Heavy Medals Episode 6

The Rise of Martha For years, Martha Karolyi avoided the spotlight. But when she is tapped to take over the national team, Martha finally comes into full view. Martha aims to prove that she can turn the United States into a dominant force in gymnastics. But under Martha’s regime, injured athletes are often discarded and a culture of silence prevails.

Transcript

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: A word of warning: this episode contains mature language depicting instances of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse of children

 

[NBC Olympics

Announcer: Martha Karolyi, Bela’s wife, his lifetime companion, is a

powerful partner in the Karolyi gymnastics machine. But no one knows her.]

 

MIKE JACKI: She was never very prominent. Never said anything. I don’t remember her ever being in an interview.

 

[NBC Olympics

Announcer: Finally, she gave in and offered us this exclusive insight.

 

Announcer: Thank you for joining us, Martha.

Martha Karolyi: Sure.

NBC Olympics Announcer:  You’re the unknown person. You kinda hide, you don’t like this very much, do you?

Martha Karolyi: Yeah, it’s not my favorite thing.]

KRISTIE PHILlIPS: When the media would come in, she would always be in the office. It was Bela, Bela, Bela, Bela, Bela. That’s why everybody knew Bela, because Martha didn’t want to be in the media.

 

RITA BROWN: She was a hard person to read or get close to. I would watch her and she would stand there all stoic and have her arms crossed, but she could talk to those kids with very little words, with her eyes, and with some compassion, but very stern.

 

[NBC Olympics

Martha Karolyi: Go! Go! Set! Go! Stand! Don’t rush.]

 

STEVE NUNNO: You can’t get away from Martha’s voice.


[NBC Olympics

Martha Karolyi: Bela!]

 

STEVE NUNNO: It’s a piercing voice that just echoes through whatever hall she’s in. You know, ‘Oh, Bela! Oh, Bela, what you doing there?’

           

[NBC Olympics

Martha Karolyi: Bela! Bela!]

 

JORDYN WIEBER: Marhta is definitely one of the most intimidating people I’ve ever seen in my life. She is very intense. She was the decider of our fate. 

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Well people know the name, Martha Karolyi, as both a coach and the head coach of the 96 olympic team. Now add the title of national team coordinator.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: This is Episode 6: The Rise of Martha

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: Martha, hello, and what is the one thing you want to do for the program in this job?

Martha Karolyi:Oh, our main goal to bring back U.S. women gymnastic where it belongs on the medal contender situation.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela Karolyi and the U.S. team had returned from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney empty handed and frustrated. USA Gymnastics needed a new plan, but the goal remained the same — to win Olympic medals. 

 

And the federation still believed that the discipline and reputation of the Karolyis was the way to do it. So, in January, 2001, USAG announced Bela’s replacement as national team coordinator; his wife, Martha.

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: A key for the program is going to be unifying everybody, coaches and athletes. How do you do that? 

 

Martha Karolyi:  Absolutely. That’s number-one goal. Mentally, we want to prepare the girls to be able to put the team goal in front of individual goals and to understand that their contribution is great.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: USA Gymnastics had bought into this new semi-centralized system, and had no intention of going back. Even though the other Karolyi would be the National Team Coordinator, not much else would change. Camps would be mandatory…and they would be held at The Ranch.

 

[NBC Sports

Martha Karolyi: it’s extremely important because all the strong nations like Russians, Romanians, Chinese permanently train together in centralized training centers. Year long. And that’s a major advantage. We needed somehow to make an approach which is more team oriented.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Coaches welcomed the change to Martha. Like Tasha Schwikert’s coach, Cassie Rice.

 

CASSIE RICE: Cassie Rice: After Bela, we were quite relieved, which sounds strange, but, uh, she had more logical plans in place. She had more communication. Too tough and too strict and too negative and too, like I would call it, brutally honest, but better than Bela. 

 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: Bela was very scary to talk to. I was fearful that I wasn’t going to say the right thing. That I wasn’t good enough. 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Tasha was one of the few gymnasts who had experienced Bela as national team coordinator and would now train under Martha’s regime.

 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: Like, I still  couldn’t be honest with her, but I wasn’t scared when I talked to her.


ALYSSA ROENIGK: For Martha and the executives at USA Gymnastics, it was important to make it clear that she was now in charge.

