As an Era Ends, a Look Back at Martha Karolyi’s Gymnastics Legacy


If you followed the gymnastics competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics – and we’re sure you did to at least some extent – the you probably know that at the end of the women’s competition, when the US’ ‘Final Five’ emerged even more triumphant than many people had expected, it was a slightly bitter sweet occasion, as for the legendary Martha Karolyi it marked the last time she would lead the US team, as she has now joined her equally iconic husband Bela in retirement after almost half a century of coaching some of the best gymnasts in the world. And to mark the occasion we thought we’d take a look back at her stellar career and the impact she’s had, especially on the success of US gymnasts.

In the Beginning

As a young woman Martha Erőss was a competitive gymnast herself, in her native Romania. While enrolled as a full time college student at the Romania College of Physical Education, her gymnastics coach was a rather young and dashing hammer throwing Olympian named Béla Károlyi. And while she never did quite make the Olympics, she did believe she had met the man of her dreams and the pair married in 1963.

Deciding what to do with their lives together, the Karoylis moved back to the small mining village where Béla had grown up and opened a modest gymnastics school within the confines of the local elementary school. Within a few years however the couple’s reputation as an excellent coaching duo led to them being invited by the government of the day to set up a national training school.

In scouting for gymnasts for those first classes, the Karoylis made a habit of visiting a number of schools all over the country. At one, they encountered a particularly talented six year old girl called Nadia Comăneci and the rest, as they say, is history. Nadia was Martha’s first personal prodigy, but there were many more to come.

Coming to the USA

Already known worldwide after the successes of their teams, especially Nadia, in world and Olympic competitions, the Karoylis made a big decision in 1981, deciding to leave behind the oppressive political climate of the time in Romania and defect to the United States.

With their stellar reputation as a solid reference the Karoylis set up their first US training facility in Houston, Texas and quickly had many potential students eager to learn from them. One of those early students was a young girl called Mary Lou Retton, who had lobbied hard to be allowed to leave her home in West Virginia to head to Texas to become a live in student at the Karoyli facility.

At a time where the sport of women’s gymnastics was almost completely dominated by the Soviet Union, Mary Lou changed the face of gymnastics in America. At the 1984 Olympic Games, Mary Lou needed to score a perfect 10 on her final event, the vault, to win the first ever Olympic all-around title for an American woman. In front of a home crowd, she did it. Mary Lou was America’s first gymnastics sweetheart and from there, a new standard was set for the sport in the United States. Enrollment to the Karoyli’s gym multiplied by hundreds within weeks; because it seemed that everyone wanted to be just like Mary Lou.

Martha and the National Team

The Karoylis made a decision, in 1996, that they would retire from coaching individual gymnasts. Bela was then named the head of the US National team program and along with Martha implemented a ‘unified’ training system that is still in place today. Although each girl now had her own coach in the interests of team unity it was agreed that once a month would come together to train at “The Ranch,” a 2,000 acre ranch built by Bela himself. But in 2000 he decided that it was time for him to retire and he handed over his duties to his wife.

Gymnasts who particularly credit Martha as the catalyst for their stellar careers include all of the members of the Magnificent Seven and the Fierce Five, as well as the Final Five who proudly named themselves as a nod to the fact that they would be her final team.

Martha may now officially be retired and the couple may have officially sold ‘The Ranch’ to USA Gymnastics but as the couple still live right next door she has admitted it may be hard to stay away completely, so perhaps another generation of gymnasts will get to benefit from her wisdom after all.


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