NOW ITS MARTHA KAROLYI LEADING THE CHARGE (HOUSTON CHRONICLE)
By David Barron
NEW WAVERLY -- Paul Wise has been around gymnasts and gymnastics since 1992, when he began dating Andrea Karolyi, the only child of Bela and Martha Karolyi. Paul and Andrea were married in 1998, and they assist the Karolyis at the family's ranch and gymnastics camp in the Sam Houston National Forest north of Houston.
In both roles, as son-in-law and employee, Wise has had a front-row seat for a remarkable transformation that has, in turn, transformed the USA Gymnastics women's program.
"It's the funniest thing," he said. "Every year at the camps, the girls would see Andrea and say, `Oh, look. There's Bela's daughter.'
"Now they say, `Oh, look. There's Martha's daughter.' "
Such a simple change, but one fraught with tremendous significance for the United States' medal hopes at the 2004 Athens Olympics and for the internal harmony of a sport too often prone to jealousy and fractious infighting.
Those battles are, for the most part, a thing of the past. And a large measure of the credit goes to the quiet, dark-eyed woman with the bright smile and steely gaze who after 30 years in the background is the most visible figure in one of the Games' most visible sports.
Three months after the U.S. team's disappointing fourth-place finish in Sydney, Martha Karolyi succeeded her husband in January 2001 as national team coordinator. Since 2002, the U.S. women have not lost a major international competition, including the 2003 world championships, and they are prohibitive favorites to win the team gold medal in Athens.
"Finally she is able to get that recognition, and that has been exciting for her and for us as a family," Andrea Wise said. "All the kids see her and say, `Wow, it's Martha.' ... It's her turn to show that she's as knowledgeable as my dad when it comes to coaching."
It's been quite a revelation, but not for knowledgeable insiders such as the Karolyis' first outstanding pupil, five-time Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci. Or their first American star, 1984 all-around gold medalist Mary Lou Retton. Or Bela Karolyi himself.
"She was always the one who was taking care of the everyday schedules, and I was promoting them in front of the audience," Bela Karolyi said. "She is now on her own, and she gets the credit for what has happened. And I am so pleased."
Said Retton: "Twenty-five years ago, in my day, Martha was everything. Bela was the showman and the promoter, but he would have been a lost puppy without Martha.
"He was in there motivating us, but Martha was the one who had the schedule. She knew that she would be on balance beam for 45 minutes and then would do conditioning. She has been the rock, and that is why they have worked together so well."
Most importantly, Martha has in spades the one element Bela Karolyi has lacked -- the gentle art of tact and diplomacy.
"He is more direct," she said, laughing heartily. "Maybe I have a little more patience ... but I also have the same expectations. Maybe I can present them a little bit smoother."Humble beginnings
The Karolyis have been the first couple of world gymnastics since the mid-1970s. Martha, the daughter of a bank vice president and a schoolteacher, was a high school gymnast before she met Bela while both attended Romania's national sports college.
After they graduated and were married, they moved to the coal mining town of Onesti, where they prepared to implement the radical coaching plans they developed in college.
"We selected extremely young children who we believed had the ability to become strong gymnasts if you gave them good, long periods of development," Martha said. "It was a little controversial because it was a big change. I started gymnastics when I was 13, and now we were working with girls who were 6 and 7."
One of them was Comaneci, 6, whom Martha Karolyi spotted while choreographing a kindergarten play. Comaneci went on to win three gold medals at the 1976 Olympics, scoring a series of perfect 10.0 routines, and also won the all-around silver at the 1980 Games.
"The most important thing about Martha is that she was a woman," Comaneci said. "Being women, there are some things we can't talk to the guys about -- the little things that matter. She was always there to listen."
Despite their success, the Karolyis fell out of favor with the Romanian government when Bela criticized the judging during the 1980 Moscow Olympics. They defected to New York in March 1981, leaving daughter Andrea, who was 7, with relatives in Romania.
"We were happy and successful (in Romania), but we thought we would like to come to a place with more democracy and more freedom, where work and talent is appreciated," Martha Karolyi said.
Bela Karolyi was working as a painter at Los Angeles International Airport when he spotted gymnast Bart Conner, whom he met in the mid-1970s, walking through the airport. Conner got him in touch with his coach, Paul Ziert, now the publisher of International Gymnast magazine, and the Karolyis moved to Houston to work at a gym near FM 1960.
"We realized the only way to get our program going and to make it successful was to own the gym," Martha Karolyi said. "We had to have the right to organize things, not have somebody telling us what to do. In a year, we were able to get a loan and buy the gym."
