For almost 20 years, top U.S. women gymnasts would pack a bag, say goodbye to their parents and take a monthly trip that ended with a long drive down a dirt road to a remote compound in a Texas forest. “You drive through the woods for like 15 miles and then you see this green gate,” says 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber. “That’s when I knew we were pulling up to the Ranch. I started getting this pit in my stomach.”
The U.S. women’s gymnastics national team training center was located at the ranch home of Bela and Martha Karolyi, coaches who had defected to the U.S. from Romania in 1981 after the Olympic success of their protégé Nadia Comaneci. The couple amassed unprecedented power in the sport and brought historic success to the U.S. program. As the Karolyis’ influence grew, so did the importance of the Karolyi Ranch. From a few rustic buildings within a national forest, it became the center of women’s elite gymnastics in the United States.
Few questioned the wisdom of training children and teenagers in a risky sport at such an isolated venue, far from hospitals and cut off from their families. Why would they? Before the Karolyis, the U.S. women had never won Olympic gold. By the time Martha retired in 2016, they’d become the dominant force in women’s gymnastics.
When hundreds of athletes detailed sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics national team physician Larry Nassar, some of which occurred at the Ranch, questions arose as to how this could have happened. In conjunction with the 30 for 30 Podcast “Heavy Medals: Inside the Karolyi Gymnastics Empire,” we go inside the Ranch to examine how the Karolyis built an empire over three decades — and at what price.
Phoebe Mills, 1988 Olympic bronze medalist on balance beam “We got up in the morning, and it was like, ‘Go in that field and jog!’ I said, ‘Wait a second, there’s cows in that field and bulls.’ We started jogging, and [Bela] is on his four-wheeler behind us, just showing us the path.”
On a hunting trip in the early 1980s near Huntsville, a couple of hours north of Houston, Bela discovered privately owned land available within the Sam Houston National Forest. In 1985, he and Martha purchased 50 acres for $69,000. When Bela first took his gymnasts there for conditioning camps before the 1988 Olympics, he offset intense workout and running sessions by letting them ride horses, drive ATVs and try target shooting. The athletes stayed with Bela, Martha and their daughter, Andrea, in a cabin Bela renovated. He later built the gymnasts their own cabin to share — with an outhouse. “Who wants to go to an outhouse in the middle of the night?” says 1988 Olympian Chelle Stack-Marcella. “We would just pee off the side of the porch.” Over the next 10 years, the Karolyis would amass 2,000 acres, which Bela filled with horses, deer, dachshunds, camels, peacocks — and a bull named Gorbachev.
Dominique Moceanu, 1996 member of the Magnificent Seven, youngest U.S. Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics “It was just Kerri and me throughout that summer. The equipment was subpar. I think it’s legendary between all the Karolyi gymnasts that the floor was so hard. We’re like, ‘If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.’”
By 1996, the Karolyis had become U.S. citizens and were preparing for the Atlanta Games with their own club athletes. But instead of training 18-year-old Kerri Strug and 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu at their state-of-the-art gym in Houston, the Karolyis moved them onto the Ranch full time. The isolated locale afforded the Karolyis 24/7 oversight of their gymnasts. Strug and Moceanu shared a cabin — now with indoor plumbing — that was steps from the gym where they practiced for more than eight hours each day. “You could put on that leotard and walk to the gym within two minutes,” Strug says. “You’d hear Bela’s four-wheeler and know it was time.” Martha was named head coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, and Strug and Moceanu were two of its stars. After Atlanta, the Karolyis retired — for the second time — from coaching elite gymnastics.
Aimee Boorman, 2016 U.S. Olympic head coach “We did not talk about gymnastics at all when we were at the Karolyi house. I was told if you ever make the national team, you have to learn how to play canasta and you have to drink scotch.”
The Ranch became a training base for USA Gymnastics in 2000, when Bela came out of retirement for the position he had always wanted: head of the women’s national team. As national team coordinator, Bela mandated monthly camps at the Ranch and eventually entered a lucrative lease arrangement with USAG. But the Bela experiment foundered at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and Martha replaced him in 2001. She encouraged fierce competition among team members, withheld praise and constantly evaluated their fitness and weight. Martha required athletes and their coaches to arrive at every practice, twice a day, looking competition-ready — full makeup, hair done, leotards and warm-ups pristine — and extended those exacting demands to the after-hours social scene at her home. Bela cooked dinners and shared his Hungarian pálinka, while Martha played cards with the coaches. Her system took a physical toll on athletes, but the U.S. won its first team gold at the 2003 world championships.
Carly Patterson, 2004 Olympic individual all-around gold medalist “Here’s your Olympic team, and then you’re looking at the girls in front of you that didn’t make it, like a big group of girls. Their dreams were just crushed, and you start seeing the tears flow and you’re like, ‘Do we smile? Are we happy? Should we be happy? Should we show it?’”
