“I think they’re hugely responsible, but I don’t think they think they’re responsible. I think they believe their job was to come in and create a system that produced results.” Jordyn Wieber, Episode 7, on the Karolyis and the environment that enabled Larry Nassar

“I said, ‘The show is the athletes. You’re creating a monster. He’s not this big, happy, hugging guy all the time. You need to know that. This is a show. This is who he is for television.” Kathy Johnson Clarke, Episode 3, on speaking with producers prior to televised competition broadcasts about their portrayal of Bela Karolyi

“It kind of broke my heart not hearing her name on the team because everybody knew she earned that spot. Everybody knew it. Even Martha knew she belonged on the team… I don’t think Maggie made the team because I think somebody had power over Martha when she selected that team. I think there were deals that were made under the table.” – Simone Biles, Episode 7, on Maggie Nichols not being named to the 2016 Olympic Team.

For 40 years, there was one constant presence in Olympic gymnastics: the Karolyis. Coaches who towered over the little troupers of their sport. A married couple, and a power couple in the literal sense. With every gold medal, the Karolyis consolidated unchecked power, in many ways more powerful than the governing body for which they ostensibly worked. But in 2016, their world came tumbling down when the Larry Nassar scandal broke and exposed the culture of fear and intimidation the Karolyis created… leaving the gymnastics community to grapple with questions of the heavy cost of all that success.

Premiering Tuesday, July 14, 30 for 30 Podcasts, in association with espnW, presents Heavy Medals: Inside the Karolyi Gymnastics Empire, a multipart podcast series that takes a sweeping look at the influence of Romanian-born coaches, Bela and Martha Karolyi, and, in turn, the transformation of USA Gymnastics over the past four decades.

The series is reported by ESPN senior writers Bonnie Ford and Alyssa Roenigk, both of whom you’ll hear throughout the episodes, and produced by 30 for 30 Podcasts’ Andrew Mambo and Meradith Hoddinott.

Over the series, key, original in-depth interviews include:

  • 2016 Olympic Gold Medalist Simone Biles and mother Nellie Biles

  • 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist Jordyn Wieber and mother Rita Wieber

  • 1996 Olympic Gold Medalists Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu

  • 2000 Olympic team members Jamie Dantzscher, Tasha Schwikert and Alyssa Beckerman

  • 2015 US National Silver medalist Maggie Nichols and mother Gina Nichols

  • Longtime Karolyi choreographer and Romanian defector Geza Pozsar

  • 1988 Olympic team members Phoebe Mills and Kristie Phillips

  • 1986 US National Gymnastics Champion, and author of Chalked Up, Jennifer Sey

  • Romanian Olympic gymnasts Trudi Kollar and Gaby Geiculescu

In addition, Mike Jacki, former United States Gymnastics Federation president, coaches Rita Brown, Cassie Rice and Steve Nunno, 2004 Olympic All-around champion Carly Patterson, 1988 Olympian Chelle Stack, 1984 Olympic silver and bronze medalist and gymnastics commentator Kathy Johnson Clarke, 1999 World Team member Jeanette Antolin, World silver medalist Mattie Larson, 1972 Olympian and former Athlete Wellness Program creator and director, Nancy Thies Marshall, and 1984 Olympic silver medalist and 2000 Olympic selection committee member Tracee Talavera are interviewed. Their experiences and insight further present an in-depth, out-of-balance picture of USA Gymnastics.  

Inside Gymnastics’ Editorial Director Christy Sandmaier went behind the scenes with Roenigk to learn more about the process behind the 30 for 30 podcast and the passion involved to produce this important investigative series. It is a comprehensive body of work that will continue to drive the crucial conversations, education and understanding needed in order to change the culture of our sport.

On the heels of Athlete A and with all of the reporting and accessible information across outlets, what can people who believe they may have heard or read everything they possibly could surrounding the story of the Karolyis expect? 

There’s a deep investigative side to this. I was surprised by so many things around every corner. We’ve all known there was a lot of mythology around the Karolyi’s story, self-mythology. We all know what a storyteller Bela was. The level to which we’ve dispelled a lot of that mythology  – a lot of the information surprised me as we were reporting it. A lot of what we believe to be their origin story is vastly different from the story they told and the story that he sold so well to the media.

