From Mary Lou Retton's irrepressible smile to Kerri Strug's gold-medal clinching vault on a gimpy ankle, the enduring images from the golden era of U.S. women's gymnastics all ended the same way: with gleeful sprites bounding off the floor and vanishing into a bear hug from their larger-than-life coach, Bela Karolyi.
Just as Retton and Strug have moved on since the 1984 and '96 Olympics, so has Karolyi. These days, the most dominant force in U.S. gymnastics can be found tending peacocks, camels, emus and deer on his 2,000-acre ranch in Texas while his wife Martha, who coached alongside him for three decades, has taken over the job of shepherding the U.S. team.
It is a dramatic role reversal for a couple that has been together since they met in college in their native Romania in 1970. And the swap has resulted in an even more dramatic turnaround for the U.S. women's gymnastics team, which has gone from being shut out in the 2000 Olympics to considered favorites for gold at this summer's Games in Athens.
Martha (pronounced "Marta") Karolyi was named national coordinator of the U.S. women's squad after its disappointing showing at Sydney in 2000, her husband's final year at the post. The team was fraught with tension and undermined by mistrust, with many of the athletes' coaches feeling that Bela's style worked at cross purposes with theirs.
So they turned to Martha, who had helped her husband prepare a dazzling roster of Olympians from 1976 to 1996 -- including Nadia Comaneci, Kim Zmeskal, Dominique Moceanu, Retton and Strug -- and won medals each time. And since February 2001, when Martha was named to succeed her husband, the U.S. women haven't lost a major international meet.
Heading to Athens, they're so flush with talent that coaches say the U.S. women could field two medal-worthy teams. They proved as much in August, when two key gymnasts were sidelined by injury and illness on the eve of the world championships in Anaheim, Calif. A pair of unheralded reserves stepped in, and the patchwork roster won gold.
Insiders credit Martha, who shares her husband's exacting standards but lacks his brusque, domineering style.
"They are completely different people -- completely different!" said veteran coach Kelli Hill, who developed former Olympians Dominique Dawes and Elise Ray. "I really enjoy talking to Bela, being around Bela, and I respect what he has done. He is maybe just not the person to be in charge."
Martha concedes her approach differs.
"We've worked together so many years that we kind of complete each other," she said. "He is more direct, and maybe I have a little bit more patience. I have the same expectations, but I can usually come in and [convey them] a little bit smoother."
As national team coordinator, Martha's chief job is selecting the six-member U.S. Olympic team and, where possible, polishing their performances on the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise to gold-medal status.
Backed by U.S. gymnastics officials, she has ushered in a new way of going about the task -- one that turns the European model of a centralized, top-down approach on its head.
Instead of leaving their families to train full-time at a national academy, the most promising American gymnasts continue to live at home and train with their personal coaches, who in most cases have nurtured their skills and self-confidence since they were youngsters.
Roughly once a month, the best among them are invited to the Karolyi's ranch, along with their coaches, for group training sessions under Martha's watchful eye. Over extended weekends, the gymnasts compete against one another in miniature meets and are tested on their skills and conditioning.
Rather than asserting herself as their primary coach, Martha serves more as an impresario -- observing, encouraging and making gentle suggestions with no apparent need to leave her coaching fingerprints on the girls.
"Most of the time I don't even address directly to the gymnasts," she explained in perfectly enunciated, accented English. "I'd rather talk to the coach if I have some problem or observation about the execution of a skill. It's very important that in front of the gymnasts, the coaches' image and prestige is very high up. They need to trust that their coach is the best in the world, and that's how it should be."
Said Hill: "Martha has a very good way with all the athletes and coaches. There is never a negative coming from Martha. It's never, 'You're not doing the job!' or 'You're not doing this!' It's, 'Well, we have a little problem here. Let's do this to maybe help fix it. We have to accept where we're at, and we move forward.'
"Bela, in comparison, is maybe not as tactful. It's, 'You're not working hard enough!' "
The girls, meanwhile, appear to have bonded as a team during their monthly sessions at the ranch -- pushing each other in workouts by day, and playing Canasta, watching scary movies and giving each other manicures and pedicures in their cabins at night.
