FORT WORTH, Texas – The US Gymnastics Championships were over. The pressure – luckily, if only momentarily – has subsided. On the floor of the Dickies Arena, the Olympic hopefuls have moved aimlessly. Some have spoken. Some took their phones. Others searched the stalls for their families.
Jordan Chiles has done what she usually does when there is a lull in the action. She Danced. Soon a couple joined us. Then a few more. Then a few more. In a minute or two, almost the whole group was doing “The Cha Cha slide” for everyone to see.
Martha Karolyi’s program is not.
The mood around the highest level of sport in the United States has loosened in the five years since the retirement of the National Team Coordinator, which has been very successful but has created many divisions. The impromptu flash mob at the national championships last month offered a symbolic, if somewhat superficial, glimpse into the changing landscape.
“I feel like the workouts are actually a lot more fun and not – I mean, it’s still stressful, but it’s not as stressful as it used to be,” said MyKayla Skinner, a replacement for the 2016 Olympic team, who will be one of six Americans competing in Tokyo this month.
Yet the greatest gymnast of all time wonders if the pendulum has gone too far, too fast.
Simone Biles embraced the long overdue push to create a more athlete-centered environment. His concern, however, is that the best new world in sport could make it difficult for hired coaches to turn prodigies into champions to do their jobs effectively.
“I think the culture change is happening, but it’s almost like the athletes have almost too much power and the coaches can’t handle it. Biles told The Associated Press in May. “So it’s a bit wild. It’s like a horse out of the barn: you can’t get it in.
Biles, among USA Gymnastics’ most vocal critics of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal and herself a Nassar survivor, is not complaining. She is unlikely to return to sport in late 2017 if Karolyi was still in charge. Things had to change.
Still, the 24-year-old is also keenly aware of the pressure that follows when the ever-busy USA team is on the international stage.
The Americans produced the last four Olympic gold medalists in the all-around competition and have won every major team title since the 2011 world championships, a streak they are strongly encouraged to extend in Tokyo thanks in large part to the unparalleled brilliance of Biles.
The question is what comes next. How will one of the gold standards of the American Olympic movement foster a healthy, positive and competitive environment at the same time?
The two are not mutually exclusive. Biles need only point out his relationship with former coach Aimee Boorman and current coaches Laurent and Cécile Landi as proof. However, she also knows that her experience is not entirely trivial for a sport in the process of regulation.
Gymnastics federations from the United States to Great Britain to Australia grapple with their own version of a #MeToo movement as athletes from each country stepped forward to detail a culture they considered as toxic. Despite the steps taken by leaders to move USA Gymnastics forward, Nassar’s fallout isn’t going away anytime soon.
Even as Biles and his teammates flew to Tokyo on Wednesday, the Justice Department’s Inspector General released a long-awaited report that highlighted the FBI’s repeated failures to properly investigate Nassar while making sure not to let the organization get away with it.
The air must be purged. This is one of the many reasons the World Champions Center is inundated with floor-to-ceiling windows. There are 36 cameras placed in the 50,000 square foot facility in the northern suburbs of Houston, each with volume at maximum.
“Everything has to be visible, and the coaches know it. “ said Nellie Biles, who opened the gym to give her daughter Simone a place to work out. “Coaches know they are being watched at all times, not only from the viewing arena, but also by cameras. They know that. It shouldn’t distract from what they’re doing if they’re doing their job. They just know there are cameras and they know nothing is a secret. So yeah, do what’s right and you don’t even have to worry about someone looking at you.
This level of transparency, as necessary as it is, has created an athlete-coach dynamic that clearly departs from what Laurent Landi grew up with when he trained and competed for France in the 1990s.
“Now children, sometimes you don’t want to offend them, so you just walk on tiptoe” said Landi, who is the head coach of American women in Japan.
While Landi has been keen to praise USA Gymnastics for being proactive in trying to make things safer for athletes at all levels, he is also wary.
Yes, gymnasts must be empowered. At the same time, the Olympics do not award participation trophies. Biles is on the front page of a group expected to come home with a handful of medals. Anything less would be a disappointment.
Winning may not be the only goal anymore, but it should always be in the conversation.
“You need expectations” said Landi. “I don’t think there is currently a wait. Before the wait (under Karolyi), they were not said. We haven’t been told. But we knew the wait. Everyone knows the wait.
Landi laughed as the sentence ended, a glimpse of the thorny relationship the US program has with its recent past. Karolyi took over a messy schedule in 2001 and turned it into one of the most dominant forces in all Olympic sports, using an assertive approach that some Nassar survivors say helped leave the behavior of the ‘former national team doctor go unchecked for years.
While USA Gymnastics has undergone a drastic overhaul since the 2016 Olympics – current president Li Li Leung is the fourth person to hold the post since the closing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro – external standards have not.
Biles wonders if that level will be sustainable at least in the short term after Tokyo as the organization seeks common ground.
“It’s difficult for a country to stay at the top for so many years” she said. “So I think there will be a little drop, but then there will be a comeback because there will be this cultural shift that you have to go through. I don’t think the results will always be the same because there is so much going on at the same time that you won’t be able to control them. This is my only concern.
Finding the right balance is difficult. This is also where a real, substantial and lasting transformation lies.
Dancing after a date is one thing. What happens near the end of another muscle and mentally exhausting workout on an anonymous Tuesday is another.
“There is a time to pamper, a time to be positive, but sometimes you have to obey the law” said Tom Meadows, an elite men’s coach at Cypress Academy in Houston. “You tell them, ‘You say you want to do this? Well, let’s go.
It’s a conversation Biles has had with his coaches in one form or another for years. She’s not sure how long it will take the next wave to understand the difference between constructive criticism from a coach designed to maximize an athlete’s potential and personal criticism, or worse.
Biles wants all sports to eradicate the latter.
She is still a lawyer, however, for the former.
“There’s a big line on what you can and can’t do, what you can and can’t tell these kids rather than every time I was growing up.” Biles said. “I would say (at the time), ‘Okay, you say that. I’m pissed off but I’ll do my job. Now it’s like I even said to the other girls, ‘Don’t take it to heart. They don’t want to tell you that. So just let it roll over your shoulder.