 

[NBC Sports 

Announcer: Enter Martha Karolyi. No longer would the US team train the way they had. They would be stronger. They would be deeper. They would be her team, the way she always wanted it.]

 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: ‘Cause they wanted to make it very clear that Bela was out and Martha was in. 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela tended to his property and his animals, and faded from the gymnasts’ view

           
TASHA SCHWIKERT: There were a few times initially when he came into the gym and
            she was like, ‘Nope, like you gotta go.’

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha was quick to claim control — and she was clear about who was and wasn’t welcome. Since the mid-1980s, a sign had hung at the entrance to the gym declaring “No Visitors or Parents Allowed Inside.” Martha extended that rule to anyone who would bring outside influence into the program. 

 

NANCY THIES MARSHALL: The national team training staff which was led by Marta, did not want to have the nutritionist and the sports psychologist at the training camps and a part of the program

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Nancy Thies Marshall had been running a wellness program for USA Gymnastics since the early 90s. Under Martha — Nancy and that program were out.

 

The only person associated with the wellness program Martha agreed to keep, was Larry Nassar. Larry had worked with the national team since the 80s. He’d been named national medical coordinator right before the 1996 Olympics. Under Martha, Larry continued to  serve as the team doctor 

 

GEZA POZSAR: She trusted Nassar. He was the type of doctor that she liked. Martha needed a gymnast to compete no matter what. So, if Larry…he kept his mouth shut because he knew that Martha would not like it, you know? 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Geza Pozsar had been the Karolyis go-to choreographer for three decades.

 

GEZA POZSAR: Martha was, you know…the sweetest thing in the world is, you know, vengeance, you know.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In all his years working with the Karolyis, Geza had always felt Martha was more vindictive than Bela — more rigid about her ideas. Shortly after she took over, he quit. 

 

GEZA POZSAR: Martha actually enjoyed power more than Bela.

  

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mandatory monthly training camps at the Ranch not only continued under Martha… they intensified.

 

 

[WTHR 

Martha Karolyi: In the mind of the gymnast, it’s very clear when they come here they come for one single reason: to focus on they training.]

 

  
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Every day, Martha’s camps began with a military style lineup and intense conditioning…and finished after hours of intense repetitions. Martha and the National Team Staff scrutinized the gymnasts’ every move. Each workout had the pressure of a full on competition.

 

[WTHR
Martha Karolyi: We expect them to always do the personal best. Every try. Every try counts.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But in 2000, Bela had been whittling a field of gymnasts down to those who he believed could take the pressure of the Olympic stage. Now, Martha was building. She increased the pressure and the competition between the gymnasts to keep them hungry. 

 

She’d seen it work for decades. She knew they would push each other, try to outperform one another, try to earn her favor … and that in doing so they would all improve. Marhta’s goal was to build as deep a bench as she possibly could. 

 

SCOTT REID: That’s the one thing about the Karolyi system is, is that there’s so many numbers that you can treat these kids as disposable because there’s always somebody else there.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Scott Reid is an investigative journalist for the Orange County Register. The 2003 world championships were held in his backyard in Anaheim, California. When he covered the practice sessions leading up to the meet … he saw the U.S. Team training intensely.

 

SCOTT REID: Behind the scenes, there was a lot of coaches complaining about Martha. ‘Why are you training so hard, so close to the meet?’

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: While most teams rested their athletes right before a big international meet..Martha didn’t believe in leaving room for rest and recovery. Right up until the day of competition — she trained her gymnasts to their limits — and beyond.

 

CASSIE RICE: Every day was prove yourself and prove yourself to me again today. Okay, next workout. Prove yourself again to me today. And it was hard landing, hard landing, hard landing, hard landing. And that breaks kids. 


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Cassie Rice and her gymnast, Tasha Schwikert, had to keep going because even as team captain, they knew Tasha was replaceable.

 

CASSIE RICE: Tasha didn’t break at that time but she could barely walk her quads were so sore, cause it was too much hard landing impact. And you know, we were trying to get massages and trying to get her to be able to walk. She couldn’t tumble. you know, there’s just so many things going on with her, uh, legs and, and being able to be at her best. And we just had to keep going.

