With her impeccable posture, Martha Karolyi looms far taller than her modest height suggests — chin raised just so, shoulders back, eyes focused like a bird of prey scanning for any sign of weakness or vulnerability.
What she seeks is perfection.
She demands it of herself — never a hair out of place, with flawless makeup and jewelry to accessorize the navy warmup that is business-day attire for the national team director of U.S. women’s gymnastics. And she expects it of the young gymnasts she critiques and ultimately culls each Olympic cycle.
At 73, Karolyi will retire following the Rio Olympics, ending a 16-year tenure in which she has transformed the United States into the world’s dominant power in women’s gymnastics. Since succeeding her husband of 54 years, Bela, Martha has been the driving force behind 87 international and Olympic medals.
That tally likely will grow in Rio, where the U.S. women are heavily favored to defend their 2012 Olympic team gold. Led by three-time world champion Simone Biles, the five-woman team also should haul in a slew of individual medals that further attest to the current depth of U.S. gymnastics talent.
What is most notable about Martha Karolyi, who along with Bela formed the Romanian coaching duo behind Nadia Comaneci’s “perfect 10” scores at the 1976 Montreal Games, is that she hasn’t simply groomed a handful of American champions for one or two Olympic cycles. She has devised a training system that churns out Olympic contenders with assembly-line efficiency all over the country, at gyms where enrollment spikes with every gold medal draped around the necks of champions such as Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson and Gabby Douglas.
And because of the architecture Karolyi will leave in place upon retirement — a semi-centralized training system — the U.S. women’s medal haul in Rio should not mark the end of an era.
“She has given us a blueprint for success that will go on for a long time,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. “But the biggest key to her success has been her standards. Her standard is perfection. She knows that no one is going to be perfect, but that is her standard. And when that is your standard, you’re always striving for more.”
Said Johnson, 24, who won balance-beam gold at the 2008 Beijing Games and silver in the all-around: “When any gymnast steps in front of Martha, all they want to do is give perfection. It’s Martha! Any gymnast, from the time they are born, their dream is to be in front of her. I feel like she and Bela have changed the face of USA Gymnastics.”
Karolyi’s system borrows from the all-controlling Eastern European model under which she and Bela developed Comaneci, but it also bows to American traditions. It allows young girls with Olympic dreams to continue living at home and training with their local coach, rather than being sent off to a national academy. But at monthly intervals, the elite among them must travel to the Karolyis’ 2,000-acre ranch near Houston for a mandatory camp, accompanied by their personal coaches, at which their routines are graded and critiqued in performances known as “verifications” to test their physical and mental fitness.
Each training session begins with the gymnasts presenting themselves for inspection, lined up shortest to tallest, followed by a scripted warmup. Then, with no audience save their peers, the various coaches and Martha Karolyi’s discerning eye, they perform their routines.
“At times, the verifications were more stressful than the competitions, to be honest,” recalled Liukin, now an NBC gymnastics analyst. “But it also prepared you for the competition, so when you got there, you felt like, ‘I have done this a million times.’ ”
That is the point. And the camp’s remote setting, in the densely wooded Sam Houston Forest, fosters a sense of team among young teens who had ample reason to view one another as rivals.
With an eye toward Karolyi’s retirement, USA Gymnastics recently bought the property’s gymnastics facilities and residential buildings for coaches and gymnasts. While the Karolyis will continue living on the vast, unsold portion of the property, USA Gymnastics will own and operate the training center, preserving the semi-centralized system.
According to insiders, the search for Karolyi’s successor has been narrowed to two veteran coaches: Valeri Liukin, Nastia’s father, who won two gold and two silver medals as a 1988 Olympian for the Soviet Union and, after opening his own gym in Texas, coached his daughter to all-around gold in 2008; and Boston-based Mihai Brestyan, coach of 2008 Olympian Alicia Sacramone as well as two-time Olympian and current U.S. team captain Aly Raisman, the 2012 gold medalist on floor exercise.
Karolyi said she is pleased that her approach will remain intact.
“It’s very nice to see that once I’m finishing my job, USA Gymnastics will continue and take over,” she said during a conference call before departing for Rio. “I think that’s the best way to preserve a system which proved itself as very efficient and able to produce world-class gymnasts and world-class teams.”
Meanwhile, Romania, which for years jockeyed with the Soviet Union for gymnastics hegemony, failed to qualify a team for Rio — a stunning fall from grace 35 years after the Karolyis defected from their Communist-controlled homeland.
While USA Gymnastics is banking on the belief that its semi-centralized system is the key to continued success, the Karolyi personality — first Bela and then Martha — undeniably was the most powerful ingredient.
“Gymnastics would not be what it is today without Bela and Martha and Nadia,” said 1984 Olympic all-around champion Mary Lou Retton, the first U.S. protégé of the Karolyis, who credits the couple with at least 50 percent of her Olympic achievements. “Bela was always the face, and Martha’s place, back in my generation, was behind the scenes. But Bela would be a lost little puppy dog without Martha. She runs the whole program and always has.”
For the past 16 years, young U.S. Olympic hopefuls have longed for nothing more than to catch Martha’s discerning eye and coax an approving nod for their routines. Penny, the USA Gymnastics president, sees it every time he visits camps at the ranch.
“The girls want her affirmation,” Penny says. “They want to know, ‘What does Martha think about me? Say about me? What do I need to do to get her affirmation?’ If you want her affirmation, she expects for you to do the very best you can do.”
For some, that expectation is too heavy a burden.
Dominique Moceanu, the youngest of the “Magnificent Seven” that won team gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, wrote of mentally abusive treatment by both Karolyis in her 2012 memoir, “Off Balance.”
She recalled feeling “strapped into a straitjacket” at the Karolyi ranch in the run-up to Atlanta, so fearful, at age 14, of being reprimanded for the slightest mistake.
The Karolyis, for their part, consistently have denied inappropriate tactics and noted that their jobs are to make champions rather than friends. And Johnson feels Martha Karolyi is misperceived, insisting that a “huge heart” goes along with her high standards.
“She is putting together an Olympic team four years in advance, eight years in advance,” Johnson said. “I don’t think she requires absolute perfection every day; she just wants to see that discipline and that respect. You have to teach a kid that at a young age for it to become habit by the time you represent the U.S. I mean, we are only kids.”