RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Whoever succeeds Marta Karolyi as head coach of the American women’s gymnastics team will have some big sneakers to fill.
In her last act as U.S. team coordinator, Karolyi gave Simone Biles and Aly Raisman a pep talk in the dugout before the duo embarked on the Olympic floor exercise final.
Biles and Raisman must have heard the same motivational speech a hundred times before but standing to attention with their hands straight down their sides, they resembled two 10-year-olds who were on the verge of discovering something new.
It is this kind of discipline from Marta and her husband Bela Karolyi that laid the foundations of the most remarkable era in U.S. women’s gymnastics and as they headed into retirement, their first star pupil, Nadia Comaneci, called them “the greatest ever coaches”.
“Gold medals are won when you have a successful combination of a good coach with a talented athlete who is willing to follow the guidance given,” Comaneci told Reuters in an interview.
“They know how to motivate you to work harder in order to achieve your goals. They create a positive environment to make gymnasts work twice as hard as anyone else.
“If you look at the American team, there were no injuries, they were fresh and they were in the best possible shape. It is important someone can bring you to your peak form at the right time for an Olympics.”
Nine medals, including four golds for Biles, is Marta Karolyi’s Rio legacy. Add that tally to the haul the U.S. team have collected since the Romanian-born coach took charge of the centralized American set-up in 2001 and her total stands at a mind-boggling 96 world championship and Olympic medals.
Such success does not happen overnight.
American gymnastics was is disarray when Marta took over as national team coordinator, with the U.S. team having won a solitary bronze at the 2000 Sydney Games dominated by Russia and Romania.
That epic fail was blamed on the absence of any structured training program and Marta went about setting up a system where she would call the shots from her HQ in Huntsville, Texas, but at the same time work with the athletes’ personal coaches.
Gymnasts were expected to attend monthly training camps at the Karolyi Ranch, where progress would be monitored and coaches would get a chance to exchange notes with fellow trainers.
In less than a year, the Americans were back to their winning ways at the 2002 world championships and since then, the gold rush has been going on and on.
“They also worked out a plan on how to get the best out of gymnasts by working with the individual coaches,” added Comaneci.
“It’s not like Bela and Marta discovered Simone Biles... Aimee Boorman discovered Simone and works with her day-to-day but the two of them have flourished under Marta’s guidance. They have helped in getting her where she is today.
“All the organizing and detailing work all the coaches put in together under Marta’s supervision created this.”
For Marta, a career that burst into the spotlight when she and her husband guided Comaneci to the first perfect 10 at the Olympics in 1976 ended with unprecedented success for the Americans.
They have won five successive global team titles stretching back to the 2011 world championships, and such is their dominance that they blew out the opposition in Rio by a record margin of 8.209 points.
“It’s not like the U.S. team came here to compete, they came here to make a statement,” said the 54-year-old Comaneci, who turned heads on the final day of competition as she walked into the arena in a striking snake-skin printed jacket and white heels.
So what makes the Karolyis so unique?
“The most important thing is to combine excellence with longevity. You can have excellence for a fleeting moment and then go away and people forget about you,” she added.
“But to be able to continue that from Romania, then Mary Lou (Retton’s all around triumph) in 84 and then all the years up till now… it’s incredible.
“Even though they are in their 70s ... you want them to go on and on.”
The Karolyis’ ‘hall of fame’ includes Olympic champions such as Kerri Strug and the last four all around gold medalists — Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and Biles. Never before had a single nation won four successive Olympic all around titles.
With so much success, can Karolyi really pass on the baton?
Karolyi herself admitted that she would “probably ... take a peek” to make sure her successor is taking things “in the right direction” since the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center will remain based in the premises of the Karolyi Ranch.
Comaneci thinks otherwise.
“She’s already said once before she was going to retire and then didn’t….They might be leaving the sport officially but I don’t think they will go.
“They won’t be able to stay away. But this legacy of 40 years is really incredible.”
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Clare Lovell