By Jo-Ann Barnas, Special Contributor
RIO DE JANEIRO — The moment wasn’t lost on Martha Karolyi — or Simone Biles and Aly Raisman.
After Biles and Raisman added to the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastic team’s historic showing at the Rio Games with gold and silver on floor exercise Tuesday, the gymnasts headed straight over to USA Gymnastics’ outgoing matriarch for her approval.
Karolyi, the longtime U.S. women’s national team coordinator, was ready with a quick affirmation.
“And the ‘final two’ finished it off!” Karolyi told them gleefully, playing off the U.S. women team’s Final Five nickname they had given themselves, in part to honor Karolyi’s five Olympics, after winning gold in the team final a week before.
“It was a fantastic closing — a grand finale for the Olympic Games for gymnastics, and a grand finale for my long career in gymnastics,” Martha Karolyi said. “I feel fantastic. The girls did an excellent job. They again made a statement about the high level of U.S. gymnastics.”
As USA Gymnastics ended its magical run in Brazil, the women’s program justifiably was trumpeted for its resounding success: Of the U.S. Olympic team’s combined 12 total medals, nine came on the women’s side, four of them gold.
Biles had a hand in each, including team and individual golds in the all around, vault and floor exercise. She won a fifth medal – bronze — on balance beam. Before sunset Tuesday, Karolyi was once again lauding the diminutive gymnast as the best of her generation; Biles has won a U.S. record 18 individual medals combined in world and Olympic competition the last three years.
“I can’t believe she has four gold medals,” Raisman said. “I don’t even consider myself (like I’m) competing against her; she’s just in another level. I’m in awe watching her, and I’ve trained with her for so long. We always joke, and I think it was Laurie (Hernandez), who was like, ‘If you get silver again, you’re the best because Simone doesn’t count.'”
But Biles is so good in part because Raisman (whom Biles idolized watching on TV winning three medals at the 2012 London Games) is so good, and because the program is so good. It has become a cycle that keeps repeating itself.
Which brings us back to Karolyi, 73, who will officially retire from her position when the Rio Olympics are over. She has been in charge of the U.S. women’s program since after the 2000 Sydney Games, when she was elected — not appointed — to her post by USA Gymnastics to follow in the footsteps of her husband, Bela Karolyi.
Asked if she feels sad that her long career in the sport is ending, Martha Karolyi said: “It’s bittersweet a little bit, but you know what? I’m enjoying the moment. I’m so proud of these girls and so proud we were able to build this training system in the U.S., which really showed the superiority and competitiveness compared with other systems. So I’m going out very happy. I am very satisfied and I hope they’ll be able to keep the system.”
Steve Penny, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, says not to worry. The system is strong – and it’s not going anywhere.
“This isn’t just about a team,” Penny said. “We are a family and there is unity here. There’s no reason to necessarily re-invent something moving forward. What we have is a good system, and we need to continue to sustain it and bring it forward and perform at the highest possible level. That’s one thing that I think Martha has done. People have learned that it’s OK to train to be the very best — it’s ok to train to be perfect — because you’re able to come to the Olympics and perform at your very best.
“This team had a great mix of established world champions and established Olympic champions and a couple young ones. It was a real neat group of women who were able to come together and have an amazing team moment, and show the world that what we’re doing at USA Gymnastics and that the system that we have is a formula for sustained success. That’s what we’re trying to ensure, to make sure we have that so even as Martha transitions out of that role, that we have a formula for us moving forward.”
USA Gymnastics has already bought the training facilities at the Houston ranch where the Karolyis have operated since the 1980s. It has been the women’s program’s official team training center since 2000, and designated as their U.S. Olympic team site since 2011.
Penny said that a new women’s team program coordinator will be named within a month after the Olympics. The post-Olympic tour, the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, will kick off its 36-city tour in mid-September.
“My goal is within a month after the Olympic Games we’ll have the next person identified and named,” he said. “There’s no down time. We have a group of kids that are ready to go and we know who the likely people might be, and we have to sit down and have some very specific conversations and come to the conclusion.”
The Karolyis will still live at the ranch but not be involved with running the program. At the Rio Games, Penny often sat and watched the gymnastics competition alongside Martha and Bela at the arena.
“We’re thrilled with everything that’s happened here this week,” he said. “To be able to come back to the United States with the highest medal count that we’ve ever had on the women’s side, and for the guys to get themselves back on track, we feel like we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve.”
The U.S. Olympic men’s team matched its performance from 2012 in the team final, taking fifth. Danell Leyva, who was Team USA’s lone Olympic medalist in London (winning bronze in the all-around), won two individual silver medals in Rio on parallel bars and high bar, while Alex Naddour contributed with a bronze on pommel horse.
“The men had expectations to be back on the podium, and that’s what we want to be competing for,” Penny said. “We always want to be competing for that team medal. And I think the nature of men’s gymnastics is such that it’s such a tight group, but when you look at those top five or six countries, any margin of error can separate the medalists from the non-medalists. I think we have absolutely outstanding talent on our men’s side, and I think we incredible dedication and commitment across the board – we just need to figure out the formula of having the best day when we need to have the best day.”