U.S. gymnasts: Sport rife with verbal, emotional abuse
They were little girls with dreams of Olympic gold when they started in gymnastics. Now they’re women with lifelong injuries, suffocating anxiety and debilitating eating disorders.
They are the other victims of USA Gymnastics.
Thirteen former U.S. gymnasts and three coaches interviewed by The Associated Press described a win-at-all-cost culture rife with verbal and emotional abuse in which girls were forced to train on broken bones and other injuries. That culture was tacitly endorsed by the sport’s governing body and institutionalized by Bela and Martha Karolyi, the husband-and-wife duo who coached America’s top female gymnasts for three decades.
The gymnasts agreed to speak to AP, some for the first time, after the recent courtroom revelations about USA Gymnastics’ former team doctor, Larry Nassar, who recently was sentenced to decades in prison for sexually assaulting young athletes for years under the guise of medical treatment.
The Karolyis’ oppressive style created a toxic environment in which a predator like Nassar was able to thrive, according to witness statements in Nassar’s criminal case and a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics, the Karolyis and others. Girls were afraid to challenge authority, Nassar was able to prey on vulnerable girls and, at the same time, he didn’t challenge the couple’s harsh training methods.
“He was their little puppet,” Jeanette Antolin, a former member of the U.S. national team who trained with the Karolyis, said. “He let us train on injuries. They got what they wanted. He got what he wanted.”
Young girls were virtually starved, constantly body shamed and forced to train with broken bones or other injuries, according to interviews and the lawsuit. Their meager diets and extreme training often delayed puberty, which some coaches believed was such a detriment that they ridiculed girls who started their menstrual cycles.
USA Gymnastics declined to answer questions for this story. The Karolyis didn’t reply to requests for comment, but their attorney denied they abused anyone.
Some female gymnasts in the U.S. were subjected to abusive training methods before the Karolyis defected from their native Romania in 1981. But other coaches and former gymnasts say the Karolyis’ early successes – starting with Romania’s Nadia Comaneci becoming the first woman gymnast awarded a perfect score in competition – validated the cutthroat attitudes that fostered widespread mistreatment of American athletes at the highest levels of women’s gymnastics.
The Karolyis, who helped USA Gymnastics win 41 Olympic medals, including 13 gold over three decades, trained hundreds of gymnasts at their complex in rural Huntsville, Texas, known as “the ranch.” They selected gymnasts for the national team and earned millions from USA Gymnastics.
But while the Karolyis are credited with dramatically improving the performance and medal counts of the U.S. women’s team, gymnasts in the U.S. and Romania told AP that the couple were verbally, emotionally and sometimes physically abusive.
A congressional committee investigating the gymnastics scandal said in Feb. 8 letters to the Karolyis, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee that they were all “at the center of many of these failures” that allowed Nassar’s sexual abuse to persist for more than two decades.
Former gymnast Mattie Larson, who was molested by Nassar and was among the nearly 250 who provided victim impact statements during his sentencing hearings, said the doctor cleared her one time to train at the Karolyi complex on an ankle that turned out to be fractured.
“Martha, did you keep Larry around because he was a good doctor? Or did you really keep him around because he let us compete when we were injured and was willing to keep your secrets?” Larson said in court.
It’s unclear what the Karolyis knew about Nassar’s sexual abuse and whether they took any action to stop it.
Martha Karolyi, in a deposition given last year as part of the lawsuit against the Karolyis and numerous others, acknowledged that “in or around June 2015” she received a phone call from the then-head of the national gymnastics organization, Steve Penny, informing her that the organization had received a complaint that Nassar had “molested a national team gymnast at the ranch.”
The deposition was included in a Feb. 14 letter to two U.S. senators from John Manly, an attorney representing Larson and other Nassar victims in a lawsuit that seeks monetary damages and court oversight of USA Gymnastics.
Manly cited the deposition to accuse the sport’s governing body of lying to Congress.
In a timeline submitted to a congressional committee investigating the scandal, the organization said it was told in mid-June of an athlete “uncomfortable” with Nassar’s treatment, but that it was not until late July 2015 that it decided to notify law enforcement “with concerns of potential sexual misconduct.”
That “timeline is incomplete, inaccurate and equally misleading,” Manly said. Penny, the former USA Gymnastics chief, said in a statement that Martha Karolyi was mistaken about the timing of his call.
