Bela Karolyi, Martha’s husband, has long been the face and mouthpiece of U.S. women’s gymnastics. Bela is, of course, most famous for carrying 1996 gold medalist Kerri Strug onto the medal podium after her injury on vault, one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history. But while Bela worked in front of the cameras, charming the public with his accent and mustache, it was Martha’s quiet work behind the scenes that made the team the juggernaut it is today.
Prior to the development of the current national team program, the U.S. gymnasts began to see success with the arrival of Martha and her husband Bela Karolyi from Romania after they defected in 1981.
Young gymnasts inspired by Nadia Comaneci, whom the Karolyis had coached to the first Olympic perfect 10 at the 1976 Games, flocked to the pair. Then in 1984, Mary Lou Retton became the first U.S. gymnast to win the Olympic all-around gold, and a dynasty was born.
But between the 1984 and 2000 Games, medals didn’t come easily. The U.S. women had talent and strong coaching, but the Eastern Bloc countries had foolproof systems in place, churning out medalists at an alarming rate. The Soviet Union (and later Russia) and Romania were the world superpowers, while the U.S. took home only 19 medals in Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta combined (half of which belong to Shannon Miller, a member of the 1992 and 1996 teams.)
An international medal drought following the team gold at the 1996 Games got USA Gymnastics scrambling, and after leaving the 1999 World Championships with no medals, the national program at the Karolyis’ gym — a sprawling 2,000-acre ranch in Huntsville, Texas — was born.
Bela Karolyi took the reins in those early years, modeling a new national team system after those he was familiar with back home. But his grueling training sessions and tension between Bela and the athletes’ personal coaches signified that the Karolyi takeover wasn’t going to be a magic fix. If anything, the situation within USA Gymnastics got worse, and the U.S. women again walked away empty-handed at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Bela blamed the gymnasts for their failure, calling them lazy and unmotivated, but team member and 1996 gold medalist Dominique Dawes later said his role took away the power from the gymnasts’ personal coaches, to whom they went for guidance and inspiration.
In short, the new system didn’t work. USA Gymnastics ousted Bela in 2001 and put Martha in charge, and she made crucial changes in an effort to find a balance between Bela’s one-man show and the "too many cooks" circus of coaches before that.
Her creation of what is now known as the semi-centralized national team system brings everyone to the ranch — now an official Olympic Training Center — once a month. Gymnasts get to train and hang out together, and perhaps more importantly, their personal coaches are given the chance to learn from one another and from Martha to build on their knowledge and skill level, which in turn creates stronger gymnasts.
"It works for this country," Karolyi told the press during a phone conference last month. "The gymnasts can stay home and train at their own gyms, and then come here with their coaches from across the country, working together to unite all efforts to be successful."
Inherently, gymnastics is an individual sport with a couple of team events sprinkled in, which can be difficult to manage. But where U.S. teams used to piece together a collection of solo athletes once or twice year for competitions, Martha Karolyi’s current system has truly made the team the emphasis. That priority shows as Martha constantly encourages the gymnasts to cheer for each other rather than focusing on themselves.
"In America, the biggest sports are football, hockey, baseball, and basketball because they’re big team events," two-time Olympic team captain Aly Raisman said. "We always say that the most important thing is the team first. The priority is the team gold medal, and then we focus on the individual ones."
The effects of the semi-centralized national team system were almost immediate. In 2001, the team won a bronze medal at world championships, and a year later — in the absence of a team competition — the women took home two golds and a bronze, tying Russia to top the medal chart for the women in 2002. The first world team gold medal came in 2003, and they’ve been unstoppable ever since.
In the past 15 years, the U.S. women have medaled in every world and Olympic team final, and six of those medals are gold. They’ve been undefeated since 2011, and currently lead by 10 points going into the team final. Team USA also now holds the distinction of being the only program in Olympic history to qualify first on every event, with Simone Biles leading in the all-around and on vault, beam, and floor while Madison Kocian leads bars going into this week’s finals.
Martha Karolyi is set to retire following the 2016 Olympic Games, but the machine she built can live on without her. Though she built the program and is the face of the women’s team, her legacy will live on in the foundations she set up years ago, one that will continue to function and thrive no matter who is in charge.
At the moment, Valeri Liukin — 1988 Olympic champion and dad-slash-coach of 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin — is the most likely to replace Martha Karolyi. Liukin is the current developmental coach at the ranch, nurturing the future generations, the gymnasts aged 10 to 13 hoping for Olympic team spots in 2020 and 2024.
"The most important thing we accomplished through the training camps was to raise generations," Karolyi said. "Our system is permanently developing gymnasts and the coaches’ education in a positive atmosphere with a united approach to preparation for major competitions."
Whether it’s Liukin or one of his colleagues who takes over for Karolyi, it almost doesn’t matter. The legend may be leaving, but because of what she created, there is zero worry about the future.
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