Heavy Medals Episode 5

The Karolyi Way After the glory of gold in Atlanta, the U.S. National Team slips on the world stage. With the next Olympics less than a year away, USA Gymnastics turns to the one person they think can save the team: Bela Karolyi. But on such a tight schedule, will the “You can do it!” motivator-in-chief be able to lead a team to victory?

Transcript

ALYSSA ROENIGK: A word of warning: this episode contains mature language depicting instances of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse of children.


[ABC Sports 

Announcer: Pretty much been disastrous here for the Americans on beam.]


[ABC Sports

Announcer: Well, it’s very different than it was last year in Atlanta. Their performance tonight is not about medals, but about regaining some respect.]

 

[ESPN

Announcer: Oh, she missed a connection right there. Boy, when you talk about meltdown. Oh, this is tough to watch.]

 

[ESPN

Announcer:  High hopes for the American team, not only here at the World’s, but of course, next year’s Olympics.] 

 

[ESPN

Announcer:  and the United States, you have to say it, a disappointing sixth.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: This is Episode 5: The Karolyi Way

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: I remember overhearing the coaches talking about us and how awful we were. If you’re not winning, you’re losing and you’re a piece of shit, basically, that’s how they made you feel.  

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jeanette Antolin was a gymnast on the 1999 US world championship team…a team that finished 6th of six teams in the final.

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: We were the worst national team they had ever [01:35:00] had and we were the biggest disappointment.

[ABC Sports 

Announcer: Very disappointing effort by the U.S. They seemed to lack intensity and focus]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In the 3 short years since Bela and Martha Karolyi had retired, USA Gymnastics had gone from a team gold at the 1996 Atlanta games to mediocrity on the world stage. 


This was BAD news for a federation that depended on sponsors.  

 

And no single event brought in sponsorship money like the Olympics. With the next Olympics just 10 months away, new USA Gymnastics President Bob Colarossi turned to the most recognizable name in gymnastics: Bela Karolyi. 

 

NANCY ARMOUR: After the world championships, Colarossi went to the Ranch and said, ‘Okay, what will it take for you to do this?’

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Nancy Armour is a columnist for USA Today. She’s covered gymnastics for more than 20 years. 

 

NANCY ARMOUR: There was a belief that, you know, if anybody could do anything, it was going to be Bela. Look at what he had already done in the past.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bob Colarossi drew Bela out of retirement in November 1999 with a newly-created position: National Team Coordinator. In this role, Bela would design the overall training program, oversee team preparation heading into the Sydney Games, and play a key role in selecting the final team. 

 

His goal: get the US back into medal contention at the Olympic Games.

 

NANCY ARMOUR: I remember talking to Don peters. Don Peters was probably Bela’s original rival and they had never really patched things up. And he said, actually, he said, ‘I signed off on this whole heartedly.’

 
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Don Peters was banned from USA Gymnastics for life in 2011 following sexual abuse allegations. But in 1999, he was still one of the most prominent coaches in the sport. And he and the other elite coaches realized that something was wrong with the way they were training the national team.

NANCY ARMOUR: He said, I think this is a good idea. And I kind of looked at him and he said, ‘We need somebody who is strong enough to get the coaches to listen to.’ And he said, ‘What we’ve been doing isn’t working and what these other countries obviously worked for the Russians and the Romanians and the Chinese, and maybe if we can do that, but given an American spin, then we can have sustained success.’

ALYSSA ROENIGK: USA Gymnastics was acknowledging the need to take the old every-gym-for-itself approach to elite gymnastics and consolidate it under Bela Karolyi. After almost 20 years in the United States, Bela finally had control over a semi-centralized system.

Bela’s first move as National Team Coordinator: bring everyone to Texas.

 

NANCY ARMOUR: He had the ranch so there was a central place that everybody could come to. I mean, granted it’s in the middle of nowhere, but you had the gym space, you had the cabins where his summer campers stayed. So you had the facilities to make it happen.


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Now, all roads to the Olympics ran through the Karolyi Ranch.

TASHA SCHWIKERT: It was the epicenter of where Olympic athletes were being made. To be able to be there, was…it was almost like a dream come true. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Olympic hopeful Tasha Schwikert received her first invitation to the Ranch as a 12-year-old. The Ranch was as legendary as the Karolyis. Gymnasts like Tasha and Jamie Dantzscher were thrilled to see it in person for the first time. 

