ALYSSA ROENIGK: A word of warning: this episode contains mature language depicting instances of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse of children
Martha Karolyi: Okay, girls. 2016. Olympic year. We’re right here.]
SIMONE BILES: Martha would literally clear rooms. Everybody was afraid of Martha because she had that much power.
Martha Karolyi: Everything what you do from this moment…it counts.]
SIMONE BILES: I remember going into the meets and they’re like, ‘are you nervous?’ I’m like, ‘Nervous for what? have you met Martha?’ Like, she’s terrifying.
Announcer: Is she that tough a task master?
Gymnast: She’s a perfectionist.]
SIMONE BILES: If we gave a hundred percent, she wanted 110. If you gave 110, she wanted 120. Nothing was ever good enough for Martha and I think that’s what made us so good.
Martha Karolyi: I’m one hundred percent happy with my career. I could not wish for anything more.]
Announcer: It’s the last time for Martha.
Gymnast: She’s a legend.
Gymnast: She’s a gymnastics god.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: This is Episode 7: The Unraveling
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Elite gymnastics moves in four year cycles. One Olympics ends and the march toward the next begins. Martha Karolyi was in her last quadrennium, as they call it.
Announcer: at 73, this will be Martha’s final Olympics as coach.]
Martha Karolyi: Unfortunately, any good stuff has to come to an end.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: In July of 2015, Martha made it official: she would be retiring after Rio. She was about to choose one more Olympic team.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: And one of the gymnasts fighting for a spot on that team was an athlete from Little Canada, Minnesota.
MAGGIE NICHOLS: My name is Maggie Nichols. I was on the USA national
team for gymnastics, and now I go to the University of Oklahoma.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: In 2014 Maggie turned heads when she took bronze in the all-around at Nationals. Her lifelong Olympic dreams started to feel tangible.
P.A. ANNOUNCER: Now on balance beam: Maggie Nichols!
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: She just looks so steady.Dismount right here. Wow. She’s a tough, she’s a tough cookie!
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: She finally feels like she’s in the mix.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: And by 2015, the 17-year-old had established herself as one of the top all-around gymnasts in the country…she’d even gotten Martha Karolyi to acknowledge her improvement.
REPORTER: You said the other day that Maggie is maybe the most improved this quadrennium. What did she show you here that maybe further made her case?
Martha Karolyi: Well, she just showed that she’s very consistent. And her execution and technique of skills is very nice. So, if there would be a selection today she obviously would be on the team.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: This was a huge compliment coming from a woman who was notoriously stingy with her praise.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: And it was a huge step forward for Maggie, who’d never felt very secure about how Martha viewed her.
MAGGIE NICHOLS: I was never Martha’s favorite really. I don’t know if anyone was really, like, close with Martha, but if you were one of the best then she liked you more than some of the other athletes and treated you maybe a little bit better.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Maggie knew that earning Martha’s praise wasn’t a guarantee of anything…and that she’d have to stay healthy going into the Olympic year. Because she knew Martha would regard her differently if she thought she was vulnerable.
Martha Karolyi: That’s the reality. I have all this information on my mind. Not only about they score’s or they performance, but about how strong of a person it is, how dedicated a person it is, how disciplined a person it is.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: In March of 2015, Maggie had tweaked her knee at the Ranch … and was seen by the national team doctor, Larry Nassar.
MAGGIE NICHOLS: Right away I just felt very uncomfortable and I knew that what he was doing was…I didn’t think it was the right thing to do and he like closed the blinds and it just felt very weird.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Maggie was the daughter of medical professionals. She knew how doctors were supposed to treat patients. Throughout her gymnastics career, she had been seen by lots of doctors and physical therapists. But her visit with Nassar left her uncomfortable. So she said something to a friend.
MAGGIE NICHOLS: Well, I was actually talking with one of my teammates and my coach overheard, and so she asked me about it. And then that’s when things kinda got started.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Maggie’s coach, Sarah Jantzi, overhead Maggie describing – in pretty graphic terms – the treatment she had received from Larry Nassar.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: And what was the conversation with your teammate like?
MAGGIE NICHOLS: Well I was asking if he had ever done that to her and like if she felt that it was right or wrong. We both, like, didn’t really know because like we are always told to trust him that he was the best at what he did.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Sarah suspected that she had heard a description of sexual abuse. So she reported it to new USA Gymnastics women’s program director Rhonda Faehn — the same Rhonda Faehn who went to the 1988 Olympics as an alternate with Martha and Bela. Rhonda then called USA Gymnastics President, Steve Penny.
GINA NICHOLS: Sarah Jantzi had called me as well, so Sarah called me
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Gina Nichols is Maggie’s mother.
