Martha Karolyi's Gymnastics Empire Built to Last

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Martha Karolyi doesn't know who will replace her as national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics when she officially steps down later this month.

She does, however, have a message: Don't get cute.

"The program is already built," Karolyi said. "I just really hope that they don't try to fix a program which proved itself and right now really shows that it's the highest level program in the world."

It's hard to argue with the results. The "Final Five" — a name chosen by Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian to honor Karolyi as she heads to retirement — will return to the U.S. following the Olympic closing ceremony with nine medals, including a second straight team gold and a record-tying four for Biles. No other country earned half that total. The Americans medaled in every event and placed the maximum two competitors in every final except for vault, which Biles captured with remarkable ease.

At this point, even the U.S.'s closest competition is willing to admit that right now, there are the Americans and there is everyone else.

"When I competed I realized I didn't have chance to win gold medal or silver medal but it was so pleasant for me," said Russian star Aliya Mustafina, who finished third in the all-around behind Biles and Aly Raisman.

The gap appears to be widening. The U.S. has won every major international competition since 2011, a combination of the fruits of the semi-centralized system Karolyi perfected when she took over in 2001 and inability of traditional powers like Russia and Romania to consistently develop the talent necessary to keep pace. The Romanians failed to even make the games, a startling fall for a country that had finished on the podium in the team competition in every Olympics since 1972.

The Russian were a staggering 8 points behind the Americans in the team final. The gap between second and eighth-place Brazil was half that.

"I think that it's true to say that we could have fielded two teams here and they would have gone first and second," Olympic coach Aimee Boorman said. "Maybe first, second, third or fourth if we threw in a third team."

It's not hype. The three Olympic alternates included MyKayla Skinner and Ragan Smith — both of whom finished ahead of Douglas and Kocian at Olympic Trials. Maggie Nichols, a member of the 2015 world championship team, would have been in the mix if not for a knee injury in the spring that slowed her training. Ashton Locklear, the other alternate, might be the best bars specialist in the world not named Kocian or Mustafina.

Karolyi exits with the Americans bursting at the seams in talent, even if Biles, Raisman and Douglas never compete again. All three plan to take extended breaks before making any sort of firm decision. Hernandez, who turned 16 in June, is primed to fill the void left by their absence, with plenty of company to come along for the ride.

USA Gymnastics is purchasing the training center at the Karolyi Ranch from Martha and husband Bela next week. While president Steve Penny told The Associated Press before the games the search for her replacement is still in its early stages, the most obvious choice would be Valeri Liukin. A two-time Olympic gold medalist for Russia and the father of 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin, he's spent the last four years as the elite program development coordinator. Liukin is already familiar with the group pointing toward the 2020 Tokyo Games and well-versed in the system Karolyi so carefully constructed.

Mihai Brestyan, Raisman's longtime coach, has spent more than four decades coaching with Karolyi and has expressed interest in continuing Karolyi's legacy.

"It looks like our way is the best and this is the result," Brestyan said. "And it's going higher and higher. We're going farther and farther. Right now it looks like we've run away from everybody else."

Whoever takes over will inherit a program at the peak of its power after two dizzying weeks in Rio de Janeiro.

"There's always somebody in the USA Gymnastics system to step in and step up for the team," she said, later adding, "Nobody thought they will see Simone Biles. You probably will see someone like this or greater in the future."

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