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: It was like, ‘I get to be here. I must be pretty good because I get to meet Bela and Martha. They train champions.’ I was just in awe that I was even in the same room with them.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In January 2000, Tasha, Jamie, and the rest of the top two dozen or so U.S. gymnasts traveled to the Karolyi Ranch with their personal coaches for the first of what would become monthly mandatory training camps.

 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: They decided we needed those camps.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Alyssa Beckerman was a member of the National team, competing for a shot at the 2000 Olympics. 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: I understood that part. That part I was on board with when it happened. They decided we need to do like a national team training thing and do it more regularly and I liked that, you know, because I liked the people I was competing with. We knew each other for years and it’s kind of cool to see thenmmore often, you know, and to work out with them and up our game together, you know, I liked that. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Alyssa saw the potential upside to this new experiment, and she was prepared to put in the work. Ready to learn from the fabled Bela Karolyi.

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: Bela’s like a big bear like a big animal is the best way I can describe him. Lots of gestures and facial expressions and very… even his vocal tones were very expressive. You know, he was like an actor, almost cartoonish.

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Bela, you were made the national team coordinator just before the end of 1999. Did you leave enough time for you to put a mark on this? To be successful in the year 2000? Is there enough time?

 

Bela Karolyi: Time is short.

 

Announcer: Yes.

 

Bela Karolyi: But I don’t believe time going to be the most important matter. The understanding of the girls. Their desire. They effort that they going to put into the final preparation stage. That’s gonna matter the most.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: NEW PU: Bela’s focus had always been: repetition and conditioning and with such a tight schedule he leaned on that more than ever.

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: It pretty much was bootcamp [laughs]. Like it was strenuous. Like bootcamp isn’t easy. No one wants to do boot camp  

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Camp for Jeanette Antolin and her teammates began the same way each day: with Bela’s grueling conditioning sessions. Forty minutes to an hour of running around a 40-square-foot spring floor, followed by rope climbs using your arms only, a series of 10 straddle press handstands, 10 cast handstands on bars, 10 pike presses on low beam and ab exercise … after ab exercise … after ab exercise. 

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: It was this crazy, ridiculous warm up that he would put us through. And I just remember being exhausted. I’m like, ‘What is happening?’

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And that was just the start of two four-hour training sessions each day. 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: The USA Gymnastics the, the Federation they were all there. They were all watching every turn we took and that if we were under a microscope. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The point of practice…is to practice. That’s where gymnasts make mistakes. That’s where they learn. During Bela’s camps, even those mistakes in practice were being watched — and judged — by the people who held all the power when it came to their future in the sport.

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: And you would see a group of powers-that-be of people running USA Gymnastics all huddled in a corner talk. It was a mind. Trying to find a nicer word than the one I want to use…it was a mind-fuck!

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Few people got inside the gymnasts’ heads more than Bela and Martha. 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: You know, they just ingrain that Romanian Deva program mind into the girls and that’s what they were doing with us. ‘Here’s how you’re going to behave and think and act and you’re just expendable. You’re lucky to be here.’ They were very good at, you know, the psychological warfare of the sport. Gymnastics is 90% mental.

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: I remember Bela would always line us up.

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: Feet together. Arms by your side. Look forward like a little soldier. 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: When you’re in line up you stand straight and tall like a little soldier and you make eye contact

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: I felt motivated by fear. I didn’t want to mess up in front of Bela or Martha or anybody on the national staff. My dream of being an Olympian was in their hands. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: At the end of the first camp, Bela cut the pool of gymnasts by half. 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: Then we’d come back a month later and there would be less people. To me, I explain it like survivor and sometimes you knew why people were being cut and sometimes they were just cut. So, every time you stepped on…in the gym, you had to be on your ‘A game.’

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Tasha and Jeanette made that first cut. So did Jamie and Alyssa.

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: After that first camp, people really took a psychological turn for the worse. People started dropping like flies physically, but also psychologically. We would cry on our way to the airport to go to the ranch after that. 

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: I just remember, like, riding the bus to get the ranch and being sick to my stomach. Just having to be feeling like I’d be so perfect. I mean, not even inside the gym but outside the gym as well, like, how I stood, how I wore my hair, what I ate.