GINA NICHOLS: I was in total shock. I was really, really upset. And I called my husband. We were both really scared and upset and we’re like, ‘well, we need to call the authorities.’My husband’s a physician. I’m a nurse. You know, we’re mandatory reporters.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: But before they could go to the police, Steve Penny intervened.
GINA NICHOLS: He immediately called me and said, ‘You don’t need to call the police because USA gymnastics will take care of it.’ But he said over and over again, do not tell anybody, this is secret. I guess we believed him. I mean, he said he was doing it, so I guess I didn’t have any other, I just assumed he would.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Maggie wasn’t involved in the conversations the adults were having. Instead, she stayed focused on the Olympics. She continued to train at the Ranch and pursue a spot on Martha’s final team. Along with her friend and teammate Simone Biles.
SIMONE BILES: The first time I remember meeting Maggie was at a camp and then
ever since then, we have just been like best friends. We laughed at the same
things. We enjoyed the same things. Just our personalities matched really well.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Both gymnasts had struggled to get in Martha’s good graces. Even Simone Biles, the most dominant gymnast of her generation, had to constantly prove herself
Martha Karolyi: She is a talented girl. But also, you always have to pair your talent with a consistent training regimen.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: In fact, when a 13 year-old Simone had shown up for her first developmental camp at the Ranch back in 2011, it went about as badly as it could go.
SIMONE BILES: I was like, ‘Oh I’m being invited to a summer camp that’s going to be so fun. I get to stay in a cabin, get to be with the girls.’ No. We went there and it was like a boot camp. That’s what they should have called it because it was not fun. They should take the word camp out of it. And I did not enjoy it.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Simone struggled at the camp. And Martha came down hard on her.
SIMONE BILES: She said I was sloppy and if I didn’t get it under control, like the power, it would be a waste of talent. Yeah, Martha didn’t like me back then.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Simone’s mother Nellie Biles remembers learning that Simone would not be invited back to the Ranch.
NELLIE BILES: Martha did not want her to return. And I mean that was very disappointing and I thought that attending this first camp was the turning point for Simone in her career. Just to know that she, she was told not to come back anymore. And it was, it was, Simone’s definitely her attitude’s Simone forgot to tell you that. It was definitely her attitude and Martha did not care for that because if Martha said, ‘Jump,’ you’re supposed to say, ‘How high?’ and Simone was not playing the game at that time.
SIMONE BILES: Nope.
NELLIE BILES: So, that’s why
SIMONE BILES: It was hard being young and having someone tell you that you’re not good enough when you feel like you’re trying your hardest. I was not, I was not about that. That was not fun.
NELLIE BILES: So, that was it. And so an entire year, um, uh, Simone had to train at the gym and not return to camp for that entire year that she was banned.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: But Simone had an incredible junior season during that year of banishment, and so Martha relented and invited her back to the Ranch.
SIMONE BILES: I think Martha saw I had something special in me before I knew it myself. So she was always very hard on me. Like sometimes to the point where I not thought it was unfair, but she definitely expected a lot more from me, um, than others. At times. I remember I didn’t stick my two-and-a-half on vault and she told me I was useless for the team. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay, well I’m useless, guys. Sorry, maybe I should pack up and go home.’
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Even as Simone developed into a world champion, she still found it hard to get praise out of Martha.
Martha Karolyi: We have to come as close to perfection as possible in order to keep the world supremacy.]
SIMONE BILES: She would say like, ‘good, good, very good.’ Those little things because Martha would never tell you that it was perfect because she never wanted us to stop trying
Martha Karolyi: Just brush off everything to the side and don’t get disturbed by being named Superman or whatever [laughs]]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: In the summer of 2015, Simone and Maggie looked forward to the year ahead, hoping it would end with both of them bound for Rio.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Now, Simone Biles has been so dominant. You say, ‘Okay, well, who’s been doing the best job at at least trying to keep up with her?’ And the answer is Maggie Nichols.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Simone took gold in the all-around at Nationals in August. Maggie took silver. Coming in second to Simone was about the best any gymnast could hope for. A year out from the Olympics, Maggie couldn’t have been in a better spot.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Behind the scenes, a decision was made by USA Gymnastics and Martha Karolyi to allow Larry Nassar to make a quiet exit.
BONNIE FORD: Nassar said he was retiring from his job with the Women’s National Team.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: My reporting partner Bonnie Ford.
BONNIE FORD: He made the announcement in a Facebook post in September 2015 — three months after Maggie’s coach reported him to USA Gymnastics. The post made his retirement seem voluntary, like it was a personal choice. The most striking thing about it to me was this line he wrote about Martha: ‘As Martha once said to me, we are like husband and wife. We have our disagreements, but it is always about what is best for the children.’
