After 40 years helping some of the greatest gymnasts of all time soar to Olympic gold – from Nadia Comaneci to Mary Lou Retton to Nastia Liukin – Martha Karolyi is ready to say goodbye. The U.S. women’s national team coordinator is retiring after the 2016 Games.
The five-woman group Karolyi is bringing to Rio de Janeiro – Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez – has the perfect going away present in mind: Gold. Lots and lots of gold. Maybe all six available, something that’s never been done by one country in a single Olympiad.
It’s a testament to the empire Karolyi has built since taking over the program in 2001 that it’s not merely just hype but entirely plausible, a luxury afforded when you have the three-time reigning world champion (Biles), the defending Olympic champion (Douglas), a three-time Olympic medalist (Raisman) and the reigning uneven bars world champion (Kocian) on the roster.
The gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world has grown since the “Fierce Five” rolled to the team gold four years ago. The chance of anyone overcoming it is akin to the odds of Michael Jordan and the original “Dream Team” falling in Barcelona in 1992. No one came close back then. If the Americans do what they’ve done at every major international event since 2011, Karolyi’s final meet will be more of an extended victory lap.
Some things to watch for as the rest of the world looks for a pony-tailed version of “The Miracle On Ice” in search of an upset:
THE SIMONE SHOW
The 19-year-old Biles has spent the last three years pushing the boundaries of her sport while putting together a winning streak that is three years and counting, with no apparent end in sight. She’s won 14 world championship medals (10 of them gold) since 2013 and is poised to become the fourth straight American to win the Olympic all-around gold. The Spring, Texas, native is a mix of athleticism and daring. Her “Amanar” vault is the closest gymnastics gets to perfection these days, and there’s a real chance she could win up to five medals on her own: team, all-around, vault, floor exercise and balance beam.
ENCORE PART 1
Douglas is attempting to become the first reigning all-around champion to repeat in nearly 50 years. While topping Biles seems unlikely, the 20-year-old Douglas could follow in the footsteps of Comaneci, who won the all-around in Montreal in 1976 and earned silver in Moscow in 1980. Douglas’ path back to the Olympics has been bumpy of late. Though she was runner-up to Biles at the 2015 world championships and captured the American Cup in March, she struggled at times during the selection process and parted with coach Kittia Carpenter in early July.
ENCORE PART 2
Raisman was the oldest member of the “Fierce Five” in London while winning three medals, including gold on floor exercise. The 22-year-old (nicknamed “Grandma” by some of her younger teammates) heads to Rio as arguably the best gymnast on the planet not named Biles. Raisman was second to Biles at both the U.S. championships and the Olympic Trials. She credited longtime coach Mihai Brestyan and her commitment to doing “8 million routines” as the key to her resurgence at a time when some American stars are well into retirement.
MISSING IN ACTION
Romania, which has finished on the podium in every Olympics since 1976, failed to qualify for the team competition after struggling at the 2015 world championships last fall and slumping at the end of the Rio Test Event in April. An injury to star Larisa Lordache didn’t help. The Romanians will be represented by just one gymnast, 28-year-old Catalina Ponor, who will be making her fourth Olympic appearance and serve as her country’s flag bearer during opening ceremonies.
THE BRITISH ARE COMING
While longtime powers like Romania and Russia have slipped in recent years, Great Britain’s program has been on the rise. The Brits finished third in the team competition at worlds last fall, the first ever team medal at the world championships in the program’s history. The core of that group: sisters Becky and Ellie Downie, Claudia Fragapane, Amy Tinkler and Ruby Harrold, will try to take an even greater step in Rio.
Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan competed in her first Olympics before most of the women she will be competing against in Brazil were born. The 41-year-old will be the oldest female gymnast in Olympic history when she appears in her seventh games. Her best chance to medal will come on vault, an event she won silver on in Beijing eight years ago.
“It’s a pity there are no points for age,” Chusovitina said.
The 16-year-old Hernandez is the youngest member of Team USA, yet she’s hardly intimidated by the stage. Her charismatic performance on floor exercise – where she struts to the music with the attitude of a supermodel on the runway – earned her the nickname “Baby Shakira” as a junior. Hernandez calls her gymnastics “sassy,” though she combines with a skill level that few can match.