Olympic Gymnastics 2012: Why Marta Karolyi Is Team USA's Secret Weapon

Emily BayciContributor IIIJuly 23, 2012

30 June 1996:  Gymnastics coach Martha Karolyi watches Kerri Strug warm up prior to competition in the US Gymnastics Olympic Trials at the Fleet Center in Boston. Strug earned a spot on the 1996 US Women's Gymnastics Team as did coach Martha Karolyi when she received the nomination to be head coach. Her husband Bela Karolyi, right, will go to Atlanta as a personal coach for Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu. Mandatory Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It is easy for one to get lost in the pandemonium of Olympic hopefuls, coaches, trainers and judges, at Visa Championships and Olympic Trials, especially when the television camera quickly scans over everyone.

There was one particular woman who was always easy to identify because of her typical look of intense concentration: Marta Karolyi, U.S. National Team Coordinator.

Karolyi, a Romanian-born gymnastics coach, has been the coordinator since 2001 when she took over for her husband Bela. The pair have spent their lives around gymnastics and have trained many notable gymnasts like Mary Lou Retton, Nadia Comaneci, Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu.

As coordinator, Karolyi oversees all aspects of the women's national team, including athlete selection, meet lineups and recommendations about routines and skills.

She might not be out there on the floor tumbling and performing, giving encouraging pep talks or even coaching the women’s every move, but without Karolyi, USA would not have a shot at the medal stand.

It may sound like a bold statement, but Team USA needs Karolyi to function.

She is not scared to train the athletes extremely hard, insist that athletes fully dedicate themselves to the sport or make unpopular decisions, like not allowing Chellsie Memmel to try out for the Olympic Team.

"You must love the sport, be aggressive, enthusiastic, work hard on things that don't come easy to you,” Karolyi said in an interview with MSNBC. “The strongest workers are the only ones who can make it to the top.”

In the interview, Karoyli also discussed her special look, called the “Marta stare,” which she gives gymnasts when she thinks they can do something better.

"I know the coaches and the gymnasts say, ‘Marta can see anything in the gym,’” Karolyi said in the interview.

Karolyi strives for nothing short of perfection, which is how she will give Team USA the extra push they need for gold. Some say it’s impossible to be perfect, but Karolyi has witnessed perfection before—when Nadia Comaneci stole the show at the 1976 Games.

She pushes the gymnasts to always be punctual, driven, have a strong work ethic and strive for nothing less than perfection.

She and Bela have received a mixed response from people, some of whom agree with their methods, like Nastia Liukin, and others who believe it is too harsh, like Dominique Moceanu.

“We strive for perfection. I state that every moment when I have a chance,” Karolyi said in an interview with Time. “If that is not your goal, then you are in the wrong place.”

Karolyi and Bela defected from Romania in 1981 and made it a mission to develop America into a gymnastics powerhouse.

The couple built a training center in a remote ranch 50 miles north of Houston. The ranch is in partnership with USA Gymnastics. Gymnasts arrive with club coaches about once a month for four days of training under the Karolyi’s direction, along with her staff. USA Gymnastics covers travel expenses for team members and their coaches.

The program was created for parents who did not want to be separated from their children for long periods of time and was modeled off of programs in Romania.

"It's the heart and soul of the machine … where all the blood, sweat and tears of USA Gymnastics comes together," said USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny in a USA Today article. "There's a magic about that."

In past years, the Olympic team was decided during a training camp at the ranch after Trials, but because of time restraints, the official team was decided earlier this year. 

The Karolyi’s vision for creating greatness in the American gymnastics world was depicted in a Time article:

For Karolyi, the ultimate vindication of her vision would be a team gold medal and a three-peat in the all-around event. If that happens, the achievement would be as much a personal victory for Karolyi as it is a professional one — a validation of the decision she made years ago to defect from Romania to the U.S. and build a brand-new gymnastics powerhouse.

There had been talks of Karolyi retiring after London, especially if the women received a gold medal, but from recent interviews it appears that she’s not leaving anytime soon.

Regardless, the satisfaction of a gold medal is what she wants, to prove that her methods are essential. It’s Karolyi’s discipline and hard work that gives her good judgment in selecting gymnasts and identifying the perfect combination of a team.

If Team USA wins the gold medal, one of the biggest reasons the team is there will be a person not even on the medal stand, but Karolyi, who pushed the team to the pinnacle of perfection.