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Who picks the U.S. women's gymnastics Olympic team?

Martha Karolyi
USA Today Sports

Who picks the U.S. women's gymnastics Olympic team?

Learn more about the Olympic selection committee that will choose the five female gymnasts on the U.S. Olympic team for Rio.

Around 10:45 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 10, after the second night of Olympic Trials competition concludes, five female gymnasts will be named to the U.S. Olympic team. But before the streamers, balloons and tears start falling in the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., the Olympic selection committee must make their biggest decision of the last four years.

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In track and field or swimming, the top finishers in the race automatically get a spot on the Olympic team. That's not the case in gymnastics—the gymnast that finishes fifth in the all-around at Olympic Trials won't necessarily get that fifth spot on the team. Instead, a three-member Olympic selection committee will meet to discuss which gymnasts have the most medal-worthy routines, who has the right strengths and weaknesses that will complement the other gymnasts in the Olympic team final, and who can be counted on to perform under the intense pressure of the Olympic spotlight.

There are three members of the Olympic selection committee:

Martha Karolyi is the national team coordinator of the U.S. women's gymnastics program and is mentioned most often as the one whose opinion can make or break a gymnast's career. After a shaky performance at the 2015 World Championships, Aly Raisman tearfully told reporters, "I hope Martha still wants me for next summer after this."

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Karolyi took over as National Team Coordinator in 2001, after decades spent working behind the scenes as her husband, legendary coach Bela Karolyi, enjoyed the spotlight. Bela coached Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug to Olympic gold medals before he retired. But for all his success, it was Martha Karolyi who created a program that has won so many Olympic and world championships medals (87 since 2001) that the U.S. women's gymnastics squad is considered a sports dynasty.

Her decades of experience as a gymnastics technician and meticulous attention to detail—she has input on every routine and skill, and invites the national team to the Karolyi Ranch in Texas for monthly training camps to check the gymnasts' physical fitness, progress and consistency—are why athletes under her watch usually end up with medals around their necks.

Karolyi, now 73 years old, will be joining her husband in retirement after the Rio Olympics. It's one of the reasons she's particularly invested in this group of gymnasts: one last chance to cement her legacy.

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But she's not the only person on the Olympic selection committee. The other two members are Tatiana Perskaia, a coach on for the U.S. women's national team, and Terin Humphrey, the Athlete Representative.

2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin has served as the athlete rep in the past, and shared her insight into the process of selecting a team.

"Yeah, Martha is obviously the head coach but there is a larger selection committee," Liukin said. "Everybody is very vocal and expresses their opinions and I did the same thing."

But Liukin explains that the committee usually doesn't have much trouble coming to a consensus.

"It's pretty easy to determine [whose on the team], it’s always like the last spot or last few spots where you kind of go back and forth," she said. Everyone's voices are "pretty equal but given the fact that she is the head coach, if anyone were to get a little priority it's Martha and it’s very well deserved obviously."

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Perskaia was a gymnast in the Ukraine before coming to the U.S. to coach. 
 
Humphrey is an Olympian in her own right who won two silver medals, team and uneven bars, at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Her role as the athlete representative on the selection committee has earned her the unofficial title of "the second most powerful woman in gymnastics." She told Inside Gymnastics that she's "like the team mom, mentor, ear, and shoulder when the girls need me," and is at every training camp, domestic competition and at least one international meet a year. 
 
"It’s hard to deny amazing athletes who have worked and devoted their entire lives to this sport a spot on that team," Humphrey said of the selection process. "We figure out the highest start values, most consistent, who is healthy, who can mentally handle the stress, who can be a leader to the team, etc.

"We typically try and decide who is the best all-around gymnast and fill in the holes from there."


Terin Humphrey

And when Karolyi, Perskaia and Humphrey have their final discussion before announcing the Olympic team on Sunday night, it will be far from the first time they considered their options.

"Typically, the Olympic Committee gets together after every training session or competition and discusses each athlete and where they are at, at the moment, their progress, etc.," Humphrey said. 

They will use a number of “discretionary criteria” to select the team.

The criteria includes qualitative data, such as:

  • Start values on each event—the routine's maximum score, as determined by the difficulty of each skill competed
  • Execution scores on each event—how few deductions are taken from a routine’s start value
  • Consistency of each routine both in competition and at team training camps—what percentage of time a gymnast completes her planned routine without any major errors or falls 

More intangible criteria listed by the USA Gymnastics athlete selection procedures includes:

  • World class presentation
  • Competitive readiness that allows for maximum performance
  • Physical capability
  • Demonstrated professional attitude and ability to positively contribute to the team dynamic
Watch the final night of the U.S. women's gymnastics Olympic Trials live at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC or streaming online here.
 

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