Gold Hard Facts: How Martha Karolyi Quietly Built a Gymnastics Juggernaut
Martha Karolyi has presided over one of the most successful runs in the history of U.S.A. Gymnastics. She will officially retire after the 2016 Olympics.
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
With her trademark tracksuit, glasses, and eagle-eyed stare, Martha Karolyi, the National Team Coordinator for U.S.A. Gymnastics, has a different kind of commanding presence on the floor than her husband, the former coach Bela Karolyi, who became known for his boisterous demeanor. Martha (pronounced Mar-ta) is quieter, more serious. She stalks the floor slowly, often with hands clasped behind her back, occasionally glancing at papers with line-ups, scores, and standings on them. Unlike Bela, she doesn't give out bear hugs. She's known for clasping a hand tightly around the back of an athlete's neck and sharing a few choice words after a routine: "Alright." "Very good." "OK." Such assessments leave her mouth in a thick Eastern European accent, and rarely with any sugar coating.
While Bela Karolyi is commonly associated with some of gymnastics' most iconic moments— Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug—it is Martha who, as the women's national team coordinator for the past 15 years, has presided over one of the most successful runs, for men or women, in the history of U.S.A. Gymnastics. Since 2001, the U.S. women have won 87 world and Olympic medals—35 of them gold. They have not been defeated as a team in world or Olympic competition since 2010, and they own every world and Olympic all-around title except for two dating back to 2004, including the last three Olympic all-around champions. They enter the 2016 Olympics in Rio widely regarded as being as close to a sure thing for gold as can be.
This weekend, at the U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose, marked the beginning of the final chapter in the Martha Karolyi era. Yesterday evening, after five decades of coaching, Martha assembled the final Olympic team of her career. She will officially retire after the 2016 Games.
Martha's career spans over fifty years, beginning in Romania during the 1960s, where she helped Bela build a gymnastics powerhouse. The Karolyis defected to the United States in the early 1980s, and brought their coaching skills with them; within three years of arriving in America, the Karloyis' prized pupil, Mary Lou Retton, won a groundbreaking all-around gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
In American gymnastics, as it had been in Romania, Bela lived in the spotlight, while Martha, the technician of the coaching duo, remained relatively unnoticed. It was Martha, however, who had been Comaneci's coach for the beam, the event the gymnast is arguably most remembered for; it was Martha whom Retton made a special point of thanking in a TV interview after winning gold. And while it was Bela who memorably carried an injured Strug to the podium in Atlanta in 1996, it was Martha who was the head coach of the "Magnificent Seven" that brought home the USA's first-ever Olympic team gold medal in women's gymnastics.
"Because NBC cameras love drama and big personalities, most people don't even know that the first American team to win gold was coached by Martha Karolyi," Jessica O'Beirne, co-creator and host of popular gymnastics podcast, GymCastic, told me. "NBC owns the rights to the Olympics and therefore, quite unfortunately, controls the gymnastics narrative. They continue to rehash the giant loud-mouth coach and the tiny gymnast storyline."
Martha wouldn't emerge from her husband's shadow until the 21st century, when a cratering U.S. program was desperate for leadership. Of course, U.S.A. Gymnastics called upon Bela first.
Both Karolyis had retired after the 1996 Games, and many American gymnastics stars soon followed suit. That combined with the sport's new age restrictions and new scoring code quickly sent the U.S.A. Gymnastics system to near collapse.
After the team's disastrous sixth-place finish at the 1999 world championships, Bela came roaring out of retirement amid much press and fanfare. With less than a year until the Sydney Games, he created a new role for himself, national team coordinator, and implemented an entirely new selection process for the women's Olympic team, a system that, according a TIME article from 2012, he and Martha developed together to resemble the more centralized systems in place in Eastern Europe and China.
At the heart of the Karolyi system are training camps (sometimes called verification camps): invite-only sessions for the national team that take place at the Karolyis' ranch in Texas. They are used to determine international assignments, as well as instill competition, team bonding, and collaborative learning among America's top gymnasts and coaches.
Previously, U.S. gymnasts had been evaluated largely in a vacuum, with only their finishes at the Olympic trials determining who made the team. One off day or even a minor injury for the nation's top gymnast, and she could be left off an Olympic roster altogether. Under the Karolyi system, standings are only one factor in the decision. Today, teams are chosen in a closed-door session after the Olympic trials come to an end. A selection committee constructs a team like a jigsaw puzzle, optimizing their chances of having the strongest athletes possible on all four apparatus—but it's Martha, like Bela just before her, who has the final word.