ALYSSA ROENIGK: After Larry was out of the picture, Martha and USA Gymnastics kept quiet about Maggie’s allegations.
JESSICA O’BEIRNE: Martha was the president of the culture of silence. She was the minister of the department of the culture of ‘this is all bad and no one say anything ‘cause I’ll retaliate against you.’
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jessica O’Beirne is the host of a podcast called Gymcastic. For years, she’d heard off the record from gymnasts about Martha’s strong-arm tactics.
JESSICA O’BEIRNE: The athletes were afraid of retaliation. They were afraid they wouldn’t be invited back to camp. They were afraid that they wouldn’t be chosen for teams. They were afraid that they would be treated differently. They were afraid of everything.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Maggie Nichols hadn’t intended to report on Nassar, but once she did, the Nichols felt that their relationship with USA Gymnastics and Martha changed because Maggie had broken the culture of silence.
GINA NICHOLS: When she reported her abuse, USA gymnastics totally abused her and our family. It was a long year.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: And there you go. Here’s your World All Around Champion Simone Biles of the United States.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: As the year progressed, Simone and Maggie’s paths started to veer in different directions.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Now, Simone Biles is considered by the people next to me the greatest of all time.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Yeah, just run out of adjectives when you’re talking about Simone Biles.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: But things for Maggie got rocky. In April of 2016, just months before the Olympic Trials, Maggie tore her meniscus and required knee surgery. She went from the girl Martha was calling most improved to the girl who would have to prove she could bounce back.
Martha Karolyi: She is a girl who very determined. And she will do everything in her power to come back to the shape where she was before that injury.]
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Twenty seven days away. Five will represent the United States. Who are they going to be? The Olympic Trials start now. As we often say, the selection committee is watching everything, but the two most important eyes in the building are those — Martha Karolyi, who’s the boss of Team USA.]
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: We’ll start things off with Maggie Nichols, on the vault. She’s trying to get to the Olympic Games after two really bad knee injuries. What are her chances?
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Martha said, ‘For Maggie to be in the hunt she has to be AS good as she was in 2015.’]
MAGGIE NICHOLS: I wasn’t really close to 100% going into Olympic trials. I still had to wear a lot of tape on my knee. Couldn’t train as much as I wanted to. Didn’t get all the skills back that I could have done before.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: And that comes into account on this event right here. Because she was capable of doing this very difficult vault. We’ll see it from Simone Biles. It’s called an ‘Amanar.’ It’s a two a half twist. She’s been flirting with trying to do it.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Maggie wasn’t ready to perform the Amanar again, one of the hardest vaults in gymnastics. So, instead, she competed a vault with a lower difficulty score.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: And that’s going to make her quest a little bit harder. Just a double full, great landing.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: But she nailed it. Maggie had solid performances on the beam and bars and finished up with impressive tumbling on floor.
MAGGIE NICHOLS: I mean, I think that was one of my best floor routines.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: That’s really hard to do after coming back from an injury like that.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: And she still believed that she had a real shot of making the team.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: I have no idea what this means, but you may have seen in the background, during her routine, the selection committee wasn’t really watching.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: But Maggie’s parents were watching. Since the moment they arrived in the arena, they had been aware that something was off.
GINA NICHOLS: Our names were torn off our seats for where the athlete’s parents are supposed to be. ‘Cause we’d been to all these things before and we were always mic’d. We always knew where we were supposed to sit and we didn’t get mic’d. We weren’t talked to. We were ignored.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Maggie’s fate was still up in the air, but her best friend’s destiny was all but certain.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Simone Biles. Not only is she a champion, three time world champion, she is probably the best that has ever been. She’s going to go to Rio. She’s going to win a boatload of medals there.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Simone was guaranteed a spot on the team because she finished first at Trials. Everyone else’s fate was in the hands of the selection committee.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: And you know in her last Olympics, Martha Karolyi really wants to make a huge statement.]
MAGGIE NICHOLS: I was very happy and pleased with how I finished the competition.
SIMONE BILES: I had never seen anybody come back from an injury and be so confident.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Finally, Martha Karolyi is out. They’ve made the decision and now they’re going to tell the team.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: I’ve been in a room like this before where the athletes are just sitting there waiting for Martha to come in and there she goes. Going to make five young ladies dreams come true right now.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Maggie placed sixth overall at Trials. But when Steve Penny announced the Olympic roster…
STEVE PENNY: It’s now my great pleasure to introduce to you the five ladies who will represent the United States of America in Rio de Janeiro. Three time world champion Simone Biles….]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Maggie wasn’t even named as one of the three alternates.