Under Bela, the Olympic selection process had become more subjective. After a national championship and the Olympic trials, he — and a three-person committee he oversaw — chose the team. In 2004, Martha added yet another step: a weeklong camp and competition at the Ranch. Temperatures reached 92 degrees, and the gym was not air-conditioned. The Karolyis invited local coaches and club gymnasts to watch, causing traffic jams on the dirt road leading to the facility. Afterward, Olympic hopefuls and their coaches waited two hours for the committee, headed by Martha, to announce the team. Martha later told journalists it took her only 10 minutes to choose, but she had to wait for the live TV window to open. As the gymnasts and coaches sat shoulder to shoulder, squeezed onto metal bleachers, Martha read out the names of the chosen. The TV cameras, however, focused on the faces of the girls who were not called.
Carol Ulrich Dain, former Karolyi elite, U.S. national team member, 1988-89 “We did a reunion at the Ranch, and that was a hoot. I drove up, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know any of this.’ The big gyms and the cabins. That wasn’t the house I remembered. It was neat to see what they’ve done there, and we were a little jealous. We had a good time.”
In November 2013, former Karolyi star Kristie Phillips-Bannister organized a surprise party at the Ranch to celebrate Martha and Bela’s 50th wedding anniversary. The occasion brought together former stars and coaches from the ’80s and ’90s. The Ranch looked different from the rustic place that lived in many of their memories. There were three gyms, a cafeteria, cabin-style motel lodging and USA Gymnastics and USOC signage around the grounds. Being back reminded some of the tough conditions they had endured as kids. Dain, who competed at the 1988 Olympic trials, credits those years with shaping her career as a police officer and federal prosecutor: “I knew there was always something more to give, and that dates back to being in that gym.”
Nancy Armour, USA Today columnist “I think she loved the sport, No. 1. I do think she genuinely wanted to see the gymnasts be rewarded. The major flaw was there weren’t enough checks and balances in the system. If Martha said she wanted to do something, very few people were going to tell her no.”
In spring 2015, Martha, then 72, confirmed rumors that the 2016 Rio Olympics would be her last. The months leading up to Rio became something of a victory lap for her, as she sat for exit interviews and invited TV crews into her home. Ten days before the Olympics, USA Gymnastics announced it would buy the training facilities at the Ranch for $3 million, cementing the Karolyis’ legacy in the sport. In Rio, Martha oversaw the greatest team in U.S. history. The Final Five, as they called themselves, won the team gold. Simone Biles won the individual all-around, as well as gold medals on floor and vault. Aly Raisman took silver in the all-around and on floor. Martha gave one final sit-down interview, gushing about her incredible teams before concluding, “All good things must come to an end.”
John Barr, ESPN investigative reporter and co-author, “Start by Believing” “It was after Detective Bean and this Texas Ranger went away that day after being denied access to the Ranch that, according to the employee, Steve Penny ordered the removal of documents from the Ranch. And that is why Steve Penny was ultimately indicted for tampering with evidence.”
A month after the Rio Olympics, an Indianapolis Star report revealed that two former athletes had accused national team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. That number now totals more than 500 — including several dozen national team members who said they were abused by Nassar at the Karolyi Ranch. In November 2016, a Texas Ranger and a detective with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office showed up at the Ranch and were turned away by a USA Gymnastics employee, Amy White. She and two other USA Gymnastics officials later told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that USAG president Steve Penny had instructed her to remove any medical records bearing Nassar’s name and deliver them to him at the federation’s offices. The authorities returned to the Ranch the following day with a search warrant, but the records were missing and, to date, have not been found.
Chelle Stack-Marcella, 1988 Olympian, judge and national team developmental coach during Martha’s tenure “We were kind of in shock, because a lot of the people sitting in the house have been doing this for years. All of a sudden your home away from home is now done. It’s closed. Everything got packed up and taken out.”
In May 2017, USA Gymnastics called off its $3 million purchase of the Ranch but continued to send hundreds of athletes there for training camps. Then, in January 2018, Simone Biles added her name to the growing list of survivors of Nassar’s abuse. On Twitter, she wrote, “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.” Three days later, USA Gymnastics ordered the facility closed permanently, effectively cutting ties with the Karolyis and their Ranch.
Mattie Larson, 2010 world championship team member “Whose responsibility were we if we’re minors and children at this place? No one wants to take responsibility. No one wants to fess up and no one wants to own up. I guess we were our own responsibilities as 12- and 13-year-old kids without our parents.”
In late 2017, Nassar pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and 10 counts of child sexual abuse in Michigan. He was eventually sentenced to 60 years in federal prison and a maximum of 175 years in state prison. Steve Penny was arrested and charged with evidence tampering in Texas. He has pleaded not guilty, and his case is still pending. USA Gymnastics, threatened with decertification, went through four CEOs in less than two years and declared bankruptcy. The Karolyis were never charged with a criminal offense but are named in at least a dozen civil lawsuits. They have remained out of public view, maintaining their innocence and ignorance. In 2018, they sued USA Gymnastics for backing out of the deal to buy their property. Today, the gyms, once full of Olympic hopefuls, are empty. The power is off. The animals are gone. The Karolyis, along with daughter Andrea and her family, still live at the Ranch.