Martha, Bela Karolyi defend training environment, say they didn’t know about abuse

The criminal cases heard around the world are officially over. Michigan Judge Janice Cunningham sentenced Larry Nassar to 40 to 125 years in prison. USA TODAY

(Photo: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

Martha and Bela Karolyi conceded the training environment at the ranch where they built the U.S. gymnastics team into a powerhouse was intense. But in their first interview since sexual abuse allegations against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar became public, the couple denied creating an environment that was abusive or that enabled his abuse.

In an hourlong NBC News Dateline special on Sunday, the Karolyis responded to criticism from several gymnasts and that have been laid out in two lawsuits against them. They also said they didn’t know Nassar was sexually abusing gymnasts.

“I feel extremely bad,” said Martha Karolyi, the longtime national team coordinator, on Dateline. “I don’t feel responsible, but I feel extremely hurt that these things happened and it happened everywhere but it happened here, also.”

The extent of what happened at the ranch and of Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of gymnasts over two decades, both in his role at USA Gymnastics and as a physician at Michigan State, has engulfed the sport.

McKayla Maroney, a member of the Fierce Five that won gold at the 2012 London Olympics, gave Dateline some of her most detailed comments on the abuse she says Nassar inflicted on her from the first time he treated her.

Maroney is one of more than 260 athletes who has accused Nassar of abusing them under the guise of medical treatment. Olympic champions Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber also have said Nassar abused them.

Nassar, 54, is serving a 60-year federal sentence for child pornography charges. He was convicted of 10 counts of sexual assault in Michigan and faces a minimum of 40 years in prison after his federal sentence is over.

The Indianapolis Star, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, first made public the allegations against Nassar in August 2016 after being contacted by Rachael Denhollander, who said she’d been abused by Nassar.

Maroney came forward in October, and she gave a statement that was read during one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings in Michigan.

She told Dateline of abuse she endured every time Nassar treated her. Like many other gymnasts and parents, she criticized USA Gymnastics for not prioritizing athlete well-being.

“All they cared about was their reputation, money, gold medals and that was it,” Maroney said. Asked who “they” was, Maroney said, “Martha, the camp, everybody, every single person that worked there.”

The Karolyis, both now retired, conceded the atmosphere at the ranch was “intense.”

“It’s a very serious atmosphere to try to come as close as possible as perfection,” Martha Karolyi said. “You have to find out who are the best ones, who are the best ones who are able to stand the pressure?”

The environment the Karolyis created and how that led to Nassar’s abuse are part of two lawsuits filed against them in 2016. The lawsuits allege the Karolyis hit or scratched gymnasts, that they withheld food and water and that they made comments about gymnasts’ weight.

In this June 29, 2012, file photo, Bela, left, and Martha Karolyi talk on the arena floor before the start of the preliminary round of the women’s Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose, Calif. Former USA Gymnastics women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and her husband Bela tell NBC they were unaware of the abusive behavior by a former national team doctor now serving decades in prison.

In their Dateline interview, the Karolyis denied those claims.

“Verbally, we were not abusive. Emotionally, it depends on the person. You have to be a strong person to be able to handle the pressure,” Martha Karolyi said.

“Maybe you say a little overweight, but in order to be a good gymnast, you need to have the right ratio between strength and weight.”

The Karolyis first made a name for themselves as Romania’s coaches at the 1976 Olympics, where Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 in history, a feat she would go on to duplicate six times in Montreal. But the Karolyis fell out of favor after Bela Karolyi criticized the judging at the Moscow Olympics, and the couple defected to the United States in early 1981.

They eventually opened a gym in Houston and, in 1984, Mary Lou Retton became the first U.S. woman to win the Olympic all-around title, gymnastics’ biggest prize.

The Karolyis retired after the 1996 Games, where Martha Karolyi was head coach of the Magnificent Seven, the first U.S. women’s team to win Olympic gold. But after a series of disappointing results, USA Gymnastics asked them to come back and take over the U.S. women’s program.

In a file photo from 2016, former USA Gymnastics national team coordinator Martha Karolyi instructs before the women’s gymnastics U.S. Olympic team trials at SAP Center.

In late 1999, Bela Karolyi became the first national team coordinator and implemented a semi-centralized training system, where gymnasts trained at home but came to the Karolyi ranch outside of Houston once a month for national team camps. Bela Karolyi stepped down after the Sydney Olympics, and Martha Karolyi replaced him in early 2001 and stayed in the role until after the Rio Olympics in 2016.

In the Dateline interview, Bela Karolyi said the couple did not hit gymnasts in the U.S. system.

“Probably about 50 years ago in Romania when … even slapping or spanking, that was a common procedure, yes,” Bela Karolyi said. “I never touched anybody (in the United States) and if anybody comes up with that one, that’s a dirty lie.”

While the Americans became the world’s most dominant team under the Karolyis, winning 97 world championship and Olympic medals, some have said their exacting standards fostered an atmosphere in which gymnasts and their coaches were afraid to speak up. It was that culture that allowed Nassar to prey on young gymnasts, some have said.

“Larry acted like our friend. He always had a sympathetic ear for complaints about our coaches,” Wieber said Wednesday during an appearance before a Senate subcommittee investigating sexual abuse in the Olympic movement. “He would bring us food, candy and coffee at the Olympics when we were hungry. I didn’t know that these were all grooming techniques that he used to manipulate and brainwash me into trusting him.”

In their Dateline interview, the Karolyis said they didn’t know of Nassar’s abuse. Martha Karolyi said she “never, ever (heard), not one single complaint” about the doctor.

“I heard during the testimonies that some of the parents were in the therapy room with their own child and Larry Nassar was performing this,” Martha Karolyi said. “And the parent couldn’t see. How I could see?

“The whole gymnastics community couldn’t recognize this,” she added. “Everybody said Larry Nassar is a good doctor, Larry Nassar is a good guy.”

Maroney, who said Nassar abused her at the ranch and on national team trips that included the world championships and Olympics, expressed doubt about the Karolyis in the Dateline interview.

“They just want to say, oh, we didn’t know. You knew what I ate. You controlled what I wore. You controlled what I said. How could you not know?” she said. “That’s what everybody says, that it’s not their responsibility. They were the leaders of everything.”

USA Gymnastics has previously planned to purchase the ranch from the Karolyis and maintain it as their national training center. But after Biles, a five-time Olympic medalist in Rio, questioned returning to the site where so many gymnasts were abused, USA Gymnastics said in January that it would no longer hold training camps there.

USA Gymnastics has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the Nassar case as well as other sexual misconduct complaints. Former CEO Steve Penny was forced to resign in March 2017, and the entire board stepped down after the U.S. Olympic Committee threatened to decertify the federation.

The USOC also has asked Ropes & Gray to investigate how it and USA Gymnastics responded to the Nassar allegations. This follows a report last summer by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels, who found that “a complete cultural change” was needed because USA Gymnastics had not done enough to educate its staff, members and athletes about protecting children from sexual abuse.

USA Gymnastics, which asked Daniels to investigate the organization, is in the process of implementing her 70 recommendations. It also required athletes to be accompanied by a chaperone other than a coach at training camps and international assignments this spring.

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