STEVE PENNY: They will be joined by the three replacement athletes. Please welcome McKayla Skinner, Reagan Smith and Ashton Locklear. These are your Olympic team members for 2016.]
MAGGIE NICHOLS: I was kind of just confused on why I wasn’t called, but I mean, at the time I just trusted the national staff and Martha and who they picked the team.
NBC SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Well, I think Maggie Nichols is going to be devastated because a year ago she was definitely on this team.]
SIMONE BILES: it kind of broke my heart, not hearing her name on the team because everybody knew she earned that spot. Everybody knew it. Even Martha knew she belonged on the team. Martha cried when she announced the team.
GINA NICHOLS: It was all predetermined that she wasn’t even going to be part of it.
SIMONE BILES: I don’t think Maggie made the team because I think there was power being held over Martha when she selected that team. I think there were deals that were made under the table
Announcer: Right now in the Olympic arena in Rio, the first of many nights that we have been looking forward to for a long time.]
Announcer: In 1996 there was a magnificent seven in 2012 of fierce five. This group will make a name for themselves tonight. The expectation is enormous. The pressure, as well, as Martha Karolyi will say goodbye to USA gymnastics after these Olympic games.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The US gymnasts stepped onto the competition floor and DOMINATED….and no one more so than Simone Biles.
Announcer: Judges put your pencils down because that right there is an Olympic gold medal winning moment!]
Announcer: Without question, Olympic Gold Medalist in the All Around, Simone Biles!]
Announcer: This has been her destiny all along!]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Simone won gold in the individual all around, gold on vault, gold on floor… and it was Simone’s epic floor routine that put an exclamation point on Team USA’s triumph
Announcer: Get the gold medals ready again!]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The five gymnasts whispered plans as they waited to hear the announcers confirm their win.
Announcer: It’s official!]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The U.S. had won back to back team gold. The gymnasts huddled around the TV cameras.
Gymnasts: 1, 2, 3…we are the Final Five!
Announcer: The Final Five of Martha Karolyi.
Announcer: That’s special.
Announcer: I guess that’s a great big thank you to Martha Karolyi. What a legacy.]
Martha Karolyi: I’m hundred percent happy with my career as a gymnastics coach. I think I could not wish for anything more. I feel like I’m not sad of finishing because I know that our ideas will stay there and our work, the base was put down and you know I think the building will stay up.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis returned home from Rio at the pinnacle of their careers. For 50 years they’d chased a dream of gymnastics domination — the kind Russia had once enjoyed. And here it was. Now, the United States was the team that every other nation was chasing.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Shortly before the Olympic Games, USA Gymnastics had announced a deal to purchase a portion of the Ranch for $3 million dollars. Bela and Martha would continue to live in their house, but USA Gymnastics would control the training facilities and run all of the camps held there.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis were bowing out of gymnastics for the last time … but their Ranch, their life’s work, would continue to be the hub of women’s elite gymnastics in America for generations to come.
Announcer: Good evening and thank you for joining us. Shocking allegations tonight…]
Reporter: This is a controversy that could cast a pall over the gold medal winning tradition that is women’s gymnastics.]
Announcer: Allegations that strike at the heart of a very successful U.S. Olympic sport and the most famous tandem of gymnastics coaches in the world.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: A month after Team USA’s triumph in Rio, the Indianapolis Star reported on allegations against Larry Nassar, and once those allegations were made public, the news exploded.
Announcer: Accused of sexually assaulting young girls in his care over a period of 19 years.]
Announcer: These sexual assault charges are rocking the gymnastics world.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: It had taken Olympian Jamie Dantzscher years to come to terms with her experience.
JAMIE DANTZSCHER: I was still in my own head. I couldn’t really believe that,that had happened to me. I was just like, ‘Oh, I wonder if it happened to anybody else?’ But as more and more women came forward, that’s when I started feeling, like, ‘okay, it’s not just me.’ I remember when it was the 15th woman that came forward. For some reason, I don’t know why it was that number, but I remember that was a big moment of like, ‘Okay, I’m right. I did the right thing.’
MATTIE LARSON: An ex-national team member reached out to me and sent me an article and was like, ‘Read this and let me know what you think.’
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mattie Larson was the gymnast who believed Larry had lied to her about her broken ankle.
MATTIE LARSON: And I read it. I was like, ‘What? Me, too. What! Me, too.’ Like, it was just weird and overwhelming and the way she described Larry’s ‘treatment’s was, like, exactly what I had experienced and, um, I ended up calling back that teammate and we were just kinda in shock and, like, the… not a lot of talking on the phone, just kinda like silent. We were just, like, I… I don’t even think we said the words. I think the first time I said the words was when I called my sister. I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure I was molested by my doctor all of the years that I had him.’
