Karolyis named in gym­nas­tics sex abuse suit

Suit claims famed coaches failed to pro­tect young ath­letes

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Nancy Ar­mour and Rachel Axon @nar­mour, @RachelAxon USA TO­DAY Sports

It was the tough­est of en­vi­ron­ments, in­tended to mold as­pir­ing gym­nasts into elite Olympic ath­letes. De­mand­ing coaches, dis­ci­plined train­ing and bru­tally hon­est as­sess­ments — the camps were not de­signed for av­er­age gym­nasts.

It also is a place where a former na­tional team gym­nast claims a preda­tor doctor was free to roam, us­ing his ac­cess to sex­u­ally abuse them. Her at­tor­ney as­serts it was the “toxic” en­vi­ron­ment cre­ated by Bela and Martha Karolyi’s un­re­lent­ing ex­pec­ta­tions that en­abled Larry Nas­sar to be­friend gym­nasts he in­tended to abuse.

What Nas­sar did at the ranch, and whether the Karolyis were

“I’ve never seen a coach lay a hand on a girl, pe­riod, at the Karolyi ranch.” Former gym­nast Am­ber Trani, who trained at the gym from 2005 to 2008

aware of it, has brought the two most dec­o­rated gym­nas­tics coaches in the his­tory of the sport into a law­suit filed in Oc­to­ber against them, USA Gym­nas­tics and the gym­nast’s per­sonal coaches. The Karolyis are not ac­cused of di­rect in­volve­ment, but they are por­trayed as partly re­spon­si­ble for fail­ing to mon­i­tor Nas­sar and main­tain­ing a cul­ture that al­lowed him to op­er­ate.

With crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Nas­sar on­go­ing, much re­mains un­clear re­gard­ing what hap­pened at the ranch. If Nas­sar is guilty, how much re­spon­si­bil­ity, if any, falls on the Karolyis? The an­swer, le­gal ex­perts say, will de­pend on what was known to the Karolyis and what ac­tions they did or did not take as a re­sult.

“If every­thing in the com­plaint is true, what the Karolyis did is a drop in the bucket com­pared to what Nas­sar did,” said at­tor­ney Jonathan Lit­tle, who is not in­volved in the case but has been in­volved in sex­ual abuse cases against na­tional gov­ern­ing bod­ies.

What Nas­sar did dur­ing his ten­ure as the na­tional gym­nas­tics team physi­cian from 1996 to 2015 and in a 20-year stint at Michi­gan State Univer­sity con­tin­ues to come to light. He was charged in Novem­ber with three counts of first-de­gree crim­i­nal sex­ual con­duct with a per­son younger than 13 by the Michi­gan at­tor­ney gen­eral. Those charges stem from his time at Michi­gan State, which also is be­ing sued by at least 40 women or girls. Nas­sar also was in­dicted in De­cem­ber on two fed­eral charges re­lated to child pornog­ra­phy. A third charge was added this month when of­fi­cials said Nas­sar at­tempted to de­stroy some of the 37,000 im­ages and videos found by the FBI.

The Karolyis also are de­fen­dants in a se­cond law­suit filed in Jan­uary by an­other former gym­nast, who also says the cul­ture at the ranch was a fac­tor in her be­ing abused by Nas­sar. She al­leges the abuse oc­curred be­tween 1997 and 1999; Bela Karolyi did not be­come the na­tional team co­or­di­na­tor un­til Novem­ber 1999, and USA Gym­nas­tics said it could not find records of any na­tional team train­ing camps at the Karolyi ranch be­fore Jan­uary 2000. The Karolyis did op­er­ate sum­mer camps at the ranch dur­ing that time pe­riod, but Karolyi at­tor­ney Wes Chris­tian told USA TO­DAY Sports in a state­ment Thurs­day that Nas­sar was never present.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished in Au­gust by The In­di­anapo­lis Star, which is part of the USA TO­DAY Net­work, found nu­mer­ous cases in which USA Gym­nas­tics had been in­formed of pos­si­ble sex­ual abuse by youth coaches that the or­ga­ni­za­tion failed to re­port to au­thor­i­ties. Sev­eral gym­nasts said

The Star’s cov­er­age em­bold­ened them to bring sex­ual abuse al­le­ga­tions against Nas­sar, and two former gym­nasts told their story in de­tail to The Star in Septem­ber.

