HUNTSVILLE – Bela Karolyi glanced at visitors outside the green metal fence separating the former USA Gymnastics training center from the uninvited guests, then sped off on her four-wheeled mountain bike.
The world-famous gymnastics coach made no comment on Friday about the culture of abuse elite female gymnasts say national team doctor Larry Nassar practiced in their training here and elsewhere.
USA Gymnastics severed its relationship with the Karolyi Ranch – where Bela and his wife, Martha, built Olympic champions – as the national training center on January 18.
The disgraced Nassar was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years in prison by a Michigan judge six days after dozens of women and girls told court he sexually assaulted them for two decades.
The Karolyis were crouched down on their secluded ranch among the pine trees of the Sam Houston National Forest, just outside this east Texas community, better known for its death chamber than the training site. aspiring Olympians.
No charges have been laid against the Karolyi, but the Texas Rangers and the Walker County Sheriff’s Office are investigating what happened at the ranch and who besides Nassar may be responsible for criminal abuse the low.
Gary Jewell, the couple’s attorney in Houston, said in an email Monday that a “full statement from the Karolyis is forthcoming.”
For now, a sign attached to one of the many gymnasiums at the 2,000-acre Karolyi Ranch recalls the site’s isolation: âNo visitors or parents are allowed on site during camp programs. “
The Karolyis are as much of a mystery to their Walker County neighbors as the secluded ranch, which is only accessible by a paved road lined with pine trees.
âI worked here for 16 years and never saw them,â said Steven Winder, director of public works for New Waverly, the community closest to the Karolyi ranch.
It’s a common refrain in the nearby town of 1,100 people.
âI’ve never seen them,â said Walter Hesse, who spent most of his 49 years in New Waverly. “They are quite discreet.”
Sitting in his van parked outside the Slotts Super Market, not far from the only traffic light in New Waverly, Hesse said he briefly saw some of the female gymnasts training at the ranch.
He won’t have another chance to see future champions. The ranch’s future as a gymnastics training center is uncertain.
âOur most important priority is our athletes, and their training environment must reflect that,â said Kerry Perry, President and CEO of USA Gymnastics, in a statement ending the organization’s relationship with the athletes. Karolyis. âWe are committed to a culture that empowers and supports our athletes. “
Nassar’s court appearance last month was not the first time that charges have been leveled against Karolyi’s training camp for female gymnasts.
In 2016, a former gymnast sued the Karolyis, alleging they had created a “toxic environment where (Nassar) had the opportunity to perpetrate and continue his systematic sexual abuse of underage children.”
And in January, Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles told the Houston Chronicle she would speak to investigators about Nassar’s abuse at the ranch.
The scandal and its connection to the Karolyi Ranch prompted Governor Greg Abbott to call in the Texas Rangers. He said the sexual abuse charges were “heartbreaking … deeply disturbing and demand full and speedy justice.”
The Texas Rangers have not set a timeline for completing their investigation or discussed the nature of the evidence they are collecting. Walker County Sheriff Clint McRae praised their involvement
âThey have resources to help us that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to,â McRae said. âThis partnership will be very beneficial for this survey.
Back in New Waverly, Kim Hunter said she sold Bela Karolyi fruit trees, fertilizer and corn at the feed and farm supply store that she and her husband have operated in town for 17 years.
“He also came in and got deworming products” for his camels, Hunter said. “He’s a wonderful man.”
From his Livestock and Real Estate Development Office, David Thornberry remarked that it is “hard to imagine” that young women were abused at Karolyi camp, adding: “It looks like someone one would know something.
Ron Kowis, a self-proclaimed “wood butcher” in New Waverly, said he did not know the Karolyi, but sometimes saw young women from training camp driving there and back, often with what appeared to be their parents.
âI could see the expression on the faces of these girls,â said Kowis, 64. âIt just wasn’t what you would think when they were overjoyed. When you saw that look of distress, I would say, ‘What’s the matter?’
Retired James Henry lives down the street from the Kowis store. He said it made sense to him that the young women who trained at the ranch had limited outside contact with people. “That’s what they’re supposed to do in training,” he said.
âI feel bad for the families and the girls,â Henry said. âI feel bad for the Karolyi family after such a good race. “
The Olympic success of the Karolyi gymnasts, he added, made the people of New Waverly “proud that we are Americans”.
John Austin is the CNHI State Journalist for Texas. Contact him at [email protected]