 

SCOTT REID: And just the indifference of Martha to it. It was like, ‘Eh, you know, we’ll just plug somebody else in.’ And that to me was, ‘wow, these kids are just cattle.’

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: These are the world championships of gymnastics. And today we’ll answer the question: which country has the best team?]

 

SCOTT REID: When Anaheim hosted the 2003 world championships, you really saw the whole Karolyi system up, up close

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha arrived at the World Championships with eight athletes. Before the competition even started, three had to withdraw.

 

CARLY PATTERSON: We get to the world championships and it’s like our team is cursed.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Carly Patterson was one of the five remaining gymnasts on the US Team

CARLY PATTERSON: One girl gets the flu, can’t compete and is totally out. Another girl tears her ACL. Another girl tears her achilles 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: By competition day, we were left standing with five competitors. 


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Tasha Schwikert was nursing an ankle injury. 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: Are we going to get disqualified because we don’t have six competitors? Are we even allowed to compete with five people?

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: You know, Al, I spoke with Martha Karolyi USA Team Coordinator in the tunnel moments before the team marched in and I asked her how they were dealing with this most recent setback. Her response: ‘I can’t believe all that’s happened. We are still a team though. We still think that we can win.’]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: This is where a team of elite athletes who have all been subjected to the highest level of pressure, and are ready to go at a moment’s notice, comes in handy.

 

Martha called up the team’s third alternate and flew her in to Anaheim.

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Martha Karolyi apparently gave quite a speech to this team. One of the things, apparently, that she said was, ‘This is a world for the tough.’ In other words saying if you want to be part of it you’ve got to be tough.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: There was one gymnast in particular Martha expected that toughness from: 15-year-old Carly Patterson. 

 

CARLY PATTERSON: You know, Martha was definitely intimidating, to me, but at the

same time we had a really good relationship. 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha saw potential in Carly — a gymnast she thought could help the team, but special enough to be her own star. 

 

CARLY PATTERSON: I think she saw that I was consistent. I was a hard worker. Um, and I was a good beam worker. She loved people that were good on beam. 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: The thing that’s so great about Carly on beam is how she lands. Martha Karolyi says she has a lightness on the beam that the international judges… they just crave.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: As the competition pressed on, Carly and her teammates rose to the challenge

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: You have to say that’s getting the job done,

 

Announcer: What a wonderful presentation.]

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: And Tasha hits another home run for the United States, 9.6.

 

Announcer: What that means for Team USA…they get through cleanly here, they go to the next rotation with a huge advantage.]

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: In the World Championships, the United States women have never ever won the All Around Gold Medal. Right now, they’re the leaders with one rotation to come.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In setting her lineup, Martha had decided that Carly was the one tough enough to stand up to the pressure. Carly would be the final American gymnast to perform on the final rotation. 

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: Whoa! That form! Bam!]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And by hitting all four tumbling passes of her floor routine…Carly did just that.

 

[NBC Sports
CROWD: Cheering and chanting ‘USA, USA.’]

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: And so it is official. The women of the United States right now, here as we are, are the best team in the world. After losing half their team to injury and illness.]

 

CARLY PATTERSON: Through all of the adversity that we had to face with basically having to come up with a whole new different team and then still be able to push through that and win, it’s very special.  

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha Karolyi had walked her team into Anaheim with the attitude that they would win no matter the cost — and it worked.

 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: I was very excited about how it turned out, how we won with only five people. And then she got to take a lot of the credit [laughs].

 

SCOTT REID: Martha was the brains the whole time and now you’re seeing it. She’s not messing around. There’s a new sheriff in town. Bela kind of was on the periphery. He, you know, he was working the media and everything, but, but when, when the focus is on the floor, Martha was clearly in charge. So, 2003 is really where it became Martha’s program. 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: And so now these young women will celebrate. There’s Martha Karolyi and Bela Karolyi. Their vindication has to be clear because the direction of USA Gymnastics was to put faith in them and now the gold medal to show for it.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: As Bela beamed with excitement, the TV cameras captured a glimpse of Martha, who looked calm, as if everything had gone precisely according to plan. 

 

And from that moment on, Martha’s plan became simple: keep winning.

 

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: Well, it has been four long years. Martha Karolyi at the helm and from the beginning they laid out a plan. To get them to Athens.

