Inside Camp Karolyi: Building the U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team

This is where every girl who wants to be an elite American gymnast must come, at some point in her career, to pay tithings in the form of blood, sweat and often tears, to coach Martha Karolyi

  • Share
  • Read Later
Carolyn Drake for TIME

Martha Karolyi in the old gym

ESCAPE FROM ROMANIA

Trim and perennially tan, Karolyi, 69, was not originally a fan of moving from Houston to the more rural woods of New Waverly, (“I still hear the word boonies three times a day,” says her husband, whose idea it was to add ranching to his gymnastics-coaching duties). She now uses the expansive ranch as an outdoor gym, walking about 8 km without fail every day, in a circuit that loops around a lake dug by her husband and past hectares of pasture for the cattle that roam the property. She rarely appears in anything but a matching warm-up suit, usually in the U.S. red, white and blue, which always seems incongruously casual compared with the rest of her carefully crafted appearance — coiffed blond hair, full makeup, perfectly manicured nails and bold jewelry. But the look is entirely intentional and is meant, as everything Karolyi says and does, to send a message to the girls — one that they hear loud and clear. Although there is no stated rule, most of the girls slick back their hair into neat ponytails and arrive at the gym in makeup, just as they would for a competition. That’s a sign, says McKayla Maroney, one of the London Olympians, that “you’re ready and alert.”

(MORE: Athletes in Love: 9 Olympic Romances — Including Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner)

Keeping the girls mentally on edge is part of the Karolyi method. The controversial training and selection process that she and Bela crafted allows gymnasts to train with individual coaches but requires them to participate in monthly training sessions at the Karolyi ranch, in which she and a team of specialists evaluate the athletes’ progress and provide tips for helping them improve or upgrade their skills. If coaches feel ill-equipped to guide a gymnast through specific skills, Karolyi will dispatch specialists to the gymnast’s home gym for personalized clinics. With Karolyi, it’s all about discipline and being prepared. Even the extended trials process in previous years is meant to remind the girls that making the team is only the first step. “There was a time when everybody just wanted to make the team, and then enjoy the journey,” says Karolyi. “That’s absolutely not the right way to go; we will not end up with a good result if we take that attitude.”

The hard-line approach is a departure for U.S. gymnasts, who are far more likely to pick up the sport as a fun activity — in Mommy and Me classes, or as part of PE in school — as they are to choose it as a career, culminating in an Olympic medal. But for Karolyi, part of the large Hungarian population living in Romania’s central Transylvania, the stakes were very different. She and Bela began as gymnastics coaches in the 1960s where, under the communist Romanian regime, sports were, and still are, a matter of national pride, and training required practically a lifetime commitment. The Karolyis scoured schoolyards and playgrounds for youngsters who showed an affinity for tumbling or swinging from the monkey bars. Parents thought nothing of the Karolyis simply pointing to the chosen children who would come to live with them at the gym and train nonstop, for the chance of becoming an Olympic champion.

The key ingredient in their formula was youth — the Karolyis realized that only by molding a gymnast from her first days on the mats could they groom a gold medalist. “We started with a group of about 12 6-year-old girls,” says Karolyi of their experiment. “And we trained them to become Olympic champions. We knew that once we identify talent and expose talented girls to a systematic training with the right techniques, the right discipline and all the right ingredients, they can become a champion.”

Comaneci, one of the first youngsters to call the Karolyis coach, remains the ultimate validation of that strategy. Her success, however, caused conflicts between the Karolyis and the Romanian government, which wanted to use Comaneci and the coaching couple in promoting “the power of the communist system, to make big slogans of the girls and make everything unrealistically distortioned,” says Bela, more outgoing and prone to grandiose statements than his wife. The government threatened to cut funding to the gym if they did not comply. Chafing under the constant pressure, in April 1981, the Karolyis defected in New York during a gymnastics tour in the U.S. and asked for asylum. Unable to speak any English, the couple, who had left their 8-year-old daughter behind in Romania with an aunt to quell any suspicion of their defection plans, immediately second-guessed their decision as they tried to shape their future from a Los Angeles hotel room. Equipped only to teach gymnastics, they were not welcomed into the U.S. gymnastics community as quickly or as warmly as they had hoped. So they bought tapes and watched Sesame Street to learn the language of their new home and after five months, were finally reunited with their daughter.

