The biggest name in American gymnastics, the outsized personality, is Bela.
Everyone, it seems, knows Bela Karolyi. In their minds’ eye, they can see Bela with Nadia Comaneci, and that was in 1976, well before Bela and his wife, Martha, made their way to the west. They can see Bela with Mary Lou Retton in Los Angeles in 1984. Perhaps most memorably, there is Bela holding Kerri Strug after Kerri’s vault in Atlanta in 1996.
Bela is and forever will be Bela.
You know what, though? Martha is formidable, as everyone who is close to the sport has well understood for a very long time, and the American women proved it yet again Tuesday, winning the 2011 team world championship in Tokyo with a roster missing the stars most casual American gymnastics fans have come to know over the past few years.
This was a young team, a new team, and still the Americans didn’t miss a beat.
Indeed, by the final rotation, the floor exercise, the U.S. team was so far ahead of the defending world champion Russians that the final American up, 17-year-old Aly Raisman, only had to score better than an 11 — a really low score in elite gymnastics — for the U.S. to win. She did, easily, with a 14.666, and the celebration was on.
The Americans finished with 179.411, more than four full points ahead of the Russians, with 175.329. China took third, with 172.820.
The U.S. men, meanwhile, won their first world team medal in eight years on Wednesday — a bronze, missing silver by a mere 0.010. China won gold, Japan silver.
The 2011 world title matches the gold medals the U.S. women won in 2007 and 2003. It also makes the U.S. women favorites for team gold next summer in London.
“This team victory exemplifies the amazing program that has emerged over the past 11 years under the leadership of Martha Karolyi,” Steve Penny, the president and chief executive officer of USA Gymnastics, said.
“The athletes, coaches and everyone connected to the program contributed to this success. This,” he said, “is another very proud moment.”
This also underscores, yet again, that the Martha Karolyi way, which means the American way in women’s gymnastics, works — a direct challenge to, for instance, the Chinese, or others, compelled from their youngest years to live away from home, away from their families, and do gymnastics in a state-sponsored system.
Martha is the U.S. team’s national coordinator. She and Bela have a ranch down in New Waverly, Texas, out in the woods about an hour’s drive north of Houston’s international airport.
Here’s the essence of the Karolyi way:
Promising gymnasts live at home and train at their local gyms with their own coaches. On a regular basis, they come to the Karolyi Ranch, where the girls train under Martha’s watchful eye — and the coaches, not incidentally, learn and share together.
Make no mistake. Martha is demanding, physically and mentally. And the U.S. selection process, under Martha’s direction, is rigorous, intentionally so.
But here is the thing. If Martha is exacting, Martha is not outrageous. There is a fine line, and she walks it. It’s why gymnasts who have lived the Karolyi way come back for more, sometimes years later. They know that she not only can but does bring out their best.
At the same time, this, too: gymnastics can be really hard on the body. As this summer proved, that means pressure all around — on the girls and on Martha, too.
The U.S. selection process included the national championships and then two more competition-style training camps at the Karolyi Ranch.
At the championships, Chellsie Memmel — who was on the silver medal-winning 2008 U.S. Olympic team — suffered a shoulder injury on the uneven bars. At the same meet, Rebecca Bross, the 2010 U.S. all-around champion, hurt her knee.
At one of the selection camps, Mackenzie Caquatto hurt her ankle. Then, in Japan, uneven bars specialist Anna Li strained an abdominal muscle; and, finally, almost unbelievably, Alicia Sacramone, the U.S. team captain, tore an Achilles tendon during a practice tumbling pass.
Shawn Johnson, the Olympic gold medalist on the balance beam in 2008? She wasn’t available in Tokyo. In the midst of a comeback from a knee injury, she’s due to be competing at the Pan Am Games later this month in Mexico.
Nastia Liukin, the all-around gold medalist from Beijing? She wasn’t in Tokyo, either. She just announced an intent to mount a comeback for London.
Bridget Sloan, who like Shawn and Nastia was on the 2008 Beijing team? Like Shawn, Bridget will be at the Pan Ams.
Several of the other teams in Tokyo had six healthy athletes. The U.S. women had only five: Raisman; Jordyn Wieber; McKayla Maroney; Sabrina Vega; Gabrielle Douglas.
This kind of intensity is also the Karolyi way.
Raisman gathered the others around and said, in essence, let’s do this. “I told all the girls, ‘We’re going to remember this for the rest of our lives and just to go out there and own it and have fun.”
Wieber, the 2011 U.S. all-around champ, said, “We were confident and aggressive and we just did our job. It turned out awesome.”
Here’s an exclamation point to the awesomeness:
The Americans ended up with 46.816 points on the vault — more than two points better than any of the other teams, and that without Sacramone, the 2010 world champion in the vault.
Because Sacramone was officially a member of the team, she earned a 10th world championship medal. That’s an American record. She had been tied with Liukin and Shannon Miller, with nine.
Martha observed that this was a “very young team” and that they had “prepared physically very well,” but “we were not so sure if they would hold up very well under the pressure.”
She said, “These girls proved they did the right preparation, physically and mentally,” and if you know Martha you know that “mentally” was absolutely the key. “I’m very proud of them.”
She also said, “I’m very satisfied. This is my passion. Every time the results come out as you plan, you are certainly extremely happy. That’s how I feel today — happy and proud of the program and of these young ladies.”