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Olympic Gold Medalist Jordyn Wieber, Olympic hopeful Jeanette Antolin, Olympic Gold Medalist Simone Biles and Olympic Bronze Medalist Tasha Schwikert were all beginning to understand that Larry Nassar had abused them.
JORDYN WIEBER: Well, at first I Planning on being anonymous.
JEANETTE ANTOLIN: At first it was really scary for me because remembering being abused, like, I hadn’t thought about Larry’s treatment since it happened and then when all this came out thinking about that and then having to go back so many years and think about all of it all over again. Like, it was something for me that once it was finished, I just wanted to leave it behind
SIMONE BILES: Deciding to speak out. I didn’t do that for myself. I thought by showing courage I could help others. I feel like sometimes, like, people don’t realize how triggering it is for me, but I, I put my mentality at jeopardy to help other people.
TASHA SCHWIKERT: I know it’s affected each of our lives.Very differently, but very negatively.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The number of women coming forward kept growing …
Announcer: More than 140 women and girls.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: And growing
Reporter: More than 250 women and girls have accused Nassar of sexual abuse.]
Reporter: One of the worst things we have seen in US Olympic history.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: And like Simone, Jamie, Mattie, Jordyn, Jeanette, Tasha, many of those survivors had come up as National Team Members through the training system at the Karolyi Ranch.
Announcer: Several of Nassar’s alleged victims say he abused them at the Karolyi’s facility.]
[NBC News Dateline
Savannah Guthrie: Did you think he was doing anything bad?
Martha Karolyi: Oh no way.
Bela Karolyi: I don’t think so about that one. Nobody did.
Martha Karolyi: The whole gymnastics community couldn’t recognize this. Everybody said, ‘Larry Nassar is a good doctor. Larry Nassar is a good guy.’
Savannah Guthrie:The Karolyis are adamant that no one ever raised concerns with them about Dr. Nassar.
Martha Karolyi: Never, ever one single complaint.
Savannah Guthrie: Not rumblings, not?
Martha Karolyi: Absolutely nothing.
Savannah Guthrie: There’s nothing creepy about that guy?
Martha Karolyi: Absolutely not.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: But under oath in a 2017 deposition, Martha admitted to having been informed of Maggie Nichols’ complaint.
Lawyer: Were you ever advised by any USAG official in or around June of 2015 that they had received a complaint that Dr. Nassar had molested a national team gymnast at The Ranch?
Martha Karolyi: Yes, I did.
Lawyer: And who reported that to you ma’am?
Martha Karolyi: Mr. Penny.]
[NBC News Dateline
Savannah Guthrie: When you think about some of the biggest names in gymnastics and they say they were violated here…
Martha Karolyi: Right.
Savannah Guthrie: …How does that sit with you?
Martha Karolyi: That’s awful. But I would say even if they have big names or they have no names. Any child who was violated by Nassar, it’s a crime.]
BONNIE FORD: How much do you think they knew?
JEANETTE ANTOLIN: It’s… that’s the hardest question because I can’t say 100% they knew exactly what Larry was doing, but I don’t think they were doing their job and asking any questions about what he was doing
JORDYN WIEBER: I think that they’re hugely responsible, but I don’t think that they think that they’re responsible. I think they believe their job was to come in and create a system that produced results. I think they took that very literally.
TASHA SCHWIKERT: This training environment that they built, athis environment that that created was the only reason why Larry was able to exist and to sexually abuse so many people because we like essentially lived in fear at those camps and could not communicate anything.
MATTIE LARSON: I don’t even really care if she knew or not because she was the one who thought it was okay for him to be alone in a room with us at any time of the night to treat us and she just, like, didn’t care. So, maybe she knew, maybe she didn’t. I don’t care. She put us in harm’s way by allowing that to happen.
JEANETTE ANTOLIN: Like, you’re an adult. You’re taking charge. You wanted this position. You took this position to take charge of our national team. But you want all the power but none of the responsibility. It’s like, ‘No no, no. I wash my hands clean of it. I had nothing to do with it. But it’s like, ‘yes, you did. You were there.’ You were there.
[NBC News Dateline
Martha Karolyi: First of all these training camps, uh, were organized by USA Gymnastics. It’s not organized by Bela or Martha Karolyi.
Savannah Guthrie: It has the Karolyis name on it. It’s your house and your property.
Martha Karolyi: Yes, but the property was leased by USA Gymnastics and they run the activities.]