Texas has one of the strongest child abuse reporting laws in the nation, requiring anyone who has reason to believe abuse has occurred to immediately alert authorities. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine, said Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, and “any kind of sexual abuse is going to count.”
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said it did not find any reports about abuse at the Karolyi ranch.
In the deposition, Martha Karolyi said she did not discuss what she learned about Nassar with anyone but her husband, her lawyers and the USA Gymnastics official who called her.
That raises questions about whether she violated Texas law.
The AP requested an interview with the Karolyis through their Houston attorney, Gary Jewell, who declined. Reporters also visited the ranch, left phone messages and sent the couple a letter, but they never responded.
Jewell said the Karolyis didn’t know about any sexual assault complaints involving Nassar until Martha Karolyi was contacted by a USA Gymnastics official in the summer of 2015. Jewell insisted the Karolyis didn’t abuse anyone and were cooperating with authorities. He said he would not discuss additional details because of ongoing litigation.
The Texas Rangers and the local sheriff’s office are both investigating the ranch, which is closed, and declined to comment. USA Gymnastics recently cut ties with the Karolyis, and it’s unclear where the couple is living.
Lifetime of pain
Before 1984, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team had won only one Olympic medal: A bronze at the 1948 games in London. Individually, U.S. women gymnasts didn’t fare much better.
So when the Karolyis arrived in the United States and opened their own gym in Houston in 1982, they began attracting gymnasts who wanted to train with the coaches who catapulted Comaneci to fame.
One of their first American students was Mary Lou Retton, who was already a promising gymnast when she decided to make the Karolyis her new coaches. She declined an interview with the AP.
Retton’s success at the 1984 Olympics, where she won five medals, including a gold, cemented the Karolyis’ reputation.
After that performance, hundreds of girls from all over the country wanted to train with the Karolyis. Capitalizing on this demand, the couple launched a long – and profitable – relationship with USA Gymnastics, opening a new training center on a secluded tract of land outside Huntsville, a town of less than 40,000 in southeast Texas best known for the prison that houses the state’s execution chamber.
According to USA Gymnastics’ financial records reviewed by AP, the Karolyis were paid at least $2.1 million. Their true income is likely higher because despite their long association with the nonprofit organization, the Karolyis are named in publicly available financial records for only 2000 through 2007. Martha Karolyi was the national team coordinator from 2001 to 2016, and prior to that her husband led the team for nearly two years.
USA Gymnastics declined to say how much the Karolyis were paid. The organization canceled plans to purchase the ranch after the Nassar scandal broke.
At the ranch, the Karolyis controlled every aspect of the girls’ lives, from their diets to routines, former gymnasts told AP. They would search the girls’ rooms, looking for snacks that might be stashed away, according to the lawsuit and interviews with former gymnasts. The Karolyis, their coaching staff and sometimes other visiting coaches would publicly ridicule girls about their weight or bodies and force the gymnasts to work through devastating injuries.
Sara Tank Ornelas said that soon after she began training with the Karolyis in 1985 she realized that the Bela Karolyi she had seen on television, who was “animated and acted like he loved kids,” was “not the Bela that was in the gym.”
“We were treated like a business plan,” said Ornelas, now 44 and living in Wichita, Kansas.
Ornelas said she suffered 13 broken bones while training at the Karolyis’ Houston gym from age 11 to 15.
Being hungry was part of life, she said. A typical breakfast was a measured amount of cereal. Lunch consisted of dry tuna and a few crackers. Dinner was often a small portion of chicken and broccoli or rice.
Larson, who began training at the ranch when she was 10, said she feared even drinking water because of possible weight gain. She took laxatives daily for six years, she said.
The lack of calories and intense workouts left the girls’ bodies malnourished, delaying puberty. Studies have shown delayed puberty can cause lifelong problems such as osteoporosis. Puberty was something to be feared, Ornelas said, and girls who developed breasts were ridiculed for needing a bra.
“If a girl started wearing a bra, coaches would snap the bra and the other girls would make fun of them,” said Ornelas, who trained all year between 1985 and 1989, when she said a botched surgery ended her career.
The insults still sting, she said.
“I remember a coach yelling across the gym that I had a fat ass,” she said. “I was 11.”
Antolin, the former member of the U.S. national team, recalled one time when she was about 15 or 16 “Bela grabbed my butt and told me to lose it.”