"It's a better system, definitely," said Annia Hatch, 25, who won seven national titles in her native Cuba before moving to the United States in 1997. "You should be able to enjoy your childhood if you are young -- or your marriage if you are married -- and also do gymnastics as hard as you can to be able to do well in the sport."
It's a wearying two-hour drive from Houston to the Karolyi's ranch, past farmland, across railroad tracks and over a rocky and winding stretch of gravel road.
But it's here that Bela Karolyi chose to recreate amid east Texas woodlands something akin to his childhood home in the Romanian countryside. Martha initially balked at the idea, preferring the conveniences of their Houston home with its walk-in closet and spacious master bath. But Bela forged ahead, erecting a log home that's now furnished with the spoils of his safaris hunting exotic animals, including a giant bearskin rug complete with claws, a wild boar's head and racks of caribou and moose antlers.
Nearby are pens for his live menagerie, which includes llamas, goats, pigs, roosters, turkeys, Watusi cows, 11 riding horses, a dozen hunting dogs and seven camels.
"I love them!" Bela bellows about his camels. "I heard they spit and hiss, but no! They are very gentle and affectionate."
The Karolyi ranch also serves as a summer camp for aspiring gymnasts, as well as the official training center for the U.S. women's national team. The compound includes two full-sized gyms, dozens of cabins, a dining hall, swimming pool and nearly completed dance studio.
Clad in work clothes and wielding a chainsaw on a recent spring morning, Bela is clearly master of all 2,000 acres. He still has a role with USA Gymnastics, serving as the sport's chief ambassador and fundraiser. And on this day, he is serving as tour guide to a dozen reporters who have come to visit the complex and interview prospective Olympians.
The main gym is adorned with photographs of the Karolyis' star pupils, but it's Bela, rather than Martha, who is featured in most of the pictures.
He remains a legend to most of the girls competing for a spot in Athens, but precious few were coached by him.
"When we train, he's not in the gym," said Gaithersburg's Courtney Kupets, 17, a favorite to make the Olympic squad. "One time we had a cookout and he cooked venison and moose and made us eat it because he went out and killed it."
It's Martha they're trying to please on the gym floor. It's Martha who will hand pick the team for Athens.
"She's been in the gym coaching with my dad since 1970," said Andrea Weiss, the Karolyi's only child. "Now it's her turn to show she's as knowledgeable as my dad."
No parents are allowed at the camp, where the gymnasts bunk in cabins, six to eight to a room. Their twice-daily practices are as carefully scripted as their diets, which are dominated by yogurt and cereal at breakfast and lean meat, salad and fruit at lunch and dinner.
"They give us choices, but Martha sees what you eat, and if she doesn't like what you're eating or the way you look, she'll tell you," said Courtney McCool, 16, of Kansas City. "She sees you every month, so if she thinks you've gained weight or you've looked better, she'll tell you."
To the gymnasts, it's simply part of the sport -- part of the sacrifice that goes into making a good impression on the judges.
Martha is their daily example, looking glamorous even in her red tracksuit. He nails are manicured, her jewelry sparkles and her makeup is a study in perfection -- neither timid nor overdone.
"She always presents herself well," McCool said, "so I have to present myself as well as she does."
At the start of each practice Martha lines the gymnasts up shortest to tallest, surveying their posture and poise. She singles out those who performed well in recent meets and announces who she has chosen to send to upcoming competitions around the world. Then the work begins, starting with an easy jog around the gym, and then escalating to leaps and spins with Martha pacing the floor like a ballet master, looking for amplitude and grace.
Outside Bela is patrolling the grounds with his chainsaw, a fluffy white dog following in his tracks. There is always a project that needs his attention.
"I think my dad was ready for a change," said Weiss, a nutritionist who prepares the team's meals. "He's such a powerful personality, and his energy level just wasn't there. Sometimes I feel there's a little twinkle in his eye that says, 'I wish I could be there in the gym.' Sometimes you can tell."
When his workday ends, Weiss said, Bela usually comes looking for his 18-month-old granddaughter, Julia, who lives at the ranch. He loves to take her four-wheeling.
"She runs up to him when she sees him," Weiss said. "He has someone to hug now."