If you followed gymnastics in the 80s and 90s, you knew Bela. If you’ve followed gymnastics since the turn of the century, you know Martha, but people still refer to them as the Karolyis. One of the things we really wanted to do was pull them apart as two separate humans and figure out what made them each separately tick. 

Tell us about your own passion for this project. When was the seed planted to pursue it?

On the heels of the Nassar story breaking, for most of us who covered gymnastics and investigative reporters at ESPN and everywhere, for very good reason the lens was very focused on Nassar and USA Gymnastics. But, there was a larger conversation at the company about the Karolyis and if this is a story we want to tell. Last spring, 30 for 30 reached out to Bonnie (Ford) first and then Bonnie said, you know, there’s one person I want to work with on this. And the really nice thing about Bonnie and my careers as it pertains to this story, is we bookend the Karolyi’s careers.

Bonnie started covering gymnastics in the 1980s. She covered the “Nadia” ’81 tour the Karolyis were on when they defected. She stepped away from covering gymnastics in the early 2000s when I came in, and I’ve covered the sport until current time. It’s been a really great partnership. Bonnie and I have been colleagues a long time and covered several Olympics together. I’ve always been such a huge fan of her work. We started reporting this in early August and to have almost a year to dive into one project, work with Bonnie and work with the 30 for 30 team, it’s been a career highlight. 

I think every project that examines Nassar, what went wrong, what went wrong with USA Gymnastics, dips their toes into the story of the Karolyis. But, as you know, we learned there are a lot of roadblocks to telling that story. One of them was the amount of resources and time you need to even attempt to tell the story properly. Most reporters and companies just don’t have those resources. To be provided with those, and given the opportunity to try and get at the story, for me, was a dream project – to have those resources to deeply investigate this incredibly rich story and try to answer those questions. 

There are still so many lingering questions about the past few years. How did this happen? How was this culture created? How was this culture sustained? And what role did that have in enabling Nassar? The Karolyis are a huge part of that. For the first time, Bonnie and I had the opportunity to train the lens directly on them. 

Describe your selection process for choosing those interviewed. Were you met with any resistance, any roadblocks as you progressed?

Truly, we started by casting the widest net. In our minds, if you had been coached by the Karolyis, interacted with the Karolyis, knew the Karolyis, or worked for the Karolyis, we wanted to talk to you. I kept thinking of their story as this giant pie. Every interview was a small piece of that pie filled in. We also were looking at 40, truly 50 years of history because we went back and interviewed gymnasts from Romania. We were trying to fill in as many categories, as many perspectives, as many decades. And of course, we met with a lot of resistance. 

One of the things we found very interesting is there was a point when people were fearful of speaking out negatively. And for good reason. We feel very fortunate to have had the tagline of the early Karolyi whistleblowers, all the podcasts, and starting with author Joan Ryan and Jennifer Sey, Dominique Moceanu, Jamie Dantzscher. We came to a point where we were also meeting with people who were fearful of saying positive things about them. Because there was a perception that if I had a positive experience with them, and I share that, I am somehow speaking in contrast to the survivors. So, we met with fear on both sides. 

Can you describe that resistance, or fear, further? 

Former gymnasts or people who still work in the industry – still coach, still own gyms, I feel, there was a lot of fear there and I think that is valid fear. And even from former gymnasts, former coaches who have left that world behind, some of them will describe it as an irrational fear – that gripping fear of what [the Karolyis] might do in retaliation, or how the world will view them, how social media will view them. It was a long process to every single interview. It was many conversations and us doing anything we could to make them feel comfortable. The amount of humility and trust that goes into sharing your story with someone and trusting them, it still blows my mind every time someone says yes [to an interview]. We were just constantly humbled by the people we interviewed.

Did you reach out to current USA Gymnastics staff? 

Yes. Anyone who is currently either working for USAG or embroiled in any lawsuit did not feel comfortable speaking with us. And the Karolyis, for the record through their lawyers, turned us down.

What might surprise listeners the most?

I was constantly surprised [that if] I was sitting with a gymnast who had trained with the Karolyis in the 80s, 90s, they would ask me questions about the gymnasts I’d interviewed from the past decade. Or, if I was sitting with Jordyn Wieber or Maggie (Nichols), they wanted to know what they were like in those early years. I think that people who, when you say think they know the story, typically tend to know one part of the story really well, but, I think they’ll be surprised by the decades they weren’t as familiar with. 

