Meet the coach with a 50 year career in gymnastics and the woman behind Team USA’s success at Rio 2016.
Many sports fans know the USA women’s gymnastics team as a sports powerhouse that wins Olympic medals in individual and team competitions, but this wasn’t so until Marta Karolyi took over the national team along with her husband Bela Karolyi.
Having dedicated more than 50 years to the sport of gymnastics, according to NPR, Marta is retiring after the 2016 Rio Olympics at the age of 73. These Games are her last and fourth Games as national team coordinator for the USA, and her achievements are especially notable considering the limited opportunities that many female sports coaches continue to face today.
Both Marta and Bela have been at the forefront of gymnastics since their coaching days in their native Romania, one of their most famous gymnasts having been Nadia Comaneci. Under the Karolyis, she won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics and obtained the first perfect 10 score. Years later they defected to the United States, and transformed the national team.
While her husband Bela received most of the attention for his outspoken ways, Marta was an important factor in the success of the gymnasts they worked with. As Yahoo Sports reports, Bela worked as head coach for Team USA from 1988 1o 1996, when Marta took over; it was then that a centralized training system was put in place, and a team approach was established. Under this system, the American gymnastics team won gold in 1996.
That same year, the Karolyis retired from coaching, and Bela became national team coordinator in 1999, only to be replaced by Marta a couple of years later. As Mary Lou Retton put it, “What most people don’t realize is that Marta has always been the engine behind it.”
Some of the U.S. Olympic greats that have been pupils of Marta include Kerri Strug, Mary Lou Retton, Nastia Liukin and the 2016 Final Five, which were named in Marta’s honor. These athletes are Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, and Gabby Douglas.
A tough coach Marta (and Bela in his time) has been somewhat controversial in the strict treatment of gymnasts. At the same time, it’s been the Karolyi approach that has produced such outstanding results. As far as the legacy is concerned after retirement, Dvora Meyers who wrote a book that discussed the Karolyis, said:
“When I think about her and Bela, and especially with Marta, they built two gymnastics powerhouses in two different countries. Putting their methods aside and whether or not you agree with how they coach, I think it’s a real testament to sort of their vision and their leadership abilities.”
Whoever replaces Marta, a former gymnast herself, as national team coordinator will have big shoes to fill. However, the Karolyi system has proved so successful that the foundation they’ve built will probably help USA Gymnastics to continue to dominate.
The next time you look at the medals and admire much of the history that has been made by women’s gymnastics in the USA, Marta Karolyi was guiding the way.
Bio: Mariela Santos-Muniz has an M.A. in International Relations and International Communications from Boston University, and a B.A. in Humanities from the Universidad del Turabo. A sports fan, she blogs at WMN Sports World, about women in sports. You can follow on Twitter @WMNSportsWorld.