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Rangers to Investigate Karolyi Ranch Amid Scandal

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NEW WAVERLY, Texas — For three decades, the nearby Karolyi Ranch was a well-known, albeit secluded, community fixture, training elite athletes, employing locals and hosting summer camps for area kids.

Today, this East Texas city of 1,100 is grappling with the fact it also was the site of repeated sexual assaults against some of the world's most famous gymnasts.

Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Rangers this week to investigate the beleaguered facility amid allegations of sexual assault on athletes. Several gymnasts who were sexually abused by sports doctor Larry Nassar have said some of the abuse occurred on the ranch.

Nassar was sentenced last week to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing more than 150 women and girls over 25 years.

"It's heartbreaking to know that children were being abused and nothing was ever done," said Walker County Clerk Kari French, 42, who attended summer camp at the ranch 25 years ago while she was a cheerleader at Huntsville High School.

"It's just really hard and disturbing to think that this type of behavior was going on."

Nassar was back in a Michigan court Wednesday, again confronted by scores of victims and facing another prison sentence for molesting gymnasts at an elite Michigan club run by an Olympic coach. Eaton County Circuit Court Judge Janice Cunningham said more than 256 women and girls have reported abuse.

So far, the focus has been on Nassar. But the Texas investigation probably will look at what role, if any, the Karolyi Ranch and its founders, gymnastics gurus Bela and Martha Karolyi, may have played in facilitating Nassar's crimes. The couple, through attorneys, have said they had no prior knowledge of the doctor's deeds and denied that a bruising work ethic at the ranch may have contributed to them.

For many here, the ranch was a source of pride for how it trained medal-winning athletes and provided jobs to local residents. The facility also hosted summer camps where area hopefuls would attend to learn new skills.

The summer camps were the Karolyis' bread and butter, said Daniel Clinton, 45, who worked at the ranch as a coach in summer 1997. Bela and Martha Karolyi would speak to the kids in the mornings to motivate them and flitted in and out of the facility during the day, he said. "He was a great motivator," Clinton said.

Each day, gymnasts were split into groups and were always accompanied by their coaches, even when they had to see a doctor, Clinton said. He never saw Nassar at the facility or heard of any sexual assault complaints, he said.

"These gymnasts, that was their life," he said. "To have something done to them like that, it's heartbreaking."

Travis Austin Wilkerson, 25, worked as a coach at the ranch from 2008 to 2014 and called the experience "the best six years of my life."

He and about 30 other coaches would oversee 300 young gymnasts a week during summer camps. Bela and Martha kept close tabs on the gymnasts -- and the coaches, he said. One coach was fired for bringing a soda can into the gym; another was immediately let go after getting into an altercation with another coach.

He said he can't fathom either of the Karolyis knowingly tolerating a systemic pattern of abuse -- sexual or otherwise -- from anyone at the ranch.

"If something was told to Bela or Bela knew anything, I think he would have handled it," Wilkerson said. "They wouldn't ever let that go on out there if they knew that was going on."

The National or Olympic team would show up at the facility and be separated from the summer campers, he said, using the larger national gym and sleeping in separate cabins. Wilkerson, like others who worked at the ranch, said he never saw or knew of Nassar until his face appeared in TV newscasts.

Though successful in training elite gymnasts, the ranch and the Karolyis also drew criticism for pushing gymnasts to their physical limits and creating an environment that may have allowed Nassar to take advantage of the girls.

Last year, former Olympic gymnast Jamie Dantzscher testified to Congress that Nassar abused her repeatedly at the ranch. "Many times it took place in my own room," she told Congress.

A lawsuit Dantzscher filed in a California court in 2016 says the Karolyis' harsh treatment of gymnasts led to an environment in which Nassar was able to befriend and violate them, allegations the Karolyis strongly deny.

An attorney for the Karolyis declined to comment for this story.

Walker County Judge Danny Pierce, the county's top administrator, said the ranch has been a fixture in the community for as long as most people here can remember. Pierce said he would be "shocked" if the Karolyis were found to be complicit in the far-reaching abuse perpetrated by Nassar. But he hopes the investigation gets to the bottom of all of it.

"That's the best we could hope for, that the truth be revealed."

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February 2, 2018
 
 
 

 

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