 

Announcer: The expectations for team USA could not be higher.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha put the U.S. back on the medal stand at the 2004 Olympics. Team USA took silver.

[NBC Olympics
Announcer:  There it is!

 

Announcer:  Wow!]

            CARLY PATTERSON: Martha just like grabbed my face and she was like,
            ‘Carlishka! Oh my goodness!’

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: Carly Patterson has won the gold medal 

Announcer: Move over Mary Lou!!!]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Carly Patterson won gold in the all around, for the first time since Mary Lou Retton in 1984.

SCOTT REID:I remember Bela standing in the hallway after they won in, in Athens, and it was like,’ see, I told you so.’ This is validation. This works. It was like a victory tour. You know, we told you it was going to work. And this is just the start.

[FIG

Opening trumpets

P.A. Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen the 2005 World Gymnastics Championships.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Each year, the U.S. became a more and more consistent force at the international level.

 

[Seven Network
Announcer: An amazing turnaround in world gymnastics at the moment.]

 

[FIG
Crowd Cheers at 2005 WGC]

 

[Seven Network
Announcer: What a finish!]

 

[Seven Network
Announcer: The American girls have just come out here and blown everybody away]

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: The 2007 world gymnastics championships.]

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: This! Wow!

 

Announcer: Unbelievable

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: When you get a hug from Martha Karolyi it’s good news

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: It’s so hard to say in gymnastics but right now it feels like it’s an American dynasty

 

[NBC Sports
Steve Penny: …USA gymnastics, the number one team in the world! As we head into Beijing for the 2008 Olympic games.]

 

[NBC Olympics
Bela Karolyi Yes! She’s an Olympic champion. I’m telling you! I’m telling you! I’m telling you!]

[NBC Olympics 

Announcer: The Americans went one, two — the gold to Nastia Liukin and the silver to Shawn Johnson.]

 

[NBC Olympics
Bela Karolyi: Wow, wow, wow….great!]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: And no one benefitted from the success of Martha’s teams more than USA Gymnastics…and its new President, Steve Penny.

 

When former President Bob Colarossi resigned in 2005, USA Gymnastics promoted its Senior VP of marketing to replace him.

 

When Steve Penny was a USA Cycling executive in the ’90s, Lance Armstrong gave him the nickname “Dime,’’ because he was so good at selling the sport. And in gymnastics, strong results at the Olympics could mean millions of dollars.

 

VAL KONDOS-FIELD: Steve Penny was hired to develop all that went into USA gymnastics including marketing and TV deals and all that, and he was great at it. Absolutely brilliant at it.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But longtime UCLA gymnastics coach Val Kondos-Field had concerns about Penny’s single-minded focus. 

 

VAL KONDOS-FIELD:  He was blinded by the almighty dollar. He was so consumed with winning medals — because medals translate to money — that the athletes simply became a commodity and pawns to earn that money. 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The key to getting all those medals that Steve Penny and USA Gymnastics turned into dollars…was the Karolyis. And that’s what troubled Val Kondos-Field.  

 

As the coach of a top college program that attracted former elite gymnasts, Val mentored several young women who had come up through Martha’s system. She had seen the physical and emotional costs up close.

 

VAL KONDOS-FIELD: You can trust Martha to train the best gymnasts in the world. You can’t trust Martha to care about those gymnasts as human beings. 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Val worried that Steve never seemed to question Martha’s methods or provide any oversight.

 

VAL KONDOS-FIELD: I asked him, I said, ‘why do we let Martha get away with being so abusive to our young girls?’ And he looked at me like I was crazy and he just said, ‘because she wins, Val.’ 

 

[Walker County Sheriff’s Department

911 Operator: Walker County 911, what’s the location of the emergency?

Caller 1: USA Gymnastics National Team training center, it’s the Karolyi ranch.

911 Operator: What’s the location of the emergency? 

Caller 2: We need an ambulance at Karolyi’s gymnastics camp.

Caller 3: We got a kid up at Karolyi’s camp, you know where they do the olympic training.

Caller 4: Off of the bars, she peeled off, she landed down on her toes, planted her hands. Her elbow’s dislocated through the back. We have her splinted.

Caller 5: Hello? We need the ambulance to come… 

911 Operator: Ma’am, I’m getting an ambulance. I’m asking questions that I’m required to ask, okay? 

Caller 5: Alright, but we don’t want to waste time. We want to make sure that the ambulance comes. 

