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

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Carolyn Drake for TIME

Martha Karolyi in the old gym

BUILDING A TEAM

But as happy as they were with their growing success in the U.S., it was obvious to the Karolyis that as a team, U.S. gymnasts weren’t faring as well at international events as individual gymnasts were, primarily due to the decentralized system of independent clubs. “There was no central leadership,” says Martha. “Everybody was interested in bringing the best results for me, for my gymnast. Sometimes the teams would get together at the very last minute, meeting at the airport, just before competitions. In a way, there was unhealthy competition among them, instead of a united effort to make sure we bring the best results for the U.S.”

Since the system had earned the U.S. its first team gold in 1996, however, the Karolyis were having a hard time convincing the leadership at USA Gymnastics that it wasn’t sustainable. “Lots of times, we expressed our concerns to each other: how sad that maybe there is some talented gymnast in some club where there is not enough knowledge to make that gymnast the best she could be, because there is no national system,” says Martha of discussions she had with her husband over the dinner table.

Their concern proved prophetic. By 1999, the U.S. women had dropped from being Olympic champions to finishing last in the team competition at the world championships in Tianjin, China. Before leaving China, Bob Colarossi, then president of USA Gymnastics, called Bela for help. A former gymnastics coach himself, Colarossi was familiar with the Karolyis’ method and their ability to produce results. “In my mind, they were the best people to talk to at that time,” he says. “They were my starting point.”

Colarossi flew down to Houston, and he and the Karolyis came up with a unique hybrid system that folded the best of the centralized system the Karolyis had perfected in Romania into the more autonomous, individual club structure that was the hallmark of U.S. gymnastics. Colarossi had one condition — that the gymnasts stay at home to train. So the proposal to host periodic camps — mandatory for elite-level gymnasts — where both the athletes and their coaches could take advantage of a national team of experts and specialists in everything from fitness to strength and skills training, was born. “All other countries have a training center,” says Martha. “We always said, How does the richest country in the world doesn’t [sic] have a training center? But we were very much aware that it was absolutely improper to transplant the Romanian system to the U.S.” Colarossi needed someone to oversee the program, to guide it and serve as a hub for the various coaches. He was convinced that only Bela, already an effective, vocal and, most importantly, visible cheerleader for the sport, could adequately fulfill the debut role of national team coordinator. And perhaps, just as appealing, he had the facilities to make it happen.

Beginning in 1983, the Karolyis had bought land that was sold off by ranchers whose property adjoined the Sam Houston National Forest, a wildlife preserve, and were afraid that preservation regulations would start encroaching on their business. Working the bulldozer himself, and with just one or two contractors, Bela, an avid hunter and self-taught craftsman, began clearing land and building a cabin and a gym in the middle of his wooded spread. What began as a 16-hectare plot now extends to 1,200 hectares, most of it untouched, with three gyms, 66 motel-like dorm rooms that can house up 300 athletes (including summer campers), a cafeteria, an elegant lodge and a rustic residence adorned with moose and deer heads and other trophies from his hunting expeditions around the world. The Karolyis also share the ranch with 300 heads of cattle, two camels, peacocks, a handful of horses and a kennel of hunting dogs.

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Colarossi’s other condition was that the Karolyis agree not to coach individual gymnasts, to avoid conflicts of interest now that they held the reins of the national program. Funds that the federation used to support individual coaches and gymnasts were shunted to the Karolyis, to maintain the facilities and pay for a coaching staff of specialists to bolster the training at the monthly camps. And to reinforce the new priority on building up a national team, rather than a group of individual athletes, USA Gymnastics linked athlete and coach funding to international performance, rather than national-team placement.

It was too much for many coaches, who did not appreciate having their autonomy usurped. “People don’t like being told what to do,” says Colarossi. As a requirement to be part of the national team, USA Gymnastics required coaches and athletes to come to periodic training camps, held at the Karolyi ranch, and agree to cede decisions about team selection for national and international competitions to a selection committee that included the newly created national team coordinator — at the time, Bela. Under the new system, gymnasts would earn the right to represent the U.S. at world and Olympic competitions by their performance at meets as well at the regular training camps.

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