Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Martha: The Great Chess Master
Martha Karolyi is approximately 18 months away from retirement. As she prepares for her final Olympic Games as a coach or administrator, she seems to be making a concerted effort to be going out with the best possible result. A graduate of the school of sport, Martha knows all about using psychological tactics in order to maximize athletic performance, work ethic and ultimately, competition results. As a personal coach, Martha (and Bela) trained elite athletes in groups of six. At the core of each group were two rivals.
When Kim Zmeskal emerged through the ranks, she always had another gymnast to frustrate her, motivate her, compete with her and push her on a daily basis. The Karolyis would pit their athletes against one another, often intentionally, to maximize work in the gym. They figured out the best way to motivate each gymnast. Kim Zmeskal was best motivated by being ignored, so Martha and Bela would shift their attention and praise to Amanda Uhereck (who became Betty Okino and then Kerri Strug---when Betty was too broken.) In the process, one of the athletes typically rises and then the other one. Dianne Durham had Mary Lou Retton. Kristie Phillips had Phoebe Mills. Nadia had Teodora.
As it stands, the US hit well enough at Worlds to be currently ranked second. On paper, the team was probably only bronze-medal worthy if all teams hit. With the 2012 Olympics approaching, the National Team has training duos established in four gyms (soon to be five) that could push the country to greater heights. It is difficult to change coaches once a member of the National Team, as they do not want friction at the monthly training camps. Yet, Martha Karolyi and Kathy Kelly encouraged Gabrielle Douglas to move to Chow's in her quest for an Olympic spot. Not coincidently, Shawn Johnson happened to be in the gym trying to make a challenging comeback after a serious knee injury.
Right now, many of the key figures of the 2011 World Championship and 2012 Olympic Teams are training daily with someone else to piss them off to greater heights.
WOGA: Nastia Liukin, Rebecca Bross, Ivana Hong
Brestyan's: Alicia Sacramone, Aly Raisman
AOGC: Mattie Larson, McKayla Maroney (with Anna Li for the next 6 weeks and oft-injured Shapiro)
Chow's: Gabrielle Douglas and Shawn Johnson
Legacy Elite: Anna Li and Bridgey Caquatto
Bridgey Caquatto is definitely an athlete who is used to being pushed by another gymnast. The surprise addition of Anna Li to the mix will only help her in her quest. Some athletes even benefit from a training partner after being the sole elite in their gym for many years. Bridget Sloan reached the peak of her career when Sam Peszek was at her side. Sloan has made it known to college recruiter's that training is not her cup of tea, but it isn't difficult to imagine that having hard-working Peszek may have pushed her to train just a bit more intensely. It is also easier for the National Team to divert resources around the country by having their staff work with the gymnasts on home-visits.
At January's training camp, Martha implored the gymnasts and coaches to work on big combinations of skills on Balance Beam and Uneven Bars. Out-maneuvered by Team China in '08, Martha saw the Russians at Worlds and knows the US needs to be dominant across the board. Don't be shocked if she becomes increasingly supportive of Nastia Liukin, Chellsie Memmel and Anna Li in the coming months. The US needs much greater bars depth if it is to have any hope of being a contender this go-round.
Martha and Bela have always liked having teams with a mix of veterans of new-comers. Cue Bela talking about generations colliding, as he has that speech down pat. Martha has spent considerable effort grooming girls like Vega, Raisman, Ross and Wieber. As those girls become more seasoned, Maroney has become the new apple of her eye. Note that while Martha encouraged Gabrielle Douglas to switch gyms, she discouraged coaches from taking on Mattie Larson and had them tell her to 'work it out' with her coaches. Mattie is unlikely to make another major international team, but she is still useful to Martha by hopefully sharpening McKayla into an Olympian.
Raisman will represent the US at next month's American Cup, which will mark her second appearance at the 'prestigious' event. With another trip to Worlds likely forthcoming, the teenager may just wind up overtaking her veteran training partner for an Olympic spot.