 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: Some people, you know in sports they’ll say, ‘If I say jump you say how high,’ you know. Gymnastics? ‘If I say jump. You just jump.’ You don’t ask anything. You ask how high? You’re being insubordinate. That’s gymnastics. I was stripped of choice. Um, I was told what to eat, what to wear, how to think. Don’t speak.

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: They would check our bags for food and it just I just remember this gradual transition and like loving gymnastics so much to hating it to this kind of inner conflict of this love hate relationship with it 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: No aspect of the gymnasts’ lives was more heavily scrutinized than what they ate.

Jamie, Alyssa, Jeanette, Tasha…every single gymnast at those camps was constantly aware of the pressure to look and eat a certain way.

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: He would say, ‘If you want to compete like a tiger, you eat like a tiger. If you want to compete like a cow, you eat like a cow.’ 

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: The only thing I ever remember Bela really telling me was that my butt was too fat and I needed to lose it. He was in the middle of the floor and I was walking to another event. He said something to me and then grabbed my butt and said, ‘You need to lose this. I probably said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and kept on walking and then got on a diet as soon as I got home. 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: We were all sitting around after a practice and Bela stood up. A gymnast who was very, very thin at the time and said, ‘I want all of you guys to look like her.’ She had a thigh gap. I remember her standing there and you could like see through her, her thighs when she did gymnastics. She had very thin lines. They always thought my lines weren’t as straight. And, you know, my gymnastics wasn’t as pretty, because  an upside down handstand should look like a straight line. Well, my line would be, there’d be a little curve where my butt is and there might be a little curve where my chest is. So, my straight line naturally is just very different from some of my white teammate’s straight lines. And so I internalized that and I’m like, ‘gosh, like, you know, I guess I’m just not good enough.’ I wish I could go back in time and say, ‘Hey, look, 15 year old Tasha, you are half African-American. You have different genetics. You will never have a thigh gap and that’s okay.’

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: We all had unhealthy relationships with food. 

JAMIE DANTZSCHER:  I started thinking about what I was eating like all the time. 

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: Everyone was trying to lose weight. Everybody. Everyone’s fat, like, we’re all out of shape somehow. We’re the national team of the United States of America, but we’re all out of shape. Like, it was just insane. 

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: I just remember being afraid to eat in front of anybody at the ranch. Like, they were watching us eat. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Month after month, the national team members returned to The Ranch…roughly two hours north of Houston, isolated in the middle of a national forest.

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: Like, you have kids away from their family for almost a week. And the only communication they have is a pay phone. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: There was a single pay phone — that all of the gymnasts and coaches had to share. 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: There’s no cell phone reception. At least at the time there wasn’t. None. Okay, I’m talking none. You would walk around just… and that time we had the Nokia phones and my dad had given me this little antenna thing to help boost the signal. Nothing. 

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: I remember getting a prepaid calling card and I remember checking in with, you know, my you know my mom or my dad like once or twice while I was there and it was very quick and so there wasn’t much contact with, you know, family or friends at all. 

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: If we didn’t have access to that outside world we would be more focused. I think it was just complete control. When you’re at home, you can go home to people that really love you and care about you. When you’re there, you have nobody that you feel like is on your side. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The gymnasts had no one to confide in. They saw their coaches and the Karolyis as watch dogs. They knew they had to be very careful about what they said. 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: They’re listening. You get overheard, that’s it. One night we’re sitting in our cabin in our living space talking about how fun college is going to be, We were overheard. I…the next day at practice at the ranch, you know, my coach walks up to me, says, ‘Well, we could hear you through the walls and you were talking about being wild,’ you know, like being unruly or something. It was like we were in trouble, or I was in trouble by my coach, because we were heard discussing – I don’t know…freedom?!

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis did not tolerate anything they considered a distraction in their gym.

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: What they would say is that if we were socializing or talking that we weren’t focused.

 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: You’re not there to hang out. You’re not there to be friendly. You’re there to train and to prove yourself and it’s a trial every single day. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK:  With long grueling days, early curfews, and a no talking in the gym policy, the gymnasts kept their feelings to themselves. They said nothing to each other about their fears or concerns — or injuries. Instead, they put their heads down and concentrated. The Sydney Games were just around the corner.

[NBC Sports

Announcer: One year ago USA gymnastics was in disarray, but recent events have created momentum — and belief. 