Since then, more than 60 women have stepped for­ward, and Nas­sar, an os­teo­pathic physi­cian, re­mains un­der crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion by at least three law en­force­ment agen­cies. Among them were the Texas Rangers, who were at the Karolyi ranch in Novem­ber, ac­cord­ing to The Star, cit­ing a per­son fa­mil­iar with the case. Nas­sar is in jail in Michi­gan await­ing trial.

When asked by USA TO­DAY Sports about its re­sponse to the Oc­to­ber law­suit, USA Gym­nas­tics de­clined to com­ment, cit­ing pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion and an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion. USA Gym­nas­tics has pre­vi­ously said it re­ported claims of abuse to law en­force­ment and has em­pha­sized its com­mit­ment to poli­cies to pre­vent abuse and en­cour­age the re­port­ing of al­le­ga­tions.


The ranch, lo­cated in the mid­dle of the Sam Hous­ton Na­tional For­est near Hous­ton, was where girls with Olympic dreams would travel, but their re­solve was quickly tested by the Karolyis, ex­act­ing coaches known for trans­form­ing the USA from also-ran to a gym­nas­tics pow­er­house over the last two decades.

The plain­tiff in the civil suit filed in Oc­to­ber, a former na­tional team gym­nast, al­leges the Karolyis in­tim­i­dated gym­nasts by hit­ting and scratch­ing them. The Karolyis’ meth­ods led to a toxic en­vi­ron­ment that en­abled Nas­sar to be­friend and com­fort gym­nasts and then abuse them, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit.

“As adults, we all have an obli­ga­tion to pro­tect chil­dren,” said John Manly, an at­tor­ney for the plain­tiffs in the two law­suits that name the Karolyis as de­fen­dants. “Now, did the Karolyis in­tend for (Nas­sar) to mo­lest kids? I cer­tainly doubt they did, but that’s not the is­sue. The is­sue is, who was watch­ing him and who su­per­vised him? And the short an­swer is, no­body.”

Manly says he has wit­nesses to sup­port the claim about the kind of abu­sive en­vi­ron­ment the law­suit al­leges the Karolyis cre­ated at the ranch, but he de­clined to pro­vide de­tails to USA TO­DAY Sports.

At­tor­ney Gary Jewell said the Karolyis “ve­he­mently deny the al­le­ga­tions.” Through Jewell, the coaches de­clined in­ter­view re­quests.


The al­le­ga­tions against the Karolyis do not match the ex­pe­ri­ences of many gym­nasts who trained at the ranch, though this is not the first time the cou­ple has been ac­cused of be­ing harsh.

“This is elite gym­nas­tics,” said Sa­man­tha Shee­han, a former na­tional team mem­ber who trained at the ranch from 2000 to 2004. “It’s not sup­posed to be lovey dovey all the time.”

USA TO­DAY Sports used phone, email and so­cial me­dia ac­counts to con­tact more than five dozen gym­nasts who were on the se­nior na­tional team from 2005 to 2012, as well as sev­eral coaches and par­ents. Nine gym­nasts and two coaches agreed to talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences on the record, and four oth­ers spoke on back­ground.

“I’ve never seen a coach lay a hand on a girl, pe­riod, at the Karolyi ranch,” said Am­ber Trani, who trained there from 2005 to 2008.

The Karolyis were ac­cused of ver­bal and emo­tional abuse when they were per­sonal coaches, most no­tably by Do­minique Mo­ceanu, a mem­ber of the Mag­nif­i­cent Seven, which made his­tory in 1996 with the first Olympic gold by a U.S. women’s team. In her 2012 book, Mo­ceanu said Bela Karolyi en­cour­aged her fa­ther to phys­i­cally abuse her. Mo­ceanu’s fa­ther died in 2008.

The Karolyis have con­sis­tently de­nied al­le­ga­tions that they abused gym­nasts.

