Rhonda Faehn joined USA Gymnastics as the new senior vice president of the women’s program in May, following 14 years as the women’s gymnastics coach at the University of Florida.
A former elite gymnast, Faehn was an alternate for the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team. As a coach, she led the Gators — and 2008 U.S. Olympian Bridget Sloan — to a third consecutive NCAA championship this past spring.
Faehn took a few minutes to answer some questions about her new role with USA Gymnastics and her vision for the future of the U.S. women’s team. This interview, which took place in June, has been edited for length and clarity.
To start out, can you tell us a little bit about your new role with USA Gymnastics, what exactly you’re doing?
I am overseeing the entire women’s program with a main emphasis on the elite program. (I’ll be) attending every single national team camp and working side by side with Martha (Karolyi, the national team coordinator) and the national team, but also aiding and organizing many of the events and then overseeing the rest of gymnastics in the country. … We have phenomenal staff at USA Gymnastics that really heads up the other amazing aspects (of the women’s program) as well, so I’m able to focus more attention on the elite level.
What made you interested in this opportunity?
It’s a fascinating opportunity, there’s no doubt. With my background and my history … I’ve always had a passion for elite gymnastics. I’ve always considered myself a gymnastics nerd; I just could never get enough of it. My time at Florida has been absolutely incredible. I couldn’t have asked for more. In 13 years at the University of Florida and overall 20 years involved in collegiate gymnastics, I really just felt in my heart the calling to come back to elite gymnastics and work side by side with Martha, and our national team staff is just incredible. I have great relationships with all of those coaches, and quite a few national team members as well. It was a natural transition for me.
Having worked with Martha in the past, can you give a little background as far as what your relationship is like and how that might be helpful your new job?
Martha was my personal coach, both Martha and Bela (her husband). I moved away from home when I was 14 years old. I grew up in Minnesota. So I moved away and lived in kind of a boarding house with an amazing house mom and about eight other girls. Martha and Bela were my coaches for almost four years. So I have spent quite a bit of time with Martha. We had so many great travels internationally together. She came with me for the world championships (in 1987 in the Netherlands, where Faehn was the U.S. team’s highest all-around finisher), for multiple times to the international meets in France. I feel a very close relationship with her. I have a tremendous amount of respect. I think she has a brilliant gymnastics mind and a huge passion for the sport and a love of gymnastics as well, and I’m excited to work with her.
What type of work will you be doing with her? Are you going to be helping build the teams?
I will of course work side by side with her, and I am going to be the person that she can count on to help support (her), and I want to be able to help support all of the national team coaches and the kids from the private clubs: the coaches and the athletes. You've got a support system for them as well. As far as selecting teams, we have a selection committee that selects teams for the Pan American Games and the world championships and the Olympics. That is not part of my role. My duty in that scenario is to really make sure that every process in the selection procedures is followed and that everything has gone about the right way.
Looking at the overall state of the women’s program from the developmental pipeline up to the national team, how would you describe the overall state of the program? Which areas are going strong and which areas are you looking to improve?
Everyone has to understand that (I’m still new to this role), and so for me to make a statement of the entirety of USA Gymnastics right now, I think would be too early of me to speak on that. What I can say is that having been to part of the last developmental camp, I think that is very exciting to see. Valeri Liukin is the developmental program director, and he seems to be doing an absolutely fantastic job. I saw so many young athletes — young athletes just with this passion and this desire to follow that strong, elite path, which is I think incredibly important to have the roots there.
So that’s exciting, and of course heading then into the national team and the national team camps, it’s a very exciting time. Of course, we’re in that time frame of one year prior to the Olympics… It’s an incredible, of course busy, time, but it’s an exciting time I think from the grassroots. I was able to attend the JO (Junior Olympic) national championship as well in Des Moines, and that was just exciting to see so many great, great gymnastics routines there as well.
With your background in coaching and elite gymnastics, what do you hope that you can bring to the table? Are there any specific ideas you’d like to implement in the new role?
I think it’s too early. It’s too early to be able to consider something like that. … I loved coaching at Florida, but what I loved more was the personal relationship that was established off of the competition floor. That’s really something that I’m hoping to establish and to work on with all of the athletes who attend the camps and all of the athletes in the developmental camps, really to establish that bond with the athletes. I think that’s so important that they will feel that there is a support system and someone that is cheering for them and appreciates the work and the challenges that come along with that they’re doing.
The FIG announced in May that the 2020 Olympic team competition will have four-person teams after having five in London and six before that. How do you think the new rules will affect the U.S. program?
To be honest, in that scenario it’s too hard for me to comment on that because we still do not know all of the details about it. We don't know the exact details as far as the selection of four (gymnasts) for the team and two specialists. It’s too early for me to actually comment on how it will affect the United States.
What I do know, and I’ve spoken with Martha about this, and (USA Gymnastics President) Steve Penny as well, and whatever the situation is, we will do our absolute best and make the best out of it in any situation.
In general terms, if there is a four-person team, do you think that works against a country with a deeper talent pool like the United States? Or are there other considerations like that?
Again, until we figure out how everything will shake out, I think it’s too hard to predict. One way of looking at it would be if we were able to have two specialists, then in essence we’ll be having six United States Olympians as opposed to five. There would be four on the team; if we were able to have two specialists as well, that would be six Olympians representing our country, and that’s the way that I would like to see it.
Simone Biles has been pretty much unstoppable since 2013. What advice would you give her, or what do you think she needs to do to keep that up for the Olympic year?
I would say, Simone is no doubt a tremendous talent, there’s no doubt, and a tremendous athlete, but my advice would be to continue to focus on what is currently the plan and not get ahead of yourself. Don't focus — and this is what I had to do when I was training for the Olympics and the advice that Martha and Bela gave us — is you don't speak of the Olympics. That’s too far away. It’s a year away, and your focus is on the preparation for what competition you have currently right now. Your focus is on each day, on the training: What are you trying to upgrade? What are your small goals? That way, it’s a process, and it’s a journey, and it’s not focusing on the end result.
What’s your favorite Bridget Sloan story? (The 2008 Olympian competed for Faehn at Florida)
(Laughs.) Probably far too many. It’s hard because Bridget is such a dynamic personality, and she is kind of always the life of the party. She was always making sure that she was having fun, training in the gym — in and outside the gym whenever we’re traveling. At the same time, what was great is that she was able to recognize when it was time to be serious: ‘OK it’s go time, I’m getting ready to compete.’ Not many athletes can do that. There are quite a few that we that will say, ‘OK, I’ve got to get in my zone, I have to focus this whole time.’ And then there was Bridget, who was the opposite and knew maybe the routine before her she would have to really focus and get in her mindset, but any bit before that I think it would actually work against her.
She was just always dancing, always kind of cutting it up on the sidelines, and what I really liked about that is that she was the balance. She was the balance because, like I said, not everyone is like that. We had some kids that were maybe more uptight or a little bit more nervous, and she would kind of take that and balance out the team.
She always was looking for a moment to keep it light.
Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.