911 Operator: Ma’am, the ambulance is on the way. You called and asked for an ambulance, I send an ambulance, okay?

Caller 5: Very good then.]  

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The threat of injury to any gymnast training at the Ranch was very real. But national team athletes were performing skills at such a high level that the smallest mistake or the slightest fatigue or existing pain, could lead to a devastating injury.

SCOTT REID: The reality of what these amazing women do. Just the acrobatics of it, the height, the power, the force.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Journalist Scott Reid investigated the physical toll of elite gymnastics on young athletes. 

SCOTT REID: You can hear the impact. 

                         AMBI OF BEAM THUDS 

SCOTT REID: There’s just this, this powerful kind of thud. And you’re looking at this kid and you’re thinking, ‘what’s that doing to her, her hips, her back or knees?’

ALYSSA ROENIGK: It reminded Scott of covering the NFL, standing on the sidelines and hearing the bone-crushing impact of big tackles.

SCOTT REID: It’s the same gut punch to you. It’s like, ‘Wow that’s, that’s something.’

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And it had similar consequences. Scott found that national team gymnasts had surgery at the same rate as those NFL players. He presented his data to USA Gymnastics and Martha Karolyi.

SCOTT REID: So, Martha says, ‘When we saw there was an injury, we got the gymnast to the right person right away.’ Well, that ‘right’ person was Larry Nassar.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha trusted national team doctor Larry Nassar. He never raised any red flags and he cleared the gymnasts she needed to compete. 

MELANIE SEAMAN: Larry warned me to just be really, really, really careful about how you word things around her and injuries and saying a gymnast can’t go or anything like that.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Melanie Seaman worked alongside Larry Nassar as a team athletic trainer. She was quickly introduced to a culture that placed the program’s needs ahead of the athletes’ health and wellbeing.

MELANIE SEAMAN: This was said by a USAG staff member and I was sitting right in front of her when she said it. And I quote, ‘Once these girls become national team members, they are property of USA Gymnastics and we will do with them as we please.’ I walked into a championship one day to a gymnast who had broken her foot and they were all in there, the coaches and the USAG staff and Martha, they were all talking about, ‘well, what should we do? Should she go? Should she not go?’ Like, why don’t you ask her? Never once did they ask her. But she went. They taped her up and she went. 

MATTIE LARSON: I was selected as an alternate to compete in the 2008 Olympics.And then I was doing a dismount on beam and I felt like just, like, the sharpest, quickest pain and I couldn’t really walk at all after that. And then I got home and, and got an x-ray and the break was just, like, a straight line just across my shin. Just like a complete clean break. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mattie Larson had to give up her dream of making the 2008 Olympic team because of that broken leg. After she recovered, she returned to The Ranch hoping she could make the 2012 team. But one day during training, Mattie misjudged a landing during her floor routine.

MATTIE LARSON: And I was trying to do a certain tumbling pass where you have to twist and then bounce into a flip. And from my twist and then bounce into the flip, my feet were kind of like sickled I kinda like lost where I was in the air. So in the bounce, they just went [bang] and like bounce into the flip. And I just felt them, like, crack and they kinda crumbled under me.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mattie was driven to the nearest hospital.  It was a long, painful drive.

MATTIE LARSON: The drive is like two hours.  

ALYSSA ROENIGK: First along a narrow, bumpy dirt road that eventually led to the highway.
           
           
MATTIE LARSON: I just remember in the car, I was in the back seat. And my
            feet just swelled up so quickly and it hurt so much. I just knew it was not going to be
            good.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mattie was x-rayed, and then she returned to the Ranch for the final two days of camp. The pain in her ankles was so severe she couldn’t put any weight on either foot, so she couldn’t stand on her own, she couldn’t walk. But no one even offered her a wheelchair.

MATTIE LARSON: And I still had to show up to practice every day. So I was literally crawling on my hands and knees. I wasn’t even allowed to just like sit and like watch, like I still had to do something. So I’d be like sitting with just like broken feet flopping around, like doing, like, arm curls.I never saw my x-rays. I don’t know if my coaches saw my x-rays. The only person that did was Larry. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Larry Nassar had told Mattie her ankles were sprained. When Mattie got home, her family doctor took a second set of X-rays and told her that her right ankle was clearly broken. 

