When the coach of an Olympic medalist team surprised the world by defecting from Romania to America, it was only a matter of time until he was given the keys to the kingdom. That kingdom turned into Karolyi Ranch, a beautiful piece of land in the Sam Houston National Forest. Within this place of solitude, masters of their craft went to work, shaping young girls into Olympic medalists.
While everything appeared to be on the up-and-up, the Karolyi’s fame led to unquestioned trust.
After Mary Lou Retton trained at the Ranch and won a 1984 gold medal, young girls with hopes to be the next Olympic gold medalist flocked. The Ranch grew, and the Karolyi name with it. Eventually, Karolyi Ranch became the U.S. Women’s National Gymnastics Training Center. With this designation, the Karolyis became rulers of women’s gymnastics. What they said happened—and, if parents complained, their daughter was off the team.
Karolyi Guidelines Encouraged a Predator
The Karolyis had guidelines at the Ranch that were shockingly inappropriate for young girls:
- Parents were not allowed on the premises of the Ranch.
- The Karolyis could search any girl’s bags for “illegal” foods.
- The girls could not ask to go the bathroom.
- Fear and intimidation were appropriate tactics for success.
- Smiling was not allowed, and conversation during practices was forbidden.
- If parents complained, their daughter would be off the team
Past national team members claimed that the Ranch was “oppressive and emotionally abusive.” One member recalled that there was no cell service at the Ranch which was “no mistake.” Another girl remembered being chastised by Bela Karolyi when he grabbed her butt and told her she needed to get rid of it.
“That is how the Karolyis wanted it,” said one member in her testimony in court. Unfortunately, how the Karolyis wanted it made the girls vulnerable to Larry Nassar and his tactics.
How Nassar Took Advantage of Ranch Rules
When girls are taken away from their parents, unquestionably told what to do, and encouraged to have limited interactions with each other, a predator could easily take advantage of these scenarios; unfortunately, that is what happened at Karolyi Ranch. Larry Nassar would offer sweets and forbidden goods to befriend the frightened, scared, and isolated girls. These girls believed that Nassar had utterly pure intentions, but that was tragically not the case.
“Larry, I trusted you. I believed you were a kind person,” said one gymnast who was “treated” by Nassar.
Members of the national team recall Nassar visiting them in their cabins for “treatments” concerning their gymnastic-related injuries. Unfortunately, the conditioning of the camp made the girls think that molestation was an actual part of gymnastic training. “It was treatment, and the girl next to me was getting treatment,” said a team member. “You didn’t think twice about it.”
Even if a girl wanted to say something, the Karoyli’s style of training discouraged them from doing so.
“I remember being uncomfortable,” said one member. “But there was no way you were going to say anything about a treatment, or a workout, or anything you’re told to do.”
These girls were conditioned, with no chance to fend for themselves, or to even understand what was happening during these “treatments.”
One girl recalls her story of finally comprehending Nassar’s real intentions.
When Nassar was first accused of pedophilia, her first reaction was sympathy. However, she soon discovered that one of her closest friends was suing Nassar. She called her friend and told her about her treatments and how Nassar was doing what was best for her. That is when her friend helped her realize that she had been taken advantage of.
“I was sad. I was angry. I was distraught. I did not know what to do,” she said. “It was like having your best friend stab you in the back and affect you throughout your whole childhood.”