Who picks the U.S. women's gymnastics Olympic team?
Around 10:45 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 10, after the second night of Olympic Trials competition concludes, five female gymnasts will be named to the U.S. Olympic team. But before the streamers, balloons and tears start falling in the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., the Olympic selection committee must make their biggest decision of the last four years.
In track and field or swimming, the top finishers in the race automatically get a spot on the Olympic team. That's not the case in gymnastics—the gymnast that finishes fifth in the all-around at Olympic Trials won't necessarily get that fifth spot on the team. Instead, a three-member Olympic selection committee will meet to discuss which gymnasts have the most medal-worthy routines, who has the right strengths and weaknesses that will complement the other gymnasts in the Olympic team final, and who can be counted on to perform under the intense pressure of the Olympic spotlight.
There are three members of the Olympic selection committee:
Martha Karolyi is the national team coordinator of the U.S. women's gymnastics program and is mentioned most often as the one whose opinion can make or break a gymnast's career. After a shaky performance at the 2015 World Championships, Aly Raisman tearfully told reporters, "I hope Martha still wants me for next summer after this."
Karolyi took over as National Team Coordinator in 2001, after decades spent working behind the scenes as her husband, legendary coach Bela Karolyi, enjoyed the spotlight. Bela coached Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug to Olympic gold medals before he retired. But for all his success, it was Martha Karolyi who created a program that has won so many Olympic and world championships medals (87 since 2001) that the U.S. women's gymnastics squad is considered a sports dynasty.
Her decades of experience as a gymnastics technician and meticulous attention to detail—she has input on every routine and skill, and invites the national team to the Karolyi Ranch in Texas for monthly training camps to check the gymnasts' physical fitness, progress and consistency—are why athletes under her watch usually end up with medals around their necks.
Karolyi, now 73 years old, will be joining her husband in retirement after the Rio Olympics. It's one of the reasons she's particularly invested in this group of gymnasts: one last chance to cement her legacy.
But she's not the only person on the Olympic selection committee. The other two members are Tatiana Perskaia, a coach on for the U.S. women's national team, and Terin Humphrey, the Athlete Representative.
2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin has served as the athlete rep in the past, and shared her insight into the process of selecting a team.
"Yeah, Martha is obviously the head coach but there is a larger selection committee," Liukin said. "Everybody is very vocal and expresses their opinions and I did the same thing."
But Liukin explains that the committee usually doesn't have much trouble coming to a consensus.
"It's pretty easy to determine [whose on the team], it’s always like the last spot or last few spots where you kind of go back and forth," she said. Everyone's voices are "pretty equal but given the fact that she is the head coach, if anyone were to get a little priority it's Martha and it’s very well deserved obviously."