The secluded Karolyi Ranch helps gymnasts hone skills, with bonding as an essential byproduct.
NEW WAVERLY, TEXAS -- Along the gravel path to the lodge at the Karolyi Ranch, nestled deep inside the dense pines of the Sam Houston National Forest, a sign warns visitors: "NO CHASING OR PETTING LIVESTOCK." It says nothing, however, about what to do when a camel gets in the way of a morning run.
Nastia Liukin has been coming here for 10 years, since Bela and Martha Karolyi began training the country's best gymnasts at the remote compound they built in the heart of Texas. She's become used to the menagerie of strutting peacocks, tame deer, hunting dogs and guinea fowl, but she still stumbles into the occasional surprise. "I was running once with my iPod, and all of a sudden I saw some feet," said Liukin, the 2008 Olympic champion. "It was a camel. I thought, 'Ooohkaaay.' "
The 2,000-acre ranch, where outdoor speakers play Willie Nelson tunes and steer skulls hang on outbuildings, may seem a little rustic for a United States Olympic Committee training site. Not even the most citified observers, though, can argue with the results. In the decade since the ranch became home to the U.S. women's gymnastics program, the Karolyis have led its athletes to 54 Olympic and world championship medals, far more than any other country.
The root of their success lies in the semi-centralized training system developed by the Karolyis, in which members of the national team live and train at home but meet at the ranch every four to six weeks for training camps run by national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. In addition to holding athletes and their coaches to Karolyi's exacting standards, the camps have built an unbreakable sense of team unity. The women live together in cabins that Bela built and sweat together in four-hour sessions in the cavernous gym.
Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, likes to say the Karolyi Ranch is where the magic happens for young women pursuing their Olympic dreams -- including those who will compete in the U.S. championships this week at Xcel Energy Center. "It's a special place with a special history, and the Karolyi touch just brings to life what we're trying to do," Penny said. "I don't think we would have seen the collective success we've seen, and I don't think our medal count would have outnumbered the other countries at the level that it does, if we hadn't done this 10 years ago."
The ranch's elite sorority echoes that sentiment, even if the cellular phone service is spotty and the camels sometimes get in the way. "I'm not really the nature type, so for me, it's rough not having contact with the outside world," said Alicia Sacramone, a nine-time world medalist from Boston. "But we love spending time together. It's like having a bunch of sisters, and I definitely think that's made our country stronger."
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There is no easy way to get to the Karolyi Ranch, which lies 60 miles north of Houston. The blacktop road out of New Waverly (population 950) twists and turns past tin-roofed shacks and cattle pastures, then gives way to gravel. Eventually, two lanes dwindle to a narrow path through the woods, an old logging road that ends at the enormous banner welcoming visitors to a U.S. Olympic training site.
Born in Transylvania, Bela Karolyi became a Texas landowner when he bought 40 forested acres as a hunting retreat in 1983. The famed coach soon built a gym and some cabins and began holding camps for elite athletes. Today, the ranch includes an Olympic-size swimming pool, three gyms, a beautifully appointed lodge and the Karolyis' home, a log house overflowing with animals Bela has bagged during hunting trips around the world. There is even a manmade lake, excavated by Bela with his own private bulldozer.
The coach of Olympic and world champions such as Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal and Kerri Strug, Karolyi hatched the idea of a semi-centralized training system in the late 1990s. Athletes do not have to leave their homes, schools or personal coaches. But the mandatory camps allow national coaches to gauge their development and guide their progress, in an environment where team and country -- and not individual glory -- is the focus.
Bela Karolyi stepped aside as U.S. national team coordinator after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when a fractured American women's team failed to win any medals. Martha, known as a diplomat and consensus-builder, took the place of her bombastic husband. With her at the helm and the ranch as its epicenter, the semi-centralized system has become the incubator for one of the world's most powerful teams.
"Unified, we had such great potential," said Bela Karolyi, who hosts late-night card games for the coaches and built them a hot tub near their cabins. "But the clubs were so protective. Everyone was against it, then slowly, they all lined up with the system.
