Gymnasts lined up before Martha Karolyi (in the white jacket) after their morning workout at the Karolyi Ranch in January 2011.

Karolyi Ranch produced champions and a culture of fear, ex-gymnasts say

Updated 1:47 PM ET, Fri February 2, 2018

Story highlights

  • A US champion said she self-inflicted a head injury to avoid going to Karolyi Ranch
  • The Karolyis have not returned calls for comment

(CNN)Tucked away in the boondocks of southeast Texas hid the mecca of American women's gymnastics -- a training camp so revered and remote, years of abuse festered unabated, ex-gymnasts say.

But they're not just talking about molestation at the hands of Larry Nassar. They say Bela and Martha Karolyi, the famed owners of Karolyi Ranch, inflicted verbal and emotional abuse that fostered a culture of fear.
"There is an eerie feeling as soon as you step foot onto the Karolyi Ranch. It is completely removed from all civilization," former gymnast Mattie Larson said.
Athletes walk across Karolyi Ranch in 2011. Elite gymnasts from across the country came to train at the ranch.
"In the case of an emergency, the closest hospital is so far away, you'd need to be helicoptered there. To get to the ranch, you must drive up a dirt road for what seems like an eternity. ... On top of that, there is no cell service. It's completely isolated, and that's no mistake. That is how the Karolyis wanted it."
For decades, top female gymnasts endured the rigors of Karolyi Ranch -- a sprawling 2,000-acre compound set in a national forest. It was the US Women's National Team Training Center and a US Olympic Training Site, where important opinions on gymnasts' fate took shape under the watchful eye of Martha Karolyi.
"The complete detachment from the outside world, on top of careless and neglectful adults, made the ranch the perfect environment for abusers and molesters to thrive," Larson said.
Several elite gymnasts have said they were molested by Nassar when he was the team doctor at Karolyi Ranch. And a lawsuit claims the Karolyis struck young children there.
Larson posed an open question to Martha Karolyi: "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?"
Neither Martha nor Bela Karolyi has spoken publicly about the Nassar abuse scandal. The couple have not responded to multiple CNN requests for comment, nor have their attorneys.
Husband and wife Bela and Martha Karolyi talk before the US women's Olympic gymnastics trials in 2012.
This week, Gov. Greg Abbott requested an investigation by the Texas Rangers, saying the "recent, shocking allegations of sexual assault of athletes at the Karolyi Ranch in Walker County are deeply disturbing."
The Walker County Sheriff's Office is already investigating the local ranch, but Abbott requested a state-level investigation as well.
"Considering that criminal action has been implicated across multiple jurisdictions and states, it is essential that the Texas Rangers work with the Walker County Sheriff's Office to comprehensively investigate all potential criminal conduct," the governor said.
"The public statements made by athletes who previously trained at the Karolyi Ranch are gut-wrenching. Those athletes, as well as all Texans, deserve to know that no stone is left unturned to ensure that the allegations are thoroughly vetted and the perpetrators and enablers of any such misconduct are brought to justice."

Suddenly shuttered

The Karolyis are now defendants in a civil lawsuit, which claims they "turned a blind-eye to the perpetrator Nassar's sexual abuse of children at the Ranch."
The plaintiff, identified as Jane LM Doe, said the Karolyis engaged in their own abusive behavior -- such as "striking minor child gymnasts, scratching minor child gymnasts until they bled, encouraging parents of the minor child gymnasts to hit their children," and "requiring gymnasts to train while they were ill."
The suit also claims the Karolyis "allowed Nassar to have unfettered and secluded access to minor children" -- a violation of USA Gymnastics policy.
2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas warms up at Karolyi Ranch in 2015. Douglas said she was one of the gymnasts abused by Larry Nassar.
"Karolyi defendants provided no supervision of the perpetrator Nassar, in exchange for his silence and willful blindness to their regime of fear, intimidation, and physical and emotional abuse of minor child gymnasts," the lawsuit states.
The Karolyis have not filed legal responses to those specific allegations. Their attorneys have not responded to CNN's requests for response to the lawsuit.
While that case is still open, the gymnastics mecca has suddenly closed.
Shortly after Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison, a Karolyi website announced the closure of the famed training camp.
"After nearly four decades of spiriting young gymnasts towards greatness in sport, our yearly tradition of the Karolyi's Gymnastics Camp has come to an end," a statement on the website read. "Bela, Martha, and the rest of the camp staff wish to sincerely thank all participants, USA Gymnastics, and everyone who has been a part of our extended family for 35 years of unforgettable memories."