Bela and Martha Karolyi's ranch now has the U.S. Olympic Committee's seal of approval.
The ranch, site of monthly training camps for the U.S. women's gymnastics team since 2000, was designated an Olympic Training Site on Wednesday. It will continue to be the official training site for the women, and also will house USA Gymnastics' rhythmic, trampoline and tumbling, and acrobatic programs.
"Having this facility allows us to do more to start drilling down deeper into the athlete pipeline," USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. "It also gives our other disciplines a place to call home, which they haven't had. When we met with the coaches and the people with trampoline and rhythmic and acro, every time they'd try to have a camp, they were intruding on someone else's space. Now they have their own space."
The ranch is the 11th Olympic or Paralympic training site. The Karolyis and USA Gymnastics have a long-term lease agreement for the ranch, which is located in the middle of Sam Houston National Forest, a huge sprawl of parkland and private property about an hour north of Houston, and Bela Karolyi will continue as director of the facilities.
USA Gymnastics also announced a sponsorship agreement with Hilton Worldwide, which will upgrade amenities at the Karolyi ranch and provide funding for members of the U.S. men's team. Athens Olympic champion Paul Hamm and Jonathan Horton, a silver medalist at the Beijing Games, are among the athletes who will benefit from the new deal.
The agreement with Hilton is for two years initially, but Penny said it's set up to extend beyond the London Olympics in 2012.
"When I grew up, the Olympics was a huge thing," said Jeff Diskin, Hilton's senior vice president of global customer marketing. "I had a vision in my mind of what it was like for U.S. athletes and their training. I must admit, the reality of what I learned as an executive and an adult, seeing the state of training conditions athletes often find themselves in, I'm personally glad ... to help that."
The Karolyis have long believed the Americans need a national strategy to compete with centralized training programs in Romania, Russia and China. A full-time training center as Russia has in Round Lake or Romania has in Deva won't work in the United States, but neither did having gymnasts train with their personal coaches and then throwing them together a few weeks before big competitions.
The ranch is a compromise. Originally bought by Bela Karolyi in 1983 as hunting property, he has expanded and developed the ranch into a 2,000-acre spread with two gyms for the women's program; a multipurpose training gym for rhythmic, acro and trampoline and tumbling; a dance studio; dorms; a dining hall; medical facilities; and Olympic-sized pool.
The U.S. women live at home and train with their personal coaches, but they come to the ranch each month to be monitored and evaluated by Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator since 2001. The camps also give the individual coaches an opportunity to share ideas and get feedback.
Lower-level gymnasts also get invited to the ranch, ensuring there is a never-ending pipeline of talent.
"Martha will tell you, we're still at a disadvantage because we don't have everybody together all the time," Penny said. "Obviously we understand why that doesn't make sense and why that doesn't work for an American system. So we're putting together the best model we can to emulate that environment."
The results speak for themselves. Since 2001, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin have won the Olympic all-around title and the Americans have won 16 gold medals at the world championships. The U.S. women also were silver medalists at both the Athens and Beijing Olympics.
"Both Martha and I want to create a meaningful legacy for USA Gymnastics, and this relationship allows us to accomplish that," Bela Karolyi said.