The transition to get to this point, however, was rough, and the women's team, just four years removed from their historic win in Atlanta, came home from Sydney without a single medal. (The U.S. team, which had finished in fourth place, were eventually awarded the team bronze medal in 2010 when the Chinese team was determined to have used two underage gymnasts at the Games.)
"To come in the year before the Olympics and change everything, it was very hard," 2000 Olympic team member Kristin Maloney recounted in a 2013 GymCastic interview.
On top of the changes, some athletes and coaches also took issue with Bela's coaching and team selection style, and the physical intensity of his training camps. Some of the complaints were not necessarily new. Throughout their coaching careers, the Karolyis have never been far from controversy. Numerous former athletes, including 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu, have accused them of emotional and physical abuse. The 2000 Olympic team also had their fair share of complaints about Bela's coaching.
"We weren't treated the best by him," Maloney said.
"He takes the credit when we do good and he gives everyone else the blame when we do bad," Jamie Dantzscher, another Sydney gymnast, infamously remarked to the press after competition. "To be honest with you, Bela wasn't my motivator. He made my confidence go bad."
The controversy caused Bela to go back into retirement, and U.S.A. Gymnastics handed control of the women's program over to Martha in 2001.
Martha brought a calmer and a technical mastery of the sport, which allowed for a more collaborative approach. Instead of a one-size-fits-all, survival of the fittest approach at the training camps, Martha made subtle changes that were more customized for an individual gymnasts' needs, while still upholding a superior standard for physical abilities.
"By all accounts, Martha is a technical master. She has a doctorate in physical education," O'Beirne says. "She was also able to find the delicate balance between Eastern Bloc training methods and American tolerance for those methods. She created an environment where coaches felt safe collaborating. Instead of being afraid someone would try to steal their gymnasts, she has created a place where the greatest Soviet, Romanian, Bulgarian, Japanese, American and Chinese gymnastics minds come together once a month and help each other improve as coaches."
With two years of growing pains largely absorbed by the 2000 Olympic team, U.S.A. Gymnastics soon began to see results under Martha. A team bronze at the 2001 world championships signaled the dawn of a new era. However, regaining the Olympic team gold medal, would still be a process of trial and error for Martha and national training staff. After the U.S. won its first world team title in 2003, the expectation was that Olympic gold would follow shortly thereafter, but uncharacteristic mistakes, injuries, and world champions left off the roster led to silver in Athens in 2004. Injuries—that some suspect were caused by an extended selection process—plagued the team again in 2008. Again they settled for silver.
By 2012, the trials process had been shortened, and all of the athletes on the Olympic team had spent their entire elite careers under Martha's system. And if the 2000 team were the sacrificial lambs, the 2012 Olympic team was the ultimate payoff: Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas, Alexandra Raisman, McKayla Maroney, and Kyla Ross marched into the arena in London and decimated the field. The crowning moment of the Karolyi system and of Martha's personal career was the long-awaited second Olympic team gold medal, which they won by more than five points. The Americans have not lost a team or all-around title at a major international competition since.
To credit the Karolyis alone for this success would ignore the larger forces at work in the American women's rise to domination. Martha's tenure as national team coordinator began almost exactly ten years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, which sparked an exodus of Eastern Bloc athletes and coaches to the United States, where they began training the young American girls bringing home so many medals the past few years. Among those coaches were Valeri Liukin, whose gym in Texas produced back-to-back Olympic all-around champions in 2004 and 2008, and who is the likely successor as national team coordinator when Martha steps down.
In addition to qualified coaches, there was another change that proved incredibly beneficial to U.S.A. Gymnastics. In 2006, in response to judging controversies at the 2004 Olympics, gymnastics did away with its highly recognizable "perfect 10" in favor of an open-ended scoring system that combines an execution score (out of a 10) with a difficulty score that can be infinite based on a gymnast's level of skill. American gymnasts have traditionally excelled in the power events, Vault and Floor Exercise, and their difficulty level on those apparatus has been their advantage for the past decade. The removal of the 10.0 in favor of a system favoring difficulty over execution allowed Martha to capitalize on the U.S. athletes' strengths and stack her teams with consistent athletes performing the top difficulty in the world.
