Karolyis and their famed ranch draw scrutiny
It was the toughest of environments, intended to mold aspiring gymnasts into elite Olympic athletes. Demanding coaches, disciplined training and brutally honest assessments — the camps were not designed for average gymnasts.
It also is a place where a former national team gymnast claims a predator doctor was free to roam, using his access to sexually abuse them. Her attorney asserts it was the “toxic” environment created by Bela and Martha Karolyi’s unrelenting expectations that enabled Larry Nassar to befriend gymnasts he intended to abuse.
What Nassar did at the ranch, and whether the Karolyis were aware of it, has brought the two most decorated gymnastics coaches in the history of the sport into a lawsuit filed in October against them, USA Gymnastics and the gymnast’s personal coaches. The Karolyis are not accused of direct involvement, but they are portrayed as partly responsible for failing to monitor Nassar and maintaining a culture that allowed him to operate.
MORE GYMNASTICS SCANDAL COVERAGE:
With criminal investigations of Nassar ongoing, much remains unclear regarding what happened at the ranch. If Nassar is guilty, how much responsibility, if any, falls on the Karolyis? The answer, legal experts say, will depend on what was known to the Karolyis and what actions they did or did not take as a result.
“If everything in the complaint is true, what the Karolyis did is a drop in the bucket compared to what Nassar did,” said attorney Jonathan Little, who is not involved in the case but has been involved in sexual abuse cases against national governing bodies.
What Nassar did during his tenure as the national gymnastics team physician from 1996 to 2015 and in a 20-year stint at Michigan State University continues to come to light. He was charged in November with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a person younger than 13 by the Michigan attorney general. Those charges stem from his time at Michigan State, which also is being sued by at least 40 women or girls. Nassar also was indicted in December on two federal charges related to child pornography. A third charge was added this month when officials said Nassar attempted to destroy some of the 37,000 images and videos found by the FBI.
The Karolyis also are defendants in a second lawsuit filed in January by another former gymnast, who also says the culture at the ranch was a factor in her being abused by Nassar. She alleges the abuse occurred between 1997 and 1999; Bela Karolyi did not become the national team coordinator until November 1999, and USA Gymnastics said it could not find records of any national team training camps at the Karolyi ranch before January 2000. The Karolyis did operate summer camps at the ranch during that time period, but Karolyi attorney Wes Christian told USA TODAY Sports in a statement Thursday that Nassar was never present.
An investigation published in August by The Indianapolis Star, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, found numerous cases in which USA Gymnastics had been informed of possible sexual abuse by youth coaches that the organization failed to report to authorities. Several gymnasts said TheStar’s coverage emboldened them to bring sexual abuse allegations against Nassar, and two former gymnasts told their story in detail to The Star in September.
Since then, more than 60 women have stepped forward, and Nassar, an osteopathic physician, remains under criminal investigation by at least three law enforcement agencies. Among them were the Texas Rangers, who were at the Karolyi ranch in November, according to The Star, citing a person familiar with the case. Nassar is in jail in Michigan awaiting trial.
When asked by USA TODAY Sports about its response to the October lawsuit, USA Gymnastics declined to comment, citing pending litigation and an FBI investigation. USA Gymnastics has previously said it reported claims of abuse to law enforcement and has emphasized its commitment to policies to prevent abuse and encourage the reporting of allegations.
The ranch, located in the middle of the Sam Houston National Forest near Houston, was where girls with Olympic dreams would travel, but their resolve was quickly tested by the Karolyis, exacting coaches known for transforming the USA from also-ran to a gymnastics powerhouse over the past two decades.
The plaintiff in the civil suit filed in October, a former national team gymnast, alleges the Karolyis intimidated gymnasts by hitting and scratching them. The Karolyis’ methods led to a toxic environment that enabled Nassar to befriend and comfort gymnasts and then abuse them, according to the lawsuit.
“As adults, we all have an obligation to protect children,” said John Manly, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the two lawsuits that name the Karolyis as defendants. “Now, did the Karolyis intend for (Nassar) to molest kids? I certainly doubt they did, but that’s not the issue. The issue is, who was watching him and who supervised him? And the short answer is, nobody.”
Manly says he has witnesses to support the claim about the kind of abusive environment the lawsuit alleges the Karolyis created at the ranch, but he declined to provide details to USA TODAY Sports.
Attorney Gary Jewell said the Karolyis “vehemently deny the allegations.” Through Jewell, the coaches declined interview requests.
Karolyis known for being demanding
The allegations against the Karolyis do not match the experiences of many gymnasts who trained at the ranch, though this is not the first time the couple has been accused of being harsh.
“This is elite gymnastics,” said Samantha Sheehan, a former national team member who trained at the ranch from 2000 to 2004. “It’s not supposed to be lovey dovey all the time.”
USA TODAY Sports used phone, email and social media accounts to contact more than five dozen gymnasts who were on the senior national team from 2005 to 2012, as well as several coaches and parents. Nine gymnasts and two coaches agreed to talk about their experiences on the record, and four others spoke on background.
“I’ve never seen a coach lay a hand on a girl, period, at the Karolyi ranch,” said Amber Trani, who trained there from 2005 to 2008.
The Karolyis were accused of verbal and emotional abuse when they were personal coaches, most notably by Dominique Moceanu, a member of the Magnificent Seven, which made history in 1996 with the first Olympic gold by a U.S. women’s team. In her 2012 book, Moceanu said Bela Karolyi encouraged her father to physically abuse her. Moceanu’s father died in 2008.
MORE GYMNASTICS SCANDAL COVERAGE:
The Karolyis have consistently denied allegations that they abused gymnasts.
