HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - Nothing escapes the all-knowing, all-seeing gaze of Martha Karolyi, from the way a gymnast walks, holds her hands or performs when gold medals are on the line.
In her 16 years as the U.S. women’s national team coordinator, Karolyi has produced the most powerful team in the world, favorites to sweep the team title and a handful of individual medals at the 2016 Olympics.
The look of fierce concentration is most familiar to fans of the sport. Away from the floor, though, it gives way to a friendly smile and talk about cooking, family and travel as Karolyi walks through the family’s rustic home in the Sam Houston National Forest.
But when she walks the hundred yards or so to the USA Gymnastics women’s training center complex, everyday clothes are replaced by a red, white and blue warmup suit, enforcing for herself the same rule that applies to anyone who walks onto the gym floor.
“If you go to work at a bank, you are dressed in a suit and tie because that is proper for a bank,” she told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/29hIMbg). “If you go to a grocery store, they are wearing their uniforms.
“I am a little bit picky. There are certain things I very much require.”
As generations of gymnasts would attest, that is the understatement of a lifetime.
In her final campaign as national women’s team coordinator for USA Gymnastics, which will select its 2016 Olympic team this weekend, Martha Karolyi is 73 years old with the energy of a woman in her 40s, utterly sure of herself and undeniably in charge and unafraid to speak her mind.
“I am not in a popularity contest here,” she said. “That is not my job. My job is to make U.S. gymnastics better. So I will always make decisions that I believe how I can select the best team for the best interests of the country.
“Certainly you’re not pleased when you see negative comments, but a lot of times I realize that people who don’t even understand the process try to comment. So why should I be bothered by that?”
She is both grandmother and stern executive, but she also has been a visionary in partnership with her husband of 54 years, Bela. As they prepare for retirement, the 70-acre training camp complex they helped build in the East Texas forest will remain as the federation’s national training center, and the country’s best gymnasts will return month after month to hone their skills.
“I’m very happy with everything,” she said. “Step by step, we have installed a system and improved it. We have enough flexibility to make sure that if something doesn’t work, you change it.”
The goal, however, remains constant, she said.
“I tell the girls all the time we are striving for perfection,” Karolyi said. “I don’t think there is such a thing as perfection, but we will get as close to it as we can.
“I’m that way with myself also. I try to do everything perfect. Certainly I am a human being, but I strive to do my best. I totally don’t have any regrets. I have enjoyed every moment of the hard work and the good times. Even when there was disappointment, I analyzed it and turned the page.”
Hard work, triumph, disappointment and the ability to adapt to changing times is very much a part of the Karolyis’ journey from Old World sports innovators to the embodiment of the American Dream.
Born in Odorheiu Secuiesc, a town of about 40,000 in the Transylvanian sector of Romania, Martha (pronounced “Mar-ta” but now spelled in Anglicized fashion) Karolyi was the daughter of a bank vice president and a schoolteacher.
She met Bela Karolyi at Romania’s national sports college, and after graduation they were married in 1963 and began coaching in the coal mining town of Onesti, where a few years later their students included 6-year-old Nadia Comaneci.
Comaneci’s success at the 1976 Olympics, where she won three gold medals with a series of perfect 10.0 routine scores, established the Karolyis as household names in world gymnastics. But the couple fell out of favor when Bela Karolyi was critical of judging at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and they defected in 1981 and moved to Houston, where they later were joined by their daughter, Andrea.
Among their students in Houston was Mary Lou Retton, the diminutive powerhouse from West Virginia who in 1984 became the first U.S. woman to win the Olympic all-around gold medal.
“Martha has always been 75 percent of the equation,” Retton said. “Poor little Bela would have been a lost puppy without Martha. She was always the organizer and the brains while Bela was the motivator.
“It was never just Bela Karolyi. It was always Bela and Martha.”
Other Olympians followed (Phoebe Mills and Chelle Stack in 1988; Betty Okino, Kerri Strug and Kim Zmeskal in 1992 and Strug and Dominique Moceanu in 1996). After the 1996 Atlanta Games, the couple closed their Houston gym and moved to the 2,000-acre ranch that Bela had assembled over the years to run a series of summer camps that continue to this day.
USA Gymnastics, however, floundered in the post-Karolyi era. When the 1999 team finished sixth at the world championships, Bela Karolyi was installed as national team coordinator, and the federation began a series of monthly training camps in which the nation’s top female gymnasts traveled to the ranch for training and instruction.
