LONDON – As a general rule, Martha Karolyi isn't particularly concerned with who wins the United States gymnastics trials. The results aren't binding for Olympic team membership, and since she picks a group of the best gymnasts, whether someone is first or second or fourth isn't all that important.
Last month was a bit different, though. Karolyi watched with interest as Gabby Douglas, somewhat of an upstart, managed to beat Jordyn Wieber, the longstanding favorite and reigning world champion. The difference was just one-tenth of a point. The impact may have been considerable.
"It was good for both girls," said Karolyi with a smile. "For Gabby, it stimulated her and showed her she was just as good as the front runner. And it was a signal to Jordyn to go hard because look at what's happening in my own country."
Oh, Karolyi was loving this. The longtime director of the national team still has that thick Hungarian accent and a toughness straight out of old Eastern Europe athletics, that centralized training system of Romania that she and her husband, Bela, used to churn out champions such as Nadia Comaneci.
The U.S. is different. Everyone has individual coaches. Karolyi still oversees the ultimate level, though, and basks in the battles. Forget hurt feelings, cracked confidence or possible rivalry. Competition, competition and more competition is, she says, what makes gymnasts stronger, more focused and, inevitably, unbeatable.
She happens to coach two of the best, if not the best, in the world. It's all right there in her hands. She's had them battle before, most recently in 2008, when Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson drove each other to greatness. Both won gold medals, with Liukin taking the all- around title.
You have to want it to win, Karolyi notes. And sometimes that means fearing the loss.
The U.S. has a team title to win; it's favored to capture it for the first time since 1996. And then Karolyi wants one of her charges to take the all-around, which would be the third in a row for an American.
So let them go at it a bit, Karolyi figures.
"It is good to look over your shoulder and see the person next to you is pushing hard," Karolyi said. "We actually like it."
Whether Douglas and Wieber can be considered part of the "we" is open to debate. They're different gymnasts, different people. Wieber is 17, from small town DeWitt, Mich., and is known for her strong, serious personality and powerful athleticism.
Douglas is 16, from Virginia Beach, Va. and rarely seen without a glowing smile. Her style is a high-wire act, soaring leaps that earned her the nickname "The Flying Squirrel."
Naturally they profess undying devotion, respect and love for one another. Others even swear its true, that there is no rivalry.
"They get along really well," said teammate McKayla Maroney. "No fighting. … It's no lie, we are all very close."
It's nice to hear, even if that means this is the first group of 16- and 17-year-olds to be so perfectly congenial.
Everyone on the team has known each other for years. Wieber was the early star, the one expected to be this great. Douglas has come on of late. It's still a team, though. They gather before competitions – and even before practice Thursday – and say the Pledge of Allegiance. They're sharing quarters in the athlete's village and can't wait to watch the Opening Ceremony together – they don't march in it because it would be too tiring.
It's a bunch of best friends, they say. The gold elephant in the room isn't discussed.
"I think Gabby is a great gymnast because she's really a great competitor," Wieber said. "She goes out there and competes when she needs to compete."
Like in San Jose last month, a rising-to-the-occasion moment. Wieber may be more accomplished and technically strong. That doesn't matter when the lights come on. And Douglas loves the lights as bright as possible.
"I'd say Jordyn is just so focused and her consistency is amazing," Douglas said. "It's very awesome how she stays in the zone."
Karolyi concurs with her gymnasts. Wieber's strength is her ability to "focus on the job she has to do. She's very determined to do that job." As for Douglas, "she's sparkly, very dynamic."
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And so here is a clash of styles and temperaments. You can't play defense in gymnastics, you can only do your best and hope for the best.
"You compete and do your best and what happens, happens," Maroney said. "If you don't get gold, you're going to be upset but not mad at the other person. And really, you shouldn't be upset. It's a silver medal at the Olympics."
Silver is great. Gold is the dream.
And right now the only one truly enjoying this is Martha Karolyi, her USA gymnastics machine churning on and on. She's gone from finding one great gymnast every four years to finding a slew of them and then watching as they drive each other to greater glory through intense internal competition.
Last time was Shawn and Nastia. Now it's Jordyn and Gabby.
"It's great, isn't it?" she smiled.
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