JEANETTE ANTOLIN: I’m a mom. I have a little one if one of his little friends comes to my house and gets hurt or something happens to him, that’s my responsibility. I’m the one in charge of him. So when we were on their property, Who was in charge of us?
Announcer: Word late Thursday from USA Gymnastics: they’re cutting ties with the Karolyi Ranch in Texas.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: For more than a year after the Nassar news first broke, USA Gymnastics kept holding training camps at the Ranch — despite backing out of the 3 million dollar purchase agreement. But in January of 2018, the federation severed its relationship with the Karolyis completely. The decision came three days after Simone Biles tweeted about USA Gymnastics continuing to use the Ranch as its national training center.
SIMONE BILES: I felt that if I sent that out I would be helping others speak up and speak out. So, I just hit send, as I was walking into the gym, put my phone down and started practice
ALYSSA ROENIGK: It also came as Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to 10 counts of criminal sexual conduct in Michigan — and was sentenced to a maximum of 175 years in prison. During Nassar’s sentencing hearings, 204 women read victim impact statements in open court. Mattie Larson was one of the national team gymnasts who tied her abuse back to her time at the Ranch.
[WDIV Detroit/ Victim Impact Statement
Mattie Larson: The complete detachment from the outside world on top of careless and neglectful adults made the ranch a perfect environment from abusers and molesters to thrive. 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?]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The questions about who bore responsibility were only growing. And gymnasts like Simone Biles were not backing down on calling out the adults who had failed them.
[Kansas City Star
Simone Biles: I don’t mean to cry, but it’s just we had one goal and we’ve done everything that they’ve asked us for even when we didn’t want to and they couldn’t do one damn job. You had one job! You literally had one job and you couldn’t protect us.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: At least a dozen gymnasts have filed civil lawsuits naming the Karolyis as co-defendants. All of those lawsuits are on hold. USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in 2018 and all other cases are stayed until that is resolved.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Texas authorities belatedly carried out their own investigation.
District Attorney: We do not believe that there is any corroborated
evidence with regard to Bela and Martha Karolyi that they did anything wrong.]
Announcer: Prosecutors finding no evidence of any wrongdoing by coaches Bela or Martha Karolyi.]
Reporter: The Walker County district attorney’s office says there was, quote, ‘a total failure by USA gymnastics to protect these young gymnasts.’]
District Attorney I think the Karolyi ranch now has been painted with a brush that will not will not be allowed to be forgotten.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis were never charged with a criminal offense. But in the fall of 2018, former USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny was arrested on a charge of tampering with evidence for ordering a USA Gymnastics employee to remove medical records from the Ranch before it could be searched by Texas authorities. His case is pending.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis have maintained their innocence, and ignorance.
Clerk: We’re in the Superior Court of the State of California.
Clerk: Do you solemnly swear the testimony you’re about to give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?
Bela Karolyi: Yes.
Martha Karolyi: Yes.
Clerk: Thank you.
Lawyer: As I understand your answer, you do not believe it was your responsibility?
Martha Karolyi: What I am saying, the gymnasts were not under my control at all.
Lawyer: Okay, have you ever met Dr. Larry Nassar?
Bela Karolyi: I’ve seen him.passing from one gym to another one. That was pretty much all. Saying, ‘Hi, hi.’]
[NBC News Dateline
Martha Karolyi: I feel extremely bad. I don’t feel responsible, but I feel extremely hurt that these things happened and that it happened everywhere but happened here also.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis have only given one interview since the Nassar news broke, to Dateline, in April 2018.
[NBC News Dateline
Martha Karolyi:I try to think back about all kinds of situations of Nassar working with the kids and I could not find anything. It’s with my conscience very clear I can make this statement.]
ALYSSA ROENIGK: In April 2018, they filed their own lawsuit.
Announcer: The Karolyis sued the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics. They say that they shouldn’t be held responsible for lawsuits connected to Nassar sexual abuse and they didn’t know it was happening. The Karolyis say that the organizations are pinning this on them to, quote, ‘shift the blame away from themselves.’]
[NBC News Dateline
Bela Karolyi: This miserable man destroyed everything I was working for. My facilities, my dreams. To be honest.
Martha Karolyi: Life-long work. Yes
Bela Karolyi: Life long work and also my health.]
CHELLE STACK: He’s not the same strong man you know that he used to have such a stature of greatness
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Chelle Stack was one of the original Karolyi Girls back in the ‘80s. She became a coach and a judge, and served on the national team developmental staff during Martha’s tenure. She was at The Ranch the day USA Gymnastics announced it would be shut down, and she still visits with Martha and Bela.
