Martha Karolyi, Gabby Douglas

Martha Karolyi on Simone Biles’ dominance, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman returns

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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.

FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”