The Karolyis re­tired from coach­ing after 1996, and the Amer­i­can pro­gram sagged. Bela Karolyi was brought back in 1999 to re­verse the team’s for­tunes, and he im­ple­mented a semi-cen­tral­ized train­ing sys­tem in his newly cre­ated role of na­tional team co­or­di­na­tor. Un­der the sys­tem, gym­nasts trained at home with their per­sonal coaches but would go to the Karolyi ranch for monthly camps that as­sessed their fit­ness and progress.

Martha Karolyi re­placed Bela as na­tional team co­or­di­na­tor in 2001 and held the role un­til she re­tired after the Rio Olympics in Au­gust. It was un­der her di­rec­tion that the semi-cen­tral­ized train­ing sys­tem be­came revered for the suc­cess it pro­duced: team golds at the last two Olympics; the last four Olympic all-around cham­pi­ons; and 96 medals at the world cham­pi­onships and Olympics.


One hall­mark of the Karolyi pro­gram was the monthly train­ing camps, which usu­ally lasted for five days at the ranch.

While the law­suits de­pict ev­ery bit of ranch life as un­der the con­trol of the Karolyis and Nas­sar, with lit­tle other adult su­per­vi­sion, those who have been to the ranch say nu­mer­ous per­sonal coaches were present and were the pri­mary con­tacts for gym­nasts.

Martha Karolyi dic­tated work­outs but oth­er­wise had less ac­cess to the gym­nasts than Nas­sar.

“Not very much,” Re­becca Bross, the 2010 na­tional cham­pion, said of how much in­ter­ac­tion the gym­nasts had with Martha Karolyi out­side of work­outs. “Down­time, we were al­ways in our rooms or in each other’s rooms, watch­ing TV. Who knows what she was off do­ing? The only other time we’d see her is if we’d have a meet­ing.”

The Karolyis and other coaches were barred by USA Gym­nas­tics rules from be­ing in the gym­nasts’ liv­ing spa­ces. Plus the fed­er­a­tion’s Par­tic­i­pant Wel­fare Pol­icy states coaches must avoid be­ing alone with chil­dren, but the pol­icy does not specif­i­cally ad­dress guide­lines for med­i­cal staff.

The Oc­to­ber law­suit claims Nas­sar abused the plain­tiff in their dorm rooms, which were lo­cated across a com­mon area from the cafe­te­ria and the gym.

“I thought it was clear that coaches would not go into ath­letes’ rooms,” said Chellsie Mem­mel, the 2005 world all-around cham­pion and a mem­ber of the 2008 team that won sil­ver at the Bei­jing Olympics.

Said her fa­ther and coach, Andy Mem­mel: “My daugh­ter was there, and I wasn’t even al­lowed to go in her room.”

The gym­nasts said for the most part they re­ceived med­i­cal treat­ment from Nas­sar in a train­ing room in the gym, and none could re­call the door be­ing closed. Al­ter­na­tively, they would some­times as­sem­ble in a com­mon room where they would get treat­ment or mas­sages.

“I don’t know who had the al­le­ga­tions and I don’t know what their re­la­tion­ship was like with their own coaches,” Trani said, “but if some­thing hap­pened to me, I ab­so­lutely feel like I could have gone to my own coach and as well as sev­eral other on-site coaches and staff that were there.”

The gym­nast who filed the Oc­to­ber law­suit is 24 and iden­ti­fied as Jane Doe. She was a mem­ber of the na­tional team from 2004 to 2010 and was part of the U.S. squad that won a sil­ver medal at the 2010 world cham­pi­onships.

While the Karolyis lived at the ranch, most gym­nasts did not see Bela Karolyi in the gym after he gave way to Martha. His job was to main­tain the ex­pan­sive ranch, in­clud­ing su­per­vis­ing new con­struc­tion projects.

The gym­nasts stayed in dorm­like build­ings called mo­tels and ate three meals a day in a cafe­te­ria.

Ac­cord­ing to the law­suits, the Karolyis de­prived the gym­nasts of food, en­gaged in searches of their rooms for snacks, screamed ob­scen­i­ties at them and told them they were fat.