Antolin, one of the plaintiffs in Manly’s lawsuit, said her personal coach was also abusive, limiting her to 800 calories per day despite hours of rigorous training.
Nassar was seemingly the only friendly adult around, gymnasts said, but he did nothing to challenge the Karolyis’ behavior.
Dominique Moceanu, who competed in the 1996 Olympics, said the Karolyis used the threat of her abusive father as a means of control. If she didn’t perform to expectation or complained about injuries, she said, they would threaten to tell her father, knowing that he would to beat her. A former member of the Karolyi staff told AP that he witnessed a beating of Moceanu by her father.
Once, Moceanu recalled, when she complained about a leg injury, Martha Karolyi grabbed her by the back of the neck and told her to call her father. Dumitru Moceanu died in 2008, and his widow did not respond to requests for comment.
The pressure to stay thin, which included being called “fat” in front of teammates, was also humiliating, Dominique Moceanu said.
“You’re just hanging by a thread by the time the Olympics rolled around,” she added.
Aside from being known as the coaches who guided Comaneci and Retton to victory, it’s unclear what USA Gymnastics officials knew about the Karolyis’ background when they asked them to lead the national team.
USA Gymnastics would not say if the Karolyis had been vetted. But there were many red flags, AP found.
Six Romanians – four gymnasts, their choreographer and a team nurse, most of whom have never spoken publicly – told AP the Karolyis were physically and emotionally abusive to gymnasts in their native country.
If anyone on staff objected to the beatings, verbal abuse or meager diets, they were fired, all the Romanians interviewed said.
Gabriela Geiculescu, a former gymnast who trained with the Karolyis in Romania, said she believed the couple knew they couldn’t treat U.S. gymnasts as they had those in their home country.
But she is still haunted by the abuse. “You would get so hungry you would eat toothpaste,” Geiculescu, who now runs a gymnastics program in Nashville, Tennessee, told AP. “And when you were injured you had to hide the pain or they would beat you.”
Bela and Martha Karolyi met in college and opened a gymnastics program together. At the time, most gymnasts would begin training at 10 or 11 years old –even later.
But the Karolyis changed the sport. They began searching for children in elementary school, believing that young girls were easier to build into champions.
They started training Comaneci when she was 6. And when the 14-year-old dazzled the world with her perfect 10 performance, the Karolyis were on the map.
Comaneci, who now lives in Oklahoma with her husband, fellow Olympian Bart Conner, did not respond to AP’s requests for an interview.
With the blessing and support of Romania’s communist leadership, the Karolyis centralized gymnastics training in the 1970s, opening a center in a small town in Transylvania where the country’s best gymnasts were required to train and go to school.
Dana Beck was a 14-year-old budding young gymnast in Romania’s capital city Bucharest when she was picked to train with the Karolyis.
Then known as Dumitrita Turner, she said she didn’t want to go. While her own coach was verbally and physically abusive, she said, she had heard “horror stories” about the Karolyis.
Beck said Bela Karolyi – a burly man who towered over the tiny gymnasts – would often strike her if she didn’t “do things his way” in practice. But she said her physical abuse was nothing compared to what her fellow gymnasts endured.
She recalled that one gymnast practiced so long on the parallel bars that the blisters on her hands popped. Beck said Bela warned the girl to keep going and she did until her hands started to bleed. In pain, the young gymnast sobbed that “I can’t do this anymore.”
What happened next stunned Beck. “He beat her so long and hard that she peed in her pants,” she said.
Two Romanian gymnasts and two former members of the Karolyis’ staff confirmed this account.
“You can’t imagine the brutality inside that building,” said Geza Pozsar, who was the Karolyis’ choreographer from 1974 to 2002. He defected with them in 1981 when the Romanian team was traveling in the U.S.
Pozsar acknowledged he had a tumultuous relationship with the Karolyis over the years. Still, he said he worked closely with them in Romania. The gymnasts at the Karolyis’ training center had to go to school, where Pozsar’s wife was a French teacher. He said he and his wife were so appalled at the gymnasts’ diet that they’d sneak the girls “chocolate bars” and other food.
Limiting calories despite long, exhausting workouts was a way the Karolyis believed they could delay the girls’ puberty, he said.
“They did not want them to have their periods or develop breasts. It was a stigma,” he said, adding that the Karolyis had derogatory nicknames for the gymnasts. “They would call them cows and say they were fat. They would humiliate the girls.”
