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Armour: USA Gymnastics Returns to Competition after Year of Triumph, Turmoil

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The women’s gymnastics team, led by four gold medals and a bronze by Simone Biles (No. 391), contributed to the United States’ high medal count in the Rio 2016 Olympics. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

One flip symbolizes how the USA Gymnastics’ women’s program has changed in the last year.

Ashton Locklear performed the trick when she threw out the first pitch before the Cubs and White Sox met in the Crosstown Series last month, two days before the U.S. Classic. That’s right. Instead of being on lockdown so close to competition, as she would have been in years past, Locklear was out, having fun and enjoying the perks of all those hours she’s spent in the gym.

“Absolutely it is more open,” said Rhonda Faehn, the women’s program director. “Yes, there’s always going to be a fine line between keeping that focus and that discipline but at the same time still allowing for the little things. Those little things were always done maybe in the past but not as open.

“When you’re smiling down here on the competition floor, it doesn’t mean you’re not focused,” Faehn said. “It means you’re enjoying the process and the journey.”

The P&G Championships get underway Thursday after what has been a year of both triumph and tumult for USA Gymnastics. After the U.S. women won a record nine medals, four of them gold, at the Rio Olympics, the federation was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal centered around longtime team physician Larry Nassar.

Nassar pleaded guilty last month to federal child pornography charges, and faces 22 to 27 years in prison when he’s sentenced Nov. 27. He still faces 33 charges of criminal sexual conduct in Michigan, and has been sued by more than 115 women and girls who said Nassar sexually abused them during medical appointments.

USA Gymnastics has been named in some of the lawsuits, accused of not doing enough to protect young gymnasts from abuse.

The scandal cost former president and CEO Steve Penny his job and prompted a far-reaching review of the federation’s practices by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels. In her report, released June 27, Daniels said USA Gymnastics needed a “complete cultural change,” putting the priority on the safety and well-being of athletes rather than world and Olympic medals.

Amidst all this, Martha Karolyi, the architect of the U.S. women’s success the past 15 years, made good on her promise to retire after Rio and was replaced by Valeri Liukin.

“Of course it adds stress on all of us,” Liukin said of taking over during the upheaval. “We talk a lot about this, we make sure we’re doing the right thing. I know all eyes are on us right now. This is our goal.

“It should be our goal all the time,” he added. “Not just because something happened.”

While there is no denying Karolyi’s success, or the system that was the foundation for it, she also was known as an exacting taskmaster.

Coaches and athletes on the national team would joke about “Martha time,” knowing that if you weren’t at least five minutes early, you were considered late. There might have been a selection committee for world and Olympic teams, but Karolyi had the only say that mattered.

Training camps before big meets were long and demanding — the U.S. women were at her ranch outside of Houston for almost three weeks before Rio — and fun was something to be had when competition was over.

Liukin won’t criticize Karolyi — “Obviously Martha is a genius when you’re talking gymnastics preparation for the competition, and she proved it with the results,” he said — but there is definitely a different, less rigid tone to the program.

There was Locklear’s promotional appearance before the Classic. Results at the training camps, which used to be top secret unless an athlete or coach spilled, are now announced by USA Gymnastics. Even podium training before the U.S. Classic lacked its usual tension.

Liukin knows the semi-centralized system as well as anyone and has, perhaps, the most unique perspective of it. He competed under a similar national team structure with the Soviet Union, winning two gold medals at the Seoul Olympics. He trained daughter Nastia, the all-around champion at the Beijing Olympics, under the American version.

And for the four years before he replaced Karolyi, he ran the developmental program, training both the young athletes and coaches who will be factors for Tokyo in 2020.

“This is not a one-man job and it’s never been,” Liukin said last month. “Definitely we can give directions and put them together as a team, but it’s the coaches who do their job.

“We have some really good, young coaches (and for) that I’m very, very happy,” he added. “If you look at the podium, you actually see only a few old names. There are a lot of new faces and that was my biggest goal when I got the job on the junior side, to develop new coaches.”

The year after the Olympics is always one of transition and this one is no different. None of the Final Five is competing this week, and it’s too soon to know if any will return to make a run at Tokyo. Meanwhile, there’s no established heir apparent to four-time national champion Simone Biles, with the most likely candidates still in the junior ranks.

“The year after the Olympics is a tough one and it’s always been this way. Just hoping it’s not only for us,” Liukin said, laughing.

But no matter if it’s a time of transition or a time of turmoil, the program moves on.

By Nancy Armour

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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