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


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.”

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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.

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“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.

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