I started coaching elite gymnasts in 1982 when I arrived at UCLA as their dance coach and choreographer. I have never been to the now infamous “Karolyi Ranch.” I do not have first hand knowledge of what our elite gymnasts endured in trying to secure one of the coveted spots in representing USA, but I do believe the Karolyi Ranch was a house of horrors that enabled and helped breed a monster like Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics (USAG) doctor who is already convicted of child pornography and about to be sentenced for his criminal sexual conduct on the more than 140 women who have bravely come forward.
Since 1982 I have coached 46 former U.S. National team members, and have garnered the trust of countless more. I have witnessed the physical and emotional pain these athletes have struggled with after their elite careers ended and they became collegiate athletes.
This past summer I hosted an impromptu lunch with elite gymnasts dating back from the 1970s to the 2000s. Tracey Talavera and Julianne MacNamara were both on the 1980 and 1984 Olympic teams; Sharon Shapiro was the U.S. vault champion in 1978; and Jamie Dantzscher was on the 2000 Olympic team. These four amazing women came over for a simple Sunday BBQ. They arrived at 9 a.m. and quickly started sharing story after story about their elite experiences/nightmares. The non-stop discussion lasted for 13 hours encompassing sadness, anger, frustration, disgust, as well as shared empathy and love. The names of the coaches/abusers changed a little over the decades, but the stories were identical. Stories of verbal, emotional and physical abuse that were simply the way of life for an aspiring elite gymnast.
How has this perverse culture of abusive power festered for so many decades?
In listening to all of the brave women who have come forward in the courtroom to confront Nassar, I can’t escape the thought that while he is a mentally deranged pedophile, he is not the head of the monster. The monster is the Culture of USA Gymnastics. Abusive behavior is the example the Karolyis cultivated. The enabling environment they created is what USAG honored. Medals is all the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) cared for… not the athletes earning them. I have believed for many years the head of the monster is lead by our U.S. National Head Coach, Martha Karolyi; and before her Bela Karolyi; and before him Don Peters, who has been banned from coaching for his own sexual abuse allegations. For decades they established a culture of abuse that was widely accepted and mimicked by other club coaches because “we won medals.”
Based on their history of action and inaction, the truth is that Martha’s inner circle of minions, which included former USAG CEO and president Steve Penny, and former USAG vice president Kathy Kelly, were only concerned with winning medals and protecting Martha instead of the athletes. I’m not saying Martha knew about the abuse perpetrated by Nassar, I’m saying they created the perfect house of horror for a pedophile like Nassar to prey on the vulnerable and trusting. His gentle manner and friendly discourse with the athletes was a welcome alternative to the dictator, Martha, who insulted, belittled, and degraded on a regular basis. If you were not in her line of vitriolic fire then you were ignored. The word every elite athlete I’ve had uses is “invisible.” When you were no longer seen as valuable to Martha to win medals then she had no use for you and you were simply ignored… to the point that the other coaches and athletes would ignore you for fear they’d catch her wrath for engaging with such a low life.
The most egregious case I experienced of this was with Mattie Larson. After her floor performance at the 2010 World Championships when she failed to complete her final tumbling pass successfully, she literally became invisible to everyone involved with USAG. When you watch the video you see her teammate, Rebecca Bross, not even glance at her when they pass each other on the podium stairs. From that moment, Mattie was shunned. I don’t want you to think I’m blaming Bross, she was merely responding in the manner she was trained.
No one… as in NO ONE spoke to her for the remainder of the time she was in Rotterdam for the World Championships, and for the next three weeks after she returned to the states. Not her coaches, teammates, or Martha even said, “good morning” to her. When she called me to tell me she was quitting elite and wanted to come to UCLA I asked, “Why now… so close to the Olympics?” She said, “Because I’ve become invisible. Miss Val, I actually pinch myself at times to make sure I am still alive and not a ghost.”
I honestly thought when Mattie came to UCLA she’d blossom into the joyful performer we all knew she had inside of her. Instead, her demons kept feeding the madness until one day her sophomore year she broke. Just outside our gym door she was literally crying and hysterically screaming, “Miss Val, please don’t make me go in that gym. I just can’t anymore.” Imagine the abuse and mental trauma it took for her to reach that point.
