RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Before the gold, before the glory, there were tears.
From the coaches.
Long before the stunning exhibition on Thursday night that earned her the Olympic all-around title, Simone Biles was just a prodigy in the USA Gymnastics developmental program. She and coach Aimee Boorman would travel regularly to the Karolyi Ranch about an hour north of their gym in suburban Houston. There national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and her staff would offer pointers not just to the young girls but the adults entrusted with harnessing all that talent and turning them into champions.
And, Karolyi being Karolyi, the message didn’t always come across with a hug and a smile.
“(The coaches) would go back to our rooms with each other and we would cry,” Boorman said. “Martha said, ‘I made you guys cry?’ ‘Oh Martha, you have no idea.'”
Boorman can laugh about it now that she’s through it. When she woke up on Friday morning, she was the coach of the Olympic champion, one who has a legitimate shot at leaving Rio with a record five gold medals by the time event finals are over next Tuesday.
It’s a path Boorman and Biles carved out carefully, one helped in part by the system Karolyi put in place when she took over in 2001.
There was a time where gymnasts eyeing the elite level would have to move to one of the few gyms in the country capable of giving them the proper training. It led to what Karolyi called “little fights” between private clubs instead of fostering a sense of team unity, so she scrapped it. Karolyi figured if she could find a way to guide the coaches as well as the athletes early in their respective careers, then the girls could stay home and still receive the mentoring needed to flourish.
“We wanted to give the right guidance for the young and upcoming coaches who never had anything to do with our program,” Karolyi said.
The proof of its success can be measured in two ways: in the 91 world championship and Olympic medals (and counting) the U.S. has won under Karolyi’s guidance and the length of the relationships between most members of the “Final Five” and their coaches.
Boorman and Biles have been together 13 years. Five-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman and Mihai Brestyan a dozen. Laurie Hernandez and Maggie Haney 11. Madison Kocian and Laurent Landi nearly a decade.
Haney considers herself and Hernandez the “poster children” for the Talent Opportunity Program (TOPs) run by USA Gymnastics.
“We’ve literally grown through the system,” Haney said. “There is guidance at the top and it spreads out from there.
It also created a sense of camaraderie, one where the coaches no longer get anxious when they’re in the training gym together. Those early difficult days under Karolyi’s tutelage bonded them in ways that resonate today.
“The girls talk about being a family,” Boorman said. “But honestly the coaches are too because we’ve been through this process together.”
It can also create its own unique challenges. Given the amount of time they spend together — 30 hours a week or more — for months and years on end, there are bound to be issues. Asked if there were times when she wanted to tell the exacting, no-nonsense Brestyan to get lost and Raisman just laughs.
“There are times I wanted to,” Raisman said. “There are times it’s just hard. There are times I didn’t feel like doing it but he kept pushing. And I know he does that so I don’t back down.”
In that way Brestyan can best be described as “Karolyi Lite.” They’ve know each other since coaching in Romania, and he’s worked extensively at Karolyi’s side at the ranch for years as a mentor to coaches and athletes alike.
“The moment you get there, you get remolded for what you’re looking for,” he said. “They’re coming with the commitment, with the desire but they’re doing a lot of mistakes. We try to share our knowledge, our experiences, our mistakes to put them directly in the line you need to look and you need to go.”
It can be grueling and sometimes thankless work. Yet it does have its benefits.
Rather than file into a tunnel underneath Rio Olympic Arena following the women’s gymnastics team final, Raisman ducked away and sprinted straight for Brestyan, slipping the medal around his neck before he could protest. Two nights later after finishing runner-up to Biles in the all-around finals, Raisman did it again, paying tribute to the man who for a dozen years been equal parts mentor, coach and friend.
The gesture was not lost on Brestyan. Her drive brought them together. The system and their dedication kept them together.
“After the results, (usually) the coaches, they don’t exist,” Brestyan said. “That’s a hard feeling for us. But the moment before that when she’s winning is the best in the world.”