The gym­nasts who spoke to USA TO­DAY Sports said the food op­tions were healthy, though mo­not­o­nous. They said many gym­nasts brought snacks to keep in their room, and they could not re­call those be­ing con­fis­cated.

“It was never about, ‘Don’t give them this and don’t give them that,’ ” said Aimee Boor­man, who coached 2016 Olympic cham­pion Si­mone Biles. “We never had a con­ver­sa­tion about nu­tri­tion or di­et­ing or not eat­ing.”


Cre­at­ing a tough, dis­ci­plined at­mos­phere for elite ath­letes is an ap­proach of­ten used by coaches, and it is not the le­gal is­sue fac­ing the Karolyis, ex­perts say.

The key ques­tions will be whether the Karolyis were neg­li­gent in al­low­ing Nas­sar to op­er­ate without over­sight and whether com­plaints were made to the Karolyis about po­ten­tial crim­i­nal acts by Nas­sar and no ac­tion was taken.

“I think it de­fies credulity that from 1996 to 2016 that no one com­plained,” said Manly, who rep­re­sents plain­tiffs in four law­suits against Nas­sar and some com­bi­na­tion of USA Gym­nas­tics, Michi­gan State, the Karolyis and other coaches.

“I think the ev­i­dence will show they did and that it was ig­nored. Be­cause Nas­sar was will­ing to non-re­port and look the other way as to a lot of the things that were go­ing on at the ranch that shouldn’t have been go­ing on in terms of the way kids were treated, I think the ev­i­dence will show Dr. Nas­sar was given a pass and was al­lowed to vi­o­late their own rules.

“And as a re­sult, kids were hurt.”

For the Karolyis and USA Gym­nas­tics, cul­pa­bil­ity will hinge in part on the poli­cies in place and ef­forts to en­force them, sev­eral at­tor­neys told USA TO­DAY Sports.

“The Karolyis prob­a­bly per­son­ally don’t have much to fear,” Lit­tle said. “They’re go­ing to be cov­ered by their in­surance from USA Gym­nas­tics, in the end, if they stay in the law­suit.”

The Karolyis still have not been served in the Oc­to­ber law­suit or seen the se­cond law­suit, ac­cord­ing to Chris­tian and Jewell.

At­tor­ney Robert Al­lard, who has been in­volved in sev­eral sex­ual abuse law­suits against USA Swim­ming, said neg­li­gence could be found if a party failed to train em­ploy­ees to spot signs of a preda­tor groom­ing a po­ten­tial vic­tim.

Un­doubt­edly, the in­volve­ment of the Karolyis in a law­suit has brought added at­ten­tion to ac­cu­sa­tions against Nas­sar that have led to fed­eral and state crim­i­nal cases and rocked the gym­nas­tics com­mu­nity.

Still, at­tor­neys and ex­perts said nei­ther the Karolyis nor USA Gym­nas­tics could be held li­able sim­ply be­cause some of the al­leged sex­ual abuse by Nas­sar oc­curred at their ranch.

In ad­di­tion to prov­ing the claims of abuse against the Karolyis, Manly would need to sup­port the law­suit’s claims of neg­li­gence or that they ig­nored Nas­sar’s al­leged abuse.

“What they’re ar­gu­ing is that the Karolyis’ en­vi­ron­ment cause a cer­tain at­mos­phere of si­lence and mis­trust and ex­pectance of abuse that led to this par­tic­u­lar harm here,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medal­ist in swim­ming who is the founder of Cham­pion Women and ad­vo­cates for the pro­tec­tion of girls and women in sport. “They’re go­ing to have to prove that.”



Martha Karolyi, right, was the U.S. women’s gym­nas­tics na­tional team co­or­di­na­tor from 2001 to 2016.


Martha Karolyi, ad­dress­ing gym­nasts in 2012, suc­ceeded her hus­band Bela as the U.S. na­tional team’s co­or­di­na­tor in 2001.


Gabby Dou­glas, bot­tom right, eats with other gym­nasts in the din­ing room at the Karolyi ranch in 2015.


A sign, shown in 2012, di­rects vis­i­tors to the Karolyi ranch in the Sam Hous­ton Na­tional For­est near Hous­ton.

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