(MORE: Olympic Uniforms — the Best, the Worst and the Just Plain Weird)

“The American reality was painful,” says Bela of those first few years. “Discouraging also. People flatly told us to our face, you guys come from a government system. The government here is not paying for creating national teams — your [system] is dead, gone; your system will not work here. To be honest, my inside was really damaged. My belief in my sport, my profession was on shaky land. What am I going to do?”

A lifeline came from the gymnastics coach at the University of Oklahoma, who offered the couple a series of summer clinics and eventually a job at both the university and his private club. But working with older athletes, already set in their ways, was not part of the Karolyis’ gymnastics vision. For another Nadia, they knew, they would have to start young. And they would have to train the budding talents on their own terms.

Almost a year after they arrived in the U.S., Bela and Martha conducted a coaching clinic in a gym in Houston. It was a small gym, with just a few kids. But the youngsters were eager to learn and jumping at the chance to try gymnastics. Looking into their eyes and feeding off their energy, the Karolyis found their purpose again. “I said, Martha, look here, they have the same big, wide open eyes,” Bela says with his hallmark enthusiasm, “and when I put the question to them ‘Little guys, if you want to be the best in the world, do you want to come with me?’ They said, ‘Yeah!’”

Among the “little guys” was a spirited girl named Mary Lou Retton, whose bubbly personality and dedicated work ethic made her the perfect student for the Karolyis, who moved to Houston. Within two years, under Bela and Martha’s coaching, Retton, an alternate to the 1984 team, became the first U.S. Olympic champion in the all-around competition.

(LIST: Top 10 Summer Olympics Films)

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
11 comments
1766489
1766489

This is journalism??? Seriously??? How long can the media be played like fools by the Karolyis? Decades!!! This duo of abusive coaches have rewritten and mauled Romanian and American gymnastics history for decades because wimpy "journalists" don't have the brains or guts to do their homework. No one wants to mention that Romania already had an excellent system of gymnastics since the 1950s! Those athletes set the stage for Nadia. American success had been limited by biased judging. We don't understand how bad it was decades ago. That, not bad coaching kept American and western teams off the podium--1972 Olympics, 1974 worlds, 1988 Olympics, etc. Gymnasts have commented about the Karolyi's abusive tactics from every decade, i.e. 1979 world champions Emilia Eberle (Kollar), Melita Ruhn, Rodica Dunca; 1980s: Dianne Durham (belittled out of the gym) Chelle Stack, Phoebe Mills ("everyone gets called an idiot"), Tricia Forsten (the one obviously suffering from an eating disorder in Bela's 1988 training film), Sandy Woolsey, Brandy Johnson (whom Karolyi insulted nationally); in the 1990s: Erica Stokes, Betty Okino (recanted later, doesn't change much), Larrisa Fontaine, Dominique Moceanu, Alyssa Beckerman. Need I say more? Why haven't we learned our own gymnastics history so maybe our journalists stop looking like childish and ignorant fools.

Vanessa Steck
Vanessa Steck

....and of course, one of the main reasons gymnasts are so often injured is the system Marta built.

Sarah Dvojack
Sarah Dvojack

Hungarian? The Karolyis are famously Romanian...

BobStiff
BobStiff

I am pleased that my 11 year old daughter got the chance to attend Bela's camp this summer.  She loved the experience and the attention she received from Bela.  My seven year old daughter is planning to attend next year so both my aspiring gymnasts will return to New Waverly.  What a great experience!  I enjoyed the article but the comment about Mary Lou had to be inaccurate.

Shelley Nash
Shelley Nash

There are several errors in this article that could, and should, be corrected by a copywriter. Addtionally, this statement is completely false:  "Within two years, under Bela and Martha’s coaching, Retton, an alternate to the 1984 team, became the US’s first Olympic champion in the all-around competition."

Retton was not an alternate to the 1984 team! If she had been an alternate, she would not have competed at the Olympics. Retton was an alternate at the 1983 American Cup. Please do your research!

BobStiff
BobStiff

I'm glad the spelling has been corrected.  However more important to me is the fact that my 11 year old daughter attended the camp in New Waverly this summer and LOVED  it!  She loved the attention paid to her by Bela and can't wait to return to the camp next year!  My seven year old daughter is also planning to attend next year.  What a great experience for an aspiring young gymnast!

Liliana Michelena Rebatta
Liliana Michelena Rebatta

Please spell Nadia's name right! It's Comaneci! This is Time talking about the Olympics and one of the greatest athletes of all times, you can't make a mistake like that and not amend it after DAYS!

Sebastian Dominicanu
Sebastian Dominicanu

1976 Olympic champion Romanian girl's name is "Comăneci" not "Comeneci", ignorants