CHELLE STACK: He’s lost weight and he still has a full head of hair, that’s quite amazing, but he’s definitely, he’s frail and you can see that time has changed him drastically in the last three years. It’s very sad. Martha, on the contrary, walks every day like three to eight miles she walks every day and continues to do it and she looks great you would never guess that she is the age she is because she takes care of herself perfectly
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela and Martha, through their lawyer, turned down our interview request. So, Bonnie and I took a trip to the Ranch to see it for ourselves. We stayed at a distance. The Karolyis still live on the property, but there was no sign of them the day we drove there. It was eerily quiet.
AMBI OF RANCH VISIT
ALYSSA ROENIGK (Speaking at the Ranch): You know after having heard of the Karolyi Ranch for so long, aside from a couple of butterflies we haven’t seen life anywhere.
CHELLE STACK: The ranch is empty, and the thing that they, they enjoyed most was being a part of creating gymnastics. You know, that’s what their passion was
BONNIE FORD (Speaking at the Ranch): We can see from here the signs. There’s a red and white signs that point to the various lodgings for the athletes and they’re all named after the Olympics
ALYSSA ROENIGK (Speaking at the Ranch): You know, there’s Beijing and Athens
BONNIE FORD (Speaking at the Ranch): There’s also a sign saying ‘no visitors or parents allowed premises during camp program.’ That’s pretty straight forward.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: All of the USA Gymnastics and US Olympic Committee signage has been removed. Most of the animals are gone. The gyms are locked. The power has been turned off.
NANCY ARMOUR: You know, Bela was so proud when he would talk about that they were going to leave the ranch to USA gymnastics and that would be their gift to the sport in the U.S.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Nancy Armour is a columnist for USA Today.
NANCY ARMOUR: He was so proud of that. And to know that It’s not just that, there aren’t the monthly camps there or anything else, but their association with a Federation of sport is gone. And they have to be confronted by that every day.
[NBC News Dateline
Savannah Guthrie: Did you ever hit a gymnast?
Martha Karolyi: No.
Bela Karolyi: Probably 50 years ago in Romania when even slapping or spanking that was a common procedure. Yes.]
GABY GEICULESCU: I don’t know about the rest of the girls in the United States, but I can tell you, the Romanian gymnast, they all are destroyed as humans.
TRUDI KOLLAR: It’s always hard to talk about it because in many ways it’s such a private part of my life that I don’t like to remember. But unfortunately, I do remember many things, which they have been haunting me for over 30 years now.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Gaby Geiculescu and Trudi Kollar are elite gymnasts who trained with Bela and Martha in Romania.
TRUDI KOLLAR: He was an excellent coach. I have to give it to him. He was, I mean, he, at that point, he was the best coach in the world, but I had to pay a big price for that. And to this day, I’m paying the price for that. I had nightmares for 30 years. They hurt me so badly and I took it in so deeply because all of us were good children.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis’ physical and emotional abuse of Romanian gymnasts was documented in a 600-page secret police dossier that was declassified in 2005 and reported on in the Romanian press. It corroborated the gymnasts’ stories of starvation, beatings, and the disregarding of medical advice. But those accounts were never reported in the U.S. media. Choreographer Geza Pozsar had been an informant inside the Karolyis’ gym in Romania in the 1970s. He reported the physical abuse he witnessed. But after Geza defected with Bela and Martha in 1981, he remained quiet for years.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: He wishes now that he had been more outspoken earlier in the United States.
GEZA POZSAR: I wish I had been but I wasn’t, you know. My, personal life and, uh, my, uh, stories was too tied, you know, to Bela and Martha at the time that I just, I don’t know. I don’t feel good about it.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Why did you continue to work with them?
GEZA POZSAR: With Bela? Because we are the same blood: Hungarian. You, you can’t deny your family. They were like family and we worked so long together. He became, for me, he was the biggest influence in my life.
GABY GEICULESCU: Gymnastics made Romania famous and it was so much pressure on us that we need to, to deliver the the medal and not any medal. gold. If it’s not gold, it’s not good enough. You’re not good enough.
JORDYN WIEBER: I started at 4 years old.
MATTIE LARSON: And my mom told me that I, like, pointed to the TV and was just like, ‘I want to do that.’
MAGGIE NICHOLS: I always wanted to go back into the gym and take more turns and everyone else skipped the line so I could do more gymnastics. I was doing gymnastics in the yard.
ALYSSA BECKERMAN: I absolutely was toe up in love with this.
JORDYN WIEBER: And then as soon as I stepped in the gym, of course, I loved it. I loved the foam pad, I loved the trampoline.
