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

LIFE ON THE RANCH

Each day begins at 7 a.m. with breakfast, and while training doesn’t start until 8:30 a.m., most of the girls know to be in the gym about 15 to 20 minutes early, to stretch and show Martha, who is adamant about punctuality, that they are committed to their training. Promptly at 8:30 a.m., the girls line up in order of height, ready to be addressed by Karolyi, who outlines the goals of the day. “From the first lineup and through the warm-up, I already know who is in what kind of shape,” she says. “As they stand in line, I can tell by their body posture, the expression on their face, who has confidence and who has fallen behind. I can read body language very easily, and I like to do that.”

Even more satisfying for her is watching those initial assessments prove right as the training unfolds. It’s that instinct that she relies on to make the difficult decision of which five girls earn the coveted right to compete in London. For Martha, the camps are an ideal way to track the girls’ progress and gauge their commitment to improving and, as she constantly reminds them, being perfect. “Every single training camp is a source of more knowledge about each gymnast,” says Martha, who many coaches say is tough, but more diplomatic than her husband in managing the various personalities and conflicts that inevitably arise when dozens of athletes vie for only a handful of spots on Olympic teams. “How she handles adverse situations, how she functions under even minimal pressure, how she is able to discipline herself and how she deals with her own frustration when certain things are not working right.”

Karolyi makes those observations as she patrols the gym floor during the four-hour training sessions, held twice a day, often with her head cocked and chin high, mentally checking off which girls have improved, which girls are struggling and which ones are trying. “Everyone is watching you; they watch every move you make,” says Patterson. “You don’t want to fall, you don’t want to wobble. You just want every move to be perfect.”

That kind of pressure, says one of the Karolyis’ former students, Dominique Moceanu, can have a dark side as well. As a member of the Magnificent Seven, the only U.S. women’s squad to win the Olympic team gold, Moceanu trained directly under the Karolyis for four years, living at the ranch before the 1996 Olympics. The drive to win at all costs, she says, led to mental abuse, including calling her names over her weight, that crushed her as a young teenager. Forcing her to train even with an untreated fracture, she says Martha grabbed her by the neck when she collapsed in pain on the mat and pulled her toward the phone, telling her to call her parents. “I am sad that she was pretty successful but she thinks back to the hardship instead of thinking back to the fantastic moments of standing on top of the podium,” says Martha of Moceanu’s claims.

Is the system too harsh on young gymnasts? Moceanu believes it is, with the primary problem being that anyone hoping to become an Olympian has no choice but to accept it. “The governing body [USA Gymnastics] has given her pretty much unchecked power,” she says of Martha’s position. “After [the Karolyis] are gone, these athletes have to go into real life and have to live with the scars that are left.” While other students, including Retton and Moceanu’s Olympic teammate Kerri Strug, don’t report the same abusive treatment, every gymnast who has passed through the Karolyi camp agrees that the sessions are grueling, on both mind and body. “The selection process in 2008 was the longest process of my life,” says Johnson. “I felt like I was being run into the ground.” But the monthly camps have done what they set out to do — create a team of athletes, rather than a group of five gymnasts. Without exception, the gymnasts who have endured the camps cite the friendships they formed with their teammates as the lasting legacy of their experience. “Camp is definitely where we bonded,” says Maroney of teammates Wieber and Alexandra Raisman, with whom she has shared a room at the past five training camps. “That’s where we became close and best friends.” The trio, along with fellow teammates Gabrielle Douglas, who calls the camps “awesome,” and Kyla Ross, who shared a room, are now fast Twitter friends and keep in touch even when they are back at their home gyms. Johnson connected with her teammate Nastia Liukin during the multiple training camps she attended leading up to the 2008 Beijing Games, and the pair roomed together in the Olympic Village despite being rivals for the all-around title. Creating a team out of five individuals was what Karolyi and her husband set out to do, and the friendships that the camps have fostered are testament to the fact that she succeeded. And that may be the most important contribution Karolyi makes to USA Gymnastics, regardless of how the 2012 squad finishes in London.

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Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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