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

The girls aren’t around, but their presence lingers everywhere: their images hang in larger-than-life posters that cover the walls — Olympic and world champions, frozen in fierce, midcompetition poses; their chalky white footprints cover the mats that litter the gym floor, tracing the crazy circuits of routine after routine performed at the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center. The resin that anchors tiny gymnasts precariously to their equipment cakes their calloused hands too and is shed in ghostly prints on the 10-cm balance beam, on the uneven bars that loom 2.4 m off the ground and even on the restroom door. That might be the dusty legacy of where the reigning Olympic all-around champion jumped onto the beam; those could be the footprints of the country’s best gymnast on the uneven bars; that might be where the world vault champion stuck a difficult landing.

It’s a rare quiet day at the gym, a respite in between the busy days when anywhere from 20 to 30 members of the national team are tumbling, vaulting, balancing or swinging through their routines. This is where every girl who wants to be an elite 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. This is where every gymnast with Olympic dreams earns the right to represent the U.S. and wear the coveted team leotard. This is where Karolyi puts the girls to the test, once a month, for four strenuous days. It’s called training camp, and while there are bunk beds, shared cabins and bucolic surroundings deep in the woods of New Waverly, Texas — complete with lakes, boats, tennis courts and a pool — it’s nothing like the carefree summer excursions that most of us know.

“I make it very clear for the girls. They come here for one single reason, that’s to train,” says Karolyi in her sharp, Hungarian-inflected English.

(PHOTOS: See TIME’s Exclusive Images from Inside Camp Karolyi)

The remoteness of the location is actually an advantage, at least in Karolyi’s eyes. A 30-to-40-minute drive from Houston, reached after a nearly 10-minute ride along a dirt road that winds through a forest where deer and wild boars roam, the training center is the focal point of the 1,200-hectare ranch that Karolyi and her husband, gymnastics icon Bela, share. For the girls, making the pilgrimage has but one purpose — to impress Karolyi. While a selection committee that includes Karolyi, a USA Gymnastics representative and an athlete representative determines the Olympic team, everyone — coaches and gymnasts alike — knows that the person with the strongest voice is Karolyi. “She is the big lady,” says Shawn Johnson, the Olympic all-around silver medalist in Beijing. And the way to Karolyi’s heart? Nothing short of perfection. “We strive for perfection. I state that every moment when I have a chance,” Karolyi says. “If that is not your goal, then you are in the wrong place.”

It’s a hard goal to attain, perfection — some may even say by definition, impossible — but the drive to achieve it has made Karolyi, and the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, among the most successful in the world. It’s also drawn criticism for the strict and, according to at least one former student, abusive methods it’s pushed the Karolyis to employ. But for Martha, it’s an absolutely realistic goal — because she saw it happen, in 1976, when she coached a young Romanian girl named Nadia Comaneci. At the Olympic Games in Montreal, Comaneci, only 14, scored not one, but seven perfect scores on her way to winning the all-around competition. Since becoming the U.S. national team coordinator in 2001, Karolyi has collected an impressive case of trophies, leading the American “girls,” as she calls them, to 59 world or Olympic medals, including unprecedented back-to-back all-around championships in 2004 and 2008. That’s the prestige event of the sport, in which a single gymnast is recognized for outperforming her competitors in all four gymnastics events — vault, balance beam, uneven bars and floor exercise. There are no perfect scores in gymnastics anymore, but that doesn’t stop Karolyi from searching for it, seeking it out among the dozens of gymnasts that fly from around the country to log hours of tumbling and twirling at the National Team Training Center.

Karolyi, however, faced an even greater challenge this year. For the first time since becoming national team coordinator in 2001, she and her system were put to a different test. For the past three Olympic Games, U.S. gymnasts and coaches have agreed to an unorthodox selection process that includes not just the Olympic Trials, but an additional “trial,” conducted at the Karolyi ranch, several weeks prior to the Games, during which Karolyi and the selection committee put the girls through a mock meet before making their final decisions about the Olympic squad. “It was almost like anything you did before the camp selection didn’t really matter,” says Carly Patterson, the 2004 all-around Olympic champion. “Once again, you had to prove yourself all over. That was definitely very scary.” But because of the short time between Olympic Trials and the start of the Games in London, Karolyi was forced to name the five-person team at the Olympic Trials. “I always like to wait longer, but I feel [the Trials] created an atmosphere very close to what we will get at the Olympic Games, so maybe it was a good factor to show who handled the stress,” she says.

(MORE: Why Women Watch the Olympics — but Tune Out Other Sports)

Naming the squad this way makes Karolyi nervous heading into London since gymnasts training so hard are prone to injuries and rejiggering such a small team, carefully selected to give the U.S. the greatest chance of winning the team gold, can have devastating effects on the girls’ performance. And despite the fact that under her leadership, the U.S. team now rivals world powers in the sport, including Russia, Romania and China, no U.S. women’s squad has won the team gold since 1996. That’s the medal that Karolyi wants. Going into London, the U.S. women are the world champions. Four of the five girls on that team are heading to the Games, including the reigning all-around world champion Jordyn Wieber. For Karolyi, the ultimate vindication of her vision would be a team gold medal and a three-peat in the all-around event. If that happens, the achievement would be as much a personal victory for Karolyi as it is a professional one — a validation of the decision she made years ago to defect from Romania to the U.S. and build a brand-new gymnastics powerhouse.

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)

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.

(VIDEO: TIME’s Sean Gregory Gets in the Pool with the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Team — No Joke)

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.

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.

PHOTOS: The New Olympic Ring — U.S. Women’s Boxing Hopefuls

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.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,269 other followers