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Meanwhile, back at their ranch . . .

Bela and Martha Karolyi prepare the best in U.S. women's gymnastics for the Olympics at a 2,000-acre facility in Texas. And the system is working.

May 11, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- There are no lions and tigers and bears (probably) at the Karolyi Ranch deep inside Sam Houston National Forest. No, but these 2,000 acres are full of camels, red deer, cows, bulls, peacocks, white swans, black ones too, seven dogs and loads of gymnasts who tumble off the buses that bring them here to live in cabins, navigate the wildlife and listen to the plain-spoken criticism of USA Gymnastics national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

"Back straighter please," Karolyi says to world all-around champion Shawn Johnson, 16, who quickly snaps out a kink invisible to everyone but Karolyi, Johnson and Johnson's coach Liang Chow.

"Nastia, please, no wobble," Karolyi advises Nastia Liukin, who recently beat Johnson in an all-around competition in New York. Liukin had seemed to move her left big toe slightly on completion of a tumbling pass on the balance beam.

The women of the United States senior national team have gathered at the ranch for the final time before they compete in the Visa National Championships in Boston June 5-7 and the U.S. Olympic team trials in Philadelphia June 19-22.

After those competitions, a training squad will be chosen to return in July to the ranch, where the rest of the six-member team plus two alternates will be chosen.

It is at this ranch where the U.S. has become the most formidable power in gymnastics.

After a disastrous 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where the U.S. won no medals and the athletes and coaches used words such as "unhappy," "bitter" and "disgusted," often aimed at team coordinator Bela Karolyi, something had to change.

It was clear that Karolyi's training experiment, where star pupils and their coaches had to come to the ranch once a month, was a bust. Many of those coaches didn't want to leave behind gyms they owned and operated, especially to hear themselves and their students bluntly criticized by an unforgiving Karolyi.

USA Gymnastics officials, however, felt the old system wasn't working either. Picking athletes for a world competition through gymnastics trials and then having those athletes train together for only a few days ahead of the event was leaving the U.S. behind.

The compromise was surprisingly simple: Top gymnasts would still come to the Karolyi ranch once a month. But Karolyi's wife, Martha, would be the inclusive force.

Since 2003, the U.S. women have won 29 Olympic and world championship medals. Last fall, the U.S. won the team gold medal at the 2007 world championships, and 15-year-old Johnson won the all-around gold medal.

This year Johnson and Liukin are co-favorites to win the Olympic all-around gold medal (Carly Patterson of the U.S. won in 2004), and the team is favored to win gold.

And coming to the ranch is a privilege akin to being accepted to Harvard or Stanford.

Alicia Sacramone, 20, the oldest member of the national team, remembered receiving her first invitation to the ranch when she was 14.

"I was petrified," she said. "I got on a bus from the airport to the middle of nowhere. I was petrified of the animals. When you're new, they put you way, way, way back by the lake in cabins with bunk beds and not much else. You walk to the gym, a nice 15-minute stroll in the morning and all you heard were animal sounds. I was such an outsider, I had no idea what this world was like."

Darling Hill, 18, of Mount Laurel, N.J., stumbled into gymnastics after performing a high-amplitude jump at a dance contest. Now she is a rising contender after her daring floor exercise routines filled with high-flying tumbling passes caught Martha Karolyi's eye.

Hill, who changed her name from Darlene to Darling, "just because," she says, received her first camp invitation about two years ago.

"I had heard Martha was looking at me," Hill said. "I didn't really know anything much about gymnastics and I was totally built different. I came here and no one knew me. I was the power child and I got here and my cellphone didn't work, there was no Internet, no TV and I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I cried. I honestly cried. I couldn't even call my grandma. I couldn't e-mail."

But Hill keeps coming back.

"If you're invited," she said, "you come."

Besides the old cabins out by the lake, there is a building with hotel-like accommodations that athletes can work up to. They still share rooms, but the building has a TV room with "good" cable, as Liukin described it, where teammates gather to watch their favorite shows. Also recently added was wireless Internet, a comfort to the gymnasts and their coaches who can more easily keep track of business back home.

Bela, whose title is director of the U.S. Women's National Team Training Center, carries around a ring of about 40 keys like a high school janitor. He jangles when he walks and laughs when he says he has no idea what doors most of the keys open. "But I'm afraid to throw any away," he said. "They might open a door I need."

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