You are looking at the rebirth of an Olympic dream.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Over two nights in August 2000, the Sydney hopefuls competed at the Olympic Trials in Boston. 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Do these Olympic Trials determine who will represent the United States? Well, sort of…]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela Karolyi had been complaining about the Olympic selection process for as long as he’d been coaching in the United States. He didn’t believe in simply taking the top finishers from Trials. He thought that approach put the US at a disadvantage.

JOHN LOPEZ: This is, this is straight out of the book of Romania, Eastern bloc, gymnastics coaching. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Houston Chronicle Writer John Lopez had frequently listened to Bela lay out his plan for USA Gymnastics.

JOHN LOPEZ: He would always be a bigger advocate of the coach should, sort of, appoint who goes to the Olympics rather rather than a trials where anything could happen and, and a really talented gymnast could maybe be left out. He was more of an advocate of a combination of what the coaches say and what they do in that Olympic trials.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: As National Team Coordinator, Bela named himself the head of a four-person committee that would consider scores from both national championships and Olympic Trials…and then select the six-person team. 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: The athletes and the coaches don’t know exactly what it’s going to take to make it to the Olympic Games. Imagine playing a game and not knowing the rules.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The only thing that seemed clear: Bela Karolyi was making the rules. And this process would be more subjective than ever before. 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Bela Karolyi is right there, 20 feet away staring at her.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Over two days of competition, the central question was what does Bela Karolyi think?

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Thanks, Al. I just walked over and checked in with Bela Karolyi. I said, ‘Any thoughts so far about the meet?’ He said, ‘It’s too early to say anything.’]

[NBC Sports
Announcer: There he is
Announcer: Sometimes you get the feeling he’s trying to put a little bit more pressure on certain athletes because he feels they need it.]

TRACEE TALAVERA: It only matters what Martha or Bela thinks. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: 1984 Olympian Tracee Talavera was on the selection committee.

TRACEE TALAVERA: So, too bad if the kid just did the best routine ever or that she had three falls. That’s not the point. What is Martha or Bela gonna think?

[NBC Sports
Announcer: This thing is going to come down to who Bela believes can do the job at the Olympic games under all of that pressure.]

TRACEE TALAVERA: They wanted the team that would be most consistent and who did what they wanted the most. Not just the athletes. It was more the coaches that surrounded those athletes and who played their game.

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: It’s your worst nightmare come true. You train your whole life and they change all the rules on you. And suddenly it’s not about scoring well, it’s about being liked. 

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: I mean, it was pretty much Bela and Martha who created the team and so they said who they wanted and everyone followed in suit. 

[NBC Sports                                    
Announcer: But a costly low score on the balance beam has cost Jamie Dantzscher dearly. She has fallen down to 6th position behind Vanessa Atler.]
                                                                                                                    

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Big time pressure now on Alyssa Beckerman… now remember she’s living in Bubble Land here at these Olympic Trials.]

[NBC Sports                                       
Announcer: Here is Jeanette Antolin… she just had a disaster on the balance beam.                                                                                                      Announcer: Jeanette basically is out of this competition and out of the running, I mean there never was any hope.]

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Bela Karolyi ominously wearing black tonight. Some difficult choices to be made.]

[NBC Sports
Announcer: And now Bela Karolyi, Tracee Talavera, Shari Knight Hunter, and Marilyn Cross will go into a back room here at the Fleet Center. When they come out, hearts will be broken and dreams will be fulfilled.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: All of this played out on television, while the nearly 20,000 fans at the Fleet Center in Boston waited.

Tracee had gone into the process with some pessimism, but was ultimately hopeful it could be fair. Then she got in the actual room with Bela.

TRACEE TALAVERA: He took his sheet of paper, and I wish to God I still had this, but he took one girl, circled her name, took an arrow, drew it up to in the top and took the girl who was in the top ‘x-ed’ her name out and wrote ‘not going’ and handed it to me. And he said, ‘this will be the team.’

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Here comes Bob Colarossi, the CEO of USA Gymnastics. Man, are the fortunes going to change here.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Cameras followed as Bob Colarossi entered the backstage room where the gymnasts were waiting with their coaches and read the list of names.

