Pushing U.S. Gymnasts To The Summit, Marta Karolyi Leaves On Top

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Marta Karolyi, the national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics, looks at the scoreboard along with (from right) Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas during the women's qualification on Sunday. Karolyi, 73, is widely credited with helping make the U.S. women the best in the world. She is stepping down after the Rio Games.
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The U.S. women gymnasts have dazzled all week in Rio. And we're not talking about their crystal-studded leotards. The Americans won the team gold on Tuesday, and Simone Biles and Aly Raisman took gold and silver in the individual all-around on Thursday.

This wasn't traditionally a sport the U.S. dominated. The American women didn't win their first team gold until 1996. But they have now captured the team title at the last two Olympics, and American women have won the individual all-around at the last four Summer Games.

It's fitting that the current team has nicknamed itself the "Final Five," a tribute to leader Marta Karolyi, 73, who is stepping down after the Rio Games. She and her husband, Bela, have been towering figures in the world of gymnastics since the 1970s.

They first rose to prominence in their native Romania where they trained the country's first wave of superstar gymnasts, including Nadia Comaneci, who scored the sport's first perfect 10 and took gold at the 1976 Olympics.

The Karolyis defected to the U.S. in 1981 and have helped transform the American women into the world's best.

Author Dvora Meyers has written about the Karolyis in her book The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics' Top Score from Nadia to Now.

She spoke with NPR's All Things Considered.

Marta Karolyi is officially the national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics. Can you describe her role in the sport today?

Well, officially, she runs the national team training camps, where once a month all of the top gymnasts in the United States are trained and observed and she gives out these international assignments. Now, technically, there are two other people on the committee that decides who makes these teams, but I think most people recognize that Marta's voice is the loudest in the room and the most important — like the team that she really wants is generally the one that gets selected. But she's also, I mean the girls really respect her. And the girls really want to please her. Deep down making Marta happy is what a lot of these girls are after.

Tell us about the system the Karolyis developed in Romania and eventually exported to the U.S.

The system they developed in Romania, they were given permission to create an experimental school in Onesti in the Carpathian Mountains, where — Nadia Comaneci was from, which was really lucky — but anyway, they created this centralized model where the gymnasts kind of trained a lot without distraction and where the real priority was on sports and all the other things were kind of secondary.

And of course they have a ranch in Texas which has become somewhat of a mecca for elite gymnasts, right?

So now we have this semi-centralized training system where, once a month, the members of the national team, and other gymnasts who receive invitations, and their coaches, go down to Texas for five days and train with the national team training staff and stay in cabins on the ranch.

Some people have been critical of some of their methods.

In the '80s and '90s, especially when they moved to the U.S., stories started to come up about how harsh they were on athletes, how hard the girls trained, and they weren't particularly kind to them. And some of their athletes, like Dominique Moceanu and others, have spoken out against them and spoken about their experiences, and others have defended them and said this was necessary, that this was how they were motivated to train and compete at this level. If you want to beat the Soviets, if you want to beat the Romanians, you really have to work incredibly hard.

Is she still talked about in that way?

Over the years, I mean, she's still considered a real tough cookie. That said, it seems like she's softened, and even seeing her break down and cry at the Olympics when the team told her what their name was, the Final Five, in her honor, there has definitely been a noticeable, slight softening. I still wouldn't want to work through those training sessions with those girls. I still think it's really, really hard.

What do you think her legacy will be?

When I think about her and Bela, and especially with Marta, they built two gymnastics powerhouses in two different countries. Putting their methods aside and whether or not you agree with how they coach, I think it's a real testament to sort of their vision and their leadership abilities.

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