About an hour outside Houston, at the end of a dirt road, sits a rambling ranch house where peacocks, emus and even a camel wander in the yard. It's hardly what you would expect the U.S. national training center for gymnastics to look like. But this is gym HQ because Bela and Martha Karolyi live here. Once a month, they open their 2,000-acre spread to a few elite gymnasts in an effort to return the U.S. to the glory of 1996. That was the year Martha coached the U.S. women's squad--the Magnificent Seven--to its first-ever team gold. You wouldn't know it, since her husband Bela, the coach of two of those gymnasts, got all the attention. And that was fine with Martha. "It's not me to be center page," she says. But as national team coordinator, Martha plans to repeat her Olympic feat and may just change that.
Most sports select their Olympians through open competitions, but USA Gymnastics has privatized the process, leaving it up to Martha and a two-member selection committee to handpick most of the young women who represent the U.S. It's a controversial system, but the logic is compelling: to win gold medals in gymnastics, you need a Karolyi.
Hurt by a failure to develop new stars, American women's gymnastics floundered in the years after the team's historic victory in Atlanta. Says USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi: "We had to do something." He pleaded for help from Bela, who was retired. Colarossi, Bela and Martha came up with a program that would not only improve the U.S.'s Olympic chances, but also keep the talent pipeline full. In 1999 Bela became the first national team coordinator (his wife succeeded him two years later), the gym czar with veto power over the Olympic team.
The trio came up with a new training scheme, a blend of the decentralized system so entrenched in the U.S. and the centralized institutional program that is the hallmark of gymnastics powers such as China, Russia and Romania, from where the Karolyis defected in 1981. "It's a semicentralized system that lets the girls live in their own homes year-round, and periodically they come together to train," says Martha, who assumed control of the training center as her husband moved away from coaching--apparently for good. "It is extremely important to train together regularly to have guidance and common ground so everybody is not coming from different places." The gymnasts invited to the ranch begin to bond as a team and get expert advice from Martha and a handful of specialists. The coaches scrutinize and refine techniques on each of the four apparatuses--balance beam, bars, vault and floor exercise.
Under the new selection plan, the top two finishers at the Olympic trials in June--Courtney Kupets, 18, and Courtney McCool, 16--got tickets to Athens. The team's remaining four members and two alternates were chosen after a two-day camp at the Karolyis' in July. Picking the right squad is more important this year because of new rules in the team event. Teams no longer have the luxury of dropping their lowest score on each apparatus. "There is absolutely no place for error," says Martha. "It's a harsh rule and demands 100% consistency."