The crown jewel of the new scoring system is American phenom Simone Biles, widely considered to be the greatest female gymnast of all time. Biles is able to combine exquisite execution with mind-numbing difficulty that puts her so far above the rest of the competition that she has won three straight world all-around titles and four U.S. national titles. Biles is the unquestionable favorite to take the all-around gold in Rio, and lead the U.S. team to their second straight team gold medal.
Karolyi recognized the potential in Biles early. And when Biles struggled in a 2013 competition, falling three times and scratching the fourth event, Karolyi invited her and her coach to privately attend the Karolyi ranch to work through her issues. Dvora Meyers, author of End of the Perfect 10, noted in a recent profile of Simone that Nellie Biles, Simone's mother, considered this private camp invitation to be a "turning point" in Simone's career. Biles has not lost a competition since. Martha has a plan for all her major players, even before the athletes themselves are aware of their own potential.
The U.S. program's rise was a cocktail of improved coaching, a scoring advantage and improved leadership and selection procedures, and Martha was the right person able to assemble all the pieces into a golden era that puts her as one of the most statistically successful leaders in the history of the sport.
The Karolyi system, though, is not without its critics. Not all coaches appreciate the monthly travel to the training camps and the extra mileage it can put on their athletes. In a 2011 interview with ESPNW, John Geddert, Jordyn Wieber's coach, said of the verification camps, "It's Martha Karolyi's deal, so that's what we have to do. Martha knows best, I guess. I just worry about things, the wear and tear, things that we all want to avoid to have Jo at her best for worlds. It's hard to really build a good training schedule around this coming and going stuff." Wieber went on to win worlds that year, and then became an Olympic champion, but the critique remains valid.
The pressure Karoyli puts on her athletes is immense and often unforgiving, as the deepest team in the world competes for one of only five Olympic roster spots. "It's terrifying," McKayla Maroney told O'Beirne this past February. "You feel like every move, you're like, this is me making the team or not." In that interview, Maroney announced she would be stepping back from competition.
"They never say you're on the team," Maroney said. "Until you're there and you've competed the first day." During the candid conversation O'Beirne noted to Marone that she wishes they had live-feed cameras during the camps. "But people don't want that there for a reason," Maroney interjected. A hallmark of Martha's reign and perhaps a part of her lesser-known persona, compared to Bela, is the secrecy in which much of her system is shrouded.
From my time over the years interviewing U.S.A. Gymnastics athletes and coaches during competitions, it's clear that they adore Martha, and deeply respect her—a key component that was missing from Bela's takeover in 1999 and 2000. Martha shares openly and passionately in the success of her athletes. One has only to look at her interviews from the 2012 Olympic trials, where she discusses having to hold back tears when she announces the Olympic teams, because she has been with many of these athletes since they were just babies. Athletes like Laurie Hernandez who have just reached the eligible age (16) to compete in Rio this year know no other program, no other leader, and no other story than nearly unblemished success under Martha Karolyi.
Her bond with this younger generation of athletes, in particular, is tight—and maybe, at times, just a tiny bit manipulated for the sake of gold medals. Even Aly Raisman, who at 22 is a grown woman with three Olympic medals, two of them gold, seemed shaken by the idea of disappointing Martha at the 2015 world championships, during which Raisman had arguably the first bad day of her entire elite career. "I'm just thankful this is not the Olympics," Raisman said in a post-qualifying competition interview. "But this is obviously still extremely important and I hope Martha still wants me for next summer after this."
When the team won the gold medal two days later, however, Raisman was all smiles again; when asked what team USA's secret was, she smiled and said, "The secret is Martha."
It turns out Martha did want Raisman for this summer: she was named to her second Olympic team on Sunday evening, breaking a 16-year drought of returning Olympians for the United States, alongside her "Fierce Five" teammate Gabby Douglas. They will be joined in Rio by Biles, Hernandez, and Madison Kocian.
The Karolyi era in United States Gymnastics is coming to a close, but more notably, the Martha Karolyi era is coming to a close. Next year's storylines won't be centered on the new up-and-coming gymnasts but rather on how a newly appointed national team coordinator will handle the transition in her absence. Karolyi herself doesn't seem too worried. During NBC's recent documentary on the coaching duo, The Ranch, Bela spoke proudly and boldly of their accomplishments, of Martha's incredible record and how the program would survive without them, claiming that no matter who comes next, "We were the very first ones. Whoever comes from now on, they will just be the second or the third." True to form, Martha reflected on her career in her all-business, no sugar-coating fashion: "I think the building will stay up."
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.