The Karolyis retired from coaching after 1996, and the American program sagged. Bela Karolyi was brought back in 1999 to reverse the team’s fortunes, and he implemented a semi-centralized training system in his newly created role of national team coordinator. Under the system, gymnasts trained at home with their personal coaches but would go to the Karolyi ranch for monthly camps that assessed their fitness and progress.
Martha Karolyi replaced Bela as national team coordinator in 2001 and held the role until she retired after the Rio Olympics in August. It was under her direction that the semi-centralized training system became revered for the success it produced: team golds at the last two Olympics; the last four Olympic all-around champions; and 96 medals at the world championships and Olympics.
Coaches barred from living spaces
One hallmark of the Karolyi program was the monthly training camps, which usually lasted for five days at the ranch.
While the lawsuits depict every bit of ranch life as under the control of the Karolyis and Nassar, with little other adult supervision, those who have been to the ranch say numerous personal coaches were present and were the primary contacts for gymnasts.
Martha Karolyi dictated workouts but otherwise had less access to the gymnasts than Nassar.
“Not very much,” Rebecca Bross, the 2010 national champion, said of how much interaction the gymnasts had with Martha Karolyi outside of workouts. “Downtime, we were always in our rooms or in each other’s rooms, watching TV. Who knows what she was off doing? The only other time we’d see her is if we’d have a meeting.”
The Karolyis and other coaches were barred by USA Gymnastics rules from being in the gymnasts’ living spaces. Plus the federation’s Participant Welfare Policy states coaches must avoid being alone with children, but the policy does not specifically address guidelines for medical staff.
The October lawsuit claims Nassar abused the plaintiff in their dorm rooms, which were located across a common area from the cafeteria and the gym.
“I thought it was clear that coaches would not go into athletes’ rooms,” said Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 world all-around champion and a member of the 2008 team that won silver at the Beijing Olympics.
Said her father and coach, Andy Memmel: “My daughter was there, and I wasn’t even allowed to go in her room.”
The gymnasts said for the most part they received medical treatment from Nassar in a training room in the gym, and none could recall the door being closed. Alternatively, they would sometimes assemble in a common room where they would get treatment or massages.
“I don’t know who had the allegations and I don’t know what their relationship was like with their own coaches,” Trani said, “but if something happened to me, I absolutely feel like I could have gone to my own coach and as well as several other on-site coaches and staff that were there.”
The gymnast who filed the October lawsuit is 24 and identified as Jane Doe. She was a member of the national team from 2004 to 2010 and was part of the U.S. squad that won a silver medal at the 2010 world championships.
While the Karolyis lived at the ranch, most gymnasts did not see Bela Karolyi in the gym after he gave way to Martha. His job was to maintain the expansive ranch, including supervising new construction projects.
The gymnasts stayed in dorm-like buildings called motels and ate three meals a day in a cafeteria.
According to the lawsuits, the Karolyis deprived the gymnasts of food, engaged in searches of their rooms for snacks, screamed obscenities at them and told them they were fat.
The gymnasts who spoke to USA TODAY Sports said the food options were healthy, though monotonous. They said many gymnasts brought snacks to keep in their room, and they could not recall those being confiscated.
“It was never about, ‘Don’t give them this and don’t give them that,’ ” said Aimee Boorman, who coached 2016 Olympic champion Simone Biles. “We never had a conversation about nutrition or dieting or not eating.”
Focus on Nassar
Creating a tough, disciplined atmosphere for elite athletes is an approach often used by coaches, and it is not the legal issue facing the Karolyis, experts say.
The key questions will be whether the Karolyis were negligent in allowing Nassar to operate without oversight and whether complaints were made to the Karolyis about potential criminal acts by Nassar and no action was taken.
“I think it defies credulity that from 1996 to 2016 that no one complained,” said Manly, who represents plaintiffs in four lawsuits against Nassar and some combination of USA Gymnastics, Michigan State, the Karolyis and other coaches.
“I think the evidence will show they did and that it was ignored. Because Nassar was willing to non-report and look the other way as to a lot of the things that were going on at the ranch that shouldn’t have been going on in terms of the way kids were treated, I think the evidence will show Dr. Nassar was given a pass and was allowed to violate their own rules.
“And as a result, kids were hurt.”
For the Karolyis and USA Gymnastics, culpability will hinge in part on the policies in place and efforts to enforce them, several attorneys told USA TODAY Sports.
“The Karolyis probably personally don’t have much to fear,” Little said. “They’re going to be covered by their insurance from USA Gymnastics, in the end, if they stay in the lawsuit.”
The Karolyis still have not been served in the October lawsuit or seen the second lawsuit, according to Christian and Jewell.
Attorney Robert Allard, who has been involved in several sexual abuse lawsuits against USA Swimming, said negligence could be found if a party failed to train employees to spot signs of a predator grooming a potential victim.
Undoubtedly, the involvement of the Karolyis in a lawsuit has brought added attention to accusations against Nassar that have led to federal and state criminal cases and rocked the gymnastics community.
Still, attorneys and experts said neither the Karolyis nor USA Gymnastics could be held liable simply because some of the alleged sexual abuse by Nassar occurred at their ranch.
In addition to proving the claims of abuse against the Karolyis, Manly would need to support the lawsuit’s claims of negligence or that they ignored Nassar’s alleged abuse.
“What they’re arguing is that the Karolyis’ environment cause a certain atmosphere of silence and mistrust and expectance of abuse that led to this particular harm here,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming who is the founder of Champion Women and advocates for the protection of girls and women in sport. “They’re going to have to prove that.”