"It was essential for them to feel this is a united effort. Now they come here and have a little whiskey and a lot of talk. And things have changed."
Bela now serves as the facilities manager at the ranch. During a late June training camp, while Martha sized up 25 girls in their first training session, he buzzed around the property on an all-terrain vehicle and stopped by the gym to chat with athletes and coaches.
He remains a convivial host, serving wine at the bar in his home and telling hunting tales in the lodge, where he designed everything from the petrified-wood fireplace to the antler chandeliers. "This is his legacy," said Kathy Kelly, vice president of women's programs for USA Gymnastics. "The kind of guy Bela is, you give him an idea, and he's going to make it into something memorable. That's the essence of him."
The same can be said of Martha Karolyi. While her husband of nearly 50 years clears brush and repairs fences, she builds teams that have won two world championships and a trove of individual medals.
The four-day June camp included two training sessions each day -- four hours in the morning, three in the evening -- run by Martha and her national team staff. The athletes split into groups to work on vault, balance beam, uneven bars and floor exercise with their personal coaches. Throughout the morning session, Martha walked among them, making sure every toe was pointed just so and every arm extended in a perfect line.
Though Karolyi has a softer manner than her husband, she insists on discipline and rigorous attention to detail. At the end of the session, the athletes lined up and recited in unison: "Thank you, Martha and the national coaching staff!" before heading to a lunch of salmon, chicken, rice and vegetables in the dining hall.
At each camp, Karolyi assesses every individual athlete, then tells gymnasts and coaches what she expects them to work on over the next month. Judges often are brought in to ensure routines are competition-ready. That creates pressure to perform at every camp, Karolyi said, which helps athletes develop the mental strength they need to thrive on an international stage.
The sessions also provide what Sacramone calls "a regular kick in the butt" for elite competitors. At home, some are the only national-level athletes in their gyms. At the ranch, they see gymnasts from all over the country who are just as good or better, which provides a powerful incentive to work harder than ever.
"When you come here, a switch flips," said Liukin, the 2008 Olympic all-around gold medalist who is contemplating a return to the sport. "These are the 25 girls you're competing against for five spots on a team, and you can't help but turn your head and try to see what they're doing. It is very motivational."
Part of the ranch's magic, though, is that those competitive instincts do not create barriers. One of the first things the athletes do upon arriving at the ranch is to check the rooming list posted near their cabins. Everyone has a roommate, and they often get together in a common area to watch movies or just talk.
The friendships formed there lead them to cheer for each other, comfort each other and support each other, and many of the gymnasts said the team medals are the most meaningful to them. "The team camaraderie we've built here is very important, especially in international competition," Sacramone said. "When you're in an intense situation, you know you can rely on each other. You know how everyone is going to handle it. Being there for one another has definitely helped us compete better."
Individual sports, particularly at the elite level, can be a minefield of egos and power struggles. Penny declared that Martha Karolyi has done a "brilliant" job of cultivating teamwork, which she believed was the missing link in the U.S. program.
"Twelve years ago, they sometimes met for the first time at the airport on the way to the competition," she said. "Now, we become like a family. Training is a hard job. Knowing the team supports each other, that they help each other get through the hard situations, it makes everyone feel so much more confident."
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The ranch wears its rich history on the walls of the old gym, the one where Retton and Strug once trained. It is filled with posters and autographed photos -- including the famous shot of Bela Karolyi carrying the injured Strug at the 1996 Olympics -- along with trophies, banners and other memorabilia. Karolyi also has built a brick and stone monument outside the gyms, honoring all world and Olympic competitors from the United States.
In a nod to all that has been accomplished there, the U.S. Olympic Committee designated the ranch as an official USOC training site earlier this year, conferring another level of status. Its atmosphere is so powerful that USA Gymnastics has begun using it for camps in other disciplines, such as trampoline and acrobatics. "The ranch has become such an important part of our fabric," Penny said. "We want more people to be able to feel that magic."
So, too, do the Karolyis, who plan to keep adding cabins, critters and champions to their empire in the forest. "We want to see the girls have friendly, positive competition always," Bela Karolyi said. "We hope that many, many years from now, things are still going strong."