30 for 30 Podcasts, in association with espnW, will debut all seven episodes of its captivating new season on Tuesday, July 14. The audio documentary “Heavy Medals: Inside the Karolyi Gymnastics Empire” takes a deep dive into the lives and influence of Bela and Martha Karolyi — the most successful coaches in the sport’s history, and the most controversial. The series marks the first time a lens has been trained exclusively on the Karolyis since the culture of silence they helped to create cracked wide open.
For nearly four decades, as athletes came and went, there was one constant presence in Olympic gymnastics: the Karolyis. They broke onto the world stage in 1976, when their 14-year-old gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic history. Five years later, the coaches defected from communist Romania to the United States, where they were determined to once again climb to the top of their sport. They delivered the U.S. 46 Olympic medals during their 32-year reign. And in return for their success, they were granted unprecedented power, and became more recognizable characters than many of their gymnasts. But in 2016, when the news of team doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse broke, it exposed the culture of fear and intimidation the Karolyis had created, and left the gymnastics community to grapple with questions of the heavy cost of all that success. The podcast features original in-depth interviews with US Olympic Gold medalists including Simone Biles, Jordyn Wieber, Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu. Also featured are former US Olympic team members Jamie Dantzscher, Tasha Schwikert, Alyssa Beckerman, Phoebe Mills and Kristie Phillips; US National Silver medalist Maggie Nichols; 1986 US National Gymnastics Champion, and author of Chalked Up, Jennifer Sey; Longtime Karolyi choreographer and Romanian defector Geza Pozsar; and Romanian Olympic gymnasts Trudi Kollar and Gaby Geiculescu.
The series is reported by ESPN senior writers Bonnie Ford and Alyssa Roenigk, and produced by 30 for 30 Podcasts’ Andrew Mambo and Meradith Hoddinott. The project is overseen by 30 for 30 Podcasts’ Senior Editorial Producer Julia Lowrie Henderson, who previously produced both of their critically acclaimed serialized seasons, “Bikram” and “The Sterling Affairs.” 30 for 30 Podcasts can be found on the ESPN App, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn, iHeartRadio and wherever podcasts are available. The trailer for “Heavy Medals: Inside the Karolyi Gymnastics Empire” is available here.
Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN.com senior writer and “Heavy Medals” reporter and host said: “After covering dominant U.S. gymnastics teams at the past three Summer Olympics, I now view that success through a different filter. Bonnie and I thought we knew what the questions surrounding the Karolyis were when we started our reporting, but we uncovered new ones around every corner. The opportunity to work with Bonnie and the 30 for 30 Podcasts team to investigate this deep, rich story, has been a career highlight.’’
Additionally, ESPN will be debuting exclusive digital content to accompany the podcast episodes on espnW and espn.com. The stories include an illustration-driven custom experience on the Karolyi Ranch; an oral history of how Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, found her power and her voice; an as-told-to piece from Dominique Moceanu about her journey from being ostracized in the sport for calling out its abusive culture to becoming the go-to for Nassar survivors looking for help; and a story about Dianne Durham, the first-ever African-American national champion, whose talent helped the Karolyis establish themselves in the United States and whose career has been obscured by the passage of time.
Added Bonnie Ford, ESPN.com senior writer and “Heavy Medals” reporter: “There’s been a lot of great journalism exposing what went wrong in the culture of elite gymnastics, but the focus has never been solely on Bela and Martha Karolyi. We wanted to explore the Karolyi era in a way no one had ever done before. There are still powerful emotions around what credit they deserve for success and what responsibility they bear for lasting damage and failure.’’
All seven episodes of “Heavy Medals: Inside the Karolyi Gymnastics Empire” will be available on July 14 for fans to binge-listen. The episode lineup includes:
Episode 1: Made in Romania
In the middle of the Cold War, Romanian gymnastics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi turn Nadia Comaneci, a 14-year-old gymnast from a Communist country, into a global symbol of excellence at the 1976 Olympics when she scores the first perfect 10. But Romania becomes too small and too controlled for Bela’s ambitions, and the Karolyis set their sights on the freedom of the United States.
Episode 2: American Hustle
After defecting from Romania, the Karolyis begin to build their gymnastics empire in the U.S. But they need a champion. Enter Mary Lou Retton, the bubbly teenager whose perfect 10 at the 1984 Olympics will make her and her coach household names. Little girls across America want to be Mary Lou, and train with her famous coach. Bela has given the United States its first gold medal in women’s gymnastics. Now he needs to harness that success to advance his own cause.
Episode 3: The Bela Show
Growing his image as the most well-known coach in gymnastics, Bela builds his brand and aims for more gold medals with a new star athlete. But after his champion fails at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Bela announces he’s stepping away from elite-level gymnastics and retreats to his Ranch in Texas. But even after stepping out of the spotlight, Bela remains in focus, as accusations of abuse grow against the coach.
Episode 4: Home Games
Pulled back onto the world gymnastics stage by the precocious talent of his newest protege, Dominique Moceanu, Bela and Martha are all in on winning gold at the Atlanta Games. But when Dominique falls on vault, everything rides on the shoulders of Bela’s long-overshadowed veteran, Kerri Strug, to bring home the gold.
Episode 5: The Karolyi Way
After the glory of winning gold in Atlanta, the U.S. National Team slips on the world stage, finishing sixth of six teams at the 1999 World Championships. With the next Olympics less than a year away, USA Gymnastics turns to the one person they think can save the team: Bela Karolyi. Bela finally has what he’s always wanted, control over a semi-centralized training system in the United States. But on such a tight schedule, will the, “You can do it!” motivator-in-chief be able to lead a team to victory?
Episode 6: The Rise of Martha
For years, Martha Karolyi avoided the spotlight — appearing only as the mysterious and subservient partner of her boisterous husband. But when she is tapped to take over the national team, Martha finally comes into full view. Martha aims to prove that she can turn the United States into a dominant force in gymnastics, building teams that win gold medal after gold medal. But under Martha’s regime, injured athletes are often discarded and a culture of silence prevails.
Episode 7: The Unraveling
Martha has turned the U.S. women’s gymnastics program into a world powerhouse. But as Martha is taking her final victory lap at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the gymnastics community is rocked by a scandal that will shock the world. The Karolyis’ legacy is called into question as the gymnasts grapple with the cost of what it took to earn all that gold.
About 30 for 30 Podcasts
30 for 30 Podcasts, from ESPN Films and ESPN Audio, are original audio documentaries from the makers of the acclaimed 30 for 30 film series. Telling sports stories like you’ve never heard before, through a combination of original reporting and archival sound, 30 for 30 Podcasts goes beyond the field to explore how sports, competition, athleticism and adventure affect our lives and our world. The series has been recognized by the NYF International Radio Awards, the Webby Awards, and the RTDNA Kaleidoscope Awards; as well as inclusion on numerous “best-of” lists from press outlets such as The Atlantic, Vulture, TIME and Entertainment Weekly. Episodes have been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, Slate Podcasts and more. For more visit 30for30podcasts.com