Saturday October 23rd, 2010

In 1981, Marta Karolyi defected from Romania with her husband, Bela, beginning what evolved into a coaching dynasty that transformed gymnastics in the United States. Having guided Nadia Comaneci to an Olympic all-around title in 1976, Bela opened a gym in Houston and later coached several world and Olympic gold medalists, including Mary Lou Retton, Julianne McNamara, Kim Zmeskal, Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug. In 2000, with the U.S. program sputtering, Marta assumed the position of Olympic head coach, while Bela took over the newly formed position of national team coordinator. The following year, Marta replaced Bela as the coordinator, bringing a disposition to the task that was seemingly more acceptable to personal coaches, who often clashed with her husband. Since then, U.S. women have won multiple medals at every world and Olympic competition, something that once would have seemed impossible. On Saturday, Marta Karolyi spoke from the World Gymnastics Championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands, about her team, her sport and her decision to step down from her present post after the 2012 Olympics in London. Are you really going to retire after London? It seems like the Karolyi name has been on the front burner of gymnastics forever.

Karolyi: (laughs) I still will be involved as a consultant. It's nice to have an end in sight. I want to bring this team to a good place and leave it in a good place. So who would be your choice to take over as national team coordinator?

Karolyi: You want to squeeze some information from me, I see. I think it should be a great person with international reputation and understanding, someone who also has the trust of the other coaches. In my opinion, Valeri [Liukin, coach of his daughter Nastia in 2008 and Rebecca Bross on this year's team] would be the best choice, but it isn't up to me. He understands what it takes to prepare a gymnast and prepare a team. You once said you were a shy person by nature, someone who likes to stay in the background. Why put yourself through this public scrutiny of this position?

Karolyi: I totally enjoy it. I take the heat for the failures, and I love to share in the successes. This has been my life since I can even remember having a passion. Gymnastics operates in the public, so it is part of the job. So look ahead to 2012 and tell us what you think about the prospects for the team at the next Olympics.

Karolyi: I'm optimistic for 2012. We saw two girls from this team [Bross and Alexandra Raisman] who definitely showed their toughness [in Friday's all-around], despite the mistakes. And we have juniors who are doing some higher difficulty, and they will push the girls who are here now. What do you think about what you saw here from Rebecca Bross and her all-around bronze?

Karolyi: Rebecca showed her toughness today. After a fall on beam, she came back on floor and added to her difficulty level with some different combinations. She did not collapse. She did not fall apart. She also with her sore leg was able to go through this competition. I think she's one of the toughest gymnasts I ever saw. She will raise her difficulty level, and she will be in the running for the top. What about Bridget Sloan when she's healthy? [The 2009 all-around world champ only did one event in Rotterdam because she is still recovering from a torn pectoral muscle].

Karolyi: Bridget is an excellent balanced gymnast. She has to get back into shape on each apparatus. She showed here that even though she is not in her best shape here, she can do enough skills that she has just enough frustration to realize that she can still fight for a title if she's ready. This will make her work harder. She will be a good component to the U.S. team. Two of the stars from the Beijing Olympics have gotten back into the gym to start training again. Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin haven't ruled out being around in 2012. What do you think of their prospects?

Karolyi: I have seen the video of Shawn's training, and I'm excited about it. She has to be very strong willed. And she has to know that she has to go through the bad times before she can enjoy the good times. She must first get back to where she was, which is harder as you get older, and then she must surpass it, because gymnastics doesn't stand still; it is always moving on, and you have to improve you level, your skill, just to keep up.

I spoke to Valeri about Nastia. We shall see, because it can be a long way back. I would be extremely happy if these two girls would come back. Coming back is not an easy decision. If these two girls will put in the hard work and be willing to make some sacrifices, then they will have a chance. Who among the U.S. juniors might we see in 2012?

Karolyi: Jordyn Wieber got hurt at nationals, so she couldn't finish the competition, but she already easily does a 2-½ vault. McKayla Maroney, who is training in California and also does a 2-½ vault, is another with a great future. For sure some of those juniors will be a part of our senior teams very soon. How much have the training camps you and your husband started running [at their Texas gym since 2000] contributed to the team's success over the past decade?

Karolyi: Well, the camps provided the structure, and I felt they raised the standards for the girls, to understand that certain elements and certain fitness levels are required for the team to be truly ready. This is essential, to have a philosophy and concentrated approach. What do you have to do to get those improvements? Is it an athletic or artistic approach?

Karolyi: We cannot have the FIG [International Gymnastics Federation] thinking that only ballerinas can be gymnasts. We must have the difficulty level. We need the skills to combine both components really well. How is Bela doing these days?

Karolyi: He is happy. He is well. He is just running the training center and enjoying the life, the animals on the ranch. Do you still consult him, and do you think he misses being in a high-profile coaching position?

Karolyi: Of course I talk to him, but he is not there to coach. I think he is happy with the ranch, really. It refreshes him each day. Where would you two be without your sport?

Karolyi: Asking why we chose anything except gymnastics.

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