[NBC Sports
Bob Colarossi: Amy Chow, Jamie Dantzcher, Dominique Dawes, Kristen Maloney, Elise Ray, and Morgan White. The alternate is Alyssa Beckerman.]

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: When they announced the team, I was proud. Proud that all the hard work and all those years and everything I went through, like maybe, maybe it was all worth it.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jamie made the team. And Alyssa was named as the alternate. 

But Tasha and Jeanette didn’t hear their names called. 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: I thought I was done. I thought that, you know, this is where, where the buck stops, um but it was a great, it was a great run. 

JEANETTE ANTOLIN: I kind of knew that it wasn’t going to happen, but there was nothing I could do about it. It’s like everything in your life is gone. And then you question why you even did it to yourself in the first place. Like, why did I give up my entire childhood for this one moment where you can make one mistake and it all goes away?   

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The gymnasts who hadn’t been chosen waited backstage while the team was welcomed onto the floor of the Fleet Center to a SCREAMING audience. 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Bela has selected his team! Is it possible that this could be Sydney’s Super Six?]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela savored the moment. After just 10 months on the job, he had given American fans what they wanted heading into Sydney: something to believe in.

[NBC Today Show
Bela Karolyi: This team combines the best of the country. It’s a powerful team and I believe they going to be again Olympic medal contenders.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Days later USA Gymnastics called 15-year-old Tasha Schwikert 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: Then we get a call that they want to travel me to Sydney as the second alternate. Great. I’m… I got a free trip to Sydney. I get to train alongside the Olympic team and my idols. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But Tasha, Jamie, and Alyssa had little time to celebrate. 

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: For the next month I had an Olympic Trials every single day in the gym.

TASHA SCHWIKERT: We went for about a two and a half month period without a single day off. 

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: Our day off was the flight to Sydney.

TASHA SCHWIKERT: But I remember being instructed to do a plane workout. So we worked out in the aisle of the plane.

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: Flew 15 hours, dropped our bags off, you know, and went right back to the gym.

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: A record 199 nations, more than 10,000 athletes. The Olympic Games have come down under and Sydney has been ready and waiting for quite some time. Welcome to the first Olympic Games of the new millenium.]

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: Opening ceremonies are happening, and they don’t allow us to go. So everybody is crying in the main room of this den where they have a tiny TV to watch the opening ceremonies. The girls are sitting there with tears in their eyes cause they can’t be there, they can’t enjoy the olympics.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela Karolyi and USA Gymnastics brought the same discipline they’d employed at the Ranch with them to Sydney. While most athletes stayed at the Olympic Village, the US women’s gymnastics team stayed at a local women’s college 20 minutes outside of the city center. 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: The only way I can explain this place is like it was kind of like prison.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: No phone calls. No unsupervised visits from family. And even at the most festive sporting event in the world, no interacting with other athletes. 

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: It was like they set up the ranch in Sydney for us.


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Team USA arrived in Sydney as underdogs. But Bela had been charged with getting them back on the medal stand. And so he wouldn’t relent on the training and the pressure.

JAMIE DANTZSCHER:  We had double practices everyday. Like every day was like a competition in the morning. And a competition at night. It was crazy. 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: We couldn’t leave the grounds. We couldn’t even walk to a meal to the kitchen by ourselves because they didn’t want us to eat the food, even though they weren’t feeding us enough food. The chefs put out little bowls filled with raisins and the other one was filled with some sort of like a Nutrigrain granola bar. So, I grab one of each snack to take back to my room. I remember walking out and Martha coming up to me and taking the raisins and taking the Nutrigrain bar out of my hand, saying to me that ‘we weren’t going to eat these things because lighter women fly higher.’ Have you ever had food like literally taken out of your hand when you were starving? On at least four occasions in Sydney, I cried myself to sleep because I was hungry. I had never cried myself to sleep about food in my entire life, but we’re at the Olympic Games and I am like physically starving.    

ALYSSA ROENIGK: A few days before the competition started, one of Bela’s team members, Morgan White, withdrew with a broken foot. That meant Alyssa or Tasha would get a chance to compete at the Olympics.

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: We lined up for for practice and Bela got impatient. And he said, ‘Okay, it is unfortunate Morgan White is injured, but we must continue and Tasha, you’re in, Beckerman, you’re out. okay to the right.’ Harsh. And I turn to the right and warmed us up. 

