USA Gymnastics Has Backed Out Of Buying the Karolyi Ranch

With results like this why wouldn't USA Gymnastics want to buy Karolyi Ranch, the place where the 2016 U.S. Olympics Gymnastics Team honed their skills to win the gold? (There are reasons.)
With results like this why wouldn't USA Gymnastics want to buy Karolyi Ranch, the place where the 2016 U.S. Olympics Gymnastics Team honed their skills to win the gold? (There are reasons.) Screengrab from NBC
When USA Gymnastics announced last summer that the organization would purchase the Karolyi Ranch — the storied facility located in the Sam Houston National Forest just north of Houston where famed gymnastics coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi have been training female gymnasts for decades, it was a logical decision. Martha Karolyi was about to lead the 2016 U.S. Olympics Gymnastics Team to gold, and then she would join her husband in retirement.

At that point, it looked like the Karolyis – the former Romanian coaches who had defected and then ascended the ranks to coach U.S. gymnasts to Olympic gold – were set to ease into a graceful retirement from the sport, where the legendary couple would preside over the Karolyi Ranch as new flocks of elite gymnasts arrived each year to train on the hallowed ground.

The Karolyis had originally envisioned the facility as a sort of working monument to their contributions to U.S. gymnastics. However, the plans have changed.

In the wake of the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the gymnastics world, USA Gymnastics, the governing body of the sport in the United States that selects the Olympic team, has pulled out of its agreement to buy the Karolyi Ranch, a move that has left the fate of the ranch, and of the coaches' reputations, in limbo.

The pair spent decades building the ranch. They started buying land on the site as early as 1983, just as Bela Karolyi was beginning to get his footing in the U.S. gymnastics world by opening Karolyi's Gymnastics Club and training Mary Lou Retton. Initially, they held summer training camps at the ranch and then national training camps started being held there as well.

Meanwhile, over the years, there were rumblings about how the Karolyis created a harsh environment for the young athletes. Gold medal gymnast Dominique Moceanu spoke out about the abusive training environment and says she was then treated as a pariah in the gymnastics world. The rumors simply never stuck.

When Marta was named team coordinator in 2001, that sealed the deal for the camp, and the national women's team began training there officially, and in 2011 it became a certified site for the U.S. Olympics gymnastics team. After the Rio Olympics last year, Marta was set to retire and the ranch they'd built would be handed over to USA Gymnastics.

But that was before last fall when it was revealed that team doctor Larry Nassar was abusing former gymnasts, including numerous members of the Olympic teams when either Bela or Martha Karolyi were at the helm. (Nassar was also team doctor for Michigan State's gymnastics team and is currently in federal custody on charges including possessing child pornography.)

Since then, civil lawsuits have been filed against Nassar, USA Gymnastics and the Karolyis.

Officially, the scandal hasn't touched the Karolyis, who have denied all allegations of wrongdoing, as we've noted. But the accusations that Nassar – who is now accused of more than 20 counts of criminal sexual misconduct and has pleaded not guilty to all of them – abused young athletes on the Karolyi Ranch and on their watch has already changed how the facility is viewed.

More than 100 women and girls, most of them gymnasts, have filed sexual assault claims against Nassar, including former members of the U.S. national team. And the stories they tell paint a deeply troubling picture of what was actually going on at the Karolyi Ranch.

One woman, who has remained anonymous, a member of the 2010 team who won a silver medal at the 2010 world championships, has sued Nassar, declaring in the lawsuit that some of the sexual abuse occurred at the ranch. The lawsuit also states that the Karolyis created a "toxic" environment where the strict high-pressure training approach left girls and young women vulnerable. Bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher and national champion rhythmic gymnast Jessica Howard have made similar allegations in their own lawsuits.

Nassar presented himself as the ally and friend of his young patients, cultivating their trust, according to court records. Then he was able to use his unmitigated access to the gymnasts — he reportedly treated them alone in their rooms without supervision, according to the various lawsuits filed against him — to sexually abuse the young athletes, according to court documents.

Jeanette Antolin, who was a member of the U.S. national gymnastics team from 1997 to 2000, recounted how Bela Karolyi grabbed her butt once as she was walking into the gym at the Karolyi Ranch and told her to lose weight. She has also described how Nassar used the negative environment to ingratiate himself with Antolin, and then to sexually abuse her, inserting an ungloved hand into her vagina sometimes as often as twice a day during Team USA international trips and at the Karolyi Ranch.

And so, this week USA Gymnastics officials apparently finally decided that owning the Karolyi Ranch was no longer the best idea. On Tuesday, the organization announced it had dropped plans to buy the place from the retired coaches, pairing the announcement with an appropriately vague reason:

“The USA Gymnastics Board of Directors has decided not to proceed with the organization’s purchase of the Karolyi Ranch, which serves as the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center. The decision was made for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to unexpected financial expenditures associated with the purchase. USA Gymnastics is presently continuing under the current lease arrangement to hold national team activities at the Ranch while it is exploring alternative locations for training activities and camps.”

So yeah, the Karolyi Ranch will not, in fact, be owned by USA Gymnastics and will likely cease to be the spot where the national team meets to train once a month. As soon as the USA Gymnastics lease ends the group can find another location.

It's definitely not because USA Gymnastics is looking to get as far from the Karolyis, the Karolyi Ranch and the ugly stories about what happened there.

Nope. Certainly not.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray