How Karolyi Ranch became secret weapon for U.S. women's gymnasts

August 3, 2016, 9:20 AM

— -- NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- The finishing school for world-beating female gymnasts that America has been churning out for two decades now, bucking all precedent and prevailing skepticism that Bela and Martha Karolyi encountered when they first arrived in the U.S., sits on their isolated Texas ranch that lies three miles down a single-lane gravel road running deep into Sam Houston National Forest. A staffer often meets visitors at the nearest interstate exit about 20 minutes away, because neither GPS nor cellphones reliably help much way out here.

Little hurricanes of dust swirl up behind your car as you drive down the lane passing nothing but acre after acre of trees until, finally, some rustic wood cabins, two large blockish gyms, a dining hall and a sprawl of low-slung bunkhouses bearing signs such as "The Beijing Motel" to evoke past Summer Olympics all pop into view. Next, some startled peacocks unexpectedly come high-stepping across the lawn of the Karolyis' log cabin home with their tail feathers fanned out.

Then, somewhere in the distance, a few goats begin to bleat.

"When we first came here from Houston in 1982 and '83, Martha says to me, 'Why do you bring me out here to the boonies?'" says 73-year-old Bela, who often tears around their spread on a dusty, four-wheel cart with a roll bar. "I says, 'Martha, I know it's the boonies, but it's beautiful boonies! It's our boonies. I love the boonies!'"

Thirty-four years after their arrival, a whiff of mystery still surrounds exactly what happens once elite gymnasts disappear into training on the Karolyi Ranch. But often the short answer is "magic."

The U.S. Olympic women's team, which convened there for nine days of fine-tuning just before departing for the Summer Games in Rio, is a prohibitive favorite to win America's second straight team gold medal when the competition begins Sunday. It could be a rout.

Each member of the five-woman squad -- extraordinary three-time world champ Simone Biles; returning Olympic gold medalists Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman; electric 16-year-old newcomer Laurie Hernandez; and reigning world uneven bars champion Madison Kocian -- is a legitimate threat to medal in at least one event, maybe more.

The big-picture creation story of how the overhauled U.S. program first went from international also-ran to the preeminent world power, eclipsing China, Russia and the crumbling programs of traditional powers such as Romania and the Ukraine along the way, traces back to a vision the Karolyis had for developing the women's team into a perennial champion.

Either Bela or Martha have served as the U.S. program's national team coordinator since 1999, after they stopped being private coaches who churned out America's first Olympic and world all-around champions: Mary Lou Retton (1984) and Kim Zmeskal ('91); Kerri Strug, the '96 hero of America's first Olympic team gold medal win; and a half-dozen other stars.

Before that, the Karolyis developed 1976 Olympic all-around champion Nadia Comaneci in their native Romania.

The systematic changes they've pushed through to create a semi-centralized training program for USA Gymnastics have been vital. They insisted on having the ranch serve as an important gathering spot for team-building unity and refining the work the gymnasts do back home the rest of the year.

It was key to have private coaches around the country become a selection committee that evaluates the gymnasts year-round. That involves coming to the ranch once a month for training sessions that amount to pressure-packed recitals for the coaches' athletes, as well as brainstorming sessions and master classes.

You see, not everyone in American gymnastics always backed the Karolyis. Especially not at first.

Some folks bridled at their demanding methods and mandated treks to the ranch, which is as quirky as Bela himself. And the history of how the Karolyis jumpstarted USA Gymnastics after defecting from Cold War Romania in 1981 is an extraordinary, increasingly forgotten story.

The Karolyis might have never landed in America if Bela hadn't been clashing with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his sons following Comaneci's sensational victory and perfect 10s at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Bela objected to how the Communist rulers would interfere or trot out their pride-and-joy gymnastics team for cash and propaganda purposes before "sheiks, visiting politicians, you name it," Bela says.

Still, it wasn't until a 1981 U.S. tour with Comaneci and the Romanian national team that the Karolyis' worries darkened. They heard rumors during their last stop in New York that they might be detained when they returned home. So Bela, Martha and a team choreographer walked out of their Lexington Avenue hotel in Manhattan with nothing but a single gym bag of clothes and $360 among them.

"Looking back, it was a stupid decision we made," Bela says, even though Ceausescu ran a brutal regime and would later be executed by firing squad following the '89 Romanian revolution for crimes including genocide.

What Bela stresses instead is how seeking asylum separated him and Martha for years from their daughter, Andrea, who was then only 7. Defecting also meant parting with Comaneci, then 20, though she begged the Karolyis to take her with them.

Bela refused, telling her there was too much uncertainty.

"We had no plans, no money, nothing," he says. "I spoke five languages -- Russian, French, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian -- but, back then, not a word of English. It was very hard here at the start. Very hard. Very, very many frustrations."

The Karolyis found their international success meant little here at first. People doubted they'd thrive outside an autocratic government system or relate to American athletes. They spent some painful, uncertain months bouncing from New York to Los Angeles, where they lived for a time in a $7-a-night motel while Bela, then in his late 30s, worked as a stevedore during the day and swept floors in a restaurant at night. They eventually landed coaching gigs in Oklahoma and moved to Houston when a few investors offered them a chance to run a modest gym. By then, two years had passed.

The place became theirs when the backers ran out of money.

One day, a parent of one of the gymnasts asked a downcast Bela what he could do to cheer him up, and Karolyi shrugged and suggested something he used to do in the Carpathian Mountains back home: a hunting trip.

So off they went to Sam Houston National Forest, and -- Bela laughs -- they promptly got lost down that same, barely traveled dirt road where the ranch sits today.

Karolyi says he was captivated by the land, though it was nothing but pines and brush-choked fields then. "No electricity, no running water, buildings, nothing," he says. He persuaded the owner of the ranch's original 51-acre plot to let him clear the fields, throw up some fences and build a simple cabin and barn, no strings attached. In time, when the old man finally consented to sell, the Karolyis converted that first barn into a gym for weekend training sessions with six or eight gymnasts he and Martha would bring out from the city.

One of those girls was Mary Lou Retton.

She had joined them in Houston less than two years before the '84 Los Angeles Olympics. But once at the Games, Bela didn't have a credential to be on the competition floor because of the way USA Gymnastics ran things back then. He cadged one from a sympathetic equipment worker, and that's how much of America was first introduced to this demonstrative, bearish man with the thick accent, bushy mustache and sideburns and a habit of calling gymnasts "little suckers!" and "firecrackers!" The TV cameras caught him exhorting Retton just before she tore down the runway of her last event, the vault, and dramatically became America's first Olympic all-around champ by nailing a perfect 10.

Bela couldn't believe what happened next.

"When we flew back from Los Angeles to Houston next day, outside our little city gym, there were people lined up around the block, wanting to sign up to train with us!" he says. "People lined up around the block! To train with us!"

After all the Karolyis had been through, their lives rebooted again.

Bela kept adding and swapping parcels of land to expand the ranch site until it reached today's total of 2,000 acres. He cleared the fields himself. He built the log home in which he and Martha still live and most of the other buildings. He taught himself to drive a bulldozer and carved out a large pond. He stocked it with catfish and constructed skeet-shooting stalls on a deck overlooking the water. Today, he and visiting coaches often convene there for fun after training is done. At night, they might play cards, and the Karolyis often cook. Bela often serves homemade Hungarian "moonshine," made from fruit trees he planted, and the wild boar and elk bratwursts he makes.

USA Gymnastics eventually made the ranch an official national team training site, partly because, Martha says, "Bela and I feel having a training center that's not in a busy city is best. When you come here, there's one reason you come: to train. It's not to be entertained dining out, going shopping."

When the elite gymnasts are in residence, they work in a cavernous, state-of-the-art gym that is used only by them. No visitors are permitted except their personal coaches.

The rest of the time, the ranch frequently hosts gymnastics camps for all ages and skill levels that can draw nearly 300 girls at a time. The facility also includes a pool and play areas for everyone to use and a menagerie of animals that Bela chose: camels, cows, goats, llamas, horses, miniature donkeys, a herd of red deer, rabbits, assorted fowl and a coterie of 11 dogs.

Other acquisitions didn't work out so well. A minivan-sized bison escaped and had to be captured with lassos. ("Big sucker," Bela says. "Never again.") An ostrich once leaped up and kicked Bela to the ground with both feet. ("Bad. No notice whatsoever!) Getting a zebra seemed like a good idea at the time. ("Let me tell you, the most vicious bastard on earth. Biting. Mean. Aggressive. Wow.")

Asked now if a black-and-white hide pillow sitting on a sofa in his taxidermy-filled cabin is all that remains of that particular zebra, Bela, a prodigious hunter, chuckles guiltily and says, "Maybe."

One reason Bela and Martha wanted the elite team to gather at the ranch: America trained its female gymnasts but didn't prepare them to take on the world.

"Everybody was doing their own thing," Martha says. "The national team pretty much wasn't training together at all back then. Basically, the whole gymnastics was based on the individual effort of the private clubs. And the clubs had big competition between each other. The thinking was that is how we can make the team strong and then go compete against the world. There was a selection committee, but it didn't know the gymnasts well enough."

In short, it felt like a closed, stunted system. Bart Conner is a former U.S. Olympian who is now married to Comaneci and runs a gymnastics school for 1,400 kids in Oklahoma. He says, "The national team always seemed to come from the same five or six [well-connected] clubs."

Bela says the gymnasts rarely had any idea how they stacked up.

"All these guys were doing was creating queens of their own gyms," Bela says. "Then the girls got out of their own gyms, and they collapsed. They had no idea how to handle pressure of competition, no proper preparation."

The Karolyis set out to change that when the U.S. Federation came calling after the women's program slumped in the late '90s. Bela served his short but stormy stint as team coordinator first from 1999-2001 and did a lot of the initial spade work. He preached a need for unity while ordering changes and butting heads when his cajoling didn't persuade folks to accept the master plan.

It was Martha's selection as Bela's successor that ushered in a greater era of détente and sent the program slingshotting forward even more.

"They're both brilliant coaches and tacticians," says USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny. "They also have very different personalities."

"I'm a little more diplomatic," Martha says.

But no less demanding.

Bela still contributes thoughts here or there, but since 2001, Martha has been fully in charge of the national team. Everything about the well-oiled program she runs is geared toward identifying, developing and honing the best, most pressure-tested gymnasts and coaches to take to competition.

No detail goes overlooked.

During their five- to six-day monthly stays at the ranch, the elite gymnasts know they'll have to do "verifications" and present all four of their routines to Martha, the team selection committee and sometimes a couple of judges. The gymnasts are constantly evaluated year-round. Before the biggest competitions, mock in-house meets are held; the gymnasts do everything as if they were at a real event, right down to marching in as a team. Their choreography, music, degree of difficulty, tilt of their head, arch of their back, execution and overall composition of their routines are constantly critiqued.

The gymnasts' personal coaches work in the gym and sometimes convene again later at night at the Karolyis' private residence to brainstorm, swap ideas and hear out whatever tweaks Martha might suggest.

The approach is meant to make training so mentally and physically complete, Martha says, "that once we get to the competition, we say, 'It's showtime.' The idea is they won't have to think. They're fit. They're prepared. They're confident. They've done it so many times they know deep down, 'I can do this,' and ignore the stress. They perform just like they've trained to perform."

Kocian, the uneven bars champion, says, "It works. It's almost like you become a robot and just do what you're supposed to do."

After bobbling her beam routine twice at the Olympic trials, Biles still had enough jaunty confidence to shrug it off with a joke: "Beam 2, Simone 0."

The Karolyis do produce winners. But their methods have been criticized over the years as too demanding, even abusive. (You can read some of those articles here and here.)

Dominique Moceanu, who trained with the Karolyis before the '96 Games, remains a detractor.

"I think there are a lot of good things about the training camps," Moceanu said last month. "[But] it's just too taxing on the gymnasts. ... When they go there, they are basically doing pressure sets from the moment they get there, under scrutiny. That's a level of stress on your mind and on your body. And some gymnasts break down from that."

Even Retton, a Bela and Martha fan, says, "It's hard, in that the girls can never go, 'Ahhh,' and relax a bit." Then she echoes what Conner, Comaneci, Hernandez and Douglas' mother all say about the Karolyi Way: "It works."

Retton adds, "I really don't foresee it changing a lot."

Douglas' mom, Natalie Hawkins, says, "I don't know what 'it' is, but when Gabby gets to that ranch, she improves. Martha is always able to make her believe in herself."

Martha was asked last week in a conference call, before the gymnastics contingent left the ranch for the Rio Games, how the repair work had gone with Douglas after her so-so Olympic trials performance. Martha brightly said, " Very well." Referring to a move Douglas does in her floor exercise routine, Martha said, "She's doing the Ferrari better than Ferrari herself."

Martha is 73 years old now, same as Bela. She has announced she will join him in retirement after Rio. USA Gymnastics announced last week it is buying a 31-acre parcel that the national team training center occupies on the ranch to keep the program running as is. The Karolyis' plan is to keep their private residence there. Thinking back to how everything in America pivoted for the Karolyis when Retton landed that landscape-changing vault, Martha laughs now and says, "After that, people looked at us and went, 'Hmm. Maybe they do know a little bit about what they are doing after all.'"

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