ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The Italian beach outside their hotel beckoned to the group of American teenage girls, many on their first major international assignment as seniors for the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team.
So they went, kicking up sand while they worked on the dance portion of their beam routines as the Adriatic Sea crashed nearby, drawing stares from tourists and townspeople alike and not minding a bit.
Yeah, this isn’t Martha Karolyi’s program anymore.
The successful but rigid national team coordinator who spent 15 years overseeing the U.S. evolution from underachiever to medal-hogging juggernaut is gone. She retired last summer after the “Final Five” turned the 2016 Olympics into a showcase for the finely tuned system she cultivated.
Valeri Liukin became Karolyi’s successor last September. He’s intent on success while creating a more collaborative and upbeat atmosphere. The plan is letting the kids be kids, which is how Morgan Hurd, Riley McCusker and the rest of the team ended up spending part of their Italian mornings at the Jesolo Cup in March. They got a dash of sun and fresh air, a move definitely outside Karolyi’s regimented playbook.
“I do believe the girls need to get out,” Liukin said. “We wanted to make little changes.”
Just not to the results. When the lights came on in the arena, it was business as usual for the Americans. McCusker captured the all-around while five other teammates finished in the top 15.
Same as it ever was for the U.S., only with a relaxed twist.
“I want people to trust me and believe in me,” Liukin said. “I’m there to help them. I’m not there to just judge them.”
That point was on full display during this weekend’s U.S. championships. While 2016 Olympic alternate Ragan Smith put together four solid routines on Friday night to take the lead heading into Sunday’s finals, the majority of the 22-woman field experienced more than a few shaky moments. The “Final Five” they were not.
And guess what? Liukin’s OK with that. He’s long understood the first year after an Olympics is always bumpy. This one may be a little more difficult than most as new competitors step in for one of the most decorated groups in the history of the sport.
“This is not the greatest meet from a lot of girls but again, this is a step forward and a positive step,” he said.
Liukin smiled as he talked about the mistakes, a marked contrast from the typically blunt Karolyi. Where Karolyi would watch competitions with lips pursed and arms folded like a general surveying her troops, Liukin is more approachable.
“Because (Martha’s) demeanor was so stern, the girls needed to hear her approval to be in a good place and I feel like she was smart with that,” said Kim Zmeskal Burdette, a 1992 Olympic bronze medalist who now coaches several elites, including Smith. “But Valeri stays back. It’s more ‘You guys do your thing and I’ll be right here if you need me for anything.'”
The 50-year-old understands the pressure. He’s seen it from all sides. Born in what is now Kazakhstan, he won four Olympic medals — including a gold on the horizontal bar — for the Soviet Union at the 1988 Olympics. He moved to the United States in 1992 and started coaching. Daughter Nastia won the individual all-around title at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, edging teammate Shawn Johnson.
“I’m father of elite athlete, what can be better?” Liukin said. “I lived that difficult life and it didn’t come easy. Being an elite athlete at a world-class level. It’s not an easy life.”
When Karolyi approached him about becoming the elite developmental coordinator for USA Gymnastics in 2012, he didn’t hesitate. He was tapped as Karolyi’s replacement last fall, hardly intimidated by the prospect of replacing one of the most successful coaches in history.
“It’s difficult for me to judge myself from the side and compare myself with Martha,” Liukin said. “She’s a huge name in the heart of gymnastics. But I’ve been coaching for a long time.”
He’s taking over during a turbulent time for the organization. USA Gymnastics is reeling from allegations of sexual abuse against former national team doctor Larry Nassar and the fallout from an investigation by The Indianapolis Star that highlighted problems with how the federation handled claims of abuse by coaches at member clubs.
USA Gymnastics has been named a co-defendant in several civil cases, along with Karolyi and her husband Bela. The women’s program withdrew from an agreement to buy the training center on the Karolyi’s ranch north of Houston, though it will keep training there while searching for a new home.
Liukin is not implicated in any lawsuits. He’s trying to find a way forward from a painful chapter.
“It is a lot more stressful, it is a little different,” Liukin said. “But this is my life. We are being more thoughtful and more watchful at this point.”