Karolyi Ranch produced champions and a culture of fear, ex-gymnasts say

Tucked away in the boondocks of southeast Texas hid the mecca of American women's gymnastics -- a training camp so re...

Posted: Feb 3, 2018 12:37 AM
Updated: Feb 3, 2018 12:37 AM

Tucked away in the boondocks of southeast Texas hid the mecca of American women's gymnastics -- a training camp so revered and remote, years of abuse festered unabated, ex-gymnasts say.

But they're not just talking about molestation and the hands of Larry Nassar. They say Bela and Martha Karolyi, the famed owners of Karolyi Ranch, inflicted verbal and emotional abuse that fostered a culture of fear.

A US champion said she self-inflicted a head injury to avoid going to Karolyi Ranch

The Karolyis have not returned calls for comment

"There is an eerie feeling as soon as you step foot onto the Karolyi Ranch. It is completely removed from all civilization," former gymnast Mattie Larson said.

"In the case of an emergency, the closest hospital is so far away, you'd need to be helicoptered there. To get to the ranch, you must drive up a dirt road for what seems like an eternity. ... On top of that, there is no cell service. It's completely isolated, and that's no mistake. That is how the Karolyis wanted it."

For decades, top female gymnasts endured the rigors of Karolyi Ranch -- a sprawling 2,000-acre compound set in a national forest. It was the US Women's National Team Training Center and a US Olympic Training Site, where important opinions on gymnasts' fate took shape under the watchful eye of Martha Karolyi.

"The complete detachment from the outside world, on top of careless and neglectful adults, made the ranch the perfect environment for abusers and molesters to thrive," Larson said.

Several elite gymnasts have said they were molested by Nassar when he was the team doctor at Karolyi Ranch. And a lawsuit claims the Karolyis struck young children there.

Larson posed an open question to Martha Karolyi: "Martha: Did you keep Larry around because he was a good doctor? Or did you really keep him around because he let us compete when we were injured and was willing to keep your secrets?"

Neither Martha nor Bela Karolyi has spoken publicly about the Nassar abuse scandal. The couple have not responded to multiple CNN requests for comment, nor have their attorneys.

This week, Gov. Greg Abbott requested an investigation by the Texas Rangers, saying the "recent, shocking allegations of sexual assault of athletes at the Karolyi Ranch in Walker County are deeply disturbing."

The Walker County Sheriff's Office is already investigating the local ranch, but Abbott requested a state-level investigation as well.

"Considering that criminal action has been implicated across multiple jurisdictions and states, it is essential that the Texas Rangers work with the Walker County Sheriff's Office to comprehensively investigate all potential criminal conduct," the governor said.

"The public statements made by athletes who previously trained at the Karolyi Ranch are gut-wrenching. Those athletes, as well as all Texans, deserve to know that no stone is left unturned to ensure that the allegations are thoroughly vetted and the perpetrators and enablers of any such misconduct are brought to justice."

Suddenly shuttered

The Karolyis are now defendants in a civil lawsuit, which claims they "turned a blind-eye to the perpetrator Nassar's sexual abuse of children at the Ranch."

The plaintiff, identified as Jane LM Doe, said the Karolyis engaged in their own abusive behavior -- such as "striking minor child gymnasts, scratching minor child gymnasts until they bled, encouraging parents of the minor child gymnasts to hit their children," and "requiring gymnasts to train while they were ill."

The suit also claims the Karolyis "allowed Nassar to have unfettered and secluded access to minor children" -- a violation of USA Gymnastics policy.

"Karolyi defendants provided no supervision of the perpetrator Nassar, in exchange for his silence and willful blindness to their regime of fear, intimidation, and physical and emotion abuse of minor child gymnasts," the lawsuit states.

The Karolyis have not filed legal responses to those specific allegations. Their attorneys have not responded to CNN's requests for response to the lawsuit.

While that case is still open, the gymnastics mecca has suddenly closed.

Shortly after Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison, a Karolyi website announced the closure of the famed training camp.

"After nearly four decades of spiriting young gymnasts towards greatness in sport, our yearly tradition of the Karolyi's Gymnastics Camp has come to an end," a statement on the website read. "Bela, Martha, and the rest of the camp staff wish to sincerely thank all participants, USA Gymnastics, and everyone who has been a part of our extended family for 35 years of unforgettable memories."

Reigning Olympic all-around champion Simone Biles is one of the many medalists who say Nassar sexually abused her at Karolyi Ranch.

Earlier this month, Biles said the idea of returning to Karolyi Ranch to train for the 2020 Olympics would be terrifying.

"It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing in Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused," Biles said in a statement.

