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Why It’s a Big Deal That USA Gymnastics Is Cutting Ties With the Karolyi Ranch

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In a statement Thursday, USA Gymnastics president and CEO Kerry Perry said the organization will no longer use the Karolyi Ranch as the national team training center.

USA Gymnastics has terminated its agreement with the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas. It will no longer serve as the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center.

It has been my intent to terminate this agreement since I began as president and CEO in December. Our most important priority is our athletes, and their training environment must reflect this. We are committed to a culture that empowers and supports our athletes.

Since the 2000s, the ranch has hosted monthly training camps for elite level gymnasts — and in 2011, the ranch was named the official national training center for USA Gymnastics. The world and Olympic women’s teams trained there before competitions and for aspiring gymnasts, an invitation to the camp was the first step toward becoming a champion.

USA Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, is facing extreme criticism for its handling of more than 100 complaints of sexual abuse by the national team doctor, Larry Nassar, who allegedly abused gymnasts while they attended the training camps in Houston. The athletes say USA Gymnastics did not protect them from Nassar and delayed taking action and reporting him to law enforcement even as the number of complaints against the Michigan osteopathic doctor mounted.

Simone Biles, the reigning Olympic all-around champion, revealed in a tweet earlier this week that she too suffered sexual abuse by Nassar, at the ranch, and pled in her post that “It breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing in Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused.”

Nassar is currently being sentenced on first degree criminal sexual assault charges in a Michigan court. Dozens of victims are providing powerful victim impact statements detailing the sexual abuse he inflicted on them, often at the Karolyi Ranch, and asking for the judge to consider a life sentence.

USA Gymnastics’ decision to terminate its arrangement with the Karolyi Ranch is only the latest fraying in a relationship that began when then USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi invited Bela Karolyi to help revitalize the national women’s gymnastics program after poor finishes at world championships in the 1980s. Bela, the famed Romanian coach of Olympic champions Nadia Comeneci and Mary Lou Retton, along with his wife Martha, devised a decentralized training system in which gymnasts would train with their individual coaches but come together for a week, once a month, to train as a team under the Karolyis’ guidance. The system was a hybrid of the siloed U.S. coaching structure and the centralized eastern European strategy that seemed to produce consistent results.

It’s still not clear how aware the Karolyis were of Nassar’s sexual abuse of the gymnasts. Martha retired as the national team coordinator after the 2016 Olympic Games, and was replaced by Valeri Liukin, father of 2008 Olympic all around champion Nastia Liukin. The ranch is located in the isolated Sam Houston National Forest, where cell service is spotty and parents are not allowed. Some gymnasts have reported that Nassar was allowed into their dorm rooms at the ranch alone, at night without any supervision, and that was where much of the abuse occurred. Nassar was responsible for giving the gymnasts recovery treatments as well as helping them with injuries, and disguised his abuse as medical therapy. The Karolyis have not commented publicly on the allegations against Nassar.

But Maggie Nichols, an Olympic hopeful for the 2016 Rio team, was overheard at the ranch talking to her teammates about Nassar’s odd behavior by her coach, and that coach reported the conversation to Nichols’ parents and to USA Gymnastics. It wasn’t until weeks later that the organization reported the complaints to law enforcement, according to Nichols’ mother, who has since filed a lawsuit against Nassar and USA Gymnastics.

Then, in May 2017, a year after USA Gymnastics announced it was going to buy the ranch from the Karolyis, the organization backed out of the sale. The organization was facing heavy criticism about the way the training camps at the ranch were conducted — parents are not allowed while the athletes, often under-age minors, lived and trained for a week with little outside supervision.

With dozens of Nassar’s victims now revealing the extent to which he abused their trust and innocence, the training camp has become, as Biles noted, a constant reminder and symbol of betrayal and pain. Biles’ teammates from the 2016, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, and 2012 Olympian McKayla Maroney, have all said they were abused by Nassar, sometimes at the ranch. Maroney also signed a non-disclosure agreement and confidential settlement with USA Gymnastics to not discuss her abuse claims publicly.

It’s not clear where the national women’s teams will train in the future; next month’s session has been cancelled.

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