From 2001 to 2017, Bela and Martha Karolyi’s Texas ranch was the designated national team training center for gymnastics, an engine that generated gold medals and million-dollar salaries for officials such as former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny. But for the gymnasts it was a shabby, penny-pinching place, Raisman says, of dorm rooms jammed with old bunk beds covered with stained blankets and sometimes crawling with bugs. “Honestly, it was disgusting,” she says.
U.S. Olympic Committee head Scott Blackmun called it “an excellent model for the Olympic movement.”
Raisman, now 23, is suing the USOC and USA Gymnastics over that disconnect, alleging the organizations “willfully” refused to “implement appropriate safeguards” at the ranch and in other settings that left her and her teammates vulnerable to the sex crimes of USA Gymnastics’ head trainer and medical director Larry Nassar.
The gymnasts were the faces of the Summer Olympics, who brought home individual all-around gold medals in four straight Summer Games and team golds in 2012 and 2016. Yet at the monthly Karolyi camps, “The shower smelled like eggs, and we would bring sandals to wear because it was so disgusting,” Raisman says. “After you showered you were like, I almost feel dirtier than before.” Training camps are supposed to be spartan — even unpleasant — but Raisman said they weren’t even provided with bottled water, and those bathrooms lacked soap. When they ran out, they were terrified to ask for more because U.S. coaches and officials made them believe those who were noncompliant or complained would be left off the team, Raisman says.
“Nobody wanted to be the one who was difficult,” Raisman says. “Now that I’m away from the sport it makes me so angry that we were that afraid to ask for soap.”
Asked about conditions at the ranch, a USA Gymnastics spokesperson said the organization could not respond “due to pending litigation.” Attorneys for Penny and for Bela and Martha Karolyi, the Romanian-born gymnastics coaches who built the U.S. team into a world powerhouse, also did not respond to queries. USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky, asked why the ranch was considered “a model,” said the Olympic committee relied on USA Gymnastics to supervise conditions at the training center, though he added:
“It is clear that in the future, more due diligence can be done to ensure that third-party facilities uphold their end of the agreement on how the facilities are run and maintained.”
The USOC and USA Gymnastics severed ties with the Karolyi Ranch in January.
Raisman’s account of the monthly camps is bolstered by that of a former athletic trainer, Melanie Seaman, who worked with the national team from 1993 to 2006, and is currently with the Tulsa Ballet. Seaman, who predated Raisman and whom the gymnast says she does not know, contacted me after watching young women testify at Nassar’s sentencing in February, when he received 40 to 125 years. “I’ve been quiet and haven’t said a word all these years, but I thought people need to hear it from more than just the kids,” Seaman says.
Gymnasts trained for six or seven hours a day on “frozen carrots and peas,” according to Seaman. There was no nutritionist, though eating disorders are a long-recognized scourge in the sport. “No one helped them,” Seaman says.
Breakfast at the ranch cafeteria was powdered eggs and a spray butter substitute, Raisman recalls. “Those things are so bad for you,” she says. “Everything seemed the cheapest, not real food.” Dinner was rice and mushy vegetables and a piece of frozen chicken of uncertain texture, “and everyone felt they were being fully watched” with every bite, Raisman says. If you performed poorly, the reason was invariably that you had eaten too much.
“The food was awful, really, really awful,” Seaman confirms. “Nasty . . . They finally got a salad bar, but it was just sparse. Gross.”
The gyms lacked even a rudimentary medical facility — even though gymnastics has a well-documented injury rate that is on par with hockey. “If I taped someone, I did it on the bleachers,” Seaman says. “If I needed to work on calves or stretch them, it was on the floor.”
Nor were there even supplies. “There was no water, and you couldn’t store anything,” Seaman says. “You had to bring your own training bag.”
The ranch did have a relationship with a hospital, and eventually some improvements and renovations were made to the rooms when USA Gymnastics entered into an agreement with Hilton Hotels. By 2014, a small training room with a cold tub had been added in a back hallway. But it had just “one or two tables for 30 or 40 girls,” Raisman says, and became a place where Nassar could more easily work alone on gymnasts behind a closed door.
There were no cutting-edge therapies available, just Nassar’s “treatments.” When Raisman had an ankle injury, he told her he needed to access it through her pelvis.
At the end of the day the gymnasts went back to their rustic dorms, where they slept four or six to a room, while the coaches and staff disappeared en masse into town for dinner. “At night most of the coaches would just leave,” Seaman says. If a gymnast was injured, Nassar or a trainer treated them in their rooms at night, Seaman confirms.
Raisman wants to know, what kind of decent medical director would find that set up appropriate? “The fact that Nassar was fine working on us on our beds without a table, that 100 percent should’ve been a red flag to USA Gymnastics,” Raisman says.
Both Raisman and Seaman suspect that Nassar was promoted by USA Gymnastics not because he was well qualified but because he looked the other way when athletes were pushed through injuries that should have sidelined them. Seaman describes having to buck multiple USA coaches (none of them named Karolyi), who discouraged her from even giving them ice. “They were withholding treatment when they were hurt,” Seaman alleges. “That happened more times than I want to admit.” She saw athletes perform with fractures in their feet and tibias.
Later, when Raisman was an established gold medalist and old enough to question, she began to realize how out of bounds it all was, she says. She hired a sports physical therapist, Boston-based Joe Van Allen, who introduced her to a dietitian, Ted Harper, as well as up-to-date treatments such as compression boots and laser therapies, none of which USA Gymnastics provided. “Imagine if we’d actually had a good doctor who was helping us and not traumatizing us,” she says.
Most galling to Raisman is that out front, officials acted as if the gymnasts were pampered. In 2011, when USA Gymnastics entered into a sponsorship with Hilton Hotels, they made Raisman appear at a news conference in a luxe Hilton-monogrammed robe, with her hair wrapped in towels. Penny had the brass to tell the media, “We have spa days, and they get manicures and their pedicures. . . . These are the types of comforts our friends from Hilton are going to help us provide for the ladies while they’re here working their fannies off trying to be the best team in the world.”
Raisman says, “We didn’t get any of it.”
Most people might have reasonably assumed then that American officials would keep a sharp eye on them, that they would make sure Huntsville, Tex., didn’t turn into Romania and would give gymnasts the support they needed to mitigate the essential unhealthfulness of the sport. That apparently was a bad assumption. “It goes way deeper than just Larry Nassar,” Seaman says. “It allowed Larry to operate, but there was way more dysfunction than just Larry.”
It also goes deeper than the Karolyis. Karolyi champions such as Dominique Moceanu have said they were abusive; others, such as Mary Lou Retton, have praised them. Raisman is in the middle; she found Martha too demanding at times but did not characterize her as harmful. “She was tough, as everyone would expect out of her,” Raisman says.
Everyone knew what they were getting with the Karolyis: uncompromising and even harsh methods by a couple who had worked in Eastern Europe without basic resources and who got unparalleled results. But where were the people at the federation and the USOC who should have been a check to them? Where was the quality control to ensure decent medical and nutritional standards? Where were the basic protocols to keep young girls in a dormitory safe and the basic education on recognizing classic signs of a predator?
After listening to Raisman and Seaman’s account, one thing is clear: Not a man or woman should be left standing at the upper reaches of USA Gymnastics or the USOC. This was a pervasive problem. Not a Nassar problem or a Karolyi problem. It was an American problem.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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