Three days after Biles' statement, USA Gymnastics said Karolyi Ranch will "no longer serve as the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center." USAG said the location of the next national team training center has yet to be determined.

'A real mystique and magic'

At first glance, Karolyi Ranch -- about 70 miles north of Houston -- looked like a typical camp for children and teens. Outside of the elite gymnasiums, young athletes lived in cabins surrounded by woodlands. A 2008 video showed goats, horses and other animals trotting throughout the property.

"There's a real mystique and a magic about being here. And the name 'Karolyi' definitely lends a lot to that," Steve Penny, then-president of USA Gymnastics, said in the video.

The Karolyis, who defected from Romania to the US in 1981, are both former head coaches of US Olympic teams. They've trained gold medalists such as Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug.

"I think having it be the national training center for the women, and having his (Bela's) name and Martha's name attached to it, gives it prestige and gives it worldwide acclaim," Penny said in 2008.

"And so when you invite countries from around the world ... to come to the United States National Team Training Center that happens to be the home of the legendary coach, you know, the combination of that is extremely powerful."

Before she left for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Shawn Johnson spoke about the honor of training at the ranch.

"It's so great to like know everything that's gone on here and to know that you're really training where some of the greatest legends in history trained," Johnson said at the time.

Ten years later, Johnson said she is disgusted by the rampant sexual abuse reported by many of her fellow gymnasts at Nassar's sentencing.

"I think the fact that any of this has ever happened shows that USA Gymnastics has failed as a governing body to protect the athletes that it supports and claims to care about," Johnson said in a video statement last week.

"I think gymnastics is the best sport in the entire world, but if I had a daughter right now, I wouldn't put her in it."

Gymnast caused her own head injury to avoid ranch

Nassar's child molestation wasn't the only abuse reported from Karolyi Ranch.

The Karolyis were fabled, untouchable legends. After Bela retired, his wife Martha became the new women's national team coordinator. And since she took the reins in 2001, Team USA has earned two Olympic team gold medals and has produced every Olympic all-around champion since 2004.

But all that glory came with a price -- verbal, emotional and physical abuse at Karolyi Ranch, former gymnasts say.

"Years and years and years of trying to speak up and it falling upon deaf ears has gotten us to this place, and also empowering the most emotionally abusive coaches in our lifetime," said Dominique Moceanu, a member of the 1996 Olympic gold medal team.

"They're the ones who started this culture -- and I refer to the Karolyis."

Larson, the 2010 US champion on floor exercise, said the abuse at Karolyi Ranch was so bad that she self-inflicted a head injury to avoid going to the ranch.

"One time, I was so desperate not to go, I thought faking an injury bad enough was the only way out," Larson said during Nassar's sentencing hearing.

"I was taking a bath when I decided to push the bathmat aside, splash water on the tiles, get on the floor, and bang the back of my head against the tub hard enough to get a bump, so it seemed like I slipped."

Her parents rushed her to a hospital, fearing a concussion. "I was willing to physically hurt myself to get out of the abuse that I received at the ranch," Larson said.

When Larson returned to Karolyi Ranch for the next training camp, "Martha Karolyi approached me and said, 'You know what? (1991 world champion) Kim Zmeskal fell out of the top bunk of the cabins here, and she didn't miss practice the next day.' She did not say another word," Larson said.

Larson eventually quit elite gymnastics, left the Karolyi Ranch for good and entered the gymnastics program at UCLA. She became one of a long series of gymnasts who came to UCLA "with the same stories of verbal and emotional abuse," famed UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field said.

"We have now seen behind the curtain and understand the Karolyis aren't wizards, they're enablers," she said. "Their power is gone, but the work isn't done."

Life after Karolyi Ranch

The closure of the ranch is just part of the massive fallout from the Nassar case.

USA Gymnastics, which boasts 174,000 athletes and professionals, announced dozens of changes as reports of Nassar's abuse kept growing. They include a new abuse prevention training plan and "serious consequences for failure to report abuse," up to expulsion from USAG.

As for which facility will replace the Karolyi Ranch, "USA Gymnastics is exploring alternative sites to host training activities and camps until a permanent location is determined," USAG said in a statement.

Valeri Liukin, who succeeded Martha Karolyi as US team coordinator, has offered one of his two Texas gyms as a temporary location for the national team to train, his daughter and 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin said.

Larson said she is pushing for legislation to require Olympic governing bodies to immediately report sex abuse allegations to law enforcement. She said simply closing the Karolyi Ranch won't solve the entire problem.

"It's not only about switching to a better location," Larson said. "We must ensure that legal steps are made to prevent anything of this nature and magnitude from happening again."

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