The isolation of the Ranch made it difficult for parents to get information when their daughters were injured. There was little to no cell phone service and there was still just that one pay phone on the property.

RITA WIEBER: I would never hear from Jordyn, unless she called me 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Rita Wieber’s daughter, Jordyn, was one of Martha’s top juniors. Jordyn made a point to call her mom every night after practice to check in.

RITA WIEBER: And one night, I didn’t hear from her. And so, I had to go to bed that night, not hearing from Jordyn. I was so upset. I don’t even think I slept. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Rita finally got word the next day. Jordyn sprained her ankle at practice, and had been taken to the nearest emergency room. 

RITA WIEBER: She was not 18, she was like 11. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Rita works as a nurse in the ER. She knows that minors shouldn’t be treated without their parents’ knowledge and consent. 

RITA WIEBER: So, it was really upsetting to me that she was medically treated without even me knowing that she was taken to an emergency department without me knowing, never got a call or update. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jordyn Wieber had made the national team when she was just 11 years old.

RITA WIEBER: You’re just sending your kid off with their coach for five or six days and you really are just trusting that someone’s caring for them and has their best interest at heart. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Rita had read Joan Ryan’s book “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes” with its detailed accounts of eating disorders and injuries. She’d actually read it twice, when Jordyn was a preschooler taking her first gymnastics classes. And again when Jordyn started training at the Ranch. 

RITA WIEBER:Oh, this is that, this is that ranch that they talked about in that book.’ And, um, I went back and read the book again and. Once again, was a little bit horrified by some of the stories, but decided that it was a long time ago. Surely they have changed things. Well, nobody would be allowed to coach that way anymore,

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Rita was only allowed to go to the Ranch once — on Jordyn’s first visit. 

RITA WIEBER I just remember thinking that Jordan must be pretty good if she’s getting picked to go there and  just be happy that she’s getting this opportunity, cause not everybody does. It was easy just to take all those horror stories and the things that made me scared or concerned and just put them away because you just kind of focus on the exciting moment that you’re in. You don’t ever question it. You just do it because you’re lucky and it’s, it’s what you need to do if you’re going to get to the Olympics, which is everybody’s goal. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: That was the culture that surrounded the entire Ranch. The goal was success, and medals … and everyone was going to do whatever Martha said to get there.

Especially gymnasts like Mattie Larson and Jordyn Wieber

JORDYN WIEBER: I wanted Martha’s attention because I so badly wanted to reach my goals in gymnastics. I wanted to make the Olympic team and there were steps you had to take in order to get to the Olympics. You had to catch her attention to get assigned to International meats and you had a hit at those International meets in order to keep going because I’ve seen so many people get an assignment and then screw up and then never get another chance. 

MATTIE LARSON: Martha was like the boss, but she didn’t do that much coaching. She kind of overseeing, which was, I kinda even like scarier to me, just like this, like silent person’s always looking around, making sure everything was in order.

JORDYN WIEBER: Every time her eyes were on you, you knew that you had to hit whatever you were doing. She was the decider of our fate.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha Karolyi held all the cards, but she was someone gymnasts and their parents feared. She wasn’t someone they could cozy up to or befriend. Let alone get a real sense of how they were doing. And so they’d turn to the one person Martha did seem close with: the team doctor, Larry Nassar.

RITA WIEBER: He always would come across as though he had some secret information from Martha and he was telling me like he was Martha’s confidant and he knew all the secret plans that Martha had for every athlete. I mean, he was the one that was going to keep you healthy so that Martha would pay attention to you and you would get your chance.

[NBC Sports
Announcer: And unreal segway to the new ‘it’ girl, Jordyn Wieber. World Champion. National Champion.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jordyn Wieber was a gold-medal favorite heading into the 2012 London Olympics. 

[NBC Olympics
Bela Karolyi: She’s a powerful athlete. She’s a smart athlete. I know her. And I guarantee she’s going to have a great competition coming up.]

JORDYN WIEBER: What a lot of people see is sort of the persona on the competition floor. When in our heads there’s a lot more going on.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: During a pre-Olympic training camp at the Ranch, Jordyn’s shin began to hurt. Once the team arrived in London, the pain progressed.  

