Every month 20 to
25 girls leave their home gyms—reigning world all-around champion Shawn Johnson
travels south from West Des Moines, Iowa; other members of last year's
gold-medal-winning world championship team come in from Indianapolis, Orlando
and other gyms in Texas—for four-to-five-day testing camps, supervised by
national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. Her husband, Bela, molder of Olympic
champions such as Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, built the gym and ranch
in 1984, three years after he and Martha defected from Romania. In part through
the force of Bela's personality, the gym has become the centerpiece of what is
one of the strongest women's gymnastics programs in the world.
some time the most advanced gymnastics countries were taking a centralized
approach to training," says Bela. "We were not, and it showed."
After USA Gymnastics designated his gym as the national team's official
training center in 2001, Karolyi started running an especially rigorous series
of drills to increase strength, flexibility and stamina. Among them: 10
consecutive handstand presses, a handstand hold for 60 seconds, a timed rope
climb with outstretched legs and pointed toes and 20 leg lifts from a hanging
position, touching toes to fingertips. He also staged mock competitions that
mimicked world and Olympic events in every detail, down to the gymnasts' march
into the room and the acknowledgment of the judges.
improved, many personal coaches squawked about the camps, in part because of
Bela's domineering style. In 2001 Bela ceded the reins to Martha, who began
running the camps using her husband's prototype while also reaching out to the
personal coaches for ideas. (Bela still insists that the magnet on the
Karolyis' refrigerator that reads EVERYBODY IS ENTITLED TO MY OPINION actually
belongs to Martha.)
since warmed to the camps, which are both demanding and inspiring. A walk of
fame at the ranch shows the names of U.S. gymnastics Olympians and world team
members. Because gymnasts live at the ranch during the camps, the gatherings
build camaraderie. There are lighter moments: "We'll be working out, and
suddenly a horse will be looking in the window," says Samantha Peszek, a
2007 world team member. Stroll around the 2,000-acre ranch, which has turkeys,
antelopes, emus and other creatures, and you might find Bela talking in his
fractured English to an 18 months pregnant camel, "When you going to give
up the baby, Elvira? We waiting on you."
There will be
little joking around come summer. Though Olympic trials will be held in
Philadelphia in June, Martha will have a say in the final team selections after
a camp at the ranch starting on July 16. No spectators will be allowed, and the
gymnasts will be seeking the approval of only one judge. "It's one kind of
pressure to perform your best routines in front of 10,000 people," says the
16-year-old Johnson, "but it's a different pressure when you have to
perform them in front of Martha."
At the USOC's warm-weather training center, bikers careen down a new course
tailor-made for Beijing training
IN THE race for
medal supremacy this summer the U.S. has tried to stave off the competition by
creating a world-class practice course at the Olympic Training Center in Chula
Vista for riders in bicycle motocross (BMX). That event makes its Olympic debut
in Beijing and features races among eight riders who bump, jump and knock
elbows for position on a quarter-mile rolling, banked dirt track.
often dominate the sport, the Chinese designed and began their Olympic training
on a so-called supercross course, far gnarlier than ones on the international
circuit. The start hill, a six- to 12-foot drop on a regular BMX track, will be
30 feet high in Beijing. Speeds will reach 40 mph at the bottom of the course,
almost twice as fast as on a more traditional layout. "It's
jaw-dropping," says U.S. rider Donny Robinson, a 2006 world champion, who
won the Beijing test event last August. "Unless you know what you're doing,
you're seriously out of your element."
After seeing the
Olympic course, the USOC and USA Cycling constructed a $500,000 run with
identical specs at the Chula Vista center, a 150-acre site just south of San
Diego that is a training ground for archers, canoeists, softball players, track
and field athletes, and many others. Though BMXers have competed on temporary
supercross tracks over the years, the Chula Vista course, which opened in
January, is one of three permanent ones in the world.
The U.S. riders
appreciate the help to prepare for some wild rides in Beijing. "On a
regular BMX course, you can sort of roll through a jump," says Kyle
Bennett, the current world No. 1. "With [the Olympic course], you're
committed to [flying off] the jump because of the height and speed. Fans will
trip out when they see it."