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.

Who is Italy’s greatest Olympian?

Alberto Tomba
Getty Images
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Italy ranks sixth on the total Olympic medal list, thanks in large part to its fencers. Italian fencers have won a leading 125 medals, more than double the nation’s total in any other sport. The Italians are known for their personalities, from La Bomba to the Cannibal, with six of their best detailed here …

Deborah Compagnoni
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only Alpine skier to earn gold at three straight Olympics. Compagnoni overcame a broken knee as a junior racer and life-saving surgery to remove 27 inches of her intestine in 1990 to win the Albertville 1992 super-G by 1.8 seconds. It remains the largest margin of victory in the discipline for either gender since 1968. The following day, Compagnoni tore knee ligaments in the giant slalom. She returned to win the GS at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Compagnoni ended her Olympic career with the biggest rout in a GS at a Winter Games, prevailing by 1.41 seconds in Nagano.

Klaus Dibiasi
Diving
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only diver to win the same individual event three times. The Austrian-born Dibiasi took platform silver in 1964 at age 17, then three straight golds through 1976. Dibiasi was coached by his father, who was 10th on platform at the 1936 Berlin Games. In his final Olympics, Dibiasi held off a 16-year-old Greg Louganis, who would go on to challenge, if not overtake, Dibiasi as the greatest male diver in history.

Eugenio Monti
Bobsled
Six Olympic Medals

Regarded by many as the greatest bobsled driver in history. Monti captured two silver medals in 1956, missed the 1960 Winter Games that didn’t include bobsled, then two bronzes in 1964 and a pair of golds at age 40 in 1968. On top of that, the nine-time world champion is remembered for an act of sportsmanship in 1964. In between runs, Monti lent a bolt off his own two-man sled to a British team whose sled was damaged. The Brits took gold, ahead of both Italian sleds.

Alberto Tomba
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

“La Bomba” dazzled by sweeping the giant slalom and slalom at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, after dubbing himself the “Messiah of Skiing“ beforehand. Known for his man-about-town ways, Tomba offered one of his gold medals to East German figure skater Katarina Witt should she fall short in her event. After Witt repeated as gold medalist, the story goes that Tomba showed up with a bouquet of roses and an autographed picture of himself, made out out to “Katerina.” “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba once said. “Now I live it up with five women until 3 a.m,”

Valentina Vezzali
Fencing
Six Olympic Gold Medals

An 18-year-old Vezzali was an alternate for the 1992 Olympics, forced to watch on TV as the Italian women took team foil gold. Vezzali made the next five Olympics, winning medals in all nine of her events, including three straight individual titles, the last as a mom. Vezzali finished her career with nine total Olympic medals, 25 world championships medals, a flag bearer honor at the 2012 Opening Ceremony and as a member of Italy’s parliament.

Armin Zoeggeler
Luge
Six Olympic Medals

“The Cannibal” retired in 2014 as the first athlete to earn a medal in the same individual event at six straight Olympics. Zoeggeler earned silver and bronze medals in 1994 and 1998, then overtook German legend Georg Hackl for gold in 2002, followed by winning at home in Torino in 2006. He held on for bronze medals in 2010 and 2014, behind the new German luge star, Felix Loch, who would be coached by Hackl. Growing up on top of a steep hill, Zoeggeler began sledding at age 7 to catch the school bus at the bottom.

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Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

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