The Karolyis defected to the United States in the early eighties and quickly became the dominant figures in American gymnastics, coaching Mary Lou Retton and three of the six gymnasts on the 1992 Olympic team. In 1999, Bela was named America’s first-ever national-team coördinator, tasked with bringing order to a disorganized system, which he did by introducing gruelling monthly training camps.“They killed each other,” Bela said. “They fight to the death, and there are those who did not survive. But I have a lot of them.” He was talking about three deer skulls on the floor of a garage, but a number of retired gymnasts would be forgiven for thinking he was referring to the monthly retreats, which one coach has called “death camps.” The Karolyis have been criticized for their harsh training methods, including accusations of abuse in the name of motivation.
Trudi Eberle Kollar, who competed for Romania at the 1980 Olympics, later told the Associated Press that the Karolyis had slapped and kicked her. “It can be done in a healthier way physically and emotionally,” Dominique Moceanu, who won gold as part of the 1996 American team, said in 2008. Other gymnasts have defended the Karolyis, saying that their training was firm but not abusive.After the American gymnasts underperformed at the 2000 Olympics, and coaches complained about Bela’s domineering style, Martha, who had always been the couple’s technical guru, took over the job. Since then, American gymnasts have won nearly twice as many Olympic medals as any other country. “It’s a brutal system,” Paul Ziert, the International Gymnast publisher, told me. “That said, so far no one has been able to come up with a system that can produce these results and be more civil.” The accusations of ill-treatment have largely gone away, but Martha has retained the monthly camps and held to her husband’s exacting standards as well. She once chastised Biles for not wearing a bow in her hair during a competition, and, after Biles had a subpar workout before Pacific Rims, Martha asked her, “Why are you being a prima donna, you spoiled brat?” Biles says that although she can block out screams from a crowd, she can always hear her mother and Martha.
Boorman says that Martha was initially skeptical of her coaching strategy for Biles. By the standards of élite gymnastics, it has a tinge of Waldorf School: Biles trains for thirty-two hours a week, fewer than many gymnasts, in part because Boorman worried that if she pushed her too hard Biles would simply take her freakish athleticism elsewhere. Boorman once declined an invitation to the ranch, because Biles had come away emotionally bruised from Martha’s criticism at a previous camp. “I know Simone’s coach Aimee lets her smile, which I’m just super jealous of,” McKayla Maroney, a 2012 Olympian, told GymCastic earlier this year.