- Seven of the best gymnasts in American history open up about the state of their sport, how being a champion changed their life and more.
Ahead of the 2016 Olympics, SI conducted a virtual roundtable with seven of the top U.S. female gymnasts over the past 30 years. SI also spoke with Martha Karolyi, the current USA Gymnastics national program director and longtime coach, who’s set to retire after this Games. Each of the gymnasts interviewed was either a world or Olympic all-around champion.
The seven gymnasts interviewed are Mary Lou Retton, 1984 Olympic all-around champion; Kim Zmeskal, world all-around champion in 1991 and Olympic bronze medalist in team competition in ’92; Shannon Miller, world all-around champion in ’93 and ’94 and winner of seven Olympic medals in ’92 and ’96 Games; Carly Patterson, winner of three Olympic medals in 2004; Shawn Johnson, world all-around champion in 2007 and winner of four Olympic medals in ’08; Nastia Liukin, winner of five Olympics medals in ’08; and Gabby Douglas, Olympic all-around and team gold medalist in ’12, and Olympic team gold medalist in ’16.
SI: How has being Olympic all-around champion changed your life?
Mary Lou Retton: “Oh, gosh, my life has been ... I’ve done everything. You know the first thing was being on for people. You know when I used to go home [to West Virginia, where she grew up], people would stop me and say, “Hi, how you doing? How’s gymnastics? Oh, you’re growing up so fast.” After the Olympics, I felt like every town was my hometown. Everybody wanted to meet me and see me. And it was fun for a while. I have that personality where, I kind of enjoyed it. But there was no time to just let your shoulders drop, let your hair down, not care about what I was wearing, if my shoes were untied, that sort of thing.”
Carly Patterson: “If I wanted to try something new, there were some door open for me. I liked singing, so I tried singing for a little bit, and I don’t know if anyone would have cared, except I won the Olympics. I think now my life is pretty much what you’d consider normal. I like it that way. I prefer it that way. But the reason I know that for sure is that I had some opportunities to make some appearances and see what celebrity life was like a little. It was okay. I have no regrets about how things turned out.”
Nastia Liukin: I’m doing commentary for NBC, which I love. It’s new, so I’m still growing into it. If I didn’t win a gold medal, would I have been less qualified to talk about gymnastics? Not really. But would I have the chance to do what I’m doing now? Maybe not.
Gabby Douglas: “I never expected I’d meet the people I did, and it was funny thinking about their reaction to meeting me. I was like, I’m just Gabby. It’s me. But it was good to get back in the gym, because all those things, I’m glad I did them, but it was good to be back with my gymnastics family again. It felt like home.”
SI: How has gymnastics evolved since past champions competed?
Douglas: I remember training this year and thinking, why can’t they keep the code [of points] the same. This used to be worth more last time. I thought I did good last time. They keep making it harder, which pushes us to do better.
Shannon Miller: “I don’t even recognize some of what they’re doing today. It’s funny because I thought we were pushing the envelope then, and now the skills they’re doing are so extraordinary, I couldn’t imagine what I’m seeing. The vaults area lot harder, but then they’ve changed the equipment, so the extra surface [area] allows for a little more difficulty. But also the girls are just better athletes now.”
Retton: Go, USA. I mean we are the best in the world now. We’ve been the best for ten years. In my day, people talked about the Soviets and the Romanians and the East Germans and the Chinese. And we sometimes felt lucky to be in the conversation. Now we kind of are the conversation.
SI: Has training changed? Has that training regimen altered the style and feel of competition? Is it more athletic?
Douglas: “It’s more athletic than four years ago, but have to do both. It’s still an artistic sport.”
Kim Zmeskal: Of course, but that’s true for all sports, I think. The one thing that hasn’t changed, and I tell my gymnasts the same thing all the time, is that no matter how good you are or where you stand, you get out of it what you put into it. There is no magic switch that makes you as good as you can be. You have to find that yourself.
Patterson: It’s easier to get distracted away from the gym. A gymnast’s life is so structured; you can’t afford to lose time with things that don’t contribute to gymnastics or school. With social media, there are just more temptations, more things fighting for your time.
Martha Karolyi: The biggest change occurred the day they dropped the 10.0 scoring system. They said, okay, the roof is open. Before when you got to the end of one cycle, there were a lot of tens, and so okay, if you know you get a ten, you don’t have to add any skills to make the routines more difficult; just make what you have more beautiful. Today, if you are getting 15 or 15.5, then an extra alteration, if a small one, can add a tenth of a point, so the scoring system rewards the routines that are harder more than before.
SI: Where do people see the sport in 10 years? How about 20 years?
Douglas: It will be so tough; I’ll be glad to watch from the sideline. I’ll work on my clapping and cheering.
Retton: I never think it can get any harder. And then the next quad comes around and I think, How do these girls do that? Where did that move come from? I guess, you know, citius, altius, fortius, it’s always faster, higher, stronger. I just can’t believe the difficulty level can get any higher, but it does and it’s amazing to watch. Back when I competed, I was considered a power gymnast. Today, there’s no such thing because everyone does power gymnastics. It’s going to move in that direction more and more.
Patterson: I don’t know, triple-triples? I just laugh at what I see today. What are they eating? What’s in the water? The girls have springs in their legs. I can’t see it getting any harder, but it still is.
Johnson: I’ll be happy to watch on TV. I think in some ways, the body types will change. I was kind of powerful and muscular and with the emphasis on power gymnastics, you’ll see fewer kind of slender girls and more powerful girls.
SI: How important is it for U.S. teams to have internal competition/rivalries? Does that help drive people to higher heights?
Karolyi: Yes, if you are seeing the gymnast next to you showing the excellent preparation, you know that you cannot fall behind. Because once you are behind, then you are just catching up. And so, yes, the girls are supportive, but they are competitive. It isn’t so much that they compete with each other, but they see their teammates competing hard against their own abilities, their own limitations, so that pushes them. That is part of the reason why the training camps that we have together are so valuable.
Zmeskal: We had that a lot, but having the camps has really put the spotlight on everybody. The girls know where they stand, so I’m not sure it’s a rivalry as much as a self-check. What do I need to improve? Am I up to speed or falling behind? That’s a good way to measure where you are.
Retton: I remember having Dianne Durham at our gym. She was national champion in 1983 and before I became number one, I kind of measured myself against her. If I wanted to rest, Bela could say, “Okay, no problem, you sleep now. Dianne, come, let’s see how it’s done.” I would be right back out there.
SI: Is it better for the team to be friendly/cohesive?
Douglas: Jealousy wouldn’t work on our team. We spend so much time together now because of the camps. If you’re not pulling in the same direction, it’s probably not for you.
Johnson: The other girls become your sisters. It’s so isolating sometimes. I mean you don’t go to parties and movies and dates and things the way you would because you have a meet or a practice or something. You eat meals together, you travel together, you understand the physical aches and pains, and the disappointments. No one else really knows what it’s like. The girls who are there with you, they know what it’s like.
Liukin: Friendly, definitely. Gymnastics is so hard and it takes so much from you that you can’t waste energy being mad at the girl next to you.