says Larry Nassar earned her trust with bread

The gold medalist says the Olympics doctor used food to groom his victims.
Olympics Day 9 - Gymnastics - Artistic
McKayla Maroney of the United States stands on the podium with her silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.Ronald Martinez / Getty Images file

In the weight-conscious world of elite gymnastics, McKayla Maroney says she was often hungry — and there was one person who frequently came to the rescue.

Larry Nassar.

"I think I would've starved at the Olympics if I didn't have him bring me food," Maroney told NBC News' Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive interview for a special investigative edition of Dateline airing Sunday at 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT.

At the time, Maroney thought Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor, was just being kind. Now, she said, she realizes that his treats were a classic grooming method used by sexual abusers.

He figured out his victims' vulnerabilities and exploited them, casting himself as the nice guy in a demanding, high-stress atmosphere, she said.

"Your coaches are just always watching you. And wanting to keep you skinny," Maroney said. "And there's just other things about the culture that are also messed up that he used against us."

Maroney — who says she was molested by Nassar hundreds of times — told NBC News that she was so hungry from grueling workouts that she was grateful for the most basic of gifts from the doctor.

"[He would] buy me a loaf of bread," she said.

Other accusers have also described how Nassar would use gifts, treats and attention to earn their trust — and their silence about his invasive pelvic "treatments."

"To my teenage self, he appeared to be the 'good guy' in an environment that was intense and restricting," Maroney's 2012 teammate, Jordyn Wieber, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee on Wednesday. "He would try to advise me on how to deal with the stresses of training and my coaches."

"Larry acted like our friend," Wieber added.

"He always had a sympathetic ear for complaints about our coaches. He would bring us food and coffee at the Olympics when we were hungry. I didn't know that these were all grooming techniques that he used to manipulate and brainwash me into trusting him."

A report commissioned by USA Gymnastics after the Nassar abuse scandal broke in September 2016 recommended that the organization require that grooming behavior by coaches and other adults be reported and investigated. The report also said a "complete culture change" was necessary to protect young athletes.

USA Gymnastics has said it was unaware that Nassar was abusing elite gymnasts before June 2015, when a coach overheard a conversation between two gymnasts about his medical techniques. He is now serving a sentence of up to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting 10 girls and possession of child pornography.