Institutional changes lead to U.S. gymanstics success

Posted: June 4, 2012 at 8:20 am

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Much more is expected of the men and women competing at the Visa Championships this week at Chaifetz Arena than their counterparts who competed here in the same event a dozen years ago. The best of the best here and at the Olympic Trials later this month are expected not only to represent the U.S in London but to bring home the mother lode of medals.

The U.S. gymnasts are the only ones to bring home team medals in both men's and women's gymnastics from the past two Olympiads. But they want more than a three-peat. Once an also-ran, the U.S. women have become the dominant force in the sport over the last decade. The men are an ascending program expected to bring home multiple medals.

"The magic of what's emerged through our program is that we've cultivated a team environment," said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. "The team has gone from being a collection of individuals to a true team effort."

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. women's team had its moments, starting with Mary Lou Retton's gold in the all-around in 1984 and peaking with the 1996 team, whose gold medal performance in the team competition and three individual medals earned them the name The Magnificent Seven. Many of the U.S. medalists in that span trained full-time with Bela and Martha Karolyi, uprooting their lives and families to train at the Karolyis' facility near Houston. The rest of the top U.S. gymnasts, though, felt they were at a disadvantage in national team selection.

Then in 1999, the U.S. finished sixth at the world championships.

"That was like the stock market plummeting more than 1,000 points," Penny said. "There was no coaching figure who had accountability. There was no one person who was keeping the bar raised. We had to fix it."

Karolyi seemed the likely figure, and the beginnings of a national team program were launched in the leadup to the Sydney Olympics. The results the following year at the Olympics in Sydney showed little improvement, though. The team earned a bronze but was shut out of individual medals. Romania, China and Russia divvied up the bulk of them.

"All the top nations have permanent training centers, which we felt represented a huge advantage," Martha said. "But we knew it was not possible to take a 6-year-old away from their parents here."

Despite the dominance at the time of Karolyi's athletes, the plethora of other gyms scattered throughout the country meant there was no centralized system. So, USA Gymnastics, with the help of the Karolyis, reached a compromise, a semi-centralized system in which the top athletes and their coaches gathered periodically, typically four days a month, at the Karolyis' facility.

Bela initially was named team coordinator but after nearly two decades of stepping on the toes of many a gym director and coach, he was viewed as a polarizing, rather than unifying, force. Thus, USA Gymnastics chose Martha to replace him as team coordinator.

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Institutional changes lead to U.S. gymanstics success

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June 4th, 2012 at 8:20 am

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