Beck, now an accountant living in Australia, said the gymnasts were so hungry that they’d scrounge for food in garbage cans when they went into town. Worse, while they ate meager portions, the Karolyis and staff members would often eat huge plates of food in front of them, said Beck and the other Romanians interviewed by AP.
When the Romanian team heard the news about their coaches’ defection, everyone cheered, the gymnasts said.
“We celebrated by buying chocolate and having a big chocolate party,” Beck said.
Plagued by injuries
Former gymnast Cathy Rigby, who at 15 was the youngest girl on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, said she “learned to be bulimic” in gymnastics long before the Karolyis arrived on the scene.
The pressure to perform with injuries also pre-dated the Karolyis, she said, but “when Bela came here, other coaches saw that they were winning and thought, ‘This is the way you have to coach.’”
And with each new success, the Karolyis’ methods became institutionalized across the sport, gymnasts told AP.
“It became the only way if you wanted to win,” said Jennifer Sey, a former member of the U.S. national team who did not train with the Karolyis but with coaches in the 1980s who she said followed the Karolyis’ abusive model.
American gymnasts interviewed by AP said they weren’t punched or assaulted as the Romanians said they had been, but nearly all complained of constant emotional abuse. They also said they considered many of the Karolyis’ tactics – including forcing gymnasts to work through serious injuries – a form of physical abuse.
USA Gymnastics shares much of the blame for the abusive environment, the former gymnasts said.
The organization’s executive, board members and coaches attended the Karolyis ranch and other gymnasiums. The gymnasts interviewed by AP said it would be nearly impossible for them not to have witnessed the verbal and emotional abuse and forced training through injuries.
In fact, former USA Gymnastics board member, Dr. Jay Binder, warned in a 2010 report for the Federation of International Gymnasts that forcing girls to work through injuries and severely limiting their caloric intake could lead to a lifetime of physical and emotional pain.
“Gymnastics is an aesthetic and athletic sport so there is sometimes pressure from coaches, judges and teammates to ‘not get fat’ or to stay lean because they believe it will keep them competitive and enhance performance,” Binder wrote. “The facts show that these strategies have the opposite effect and lead the athlete into unhealthy eating patterns or even anorexia and bulimia.”
He also noted that extreme training and severe dieting, combined with delayed-onset puberty, could lead to “potentially devastating” bone loss.
“We have the bodies of old people,” said Larson, now 25.
Ornelas is also plagued by injuries and body-image issues. She says she struggles with “horrible arthritis” and low self-esteem. “I think it’s a habit from being called fat and told I had a big butt,” said the 5-foot-4, roughly 110-pound former gymnast.
Years before the U.S. gymnastics scandal erupted publicly, one former gymnast-turned-lawyer quietly sought to help the governing body change its bylaws to better protect girls from possible abuse.
Jessica Armstrong said she researched USA Gymnastics’ rules after her own daughter wanted to join the sport. Armstrong said she had been sexually abused by a coach, who later was convicted of child pornography, but never told anyone. She wanted to ensure her daughter was better protected, but said she found loopholes in how coaches and staff were vetted.
Armstrong and another lawyer developed proposed guidelines and got two dozen other gymnasts, including Rigby, to endorse them. They sent the proposal to a USA Gymnastics official in a May 29, 2012, letter but got no response.
“It’s clear they were not open to changing the rules that would protect children from abuse,” Armstrong said.
In the wake of the Nassar scandal, USA Gymnastics adopted new bylaws, which expanded the number of categories of prohibited conduct to include verbal and emotional misconduct, bullying, hazing and harassment.
USA Gymnastics’ bylaws also say members “must promote a safe, misconduct-free environment” for gymnasts, participants, coaches, officials, volunteers and staff. Anyone violating misconduct rules could be suspended or banned from the sport.
Sey said USA Gymnastics accepted the emotional and physical abuse of its athletes “to the point that it’s become invisible.” Now, it needs to aggressively tackle the issue of physical and emotional abuse, otherwise “more young girls will be hurt.”
“There needs to be a cultural change,” Sey said, calling for “zero tolerance for abuse of any variety – not just sexual abuse. But I don’t think USA Gymnastics has the moral courage to reset the sport.”
Larson agreed: “It’s sad for me to say this, but if gymnastics can’t find a way to keep athletes healthy and happy, they need to shut it down.”