Longtime USA Gymnastics coordinator Martha Karolyi poses for a photo with the "Final Five," Laurie Hernandez, Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Madison Kocian and Gabby Douglas, after the team gold at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
RIO DE JANEIRO — As Simone Biles and Aly Raisman rounded the corner from the uneven bars to the balance beam during the individual all-around final, Martha Karolyi, in the third row of the stands just above the beam, stood to shout encouragement. Both girls looked up, straining their ears to listen intently.
Even when she’s not on the floor, Karolyi is the voice the women of Team USA hear.
The women’s national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics since 2001, Karolyi’s Rio Games were her last, now set to step away from the sport and the program she has taken from great to historic.
“She’s such a legend,” 2004 all-around champion Carly Patterson told TeamUSA.org in a phone interview. “I’m super excited that I was on the forefront with all of this. I got the chance to work with her and I was in that era of American women’s gymnastics that will never be forgotten.”
Patterson was at the beginning of what — at present time — appears to have no end. These past two weeks in Rio, the U.S. women won nine medals, more than any other American women’s team before them, including Biles’ all-around gold, team gold and silvers from Raisman in the all-around and floor, as well as from Laurie Hernandez on balance beam and Madison Kocian on uneven bars.
Karolyi, many will say, is responsible for such results, and for building the most powerful gymnastics program in the world — male or female.
“It takes years and years to get where we are,” Raisman said after earning her floor silver. “This isn’t an overnight process.”
No, it sure isn’t. Martha and her husband Bela Karolyi were coaches in Eastern Europe long, long ago. They led Nadia Comaneci to Olympic perfection at the 1976 Montreal Games, and in the 1990s Bela was credited with strengthening a U.S. women’s team to compete alongside longstanding gymnastics powerhouses like Russia and his former charge, Romania.
But when Martha took over in 2001 as national team coordinator, the U.S. women had left the 2000 Olympics with no medals (though a team bronze was awarded 10 years later), and there was fear that the program was slipping against a burgeoning Chinese team in addition to their other well-established rivals.
Karolyi had given a glimpse of what she could bring out of athletes at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when she was chosen as the head coach (the coach on the floor during the meet) for the Magnificent Seven, who went on to win the U.S. its historic first team gold in front of the American crowd.
“Martha brings out an element of raising the expectations of everyone around her,” said Amanda Borden, a member of the Magnficent Seven, in an interview in Rio. “From the level of detail to the expectation for the 1996 team, she really expected us to win when I don’t think anyone else did.”
That has been the Karolyi difference: Be your best, no questions asked. She is now a familiar face to gymnastics fans around the world, and to Americans who tune into the Olympics every four years. After Patterson’s all-around gold in Athens, there was Nastia Liukin in Beijing, Gabby Douglas in London and Biles this past week.
Noticing a pattern?
When Biles walked off the field of play last week following her astounding all-around gold performance, Karolyi brought her into a tight hug and called her “a force of nature,” pinching Biles on the back of the neck. It is one of the subtle yet unique aspects that make Karolyi stand out: She communicates with the athletes in a different yet direct way. With Karolyi, there are no questions asked, and the U.S. women have been asked to be the best by her since day one.
“Depending on how tight she grabs the back of your neck, it’s if she’s proud of your or mad at you or if she expected more,” explained Sam Peszek, a member of the 2008 Beijing team that won silver. “She does a little slap on the back for ‘Good job! Keep it up!’”
There are the Karolyi pursed lips, the cocked head to the side and the laser-focused eyes. To draw a clap or two from her is considered a success. Her voice, Peszek said, is always audible on the field of play, even above the roar of an Olympic crowd.
“She’ll make these loud noises that you can always hear no matter where you are or if you’re competing or not,” Peszek explained. “It’s a very unique sound and gives you that oomph you need when competing.”
It’s an oomph that has spurred the American program into unfettered global domination. Karolyi will walk away from a “dynasty,” as Peszek puts it, and one that appears to — sorry, rest of the world — only be getting better.
From 2001-05, the U.S. won 24 world and Olympic medals, then 30 from 2006-10 and another 37 — capped by the nine here in Rio — from 2011 to 2016. Hernandez looks primed to have a sensational four years to come, while both Biles and Raisman are toying with the idea of continuing elite gymnastics, as well.
“We have disagreed on some things in the past,” said Aimee Boorman, Biles’ coach and the U.S. women’s head coach this Olympics. “But I’ve learned so much from her. Just being around her it rubs off on you what she is all about.”
After the U.S. women won the title going away during the team event, the five athletes — Biles, Raisman, Douglas, Hernandez and Kocian — looked into the TV camera and shouted together, “We are the Final Five!”
It’s become a tradition — naming a gold-medal team — but this one was special: “Final” was for Karolyi, an ode to a leader that had expected greatness and helped them along to record-breaking status, and “Five” was a nod to this being the last team of five to compete at an Olympics. Gymnastics will have teams of four in 2020.
“I wanted it to be something that was timeless and meaningful,” Raisman, the U.S. team captain, said of the team name. “It’s Martha’s last Olympics. We told Martha the name and she started crying. It’s very hard to make Martha cry. She said she loved us.”
In that same conversation, Karolyi said she also hoped the girls understood why she pushed them so hard, and told them that moments where the team “wanted to go on strike” in training were for this, for Olympic glory.
“It’s pretty hard,” said Karolyi, who turns 74 later this month, in a conversation with reporters. “Every good thing has to come to an end. I’m sure I will have moments when I will be missing it greatly.”
“It’s bittersweet, but I’m enjoying the moment,” she added. “I’m proud of these girls. We have shown our superiority against the other systems. I am going out happy.”
And if a coach who requires — who demands — greatness is happy, then something must have happened right. That something was of her creation. Karolyi should give herself a pinch on the neck.