JORDYN WIEBER: I couldn’t do all the full assignments or tumbling that I needed to do. And then it got to the point where I knew it was something a lot worse because I couldn’t even walk when I got up in the morning  

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jordyn went to the team doctor for an answer, but she got nothing. Larry didn’t order any scans, and he didn’t tell her what he suspected. Instead, he told her teammate, Aly Raisman.

JORDYN WIEBER: Our doctor told Aly that it was a stress fracture. And he was purposely not telling me, so I wouldn’t think about it and it wouldn’t, I wouldn’t get in my head.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jordyn was too important to the US team. Martha needed her top athlete believing that she was in top shape.

 

[NBC Olympics

Announcer: Here in London, women’s gymnastics gets underway tomorrow. The Americans attempting to win their first team gold since the Magnificent Seven back in 1996. The great coach, Bela Karolyi, joining me now. Why haven’t we won a gold medal since 1996? 

 

Bela Karolyi: Well, it’s hard. It’s hard on the team competition. The team competition shows the power of the nation at the gymnastic nation and really they haven’t had a form system yet at that time introduced. Now, is different. We do have a system and this system creating a solid, sturdy, not just individuals, but great teams. So that’s the big difference.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis system created so much depth that the US could have fielded three Olympic-caliber teams in 2012. They came to London as the reigning world champions, and heavy favorites. 

 

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: We welcome you inside the North Greenwich arena, just East of central London. It is the opening day for women’s gymnastics. This debut is called the qualification. There will be no medals awarded, but all the medals battles to come will be decided as far as who competes in them here in this competition.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jordyn had two national titles, a world title…and in London she was after Olympic gold

 

But on the first day of competition, there were moments when that stress fracture she wasn’t supposed to know about cost her a few tenths of a point here and there.

 

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: Oh, wow! Little back on her heels on that.


Announcer: Very solid for Jordyn. Could be a little bit better, but certainly still going to get a very big score.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jordyn was excellent. But not dominant. Which left her vulnerable…because only two athletes per country could qualify for the individual all-around and compete for the gold. And her teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas were also in the hunt.

 

[NBC Olympics

Announcer:  All eyes on the scoreboard. It’s gotta be so awkward, right? 

 

Announcer: Oh, yeah, it’s extremely awkward. You know, they are friends, but they are, they are very fierce competitors as well.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: 24 gymnasts would move on to the All-Around final. But a maximum of two from each country. 

 

Team USA had taken the number two, three, and four spots in qualifying. 

 

[NBC Olympics

Announcer: And Raisman is…in! She is in. And Jordyn Wieber is out of the All Around.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jordyn was the fourth best gymnast in the world that day, but the third best in the U.S, behind Aly and Gabby. She wouldn’t get to compete for the all-around title.

 

JORDYN WIEBER: Looking up and seeing my name in fourth place, which is really like, you know fourth place in the entire world. I remember looking up and just thinking, ‘No. Can they just change that? Can they just let me compete?’ I so desperately wanted them to just make an exception or something, but it just seemed unfair 

 

[NBC Olympics 

Announcer: I don’t believe she’ll ever fully erase the pain of not qualifying to the Olympic all around.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: I was in London covering these Olympics. When the scores came down, and I realized what they meant — that the reigning world champion wouldn’t even get a chance to compete in the all-around. I looked for Jordyn. She was standing with her head in her hands, sobbing. I expected to see her personal coach, John Geddert, rush to her side and comfort her. But he wasn’t there. Instead, he was walking off the floor.

 

And in that moment of vulnerability, Martha approached Jordyn.

 

JORDYN WIEBER: I remember her actually being really comforting about it and just, I don’t know, like caring almost, Which was weird.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha understood the depth of Jordyn’s disappointment and reacted with compassion. She needed Jordyn to come back stronger than ever in the team final.

 

JORDYN WIEBER: The next day at practice it was okay next job. I think, I think a lot people worried that I wasn’t going to be able to turn it around, probably including her. I think she was watching just to see how I was going to respond Like, ‘Can she come back? Can she turn it around? Can she get over, you know, the devastation?’ But I think gymnastics prepared me to be able to do that. 

 

[NBC Olympics

Announcer: Well, here we go into the Women’s Team Final at the London Games.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jordyn pushed through the pain of her injury and stood up to the pressure of the moment — just like she had been trained to do.

