In early 2000, on the cusp of the Sydney Olympics and as a response to disappointing seasons in 1997, 1998, and 1999, USA Gymnastics completely changed its Olympic selection process. In came Bela Karolyi, coach of past stars such as Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug, and Dominique Moceanu, and the controversial national team training camps.
Although Karolyi was replaced by his wife Marta in 2001 after rumors that he mistreated gymnasts, the training camps were there to stay. Undeniably, the American team showed outstanding improvement, winning the 2003, 2007, and 2011 world team titles and placing second at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. Yet, many have questioned the effect of the training camps on the gymnasts’ physical and emotional health, blaming them for overuse injuries and burnout. Fans of the sport call the camps “death camps.”
Recently, 2008 Olympic silver all around medalist and 2012 hopeful Shawn Johnson started blogging for ESPNW about her road to the Games, and this Thursday, she gave her readers and fans an inside peek on what life “at the ranch” – the camps are held on the Karolyis’ ranch in Texas – is like.
Johnson and US national team coordinator Marty Karolyi. Photo by AP Photo/David J. Phillip
“When we’re there, we wake up around 6:45 a.m. and head straight for breakfast,” she wrote. “Most of the girls grab eggs and coffee before we go back to our cabins and get ready to hit the gym.”
This raises a popular concern among fans: that the gymnasts are not eating enough to fuel nine hours of intense workouts a day. Johnson tried to set the skeptics straight. “…Straight to lunch, which is usually some sort of chicken dish, or occasionally salmon, with salad and bread and more fruit. People often ask if we’re on a strict diet. It is super-healthy — there’s definitely no dessert — but we’re fed good food and we’re taken care of,” she said.
As for the workouts themselves, they are intense, but for Johnson, now that she is “older” at 20, they are not as tough as they used to be. In her blog, she explained that younger gymnasts at the ranch are under much more pressure to prove themselves to Karolyi and to the National Selection Committee (Johnson first attended a training camp at 12 years old and was completely in awe of the older, more famous gymnasts).
Karolyi supervises the national team members during training. Photo by Brian Peterson for The Star Tribune.
It is, of course, entirely possible that Johnson is censoring herself. After all, she would not want to get herself in trouble so close to London (it seems that a few years back, fans would get reports on the “verification meets” that happened at the ranch, but Karolyi did not like that, and so now the gymnasts and coaches stay mum).
It is also entirely possible and probable that Karolyi goes easier on Johnson and veteran gymnasts like Alicia Sacramone, who often rooms with Johnson at the ranch, because of their achievements in the sport. If the past is any indication, younger gymnasts are much more prone to injury at the training camps, usually because they are expected to perform an unnecessary amount of repetitions to prove themselves to Karolyi.
“We see these young girls running around, and they’re throwing 10 routines a day and doing 20 of each skill,” Johnson wrote. “But when we go up, we do five. It’s just about being smarter; we don’t have the same energy level, so we compensate by making sure that what we do really counts.”
Of course, even the most skeptical fans know that the camps are not all evil. The US gymnastics team is closer than it has ever been before, especially because the girls’ home gyms are so spread out across the country, from Dallas to Pennsylvania and everywhere in between. Now, the gymnasts get to see their teammates – and rivals – once every few months at the Karolyis’ ranch.
When all is said and done, it seems that the camps are not going anywhere. USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny certainly attributes the team’s recent successes to Karolyi and the ranch. “I don’t think we would have seen the collective success we’ve seen, and I don’t think our medal count would have outnumbered the other countries at the level that it does, if we hadn’t done this 10 years ago,” he told The Star Tribune in 2011.