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Final Bow for Martha Karolyi, the Woman Who Lifted U.S. Gymnastics

Final Bow for Martha Karolyi, the Woman Who Lifted U.S. Gymnastics


RIO DE JANEIRO — In her 11 Olympics as a coach or leader of a gymnastics team, Martha Karolyi, the often stone-faced and certainly serious coordinator of the United States women’s gymnastics national team, has cried only twice.

Once was at her first Games, in 1976, when she and her husband, Bela, led Nadia Comaneci to a gold medal in the all-around.

From her seat in the Rio Olympic Arena, just above the balance beam, Karolyi’s eyes grew wet behind her glasses as she watched her squad dominate and win the team gold medal. The American team was dazzling — the best team ever, Karolyi acknowledged afterward — as it won in a landslide over Russia, finishing ahead by 8.2 points, a grand canyon of a gap in asport that calculates margins by thousandths of a point.

Just before the medal ceremony, the United States team ran over to Karolyi to celebrate and shared some news: They finally had come up with a nickname for themselves.

At the 2012 London Games, where her United States team also won gold, it called itself the Fierce Five. This time, the gymnasts told Karolyi, the team wants to be known as the Final Five.

Final Five, partly because this is the last Olympics where five women will be on each team. The next Olympics will have only four per team.

But Final Five mainly because this is Karolyi’s final Olympics. She is 73 and, after about 40 years in the sport, she is retiring when the Rio Games end.

Hearing that the team wanted to honor her, Karolyi began to weep. She gathered the gymnasts for a group hug of sparkly red, white and blue leotards and told them she loved them.

“From my nature, I’m really not a sentimental person, honestly,” Karolyi said afterward. “I’m known for being very tough. So I felt, ‘Oh, what’s happening to me? What is this?’”

She paused.

“It’s just, Final Five,” she said, before trailing off as she teared up again. “It’s crushing.”

Crushing because, within about a week’s time, a lifetime of successful elite gymnastics will come to an end. It can’t last forever, after all. Karolyi, who wears a bejeweled Team U.S.A. necklace, said it’s time for her to be “a normal person” again. Her plan, Bela said, is to visit her family back in her native Romania, maybe spend four or five months there out of the year.

Her career was so good while it lasted.

In the mid-’70s, she and Bela began coaching together in Romania and became a power couple in the sport. He was the boisterous cheerleader, the emotional one. She was the quiet technician who knew exactly how to tweak a gymnast to make her great.

And through the years, they trained so many greats.

In Romania, it was Comaneci. Then, after they moved to the United States, it was Mary Lou Retton, who won an Olympic gold medal in the all-around in 1984. Next came Kim Zmeskal, the world champion in the all-around in 1991, and Kerri Strug, the sweetheart of the 1996 Atlanta Games. […]

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