Last week Olympic gymnast Simone Biles joined the chorus of women and young girls who say they were abused by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
It has been more than a year since the first reports came out accusing Nassar of abusing more than 100 women, including members of the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team while it was being led by famed Romanian coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi. Their Karolyi Ranch, located just outside of Huntsville in the Sam Houston National Forest, was the site of much of the abuse endured by members of the team.
The news comes as Nassar’s marathon sentencing hearing moves into its second week. Last November, Nassar pleaded guilty to seven counts of sexually assaulting young girls under the guise of giving them medical treatment.
The Michigan judge overseeing the case is allowing the women and girls who’ve accused Nassar of abuse to address him during the sentencing hearing. So far, 144 women have signed up to read their victim statements to the courtroom.
But it’s taken until now for the Walker County Sheriff’s Department to finally investigate what actually happened at the Karolyi Ranch.
Bela and Martha Karolyi have been the gods of the sport for decades. They defected from Romania to the United States in the early 1980s, without having much money or knowing the language. By 1984, Bela had coached Mary Lou Retton to Olympic gold in Los Angeles. From there, the Karolyi mystique was born. People lined up around the block at their original training center in Houston, eager to have their children learn from the couple.
The two originally started buying the land just outside of Huntsville for hunting in 1983, but over the years the place was built up and turned into a training center. The center’s isolation—and strict no-parents-allowed policy—let the Karolyis work closely with their chosen young athletes, molding them into the dynamos that wowed the world and turned the U.S. women’s team into a powerhouse during the 1990s and again in the late 2000s.
Martha replaced her husband as head coach of the Olympic team in 2001, formally succeeding Bela's brief (and by most accounts, disastrous) time as national coordinator from 1999-2000.
In 2011, USA Gymnastics, the body that governs the sport, formally named Karolyi Ranch the national training site for the women’s team. The Karolyis required all members of the Olympic team to come together for group training sessions once a month at the ranch, a part of their process meant to create a team dynamic in what is really a highly individual sport, and to get the best out of each athlete by having them compete against each other.
The training approach, established by Bela years before when he was training the Romanian gymnastics team, was intense. In recent years, famed gold medalist Dominque Moceanu has spoken out against the Karolyis, saying that their methods—learned and refined in their earliest years in the sport, under Romania’s communist regime—were too harsh and demanding.
The Karolyi process also created a highly stressful, insular world, the kind of place where a predator like Nassar was able to thrive, according to various court records. Nassar would befriend the athletes as he worked with them on various sports injuries, offering them sympathy and kindness. He would also give them sweets on the sly, an easy way to win trust in an environment where everything the girls ate was noted and desserts were forbidden—the Karolyis were not above calling out a gymnast for being too heavy.
So far, half a dozen Olympic gymnasts, including Biles, have come forward alleging Nassar abused them, stating that some of the incidents took place on the Karolyi Ranch.
Little was done after the first reports in late 2016 that former Olympic team members from the late 1990s and early 2000s were accusing Nassar of using his position as team doctor to repeatedly sexually abuse them. Martha had retired shortly after the triumphant showing made by Biles and the rest of the U.S. team at the Rio Olympics that summer. (Bela had technically been retired since 2000, but most of the glowing coverage of Martha’s final act implied that he had been working closely behind the scenes all along.) Monthly training camps continued to be held at the ranch, and the aging coaches were still celebrated as the kingmakers of the U.S. women’s gymnastics dynasty.
Last May, as more Olympic gymnasts revealed they too had been assaulted by Nassar at the ranch, USAG officials canceled plans to buy the place from the Karolyis. But the ranch remained the location for those monthly training sessions for the national team.
Even as more and more women (both on the Olympic team and former patients Nassar had treated while he was team doctor of Michigan State's women's gymnastics team and in his private practice) joined the ranks of those accusing Nassar of abuse, and the president of USAG, Steve Penny, was pushed out, the Karolyis came through unscathed. Their ranch remained the place where girls were sent to be transformed into gravity-defying gymnasts.
That changed last week, when Biles chose to come forward with her own story, which she posted on social media. She closed her statement by noting that she still had to go back to the place where so much of the abuse had occurred: Karolyi Ranch. “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,” she wrote.
Shortly after Biles's revelation, USAG announced that the Karolyi Ranch would no longer be the site for the national training camp, and this morning three USAG board members were off the board. Meanwhile, women continue to testify against Nassar. Once they are done, he stands to receive anywhere from 40 to more than 100 years in prison for his crimes. (He has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison for three federal counts of child pornography in a separate case.)
It’s impossible to know what, if anything, the Karolyis knew. They have denied any wrongdoing in court documents, but they have not spoken publicly about the scandal since it broke, or responded to requests for comment. It’s also very difficult to believe that coaches who were so vigilant about the athletes they were training failed to notice that Nassar would visit the girls alone in their cabins. Nassar was known among the gymnasts for giving his “special treatment,” in which he inserted his fingers in an athlete’s vagina, often without gloves, according to court records.
As Rachel Denhollander, the first former gymnast to file criminal charges against Nassar back in 2016, has pointed out, Nassar was only part of the problem. "The culture of enabling is absolutely vital to why pedophiles flourish," Denhollander said when Nassar pleaded guilty to abusing her and nine others in November. "You don't get someone like Larry Nassar, you don't get a pedophile who is able to abuse without there being a culture surrounding him in that place. Until we deal with the enablers, this is going to continue to happen."
Now that the Karolyi Ranch is no longer the official team training center, and now that officials are investigating what so many famed Olympians say happened out there, perhaps we’ll start to be in a place to make a true assessment of Bela and Martha and their years of work.