RIO DE JANEIRO – After decades of driving and directing the sport of gymnastics in America, Marta Karolyi, and by partnership and proxy her husband, Bela, is retiring this year as USA Gymnastics team coordinator.
Marta has held the job since 2001, when she took over for Bela, who was in the position since 1999. He’d previously been the individual coach for major American stars such as Mary Lou Retton, Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug. Prior to defecting to the United States in 1981, Bela and Marta led the Romanian gymnastics program and coached 1976 gold medalist Nadia Comaneci.
There are no two more important figures in the history of modern gymnastics, particularly in the United States. The Americans have become the sport’s unquestioned powerhouse, capturing four consecutive all-around Olympic gold medals and two team titles.
“The new organization is going to step in,” Bela said. “And they will have a decision on when they are going to start, how are they going to start, what changes do they want to do … hopefully not too many.”
So, who succeeds Marta?
While there are many angling for the coveted job, Bela said it will come down to two candidates: Rhonda Faehn and Valeri Liukin.
“These are the two biggest competitors,” Bela told Yahoo Sports Thursday.
Liukin, 49, is a particularly familiar name, having trained his daughter, Nastia, to the 2008 all-around Olympic gold medal. He also helped coach 2004 all-around champion Carly Patterson. Valerie is originally from Russia, where he won two gold medals in the 1988 Olympics. He is the part owner of the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, which has a location in the Dallas area and is the home gym of current USA team member Madison Kocian.
Like the Karolyis he is outspoken, confident and boasts a big personality. He would bring a training perspective rooted in the sport’s traditional home of Eastern Europe (although it is a different system than the one the Karolyi’s originally set up in Austria).
Faehn, 45, is a protégé of the Karolyis who learned directly under Bela during her time on the U.S. national team from 1985-88. Although never competing in an Olympic event, the UCLA alum was believed to have maximized her potential. She is best known as a coach for building a juggernaut at the University of Florida, including capturing three consecutive NCAA titles from 2013-25.
She is now a senior vice president with USA Gymnastics.
Bela Karolyi described the two as the candidates with “the best possibilities.”
“Both of them are knowledgeable, both of them good,” Bela said.
It’s clear he believes Faehn is the better choice if USA Gymnastics wants a seamless transition. Though Liukin may deliver equal (or even better) results, it will require a transitional period. Read into it what you will.
“Rhonda was our gymnast, she knows the system, she grew up under the system. She has no problem applying the system,” Bela said.
“Valeri is different,” Bela continued. “Valeri has the Russian system, which is different, very different than our system. If he wants to change everything, it can be changed, but it is going to be [at] a cost. Not at money but human injuries and stuff like that.
“When you introduce something brand new, like a system, the kids are not used [to it] yet. They are going to face a stressful first part. Not for long, in a month or so they will be OK.”
USA Gymnastics has declined comment on Marta’s successor, saying the focus now is on the current gymnasts and the Olympic competition. There is no firm timetable to announce a successor, although it will likely be soon after the Rio Games end.
There is also no way of knowing whether the opinions of Bela and Marta will be considered – though you can bet they will be offered.
One of the cited strengths of the current setup is that Marta created a system where gymnasts are allowed to live and train with their local coaches but then come – along with their coaches – to the Karolyi ranch in Texas regularly for multiday training camps.
This has afforded a balance with a national system of instruction that still allows teen girls to remain home with their families and avoid depression and burnout. It has also helped local coaches across the country to learn and develop, increasing the instruction level everywhere.
The results are undeniable.
What comes next for USA Gymnastics is anyone’s guess. Even for Bela.