One of the biggest stories in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio is the dominance of the U.S. women gymnasts. In addition to capturing gold for team performance and gold and silver for top individual awards, many believe that program members who did not qualify for the U.S. team would have medaled in Rio if the U.S. team had been given more slots.
As the national team coordinator for the U.S. women’s gymnastics program since 2001, Márta Károlyi has built a program that evolved a team from not winning a team gold until 1996 to being the envy of the world.
As coordinator, Márta has overseen all aspects of the women’s national team, ranging from, among other duties, selecting the athletes for competitions to making specific recommendations about what routines are performed. As a result, they have captured the team title at the last two Olympics, and American women have won the individual all-around at the last four Summer Games.
The sustainable growth of the U.S. women’s gymnastics program could have as much to do with how Márta runs the program as what she does as coordinator. And I believe business leaders could learn a lot from her approach.
Specifically, in my view, Márta Károlyi runs her programs with i3k—intelligence, intensity, integrity, and kindness. And according to some sources, that last element has made a big difference.
When Márta and her husband Béla defected to the United States from Romania in 1981, they came with a reputation as successful gymnastic program builders. Aspiring athletes were drawn to their Houston gym, which turned out excellent gymnasts. Márta and Béla were named as U.S. coaches for the 1996 Olympic Games, and the team delivered the country’s first team gold medal.
Poor team performance between 1997 and 1999 led USA Gymnastics to hire Béla as national team coordinator, but rumors of his severe treatment of athletes surfaced. A poor U.S. showing in the 2000 Games prompted the replacement of Béla with Márta as national team coordinator.
By many accounts, Márta continued previous practices of hard work, high expectations, and no tolerance for shortcuts (e.g. illegal substances), but she also smartly brought innovation to the training regimen, allowing gymnasts to train independently while convening monthly in her Houston gym. She also brought a softer and more flexible approach to dealing with the athletes and their trainers.
According to The Washington Times, “Gold medal winner Simone Biles needed support on an emotional level, and her coach, Aimee Boorman, said Márta’s ability to be both demanding and flexible was critical to Biles’ success.”
And while Márta ’s “look of fierce concentration is most familiar to fans of the sport,” according to the Times, “Away from the floor, it gives way to a friendly smile and talk about cooking, family and travel as she walks through the family’s rustic home in the Sam Houston National Forest.”
It appears that a little kindness when added to the mix has brought Márta closer to her athletes and stronger, sustainable success for the program.
The results have been nothing short of amazing. And as Márta retires at the end of the Rio Olympics, U.S. Women’s gymnastics is on solid footing atop the world.
Well done Márta.