In the meantime, with the help of Rep. Bill Archer of Houston, they were able to arrange for Andrea, who was living with an aunt, to join them in the United States. The family learned English from Andrea's second-grade textbooks and from Sesame Street and other children's TV shows.Ups and downs
In less than two years after moving to the United States, the Karolyis built one of the nation's best elite programs. Diane Durham won the national all-around title in 1983, and Retton and Julianne McNamara won national titles in 1984 en route to spots on that year's Olympic team.
The Karolyis produced two more Olympians in 1988 (Phoebe Mills and Chelle Stack), three in 1992 (Betty Okino, Kerri Strug and 1991 world champion Kim Zmeskal) and two in 1996 (Strug and Dominique Moceanu
Martha Karolyi was head coach of the women's team in Atlanta. But it was Bela who soaked up the airtime by carrying Strug to the medals podium after she was treated for an ankle injury suffered on vault, her final event.
The Karolyis retired from coaching after the 1996 Olympics, but Bela was summoned as national team coordinator after the U.S. women finished a dismal sixth in the 1999 world championships.
He quickly assembled a training schedule that included centralized team camps at the Karolyi ranch every month, a practice that continues today. But his authoritarian style did not sit well with the athletes' personal coaches -- an ironic twist, because the Karolyis had for years battled to protect the personal coach's role in the national training process.
"He (Bela Karolyi) was not elected. He was appointed," said Kelli Hill, coach of 2000 national champion and Olympian Elise Ray and 2004 national champion and Olympian-to-be Courtney Kupets. "We would have done better in 2000 without a change in systems that close to the Olympics. We (the coaches) needed to have a say in what we wanted to do, going forward from 2000."New day, new way
"There is a saying in Romania," Comaneci said. "People who do a lot don't talk a lot."
So when USA Gymnastics women's team officials considered candidates to succeed Bela Karolyi in 2001, they opted for a quieter approach.
"The coaches wanted to have her expertise. They wanted that information and knowledge, but they wanted things to be more American," said Kathy Kelly, director of women's programs for the federation. "I went to her and explained what we had in mind and said, `Just remember, a true leader doesn't need to dictate, and you are a true leader. If your plan is good, they will follow.' "
With a Karolyi kept in the job, coaches and athletes also retained access to the family's 2,000-acre ranch, which was designated in 2001 as the national women's training center. Martha was in charge of training schedules; Bela focused on development, raising money from donors to build a second fully equipped gym and a separate floor exercise choreography room, increasing the amount of gym space at the ranch to more than 30,000 square feet.
As the monthly camps progressed, the women's talent base expanded, so much so the United States probably today could field at least two six-member teams in Athens capable of winning medals.
Martha was not eager to become the public face of the women's program, but she has grown into the job. After all, when it came to dealing with the public, she learned from the best. And when it came to dealing with the individual coaches' egos, ambitions and desires for their gymnasts, she learned from Bela's successes and mistakes.
"She could watch from the background and see how my dad reacted to the public and media, and then she just stepped right in," Andrea Wise said. "She words things more delicately, but she makes sure that everybody knows what she thinks."
She's so alert she can give young gymnasts the willies. Every elite gymnast at every training camp knows that, like the eyes of Texas, Martha's eyes always are upon them.
"It was a little intimidating at first," said Olympic team member Carly Patterson, the 2004 co-national all-around champion. "I was nervous when I met her because I wanted her to like me. She watches everything you do, and you always have to be prepared."
"I'm an organized person," Martha Karolyi said. "I expect things to be done precisely and correctly, and the girls know that. I don't think I'm mean or ugly, but everybody knows what to expect if they are late or sloppy in a workout. ... I expect them to follow instructions."A fine line
But Martha always remembers the line she cannot and will not cross when it comes to the delicate balance between coach and athlete.
"When we are at camp, the real workouts are run by the individual coaches. They know best the needs of the individual gymnasts," she said. "We have things that are required to be done, but they have the freedom to train their own gymnast.
"I was a personal coach for many years, and I wouldn't like somebody ordering around my gymnasts. If I am a coach and if somebody has an observation, come to me. I'll think about it and find a way to apply it if I agree. It's an important point."
It's the tie that binds the nation's elite coaches, and their athletes, to an unbroken run of success that likely will culminate in Athens with the best U.S. women's team in Olympic history.
"She has such a way of discussing and talking and organizing, meticulously preparing the training camps," Bela said. "It provides a calm atmosphere and a feeling among the coaches that they are appreciated and that their opinions are considered. She has patience. She communicates. It's so nice to see."