“When I joined in 1999, my first question was, ‘Where are the Karolyis?’?” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics since 2005. “Getting them involved was critical because Bela truly was the one person that people recognized in the sport.
“Athletes come and go, but the Karolyis were a constant presence, and we had to find a way to have them become an integral part of our fabric.”
Many coaches, however, bridled at Bela Karolyi’s vision of a semi-centralized training program, and the U.S. women finished fourth in 2000 amid an ocean of grumbling (the team eventually received bronze medals when the Chinese team was found to have used underage athletes).
“People didn’t like to be directed,” Martha Karolyi said. “It was something new. Bela did the best he could to find a team and to make it a team effort rather than ‘this club is better than that club’ or ‘my gymnast is better than the other gymnast.’ He wanted to make the U.S. better, not to deal with small-scale things.”
It was with some trepidation, given the criticism directed toward Bela, that she agreed to become his successor as national team coordinator in 2001. But already, she said, the U.S. women’s program had begun the long, slow trip back from its brief state of mediocrity in the late 1990s.
“We needed time,” she said. “When I took over, we had only six or so girls in our country who could make up a world team, and they were not extremely strong. We had no numbers.
“What we needed to do was raise the younger gymnasts in a spirit of international expectations, and that way we could succeed.”
Karolyi first spotted light at the end of the tunnel in the fall of 2000, when she was called out of retirement to help coach a junior-level U.S. team competing in her native Romania. That group included future world and Olympic medalists Chellsie Memmel, Ashley Postell, Terin Humphrey and others, and it was that generation that prompted the U.S. return to prominence in the early 2000s.
The 2001 team won a bronze medal at worlds, and Courtney Kupets and Ashley Postell won gold event medals in 2002. The 2003 team won the world championship, and ever since then the U.S. women have been dominant, winning silver at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and gold in 2012 and producing each of the last three Olympic all-around gold medalists (Carly Patterson in 2004, Nastia Liukin in 2008 and Gabrielle Douglas in 2012).
Simone Biles, 19, of Spring, is favored to make it four in a row at the Rio de Janeiro Games, and her coach, Aimee Boorman, said Karolyi’s ability to be both demanding and flexible has helped Biles excel.
“If you can meet Martha’s expectations doing it your way, she is fine with that,” Boorman said. “She saw that Simone and I were willing to change things to meet her needs, and she saw that I knew what Simone needed on an emotional level.”
Penny said Martha Karolyi offered a different approach that fit this generation of athletes and coaches.
“There are certain athletes that are going to connect to Bela’s way, but Martha is able to adjust to the nuances of different athletes,” Penny said. “She allowed the coaches to feel they were now a part of the process.”
Since 2000, the U.S. women have won 88 world or Olympic medals, almost surpassing the combined totals for Russia (53) and China (44), and they are expected to dominate in Rio. Accordingly, Karolyi is confident she leaves the program in good shape as she prepares to retire.
“It’s now a tradition,” she said. “Generations of gymnasts and coaches have grown into the system. The younger generation learns from the older. Whoever is the next coordinator shouldn’t have to change much. If things are working, there’s no reason to fix them.”
Still, even at age 73, she said, “My hobby is my profession. Let’s see what we can find in the gym today.”
In retirement, she said she will spend several months each year in Romania, visiting friends who go back to her elementary school days, and spend time with her daughter and grandchildren.
“I will not do anything earthshaking, but I am ready to (retire),” she said. “I totally enjoy gymnastics, but it’s always good if you finish on a good note and don’t wait. I feel it’s time, just by the number of years I have spent in the sport, even though I feel like I’m 40.
“We won’t move to the city. Bela loves the ranch. I enjoy my big walks and being on the nature trails.”
Bela, for his part, has relished his wife’s years in the spotlight.
“Very proud of her, very proud of her. She is standing strong,” he said. “People ask, ‘How can she be so efficient? How can she tell when things are wrong?’ It’s 54 years on the floor, watching and listening and training and laughing with the kids. That is why she is so efficient.”
Paul Wise, the Karolyis’ son-in-law, who works with the family at the ranch, said he could tell that times were changing when young gymnasts would see Andrea Wise at the ranch and rather than saying “There goes Bela’s daughter,” they said, “There goes Martha’s daughter.”
And now, for one last time, she will be the calm, all-knowing presence as the next Olympic team is picked this weekend, having helped create a better way of athletics administration that combines old world and new.
“We loved Transylvania, our country,” she said. “But America is the land of opportunity for people who want to work hard, and we did that. I’m very happy how far we were able to go. You have the opportunity; you have the freedom. That means a lot.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com
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