A Gymnastics Boot Camp

Martha Karolyi speaks with a line of gymnasts at a training center an hour north of Houston.
Martha Karolyi speaks with a line of gymnasts at a training center an hour north of Houston. (Susan Williams for The Washington Post)

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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

NEW WAVERLY, Tex. -- It involves a trek to the wilderness to reach the 2,000-acre Karolyi ranch, home of the national training center for the country's elite female gymnasts. Here, an hour north of Houston, far from the interstate, across the train tracks and tucked miles down a rutted, gravel road is a surreal scene: 30,000 square feet of gym space, a dance studio and rows of cabins set amid a clearing in a dense forest in which camels roam, peacocks honk and red tail deer lurk.

Save for the cabins that house the gymnasts, the buildings will be padlocked in January, when average temperatures will hover around 50 degrees. And the top prospects for the 2008 U.S. Olympic gymnastics squad, ages 15 to 20, will be put through a grueling regimen of Outward Bound-style training that includes cross-country running over the rugged terrain, rope climbing, push-ups, pull-ups and dancing among the trees, with every activity timed and graded.

It's hardly the training you might envision for athletes not much bigger than a music-box ballerina. But in the view of Bela Karolyi, the bear-hugging icon of women's gymnastics for more than three decades, it's precisely the sort of training the U.S. hopefuls need to take on the traditional powers of Russia and his native Romania, as well as new world power China, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

With his shock of white hair, bushy mustache and thick Hungarian accent, Bela Karolyi, 64, is the most colorful character in the cast that is preparing the U.S. women for the upcoming Olympics. But he is essentially a role player, having been eclipsed by his wife, Martha (pronounced "Marta"), who took over as national team coordinator in 2001 after near revolt against Bela's dictatorial approach. And the role reversal -- with Martha as master coach, and Bela as the training-center's chief fundraiser and architect -- has produced a record medal haul for the country.

Since Martha's appointment following the U.S. women's fourth-place showing at the 2000 Sydney Games, the squad has enjoyed a glorious turn atop the podium. They won the 2003 world championship team title; the silver team medal at the 2004 Olympics; nine medals at the 2005 world champions; and five medals, including a team silver, at the 2006 world championships (China won gold).

Most say the credit belongs to Martha, the most powerful person behind the women's team, who is more comfortable deflecting accolades than taking bows. She works directly with the gymnasts and their personal coaches, while Bela tends to his flock of exotic animals and constructs whatever the gymnasts need -- including the outdoor fitness course that he is convinced will produce the toughest athletes, pound for pound, at the 2008 Games.

The Karolyis' system, installed with the blessing and funding of USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, is a hybrid of the centralized, state-run Romanian model and the individual American approach. Gymnasts continue to live with their families at home, where they train year-round with personal coaches and attend school. But every six weeks they travel to the Karolyi ranch, accompanied by their coaches (no parents allowed), where they train as a group for three to five days at a time.

At each session, Martha makes clear what she is looking for in selecting the next Olympic team, as well as what the international judges will be looking for in awarding the coveted gold medals. Then she patrols the gym, evaluating workouts according to the most exacting standards. Each athlete is graded monthly on her physical conditioning. And each must compete on all four apparatus (balance beam, floor, uneven bars and vault), with the routines scored to track their progressing and steel their poise under pressure.

With a broad smile and supportive manner, Martha is piercing and direct with her evaluations. One gymnast may need more flexibility; another, more leg strength; another, greater artistry. She probes constantly for cracks in mental fitness, as well.

"Sometimes a gymnast in workout situation is ideal person -- very hard worker, very nice girl, would do anything to please everybody and is permanently improving herself," says Martha, with an accent similar to her husband's. "But when the lights are on in the big arena and the noise, she is shrinking, shrinking. And you are sorry. But that's the hardest part to improve. You cannot rely on them. And if you cannot rely on them, you cannot risk [putting them on] the team. If you have the ability but you cannot perform, what good is it?"

With 4 million American children participating in gymnastics, the pipeline for prospective Olympians is gushing. There is enough talent, insiders say, to field multiple Olympic teams. The challenge is assembling a squad that is accomplished both technically and artistically; sufficiently diverse to excel in all four events; injury-free; and emotionally unshakable.

That's what the Karolyi camp is about: The harsh business of culling the pack as you might thoroughbred horses, separating those whose bodies and minds are breaking down from those who blossoming. The fact that it's a numbers game is lost on no one.

The gymnasts strive to impress from the moment they arrive -- their hair anchored in tidy ponytails, their posture erect, heads held high and toes impossibly pointed. With selection to the 2007 Pan American Games squad at stake, 17 members of the U.S. national and junior teams put their skills on display, with one eye on pleasing Martha and the other looking over their shoulder at their peers. The internal dialogue is obvious: "Who is doing a more difficult trick than I am?" "Who is doing the same trick with more power or grace?" "Do I need to work harder?"

Says Chellsie Memmel, 18, of West Allis, Wis., the 2005 all-around world champion: "You come here and you know what is expected of you. You just have to come here and work. There aren't any distractions here. It's like we come here and do our job."

The Pan Am team selections will be announced later that evening. For now, the last session of camp has ended, and the gymnasts line up shoulder-to-shoulder, shortest to tallest, to present themselves to Martha. With perfect posture, she announces the three who scored highest on the test of physical conditioning. Each steps forward to receive applause, including second-place Corrie Lothrop, 15, a junior-team member from Gaithersburg who has rebounded from back injury.

"Not too much to talk" about, Martha says in conclusion. "Let's have a good working time. All come back happy and ready to go with our very high goals."

Then in unison, as if members of the Von Trapp family singers, the gymnasts say: "Thank you, Martha, coaches and national staff. Good-bye."

Finally each steps forward according to height. Martha cradles each gymnast's face in her hands, then drops her palms to the top of her shoulders, leans down and speaks in a tone so hushed that only the gymnast can hear. She tells each what she did well this session and what she needs to improve before returning next month. And one by one they take a balletic turn toward the gym door and march out, head high.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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