MAGGIE NICHOLS: I love doing it. I loved watching it
ALYSSA BECKERMAN: Honestly, to like flip around is so much fun.
MATTIE LARSON: And as a kid, I always had dreams of flying. I think that was the closest I could get to it.
MAGGIE NICHOLS: Ever since I was little. Every single day I loved it more
JAMIE DANTZCHER: I just remember loving gymnastics so much to hating it to this kind of inner conflict of this love hate relationship with it.
[NBC News Dateline
Martha Karolyi: I’m telling you, I don’t see any other way than we did to prepare gymnasts who are successful.]
KATHY JOHNSON CLARKE: I will say this about the Karolyis: they’ve done amazing things for gymnastics in this country.
Announcer: Kerri Strug has won the gold medal standing on one leg!]
KATHY JOHNSON CLARKE: They did amazing things. They are two of the hardest working individuals in the sport of gymnastics in any country. They did it in Romania. They did it here.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Olympian and TV commentator Kathy Johnson Clark and former USA Gymnastics president Mike Jacki watched the Karolyis build their empire from the time they arrived in America.
MIKE JACKI: Karolyi changed the direction of gymnastics in the United States
Announcer: The gold medal goes to Mary Lou Retton.]
Mary Lou Retton: Oh my god, I can’t express the feeling.]
Bela Karolyi: Good Job!!]
MIKE JACKI: Obviously, as long as you win who’s going to challenge you? You win the Olympic gold medal, somebody say, ‘Well we had to do it different.’ Well, ‘What should we do different? We’re going to win two Olympic gold medals?’
Announcer: Gold and silver medalists…one two for team USA.]
KATHY JOHNSON CLARKE: The problem was because they went unchecked.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kathy Johnson Clark, reporter Scott Reid, and former UCLA coach Val Kondos Field have all seen the Karolyi system up close.
SCOTT REID: Martha took us to the top of Mount Olympus, but you, when you look down, you see a lot of carnage. And you’re going to be looking at carnage for decades.
KATHY JOHNSON CLARKE: When you finally make it. That has a wonderful way of just sort of softening edges and memories and, and moments that may have been horrible. But now suddenly, ‘Okay, it’s Okay. And and to some, they even feel like, ‘But that’s what made me too, because it made me tough and it made me resilient. I used it and it helped me.’ But also, guess what? It broke some people. It completely broke some people.
SCOTT REID: They created the greatest gymnastics dynasty in American history, maybe in the history of the world, one of the greatest Olympic dynasties in any sport . Yet simultaneously, they created a culture that created the greatest sex scandal in American sports history and that, that left a trail of hundreds and hundreds of victims. When you look at the Karolyis, their legacy is 50 50. It’s the gold and the price of gold.
VAL KONDOS FIELD: So the big question is, is there a difference between winning and success? If you’re going to subscribe to a win at all cost mentality, will you take the responsibility of the collateral damage?
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis created a gymnastics empire. But in the wake of so much damage, Bela and Marta’s legacy is littered with questions. And it’s the generations of Karolyi gymnasts who live with the burden of how they achieved that success.
JEANETTE ANTOLIN: We gave up our childhood to represent the United States of America.
Bela Karolyi: Yes!]
Announcer: Get the gold medals ready!]
JORDYN WIEBER: USA Gymnastics as an organization, they brought them in to win and I think the Karolyis thought win at all costs because that’s our job, that’s what we’re here to do
DOMINIQUE MOCEANU: Everything that they supposedly worked for they did it on the sacrifice of little girls — bodies, minds, their mental health, their emotional well being. How can anybody say that’s success?
TASHA SCHWIKERT: I would ask them why they only felt like there was one way to win?
JORDYN WIEBER: They produced champions and then all the other coaches who come up see that and think, ‘Oh, this is the way you’re supposed to create athletes. This is how you create results.’
DOMINIQUE MOCEANU: How can you say you did any good and not more harm? So to me, you don’t have a legacy. You have a trail of emotionally and mentally, as well as physically broken gymnasts.
GABY GEICULESCU: What coach Bela and Martha Karolyi brought to the sport
Bela Karolyi: Wooohooo!
Announcer: Bela Karolyi. Hear him?]
GABY GEICULESCU: They came to United States as immigrants…
Bela Karolyi: That’s a 10!]
GABY GEICULESCU: …and brought United States to the highest level of gymnastics.
Bela Karolyi: You can do it!]
Announcer: Judges put your pencils down…that is an Olympic gold medal winning moment.]
GABY GEICULESCU: What they did was great. It worked…
CROWD CHANTS ‘USA’]
GABY GEICULESCU: …What I have problems with is the price of the gold medal is not worth the sacrificing of a child.
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