This week, while most American teenagers have been adjusting to the start of a new year of high school, twelve elite gymnasts have been enduring a grueling selection camp at the Karolyi Ranch in Houston, Texas. Under the eyes of Martha Karolyi, each girl carries the hope of surviving to the next round in this multi-step selection process for the world championships.
Criticism of Martha Karolyi’s never-ending evaluation of these girls isn’t in short supply, and in fact has increased steadily since her methods have been in effect over the last ten years. The history of frequent injuries that occur both at her camps as well as in training at major competitions has raised more than a little suspicion that this whole selection process is far too long and physically demanding. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when competitions like the national championships, the world championship trials, and the Olympic trials used to objectively decide our world and Olympic teams, the gymnasts could try to strategically time their peaks with “game nights.” Their tasks were very clear: peak for the selection competition, take some down time to heal their bodies and rest both physically and emotionally, and then peak again for the actual world or Olympic competition.
But with Martha’s drawn-out selection processes that typically last for 2-3 months straight and force the gymnasts to battle for spots until literally the week of the worlds or Olympics, the girls are required to stay in absolute peak form much longer than ever before. And with the subjective nature of the selection procedures nowadays, one could easily argue that the true selection process is even longer than that, as the girls are essentially watched under a microscope throughout the entire year.
It’s no secret that the U.S. team has developed a habit of sustaining very costly injuries right up until the day of the big competition; it’s also no secret that over the last ten years, they’ve tended to look a little stronger and sharper at the selection competitions than they do at the main event. Although the USA women have still won plenty of team medals over the past ten years, the scenario in which they enter the competition as the gold-medal favorites and end up looking injured and a bit sluggish when game time arrives is starting to become a bit redundant.
Martha obviously hasn’t changed her ways yet. The girls in selection camp this week have been under scrutiny since at least the U.S. Classic in June, and will continue to be so through the next selection camp that will take place October 3-6, just eleven days before the start of the world championships. The women’s selection process has turned into a bit of a “survivor game” – a contest to see which six girls can hold up physically and emotionally through to the end. Though such a competitive process may sound appealing to the hardcore fan, the problem with playing survivor in a sport like gymnastics is that the casualties often end up being some of the best players.