Bonnie and I went into this thinking we knew the questions we were trying to answer and there was just a new question around every corner. I think listeners will be pleasantly surprised by how deeply and richly our whole team has gone at telling the story. We did learn, to your point, there was so much resistance and that is one of the reasons I don’t think this story has been told. The amount of work that went into every interview, that went into the planning behind each reporting trip and each “yes” we got, we really needed a year to do this. And what a gift we were given a year to step away from our other responsibilities at ESPN and work 100% on this project.

In dispelling some of the mystique of the Karolyis, were there stories told that were completely not what you were expecting? Was there anyone who spoke more positively than expected?

I was typically more surprised the other way. I was a young gymnast and a huge fan. I covered the sport. To sit with so many gymnasts who I think of as national treasures and hear the way they were treated and how deeply their gymnastics careers still affect them…

One of the things I’ve learned is you can have two people in the same room with two very different experiences. And I think you’ll hear that when we have Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu take you through 1996. I definitely started to notice how much an individual’s personality had to do with the way they experienced the Karolyis, along with the parental support, the goal-setting, and how much value they placed on the Olympics… There’s just a lot that went into the way you perceived your experience in that gym. The ranch itself as a character changes drastically from those early years to present. 

Has this project changed the way you ask or will ask questions of athletes? How has it changed your perspective?

I think most journalists had that shift many years ago, right? The way you view success [has shifted]. In general, gymnasts compared to other athletes tend to be more reserved, less open, tough interviews. And when we asked a lot of them about that, thinking back and looking at those interviews and learning they were thinking: “Oh my, gosh, if you guys only knew what was going on inside my head!” Now, understanding that lack of openness was fear. Fear of the people standing around them and there being retribution for what they said. I do look at all those moments differently. I find myself looking around at the communications directors, and I have noticed the athletes feeling much more comfortable. Even just looking at the way they interact on social media these days. There seems to be an owning of their voice in a way that was not happening four or five years ago.

What would you like the conversation to be among the gymnastics community after listening? What is your goal and your dream, your hope for the sport going forward?

I think the biggest conversation right now is, is there another way to win? I think the gymnasts competing today are answering that question. Simone Biles is a beautiful example of another way to win. The support team around her, and her coaches have done everything differently than the Karolyis. There’s still a lot of accountability, there are still a lot of questions – I would like to see that independent investigation happen. I think all of us journalists are trying our best to continue investigating the story. I’d like other sports and governing bodies to take a good, hard look at themselves. The question of, how do we coach and oversee an Olympic-level program where the human beings involved in our program take precedent over the medals?

Part of the blindness I think we all had was, how can your assumption not be that all the adults in the room are putting children’s welfare first? Of course, that’s your assumption. Parents who believed they were sending their kids to a safe place and that people were taking care of them… to find out just around every corner that almost all of the adults in the room had their own self-interest at heart and that their own success, their own medal count and money was taking precedence over the welfare of children will never cease to boggle my mind. And so, how do we do this in a way where that is flipped? Where the welfare of children is first and foremost and the gold medals come second? We have so many talented gymnasts. They want to be great. They don’t need to be berated and starved, and emotionally abused into greatness. They will get there with love and support. And we’re seeing that now. That’s the conversation. It’s not easy, but how do we change this culture? 

There’s such passion in your voice. Is there anything else you would like to communicate as people listen to and process the podcast?

The biggest thing is just what an incredible team effort a project like this is. You’ll hear my voice narrating it and you’ll hear Bonnie’s voice come in as a reporter. But, this was a huge team that put this together. Every single person who touched it in any way was as passionate as Bonnie and me. To have that sort of collaboration and passion behind a project like this, I feel very lucky to have been a part of it and work in a company where a story like this is important. 

For more information on Heavy Medals: Inside the Karolyi Gymnastics Empire, click here. 

For a preview, click here.

Listen to the trailer here.

Episodes:

Episode 1: Made in Romania

Episode 2: American Hustle

Episode 3: The Bela Show 

Episode 4: Home Games

Episode 5: The Karolyi Way

Episode 6: The Rise of Martha

Episode 7: The Unraveling

Look for reaction and feedback to the podcast across Inside Gymnastics social media and in the next edition of Inside Gymnastics magazine.