 

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: Get the gold medals ready! (Crowd and gymnasts cheer)]

 

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator. She has fallen short at the last two Olympic Games. Not so here in London.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The U.S. had won team gold for the first time in 16 years. Gabby Douglas became the first African American all-around champion in Olympic history. And the U.S. won both team and individual all-around gold for the first time ever. 

 

Martha and Bela could have asked for no greater vindication than that.

 

[NBC Olympics

Announcer:  What about this dynamic duo? How much how much longer? Another Olympic Games? 

 

Martha Karolyi: I just love my job. This is my passion and this is my life. And I feel like definitely I would like to stay for a while. And I would love to contribute to their success of U.S. gymnastics.]

 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: If you or someone you know has been subjected to sexual assault or abuse, and you would like more information or support, these hotlines can help: RAINN’s 24/7 confidential national sexual assault hotline  1-800-656-4673, ChildHelp 1-800-4-A-Child/ 1-800-422-4453 and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255.

 

 

 

Credits

Heavy Medals

Alyssa Roenigk, Host and Reporter
Bonnie Ford, Reporter
Andrew Mambo and Meradith Hoddinott, Producers
Julia Lowrie Henderson, Senior Editorial Producer
Erin Leyden and Libby Geist, Executive Producers
Mitra Kaboli,  Mix Engineering and Sound Design
Reilly Bloom, Gus Navarro, Samantha Dowd, and Trevor Gill, Production Assistants
Louise Argianas, Cath Sankey, and Jennifer Thorpe, Production Management and Licensing
Ian Coss, Original Composition
Connor Schell, Rob King, & Alison Overholt, Executive Producers for ESPN
This podcast was developed by Jenna Anthony and Adam Neuhaus, with help from Jody Avirgan
Julianna Brannum, Archival Producer
John Mastroberardino provided fact checking
Terri Langford did legal research
Additional Production support from: Amy Van Deusen and Eve Wulf
This season of 30 for 30 Podcasts was produced in association with espnW.


ESPN Audio
Tom Ricks
, Vice President, Audio Digital Strategy & Marketing
Megan Judge, Director, Audio Distribution & Marketing
Pete Gianesini, Senior Director, Audio Production
Ryan Granner, Director, Digital Audio Operations

Additional Production Support
Vin D’Anton, Brandon Nix, Neel Danesha, Ryan Ross Smith, Claire Jones, Adrienne St Clair, Ryan Weaver,
Michael Castaneda, Anny Celsi, Talia Carlene Blake, Lauren Ober, Ruth Eddy, Wayne Ramocan (Juuni), Tasha French, Diana Nygent, Kateleigh Mills

Special Thanks
Pat Alexander, Bill Archer, Cora Bagoli, John Barr, David Barron, Dr. Dan Benardot, Cosmin Bogdan, Aimee Boorman,
Jen Brown, Mike Canales, Don Carlson, Ray Deenihan, Tom Forster, Ashley Fox, Wendy Hilliard, Barbara Kievit-Mason, Sarah Klein, Sandy Knapp, Cecile Landi, Laurent Landi, Mike Lynch, Kevin Mazeika, Phil Moseley, Dan Murphy,
Ryan Nantell, Jessica O’Beirne, Angie Povilaitis, Gary Rafaloski, Tony Retrosi, Keith Romer, RJ Santillo,
Susan Polakoff Shaw, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, Jolene Van Vugt, Paul Ziert , ESPN LA, and ESPN NY

 

Archival Material
Audio provided courtesy of:
ABC13 Houston
AP Archive/Press Association
Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation 
CBC Licensing
With Permission from The Estate of Clerow “Flip” Wilson
Phoenix Learning Group (Coronet Instructional Films)
Gymternet Media LLC (GymCastic podcast)
Harpo, Inc.
IOC/USOPC
The Kansas City Star. © 2019 McClatchy. All rights reserved. Used under license.
KHOU-TV Houston, TX
“Gymnastics Fun with Bela Karolyi” courtesy of Lions Gate Films Inc. 
NBC News Archives
Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. (KXAN)
Seven Network. All rights reserved. © 
Universal Television LLC 
WDIV/Local 4
WTHR-TV Indianapolis, IN