[NBC Olympics
Announcer:  If you were with us for the Olympic trials and you’re watching Tasha Schweickert in the Olympics, you have to be surprised because her name was not one that was mentioned that night in Boston. No, she was added by Bela Karolyi as a second alternate after that.
Announcer: And since Day one in speaking with Bela about who he thought would be on that team way back in January, Tasha Schwikert’s name was always near the top of his list.]

 
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Tasha had finished behind Alyssa at the Olympic Trials. But this was exactly what Bela had argued all along…that his feeling about a particular gymnast, what he believed she was capable of…was a better guiding principle than scores alone. 

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: And it’s amazing to think that he is going to rely on a 15 year old, Tasha Schwikert, who has never been in a big time event like the world championships or the Olympic Games. She’s going to set the tone for this team. That’s a big position to be in.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Inside the Sydney Superdome, with the whole world watching, Tasha Schwikert made her Olympic debut.

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: With just the dismount left, I’d have to say that this is the kind of performance that Bela was looking for to start off this team.
Announcer: Great start from Tasha Schwikert. Gets Team USA going. Biggest meet of her life.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: For the better part of the past year, Bela Karolyi and USA Gymnastics had put these young athletes under as much pressure as they could in order to prepare them for the Olympic stage…this was the chance for Bela to prove it had been worth it.

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: As national team coordinator, Bela Karolyi will watch from the seats. And so we won’t see that fabulous interaction as we have with Kerri Strug or Mary Lou Retton. Not this time. Not in Sydney.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In fact, any time the TV cameras panned to Bela…he was sitting in the stands looking visibly unhappy.

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: Bela Karolyi has been watching everything from up on high.]

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: Bela… he looks a little bit frustrated, probably wishes he was on the floor, even though if he was, couldn’t really do all that much about that one.] 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The U.S. women struggled on the first day. After Tasha’s promising start, it was all downhill. They barely nabbed the last spot in the six-team final. So, Bela tried to do what Bela did best….the only way he was allowed to. 

[NBC Olympics

Announcer: One thing Bela Karolyi did: He gave the American women a sort of ‘rah rah, you represent the United States’ speech in the warm up gym and they came in with a totally different persona, as you saw. And this is a much better United States team already then it was the other night.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But it was too little too late. The US team would have needed a near-perfect meet to bump Russia, Romania or China off the medal stand. 

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: The SuperDome resembling something of a hospital ward about now. Ice bags and medics in demand. It’s been a struggle for the US.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And it seemed like the gymnasts and their bodies were crumbling under the pressure. 

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: They are a team beset with problems, problems, problems.]

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: She was way off, not even a hope of saving that skill.]

[NBC Olympics
Announcer: The vibe right now for the United States is not a good one.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The team finished in fourth place, with no individual medals. But public expectations had been ramped up by the success of the Magnificent Seven four years before and everyone wanted someone to blame.

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: We were just trashed on. Our whole team. 

TASHA SCHWIKERT: I felt like I’d let my country down. They’d made us feel like we had let our country down.  

ALYSSA BECKERMAN: Even Bela trashed us! Like, the second we didn’t give him what he wanted–we didn’t medal–he complained.

TASHA SCHWIKERT: I remember Bela being extremely disappointed that we got fourth. We were the most disappointing people to him ever that he’s ever coached. We were embarrassing.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela told newspaper reporters that this group of athletes didn’t want it as badly as the ‘96 team. That they didn’t have the same work ethic. He blamed their personal coaches. He complained about not being allowed on the floor as National Team Coordinator, where he believed his theatrics would have helped. 

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: Bela takes credit when everyone does well, but when we don’t do well, the the blame is on us.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In her own interview after the competition, Jamie Dantzscher fired back at Bela.

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: I didn’t really give a shit anymore. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jamie’s elite gymnastics career was over. She was headed to UCLA in the fall. She had nothing to lose. 

JAMIE DANTZSCHER: The gymnastics world believed that Bela and Martha were the best and that this is the way and that they knew what they were doing and nobody had reason to really believe what I was saying. I was just so glad to be done with those people.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: For the first time since 1976, US women’s gymnastics had failed to medal at the Olympics. There was too much pride and too much sponsorship money at stake for USA Gymnastics to do nothing.

