Karolyi Camp: Exclusive look inside building an Olympic dynasty

Published:
Updated:

Legendary gymnastics coach Martha Karolyi confirmed to Eyewitness News that the Rio Olympics in 2016 will be her last as U.S. National Team Coordinator.

During a visit at the Olympic Training Center on the Karolyi Ranch, Martha smiled and revealed, "Unfortunately, any good stuff has to come to an end."

Martha will be 73 when the games begin in August next year. She has been the National Team Coordinator since 2001, when she took over the role from her husband, Bela.

Martha confirmed she is stepping down when Eyewitness News Anchor Anne Marie Tiernon recently visited the Olympic Training Center on the Karolyi's property in Texas.

It's not an easy place to find and it is full of surprises.

Karolyi's Camp is on a 2,000-acre Texas ranch in the Sam Houston National Forest, about 50 miles north of Houston. It's where world famous Olympic coach Bela Karolyi is caretaker.

When we visited, Bela's welcoming party included two camels and a horse. Bela says the camels, named Samson and Delilah, are decoration.

VIDEO: Bela shows us around the camp and how he cares for his menagerie of animals

"They don't have a particular use, they are just fun for the kids," he said.

There is a sizable herd of red, fallow and white tail deer, and wandering around you will find several dozen peacocks, chickens and roosters. Step behind a few gates and you will find goats and hunting dogs, too.

Bela says a thousand acres of the ranch is undisturbed open range. The other half, he tours daily on his ATV and he showed us the sites in late June.

The developed property includes a lake Bela built 27 years ago. Around the lake is a summer camp for gymnasts of all levels. On busy weeks, Karolyi's gymnastics camp hosts 250 campers from across the country. They stay in 28 cabins in 120 bunk beds. Bela says he built each one himself. At night, he cuts the watermelon and supervises the barbecue.

But all that action stops nearly once a month. That's when summer camp is shut down and the U.S. National Team athletes and their personal coaches arrive for five-day stays. Attendance is invitation only.

While Karolyi believes the rustic environment promotes bonding, the elite level girls call camp unique.

"I'm literally afraid like a peacock or like a camel is going to come in the room, come right through the door," 2012 Olympian Aly Raisman said.

During camp, the athletes and their coaches stay in ranch-styled motels named London and Beijing, after the Olympic games where USA ladies earned gymnastic medals.

VIDEO: Bela and Martha Karolyi talk about how they coach and develop gold medal gymnasts

Since the Karolyis took the reins of the team four Olympics ago, the American ladies have accelerated their wins, earning 80 international medals. That's nearly two times more than the closest competitors - Russia or Romania.

"We are so far away the best in the world that it is even frightening to me. We are too good...really too good," Bela said.

It's time at the ranch that Bela believes is part of the secret sauce.

"Absolutely part of the success," Bela said.

In his heyday, Karolyi coached nine Olympic champions, 15 world champions, 16 European medalists and six U.S. national champions. His athlete, Nadia Comaneci, earned perfect 10s in the 1976 Olympics.

Bela served as U.S. National Team Coordinator for 14 months during the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Now, long-retired from coaching, he says his focus is to develop the ranch and to unify the coaches. He knows what it is like to have an aspiring athlete and the intense competition to secure one of the five spots on an Olympic team.

He says instead of training privately, these coaches and athletes can help each other get better. One way he helps them connect is to take the coaches hunting after long days of training.

"The rivalry stops right here. We are friends; we are together, for the same goal, for the same reason. This is the ground where they are getting together. This is a very important part of uniting," Bela said.

Bela says the first step to changing how the American team was developed was creating a semi-centralized training system in 1999.

"I can't emphasize so much how important is the united effort, the united spirit, the united mind, the united willingness to go in the same direction, not in different direction, in one direction, the success direction." Bela said.

If they aren't hunting at night, the coaches play cards or join Bela at his private residence on the property for dinner or drinks.

"I am very proud of my role of creating the best environment that I could here on my place," Bela said.

Through the magic of camp, Bela believes competitors connect as one team.

"They are greeting each other, hugging each other congratulating each other, that's so important," Bela said.

On the Karolyi property, outside, it is Bela's ranch. But inside, it is quite clearly Martha's gym.

"When you step in the gym, that is discipline. There is structure every single moment," Martha said.

The gyms at camp are places the media rarely visits, but Eyewitness News received exclusive access to take our camera inside while the national team trains and show you what happens when 30 athletes and their coaches are at camp.

"It's all business," says 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas.

Every practice starts and ends with a lineup, smallest to tallest, right to left.

Martha expects the athletes to model discipline.

"We are here to do a job," Martha said.

"When she walks in a room everyone just stops talking. She is the reason why USA Gymnastics is so successful," Raisman said.

During our visit, we saw Douglas and Simone Biles, two time world all-around champion, run through portions of their routines on bars, beam, floor and vault. They are in the mix to make the next World Championship team. While they practice, Martha and coach specialists on each apparatus are watching and correcting.

"We are not looking at the names. We really are looking at what they can do now," Martha said.

Every camp starts with a skills test. The girls are timed as they climb the rope, arms only. They hold handstands for one minute. And on the beam, they impressively lift themselves from a straddle to a handstand ten times.

VIDEO: Check out the skills tests every gymnast takes at the start of the Karolyi’s Camp

"In the mind of the gymnast, it's very clear when they came here they come for one single reason - to focus on their training," Martha said.

Bela speaks effusively about his wife's work with the national team.

"There is nobody in the world, I would say it, who do better than she does," Bela said.

She uses her intuition.

"I have all this information on my mind not only about their scores or their performance…but about how strong of a person it is? How dedicated of a person it is? How disciplined a person it is? How much she is ready to do everything in order to be successful?" Martha explained.

"She is picking not just based on the result of one competition or two competition or three competitions, she is based on every time performance during the training camps." Bela said.

The approach has worked.

The ladies team is the only country to win a team medal in every team competition at the World Championships or Olympic Games since 2000.

"I think she is psychic. She always knows. She can literally predict the future," Raisman said.

Martha says the key to doing well is to treat each practice like a competition.

"We expect them to always do their personal best every try. Every try counts," Martha said.

Although this is her final year leading the team, Martha makes no medal promise as a parting gift. Instead, she promises consistent, serious preparation and says she's will leave proud of what she's accomplished.

"I think if they recognize that we had a contribution to the development of U.S. Gymnastics that is absolutely enough for me and we are very hopeful that the system will be going on and U.S. keep climbing and maintaining the dominance at the world level," Martha said.

In the meantime, there are Nationals in Indianapolis and World Championships in Great Britain to prepare for. After that, the focus will shift to the Olympics in August 2016.

"If everything (is) going to be the same, then we going to be again the most successful Olympic team ever in the history of the sport," Bela said.

And yes, there is plenty of room on the ranch to name the next motel "Rio."

USA Gymnastics website