Once a renowned training facility owned by legendary gymnastics coaches in the East Texas woods, the famed Karolyi Ranch is shuttered and being investigated by the Texas Rangers after dozens of the women victimized by Larry Nassar said he abused them there. Now, the future of the ranch is murky. As the investigation continues, here's a primer on the history of the training facility that produced many of Team USA's gymnastic medalists.
1. The ranch is owned by Martha and Bela Karyoli. The couple from Romania has worked in women's gymnastics for more than 50 years, and spent dozens of those years training Team USA. Bela retired from coaching in the 1990s, and then his role as Team USA's national coordinator in 2001. Martha retired in 2016. They were the coaches of the famed Magnificent Seven in 1996, and under the couple's tutelage, U.S. women won 79 world and Olympic medals between 2001 and 2012.
2. It's located in Texas. After defecting from the then-Communist regime in Romania in 1981, the Karolyis worked for the University of Oklahoma and then settled in Texas. Their training ranch is in a forest about 15 miles away from the small city of Huntsville.
3. That same Texas town is also home to seven prisons. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, there are seven prisons located in and in the area immediately surrounding Huntsville. One of those prisons is the Huntsville Unit (nicknamed the Walls Unit), which contains the state's death row and the busiest execution chamber in the entire country. Since Texas reinstated the death penalty in 1982, more than 500 executions have taken place inside the Walls Unit.
4. The ranch is in the middle of a forest. Karolyi Ranch is deep within the Sam Houston National Forest, which is about 50 miles north of Houston and spans more than 160,000 acres of land on the fringe of the Piney Woods region of Texas. "We're in the boonies, the middle of Mother Nature," Bela told the Los Angeles Times in 2012.
5. Bela Karolyi discovered the ranch's land after a hunting trip. As he told the LA Times, Bela, who was living with Martha in a "a nice subdivision" in Houston at the time, went hunting in the Sam Houston National Forest one day on a friend's recommendation. Bela and some hunting buddies got lost tracking deer among the trees and wandered out to a trail where they saw a man driving a horse-drawn carriage. Bela and the man became friends, and over the next few months, the man showed Bela around the expansive forest. He started buying plots of land around the forest in 1983, according to Time, and eventually traded the government his holdings for a continuous plot near New Waverly, a small town outside of Huntsville.
6. At first, the ranch was just a getaway for the Karolyi family. Bela updated an existing log cabin into something livable, a nice place family could retreat to. He later converted an old barn on the property into the gymnasium where dozens of Olympic athletes would eventually train.
7. Bela dug a lake on the ranch property himself. The ranch spans more than 1,200 acres of land, and the training camp occupies about 40 acres of it. Karolyi told the Los Angeles Times he dug a lake on a portion of the land himself with a bulldozer. (Additional fun fact: There is only one naturally formed lake in the entire state of Texas.)
8. Animals live there. Aside from the training facilities, Bela is known to keep horses, miniature donkeys, chickens, camels, peacocks, and various other species on the ranch's land.
9. The ranch started hosting camps in 1984. Before the ranch, the Karolyis trained athletes in a gym in Houston. But with their new barn-cum-gym in the East Texas woods, the Karolyis had the space for a much larger enterprise on the same land where they lived. "As a gymnast, you hoped to be asked out there," Kim Zmeskal, a retired gymnast who won an Olympic bronze medal in 1992, told the LA Times. "It was an honor."
10. The training facilities are expansive. According to Time, the training center at Karolyi Ranch includes "three gyms, 66 motel-like dorm rooms that can house up 300 athletes, a cafeteria, an elegant lodge and a rustic residence adorned with moose and deer heads" from Bela's hunting excursions.
11. Karolyi Ranch was named the official women's national team training center in 2000. And in 2011, it became the designated U.S. Olympic Training site.
12. But non-Olympians also trained there. The Karolyi Ranch tagline was "where every camper is treated like a star." According to the 1998 book Gymnastics, ranch attendance grew to 1,400 students after Mary Lou Retton won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics.
13. Former camp attendees refer to it as a "black hole." Though the ranch was later outfitted with modern amenities like wifi, gymnasts in the camp's early days recall feeling totally isolated from the outside world. "It wasn’t the national team training camp; it was the black hole. All of us disliked it. None of us liked going there. It was an awful place," Jack Carter, who coached Olympic bronze medalist Kristen Maloney and attended the training camp with her before the 2000 Games, said to Deadspin in 2017. "You can go in and there’s no getting out. You can’t escape the place."
14. NBC released a documentary about it called The Ranch in 2016. It features Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, and other members of recent Olympics gymnastics teams.
The ranch is home to an American sports dynasty. The film, narrated by Kristen Bell, airs Friday at 8p on NBC.Posted by NBC Olympics on Tuesday, June 21, 2016
15. People who attended training programs at Karolyi Ranch say their experiences were traumatic. The Karolyis were known to be extremely harsh coaches. A lawyer for Mattie Larson, who won three medals at the 2010 U.S. Gymnastics National Championships and is one of Larry Nassar's accusers, attributes Larson's retirement to the "extreme emotional abuse" she experienced at Karolyi Ranch, according to Deadspin.
16. It's one of the places where now-disgraced Larry Nassar molested gymnasts. In their chilling statements, Nassar's victims recounted being sexually abused by him at the ranch, where he served as a doctor. On Jan. 15, 2018, Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles tweeted a statement about her own horrific experience at the ranch. "It is impossibly difficult to relieve these experiences and 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."