We immediately walked Mattie to student-psych services and shortly thereafter she decided to quit gymnastics, which lead to dropping out of school. I am happy to report that Mattie did come back last year to complete her degree and spoke at our awards banquet. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t record her senior speech. It was one of the most heart-wrenching speeches any of us had ever heard, and yet there wasn’t an ounce of self-pity or victim mentality. Mattie simply told her story of emotional and verbal abuse by her club coaches at AOGC and Martha Karolyi. Mattie would later come out and disclose the abuse she suffered at the hands of Nassar.
When it concludes, roughly 120 women will have made an impact statement at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar. Two U.S. National teammates who publicly broke their silence early on were UCLA Bruins: Jeanette Antolin and Jamie Dantzscher. Jamie, a 2000 Olympian, told me it took until 2016 for her to come to terms with the fact she was sexually molested by Nassar. Jamie and Jeanette were on our team from 2000-2004. Why didn’t I see the warning signs of the most egregious abuse? Like so many I feel it was a lack of imagination at the depravity some humans will sink to. I knew the system was broken because I, like many other college coaches, have been picking up the pieces for decades. My response was to unearth the strength within these amazing humans after it had been suppressed and buried for so long.
Watching the survivors of Nassar testify has been life altering for me. I have often felt the collegiate environment is where most elite gymnasts go for psychological rehab. Now I think differently. Our program, like many others around the country, are actually more of a safe-haven for these abused athletes. It’s not really a place where they go to deal with their memories of abuse, but a place where they can finally relax, breath, and trust… and let their memories surface when they’re ready to deal with them. With the case of Jamie and Jeanette, this took over a decade after they had graduated for them to begin to start listening to their inner voice. Other more recent gymnasts have the benefit of hearing the accounts of their gymnastics sisters who came before them—accounts that trigger their own nightmares of abuse. The Nassar trial has provided a spotlight of truth and transparency into the price we have paid for our medals. To see what happened at The Ranch in Texas we needed to visit a courtroom in Michigan—and for all these years USAG and the USOC have been perfectly fine with the fact spectators and parents weren’t allowed there.
The Ranch has been glorified as a place where champions are made. It’s not. In an interview with GymCastic (1:06:00), the gymnastics podcast, Aimee Boorman (Simone Biles’ coach) tells a story of how she rejected an invitation to The Ranch in early 2012. In one of their first trips to U.S. Women’s National Team training center, Aimee saw how Martha emotionally mistreated Simone and was afraid Simone might quit the sport if she returned so early in her career. After she rejected the invitation, Aimee said they weren’t invited back to The Ranch for the remainder of the year even though Simone had earned it. During that year Aimee tells how she bumped into Martha at the U.S. Classic meet.
Martha asked Aimee, “How are we doing today?”
Aimee replied, “We’re fantastic.”
Then Martha responded, “Isn’t that a bit optimistic?”
Apparently not… Simone won the whole meet.
Heartbreakingly, the system the Karolyis built and USAG approved was still too powerful and unchecked. This week Simone revealed she was also abused by Nassar.
My deepest respect to all of you who have braved the pain to stand for justice and change. I wish I could think of what I could have done differently. With each new year that elite gymnasts came to UCLA with the same stories of verbal and emotional abuse all I could think to do was to give them a safe-haven to help them start to heal, find their voice and their self-worth.
While I’m devastated by the circumstances I am so happy these brave women are finding their voice amongst each other. This is their sport. When Simone came forward about the abuse she also stated how disappointed she was that she would have to go back to the scene of the crimes in order for her to prepare for the 2020 Olympic Games. Even though USAG has known about the abuse taking place at The Ranch since 2015, they still made everyone qualify for the Rio Games there and chose to renew the contract with The Ranch in 2016. It took just three days after Simone spoke up for USAG to announce it was shutting it down. The power has shifted. We have now seen behind the curtain and understand the Karolyis aren’t wizards, they’re enablers. Their power is gone, but the work isn’t done.
On the fourth day of women facing Nassar in the courtroom to deliver their impact statement, UCLA assistant coach and World and Olympic Champion, Jordyn Wieber, made her voice heard. Jordyn is one of the most remarkable human beings I’ve known and I want share part of her impact statement delivered in court:
“The people who are responsible need to accept responsibility for the pain they have caused me and the rest of the women who have been abused. Larry Nassar is accountable. USA Gymnastics is accountable. The U.S. Olympic Committee is accountable.
My teammates and friends have been through enough and now it’s time for change, because the current and future gymnasts do not deserve to live in anxiety, fear or be unprotected like I was.”
The sun has set on The Ranch. It’s time to listen. It’s time to heal. It’s time for the USOC and USAG to show the same courage these amazing women have. Time’s up!