“I made a picture today of Bela Karolyi feeding a camel. I’m still stunned,” read the note to my editor. Normally, photographing someone feeding an animal would not elicit such a reaction from me but we were in the Piney Woods of East Texas and this was gymnastics coaching icon Bela Karolyi.
The Karolyi Ranch, owned by Bela and Martha Karolyi, was recently designated an Olympic Training Site by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Ranch will continue to be the official training site for the women, and also will house USA Gymnastics’ rhythmic, trampoline and tumbling, and acrobatic programs. My job was to photograph the Karolyis and their 2000 acre spread north of Houston, a lot of ground to cover in the 4-5 hours we were allowed.
“Gymnastics is a very flexible sport but we are not very flexible,” was the line from USA Gymnastics VP of Communications Leslie King over coffee before heading out to the Ranch near New Waverly, Texas. She said it in the very nicest possible way and I was completely aware from previous visits to the Ranch that Ms. King was speaking to the access I would not have while photographing the final day of a recent training camp. There are three spots in the cavernous gym that photographers are allowed to work from during a training session, a balcony at one end, the bottom of the stairs leading up to said balcony and the entryway to the training area. All three positions are at the same end so after about four pictures, you’re kind of done with all the imperfect angles.
However, in all fairness, the facility is designed to train medal-winning Olympic athletes not to make photographers look good.
Training winners is something the Karolyi’s have done quite well for quite some time. Since defecting to the U.S. in 1981, the pair have produced 9 Olympic champions, 15 World champions and winners in many other competitions. Hundreds of photographs of past champions including Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strugg, Kim Zmeskal and so many others remind all who visit the center of the Karolyi legacy.
Like the champions before them, Olympic medalists and World champions Nastia Liukin, Bridget Sloan, Alexandra Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber and the rest of the current elite were working out that day. Distraction was not an option.
As U.S. National Team Coordinator, Mrs. Karolyi is responsible for all aspects of the team, including the selection of athletes for competitions, determining apparatus lineups at meets, and making recommendations regarding skills and routines. She oversaw the workout with stoic intensity, pointing out the slightest missteps in form and encouraging perfection. After the final spin, twist and tumble she thanked each of the young ladies for their hard work and sent them off with best wishes.
While Mrs. Karolyi works with the athletes, Mr. Karolyi spends the majority of his time managing the Ranch. Away from the training center he continues to build a sanctuary for the sport and a menagerie of exotic livestock. A new lodge recently completed for championship coaches and other special guests is filled with much of his own woodwork and a stock of tuica, a high octane Romanian plum distillate, he insists on sharing with visitors.
Along with camels, the Ranch is home to a herd of red deer, peacocks, horses, donkeys, goats and a variety of other creatures. Adorning a fence line, the skulls of predators and prey give testament to life on the edge of the Sam Houston National Forest.
Mr. Karolyi remains deeply passionate about the sport of gymnastics. The centerpiece of his “Walk of Fame” recognizes each member and alternate of every U.S. Women’s Olympic team. He speaks fondly of all those he and his wife have helped and there is space for the many more to come.
“As long as I will be around, this facility will work very well, efficiently for the kids,” says Mr. Karolyi. “We will give them a good home.”
Our time had come to an end but before I packed up from an unprecedented day, the Karolyis agreed to a quick portrait in the gym. Bela put his arm around Martha and the stoic veneer of the morning melted from her face. It was clear to me that they truly love the work they do and their life together.