RIO DE JANEIRO — The Martha Karolyi Way is a pinch on the neck. A tilt of the head. A purse of the lips. A nod of approval. A series of directives, most of them blunt, all designed for maximum impact.
It is a compound tucked in the Texas woods where the rest of the world slips away so the foundation of a gymnastics dynasty can be laid.
For the last 15 years, the U.S. women’s national team coordinator has methodically molded a once floundering program into a globe-trotting, podium-topping machine. The group of five young women Karolyi will lead into Rio Olympic Arena on Tuesday night for the Olympic team final is perhaps her greatest creation, and a fitting tribute to all she has built before she heads into retirement.
Judging by their showing during qualifying — when the U.S. posted the top score by a staggering 10 points — the question may be not if the Americans will win the gold but by how much. Yet it’s in keeping with the Karolyi Way that all that dominance was met with only a small smile and a reminder that their work is not yet finished.
“I always tell the girls, we’re competing against ourselves,” Karolyi, 73, said in her distinct Eastern European accent. “We don’t want to beat this or that. But we want to come as close as possible to perfection.”
No team, perhaps in any sport, comes as close to it as the U.S. women’s program.
Looking back, this is exactly what Martha and husband Bela Karolyi had in mind when they defected from Romania in 1981 after helping Nadia Comaneci reach perfection in Montreal during the 1976 Games.
“That was the goal, to build something which works for USA and not try to install a copy of the Romanian system,” Karolyi said. “I think that was the key because you cannot copy an original.”
Though the Karolyis and USA Gymnastics enjoyed periods of success in the 1980s and ’90s — helping Mary Lou Retton become the first American woman to win the Olympic title in 1984 and reaching the top of the podium with the “Magnificent Seven” in Atlanta in 1996 — it wasn’t until Martha took over the program in 2001 when Bela’s contract was not renewed after a disappointing showing at the Sydney Olympics that the U.S. finally took flight. The proof lies in the 88 world championship and Olympic medals the Americans have captured during her tenure, a number that could be near 100 by closing ceremonies in Rio.
She turned the sprawling ranch she and Bela own on the border of the Sam Houston National Forest about an hour north of Houston into an incubator. Where the “national team” was once a nominal description for a group of factions that came together only for international events, she created a sense of cohesion.
“Everyone was very combative and competitive,” said Rhonda Faehn, who trained under the Karolyis in the ’80s and now serves as the senior vice president of the women’s program. “We were expected to compete as a team overseas and you’re still an individual. It’s an incredible byproduct of what she has set in place.”
Team members and their coaches visit the ranch regularly to receive specialized instruction and produce a true sense of camaraderie. The athletes become roommates during camp, staying in comfortable — if rustic — suites where cell reception can be spotty at best.
“It’s almost like camping out,” said Laurie Hernandez, at 16 the youngest member of Team USA in Rio. “There’s camels and horses and there are bunk beds. We get very close when we’re there.”
It’s the same for the coaches, who gather after hours to play cards with Martha or hang out at Bela’s lodge. There’s just one rule: keep the shop talk to a minimum. That time away to decompress helps them stay primed for what happens when they get back to work, a process that feels collaborative rather than competitive.
“Now there are a lot of coaches I could call and say ‘Hey, I’m having trouble with this skill, do you have any ideas to help out,’” said Olympic national team coach Aimee Boorman, who is also the personal coach of three-time world champion Simone Biles. “It’s been an emotional support and a technical support … and it’s Martha. She knows what she’s doing.”
Each session begins with the athletes lining up according to height, tallest on the left, shortest on the right. Then a brief pep talk from Karolyi. No wasted time with pleasantries.
“Very short, to the point, this is how she works,” Bela Karolyi said of his wife of over 50 years. “Two or three things to work on, then go.”
And go they do. Training sessions are quiet and intense. There is no wasted movement. While coaches line each apparatus, Karolyi will wander about, offering advice where she sees fit. If the way it’s delivered occasionally comes across as a little cold, that’s not her problem.
“She is a very intimidating lady,” Biles said. “She’ll tell you how it is. She wants you to succeed. She never wants you to look back and say ‘I could have given it more.’”
Karolyi stopped measuring the U.S. against the rest of the world long ago. They haven’t lost a major international meet in six years and are the model of efficiency when they’re on the road. During podium training — a dress rehearsal on the event floor held before the meet — the Americans do a couple of sets on each apparatus and then they’re done while their competitors continue to tinker.
“We used to say that we win our meets in the training gym because all of the other countries sit and watch us train and we don’t watch them train,” said three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman. “You focus on yourself and your teammates and that’s the best you can possibly do.”
The Americans’ best typically ends in gold. For the women Karolyi coaches, there is something nearly as valuable: a pinch on the back of the neck.
“To get that was huge,” Faehn said. “Bela was all bear hugs but Martha, she’s the only one you always wanted to please.”
There will be a few more to go around in Rio but the next chapter for Karolyi and the empire she built beckons. The Karolyis will officially hand over the keys to the training facilities at the ranch to USA Gymnastics later this month. Then the search for her successor will begin in earnest while she travels back to Romania to spend time with family.
It’s a decision she’s at peace with, even if the idea of her walking out of her house one morning during a training camp and going for a walk instead of the gym seems unfathomable.
“It’s hard to replace her,” said longtime friend and coach Mihai Brestyan. “It will be the hardest job because of the shoes to fill.”