‘Work hard, play hard’: Martha Karolyi’s gymnastics team ready for gold

RIO DE JANEIRO – The U.S. women’s gymnastics team might just be the biggest gold-medal lock of the Olympics. How do we know?

Martha Karolyi is giving the team a day off. Two days before the competition starts.

“It’s pretty unusual,” Karolyi admitted in a Facebook Live chat Thursday night with 2008 Olympic silver medalist Sam Peszek.

That’s how confident Karolyi is in their preparation; the 73-year-old matriarch did Facebook Live ahead of the biggest meet in four years. Imagine the Russian or Chinese coaches, or even Coach K or Geno Auriemma doing this.

These are Karolyi’s legacy Olympics, her fourth and final Games as the national-team coordinator. The program vaulted into a class of its own in the last five years, winning every Olympic and world championships team and individual all-around title.

This year’s team is her most decorated yet and the biggest favorite for the Olympic women’s team gold in recent memory. The pressure to succeed is overwhelming.

The U.S. women finished their only pre-Olympic training session on the bright-green competition floor at about 7 pm Rio time Thursday night.

From there, Karolyi would have been expected to pore over scores, analyze routines or discuss Sunday’s qualifying lineup with coaches.

Those were not her immediate plans, though the lineup was a major talking point among the media, and young Laurie Hernandez’s coach. Karolyi deflected questions in her usual gushing-but-not-revealing manner.

Three U.S. women can vie for the all-around in qualifying, and it looks like the 16-year-old Hernandez will sit out in favor of returning Olympians Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman joining Simone Biles, despite beating both of them at the U.S. Olympic Trials last month.

Again, this speaks to how big of a favorite the U.S. is. The closest thing to a controversy is debating the third-most deserving gymnast on the squad.

This is tame compared Karolyi’s previous three Games in charge, when she had to deal with injuries to individual world champions in the lead-up to the team final.

The confidence is clear among the gymnasts, too. They already have the team name chosen to follow-up the Fierce Five moniker of four years ago, but Raisman said they won’t reveal it until after the team final Tuesday night.

Raisman didn’t say anything about “if we win the team final.” One would think a team name announcement after a silver or bronze medal wouldn’t make sense, but this thought doesn’t seem to enter their minds.

Karolyi and the gymnasts marched out of the mixed zone at about 7:30 Thursday night and into a transport. They were shuttled across a largely empty and very dark Olympic Park. The gymnasts went to an interview with Ryan Seacrest. Karolyi did a series of interviews.

Raisman was asked about Karolyi’s unusual move to give the team a free day Friday. The team captain said the Fierce Five did not get such a luxury in London, though they did get one at a pre-Games team camp.

“Usually we give a day off,” Karolyi said, “and they have several half-days off.”

Is this team more prepared than the 2012 team?

“It’s so hard to compare the teams,” Karolyi said. “I feel all the teams were well prepared.

“We reached the good level of training. We thought it would very welcome to give them a little bit of break. It’s not so much from the physical effort, but I think mentally you permanently have to focus so much. You have to keep your very best every single second, every single repetition that it’s very good to give them a day off to loosen up and come back with a lot of refreshment and energy for the competition.”

The gymnasts seemed loose enough even before they were given Friday off.

They met Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps in the athletes’ village on Wednesday.

Raisman said she “acted like a 5-year-old” in front of the Jamaican sprinter. Biles said she had to be the reasonable voice when Raisman and Douglas, the team veterans, were being boisterous in Bolt’s presence.

“I kept it calm, because I know how it feels when people rush over to me,” said the 19-year-old Biles, speaking from her experience of winning three straight world all-around titles. Two years ago, Biles seemed ready to cartwheel across the lobby when she found out her face was on hotel room keys at the P&G Championships. She has matured.

“Aly and Gabby practically flipped the whole dinner table and screamed, ‘Usain!’ and attracted people,” Biles said. “I said you can’t do that, keep it calm.”

In the end, the team noticed how hungry Bolt must have been, since he had two heaping plates of pasta on his table. Hernandez wanted to challenge Bolt to a race, but that will wait.

“Hopefully another time, when he’s not starving, we can have a conversation with him,” Raisman said.

One thing the U.S. women won’t be doing on their day off is marching in the Opening Ceremony and tiring their legs with hours of standing. That would have been even more eyebrow-raising than Karolyi letting them free for the day.

Karolyi said the last time U.S. women’s artistic team members marched in the Opening Ceremony was at the 1988 Seoul Games. And that Karolyi actually marched with them.

That would be a sight to behold, but a quick YouTube query and a Where’s Waldo-esque search through the light-blue tops and long white skirts yielded no definitive proof.

“I, for sure, have been around a very long time,” Karolyi joked, fittingly in the Facebook Live chat.

When her teams perform well, Karolyi rewards herself. At the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio, the U.S. won the team event, swept the all-around podium and took gold and silver in three of four apparatus finals.

Karolyi visited a jewelry store and hopes to return, should the team take care of business. From the looks of it, they already have.

To Karolyi’s liking, they stuck their landings and showed maturity in Thursday’s training session. They’ve also traded pins and scouted boys. The team has mastered time management, too.

“Work hard, play hard,” Biles joked.