It’s an exciting time for U.S. women’s gymnastics, with Simone Biles winning competitions in record fashion and the comebacks of London Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman.
The woman at the helm of the program is longtime national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who spoke with OlympicTalk following the AT&T American Cup on Saturday (won by Biles) and ahead of the Jesolo Trophy in Italy in two weeks.
Here are highlights from the conversation:
OlympicTalk: What did you think of the performances from winner Simone Biles and second-place MyKayla Skinner at the AT&T American Cup?
Karolyi: I was pleased with what the girls did, and again they proved their confidence level based on very consistent training and preparation before the competition. Certainly, this is the beginning of the season. We will have to do more detail work and more refining the things in coming even closer to perfection. The performance was a good one.
OlympicTalk: Separately, what would you like to see Biles and Skinner work on the most?
Karolyi: Simone, I think she basically, at this moment, doesn’t have any of the apparatuses which I would say are weak, but on every apparatus she can be more precise. That’s the goal. In gymnastics, we’re permanently training to come as close as possible to perfection. That’s what we have to work on. Every single landing to be solid. Every single movement exactly as it’s supposed to be. No small wobbles or small mistakes.
MyKayla is known for her high difficulty of her start values, and we have to work even more on the execution, on presentation and flexibility. But I think she is a good competitor and has a great difficulty level for her start value. That’s a good base to start with.
OlympicTalk: Mary Lou Retton and Nastia Liukin have said Simone Biles is pretty much unbeatable. How would you compare or rank Biles among all the gymnasts you have seen?
Karolyi: She is one of the most talented ones. I, personally, don’t like to make statements like “unbeatable.” I especially even commented this to Simone that there’s no such thing as unbeatable. We never can stop our training and never can stop our desire to become even better than we are. Also, we’re competing pretty much against ourselves, not against anything that is out there besides us. I don’t want them to think that they achieved what has to be achieved and we are there, we arrived, and we are safe on that position.
She is probably like Mary Lou was for her time, or Nadia Comaneci was for her time, but these are different times.
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OlympicTalk: How many gymnasts will you send to the Jesolo Trophy in Italy (March 28-29)?
Karolyi: Maybe nine seniors and seven juniors. We want to give the opportunity to the seniors to start them out and for them to test themselves out. This competition is a very good training competition. It gives us an opportunity to learn more about these gymnasts in a competition setting.
(Editor’s Note: The USA Gymnastics nominative list for Jesolo Trophy is reported to include these nine seniors, including Douglas and Raisman, who haven’t competed since the London Olympics. The official team is expected to be announced after next week’s national team camp.)
OlympicTalk: Who are you looking forward to seeing compete at Jesolo for the first time this season?
Karolyi: It’s important that we take the girls who potentially will be in the World Championships (in Glasgow, Scotland, in October) and use that as a team bonding competition, but certainly from the gymnasts who are coming back after three years of break, after the Olympics, there is Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. I’m looking forward to what they look like. If everything goes fine like it did in the last camp, they will be traveling to this meet. It will be like the first comeback competition, just like in anything you have to start a little bit lower scale in order to be able to get back to the competition mode and certainly just see where you are standing.
OlympicTalk: How have Douglas and Raisman looked in recent camps? Did anything surprise you?
Karolyi: They came back very normal. It wasn’t nothing bad, and step by step they improved from one camp to the other. Both of them showed very good work ethic. That’s one of the most important ingredients to understand. Yes you are Olympians, but expectations are the same as everybody else. Their approach was completely right. Step by step, they’re building up back their skill level. I think if everything is on the right track, we’ll be going this way all the way to the World Championships. We’ll most likely be taking those two girls also (to Jesolo), because they will most likely be players for the World Championships (team).
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OlympicTalk: Which first-year senior gymnasts have impressed you this year?
Karolyi: We don’t have so many. I think probably (2013 P&G junior all-around champion) Bailie Key is one of the upcoming girls, and there is another new one, Emily Schild (Key is the only first-year senior on the reported Jesolo nominative roster, while Schild is technically not a first-year senior but has never represented the U.S. at a top senior international meet*). These are the younger ones who this year will have the age and possibly will be players by the fall when it comes to the selections for World Championships. Nia Dennis (who trains with Douglas in Columbus, Ohio) is also a strong gymnast, but this year in training camps, unfortunately, always has some small nagging injuries. So she really could not prove herself. Nia won’t go to Italy.
OlympicTalk: We haven’t heard from McKayla Maroney since August, and she recently said in a video that she’s not training due to injury. What do you know about her status?
Karolyi: I honestly don’t know too much. I last met her last year during the Championships (Maroney was at the Secret U.S. Classic the first weekend of August). She said her intention was to train and come back. That’s really the last time I heard from her. I am not 100 percent sure. Certainly if everything goes fine for her and she wants to train, I would be very happy to have her back. This decision that they take is based on a lot of considerations, and the desire has to be there to perform with the same passion like they did before.
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OlympicTalk: The International Gymnastics Federation is considering reducing team sizes going into the 2020 Olympics. What do you think about that?
Karolyi: I heard about that, and I think that’s absurd, really. It will hurt the spectacle, what the gymnasts can provide for the whole world, and would eliminate some of the strongest gymnasts just in our country. Even when the team was six (in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics; it is now five) we had to leave home some strong ones. I totally don’t feel like I am really happy about that, but decisions will be taken, and we will be with any kind of decision. That’s what we did in the past, even if something doesn’t seem like very smart or very good, but once the rules are set for us, we will go with it.(Editor’s Note: An International Gymnastics Federation spokesperson said they could not provide more information on the proposal last week. It will be discussed at a May 15-16 meeting.)
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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Schild as a first-year senior.