 

So during a national team camp, they held a meeting at the Karolyi Ranch. In attendance were the coaches of every national team member, the Olympic staff, USAG bigwigs and, of course, the National Team Coordinator himself.

 

RITA BROWN: And then Bela comes in saying, ‘Oh, at the Olympics it was the coaches fault.’

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Coach Rita Brown couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

RITA BROWN: The coaches. They couldn’t get along. They wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t do what I was saying. They, they, they, that’s all their fault.’ Nobody’s saying anything. I let him finish and then I raised my hand and I stood up and I don’t know why I did this, it was pretty gutsy, and I said, ‘okay. Bela, how dare you do that. Everybody relied on your leadership, your knowledge, and your experience. The performances are based on how we prepared those kids. That’s you. That’s on you.’

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela Karolyi had shown USA Gymnastics that winning was possible in the first place. He’d given them their first taste of gold, but when they needed him to win the most, he hadn’t brought home medals…just excuses. He left the organization with no choice but to look for a replacement.

RITA BROWN: He was in charge. When you’re in charge it comes down on you.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: If you or someone you know has been subjected to sexual assault or abuse, and you would like more information or support, these hotlines can help: RAINN’s 24/7 confidential national sexual assault hotline  1-800-656-4673, ChildHelp 1-800-4-A-Child/ 1-800-422-4453 and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255

 

 

Credits

Heavy Medals

Alyssa Roenigk, Host and Reporter
Bonnie Ford, Reporter
Andrew Mambo and Meradith Hoddinott, Producers
Julia Lowrie Henderson, Senior Editorial Producer
Erin Leyden and Libby Geist, Executive Producers
Mitra Kaboli,  Mix Engineering and Sound Design
Reilly Bloom, Gus Navarro, Samantha Dowd, and Trevor Gill, Production Assistants
Louise Argianas, Cath Sankey, and Jennifer Thorpe, Production Management and Licensing
Ian Coss, Original Composition
Connor Schell, Rob King, & Alison Overholt, Executive Producers for ESPN
This podcast was developed by Jenna Anthony and Adam Neuhaus, with help from Jody Avirgan
Julianna Brannum, Archival Producer
John Mastroberardino provided fact checking
Terri Langford did legal research
Additional Production support from: Amy Van Deusen and Eve Wulf
This season of 30 for 30 Podcasts was produced in association with espnW.


ESPN Audio
Tom Ricks
, Vice President, Audio Digital Strategy & Marketing
Megan Judge, Director, Audio Distribution & Marketing
Pete Gianesini, Senior Director, Audio Production
Ryan Granner, Director, Digital Audio Operations

Additional Production Support
Vin D’Anton, Brandon Nix, Neel Danesha, Ryan Ross Smith, Claire Jones, Adrienne St Clair, Ryan Weaver,
Michael Castaneda, Anny Celsi, Talia Carlene Blake, Lauren Ober, Ruth Eddy, Wayne Ramocan (Juuni), Tasha French, Diana Nygent, Kateleigh Mills

Special Thanks
Pat Alexander, Bill Archer, Cora Bagoli, John Barr, David Barron, Dr. Dan Benardot, Cosmin Bogdan, Aimee Boorman,
Jen Brown, Mike Canales, Don Carlson, Ray Deenihan, Tom Forster, Ashley Fox, Wendy Hilliard, Barbara Kievit-Mason, Sarah Klein, Sandy Knapp, Cecile Landi, Laurent Landi, Mike Lynch, Kevin Mazeika, Phil Moseley, Dan Murphy,
Ryan Nantell, Jessica O’Beirne, Angie Povilaitis, Gary Rafaloski, Tony Retrosi, Keith Romer, RJ Santillo,
Susan Polakoff Shaw, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, Jolene Van Vugt, Paul Ziert , ESPN LA, and ESPN NY

 

Archival Material
Audio provided courtesy of:
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With Permission from The Estate of Clerow “Flip” Wilson
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Harpo, Inc.
The Kansas City Star. © 2019 McClatchy. All rights reserved. Used under license.
KHOU-TV Houston, TX
“Gymnastics Fun with Bela Karolyi” courtesy of Lions Gate Films Inc. 
NBC News Archives
Courtesy of NBC Sports
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Seven Network. All rights reserved. © 
Universal Television LLC 
USA Gymnastics / NBC Sports
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