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Leaps Ahead

A Fitting Tribute To a Champion of U.S. Gymnastics

RIO DE JANEIRO--The celebration, as expected, started even before the Olympic gymnastics team final was over, even before the final beat of music accompanying the United States’ final event, the floor exercise, blasted through the loudspeakers.
The American women began to clap and hug and gathered together to stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, as Simone Biles, their star, finished her floor routine.
Why not celebrate early? The Americans were expected to win by a landslide on Tuesday, and then did it. It wasn’t even close.
Once Biles finished her routine--sealing an 8-point victory, a grand canyon of a gap in a sport that calculates margins by thousandths of a point--her teammates ran to her and joined each other in a sparkly group hug. The only problem with their huddle was that one important person was missing: Martha Karolyi, the longtime women’s national team coordinator.
Come to think of it, important isn’t the right word to describe what Karolyi has meant to this United States team, and the entire women’s program, since she took over in 2001.
Invaluable is more like it.
Karolyi, 73, is retiring after these Games. So this was her final gold medal. Her final Olympics after about 40 years in the sport. As her team celebrated, she gripped the railing in front of her seat in the grandstands, wiped beneath her eyes, and smiled.
Quiet, serious Martha Karolyi. That’s how the public knows her. Quiet and serious, compared to her husband, Bela, who as a coach was as boisterous as they come.
Her career started in Romania, where she and Bela became a coaching power couple, eventually training the Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci before coming to the United States.
Since then, the Karolyis have had a transformative effect on the United States team, which recently has flourished under Martha’s guidance. The United States women’s team now has won the last five major international competitions. Since Martha Karolyi took charge in 2001, replacing her husband, the program has revamped the way the United States team trains.
She and Bela were instrumental in starting a semicentralized system, in which gymnasts train with their personal coaches but visit the Karolyi’s 2,000-acre ranch in Texas each month to be evaluated at a weeklong camp.
“It’s the system that’s made the U.S. team so good for so long, and that’s what Martha built,” said Aly Raisman, the United States captain, who won her second team gold on Tuesday. “When we go to camp, we bond, our coaches bond, and we all get better together. It’s why we want to win the medal for Martha.”
At camp, the gymnasts hang out, as teens do, or, at times, commiserate. The coaches can share training tips and, at times, play canasta. (Martha Karolyi is a lover of the game.) Over the years, everyone in the system has grown so close that the team success--not just individual success--became important to everyone, as everyone was invested in it.
And that’s why the team adores Martha Karolyi. And that’s why they will miss her.
Karolyi hasn’t wanted to talk about her departure. But the women could see that Karolyi was more emotional than usual this time around.
She wept when she announced the Olympic team, the final time she would do so. And when the team on Sunday finished first in qualifying by nearly 10 points, she jumped for joy.
“She said, ‘I love you guys even more now,’” Raisman said. “I’ve never seen her jump up and down before.”
For these finals, though, Karolyi, in her cherry-red sweatsuit, sat in the front row of a section closest to the balance beam. She had to buy a ticket to the finals, just like everyone else, because she is the national team coordinator, not an Olympic coach.
From that perch, she watched her team dominate. She watched Biles do what she does, showing off her talent that sometimes appears supernatural. She watched Raisman--again--display her strength and consistency under pressure. Gabby Douglas, the 2012 Olympic champion in the all-around, delivered on the uneven bars. The spunky 16-yar-old Lurie Hernandez helped on balance beam and on the floor. And the 2015 uneven bars national champion, Madison Kocian did what she does best: she flew high on bars and stuck her landing.
It’s a gymnastics dream team. Yet these phenomenal women needed someone to bring them together to work as one, and that’s a feat Karolyi does better than anyone.
She was the eyes, the deep brown eyes, that searched for ways to tweak these great gymnasts and make them even greater. The gymnasts say they can feel those eyes on them, no matter where they are in the gym.
“You always know when she’s watching you, basically because she’s always watching you,” Douglas said. “After all these years, she knows exactly what to say to make you better. She’s so exact. But even if you make a mistake, she’s like, ‘It’s O.K., just move on.’ And for someone like her to say that, it means a ton for your confidence.”
Now Karolyi will join her husband, who retired more than a decade ago, and watch the United States team from afar. She’s won’t be retiring to the ranch in Texas to feed the chickens, the peacocks, the camels and the other animals in Bela’s menagerie.
“That’s not her type of place,” Bela Karolyi said. “She wants to go to Romania, to spend time with her family.”
Martha Karolyi plans to spend four or five months a year in Romania in retirement, catching up for lost time there. The camps at the ranch will live on; U.S.A. Gymnastics plans to continue to use it as a training center, though Bela and Martha will no longer be in charge of managing it.
Before the Olympics, Martha Karolyi didn’t want to talk about any of that. She didn’t want to reminisce or think about how her life would change.
“Maybe when it’s over, all of this will sink in,” she said. “All I know is that my husband and I are leaving behind something that will make generations and generations of gymnasts better. So I’m ready to go now. I’m happy that I did the job I was given so many years ago and have enjoyed it, and was successful at it.”
ASimone Biles on the vault Tuesday in the United States’ overwhelming victory in the women’s team gymnastics final. Right,
from left, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian, Lauren Hernandez, Gabby Douglas and Biles savoring their gold medals, the latest in a strong of American successes under Martha Karolyi, the longtime national team coordinator.
Martha Karolyi, who revamped the way the U.S. team trains, is retiring after the Olympics.
The gold medal American women’s team included, clockwise from left, Gabby Douglas, during the uneven bars rotation; Laurie Hernandez, on the balance beam; Simone Biles, during the floor exercise; and Madison Kocian. Aly Raisman (No. 395 in the group shot) was the fifth member.

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