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Mining for gymnastics gold at a Texas ranch

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NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- There are no lions and tigers and bears (probably) at the Karolyi Ranch deep inside Sam Houston National Forest. No, but these 2,000 acres are full of camels, red deer, cows, bulls, peacocks, white swans, black ones too, seven dogs and loads of gymnasts who tumble off the buses that bring them here to live in cabins, navigate the wildlife and listen to the plain-spoken criticism of USA Gymnastics national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

"Back straighter please," Karolyi says to world all-around champion Shawn Johnson, 16, who quickly snaps out a kink invisible to everyone but Karolyi, Johnson and Johnson's coach Liang Chow.

"Nastia, please, no wobble," Karolyi advises Nastia Liukin, who recently beat Johnson in an all-around competition in New York. Liukin had seemed to move her left big toe slightly on completion of a tumbling pass on the balance beam.

The women of the United States senior national team have gathered at the ranch for the final time before they compete in the Visa National Championships in Boston June 5-7 and the U.S. Olympic team trials in Philadelphia June 19-22.

After those competitions, a training squad will be chosen to return in July to the ranch, where the rest of the six-member team plus two alternates will be chosen.

It is at this ranch where the U.S. has become the most formidable power in gymnastics.

After a disastrous 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where the U.S. won no medals and the athletes and coaches used words such as "unhappy," "bitter" and "disgusted," often aimed at team coordinator Bela Karolyi, something had to change.

It was clear that Karolyi's training experiment, where star pupils and their coaches had to come to the ranch once a month, was a bust. Many of those coaches didn't want to leave behind gyms they owned and operated, especially to hear themselves and their students bluntly criticized by an unforgiving Karolyi.

USA Gymnastics officials, however, felt the old system wasn't working either. Picking athletes for a world competition through gymnastics trials and then having those athletes train together for only a few days ahead of the event was leaving the U.S. behind.

The compromise was surprisingly simple: Top gymnasts would still come to the Karolyi ranch once a month. But Karolyi's wife, Martha, would be the inclusive force.

Since 2003, the U.S. women have won 29 Olympic and world championship medals. Last fall, the U.S. won the team gold medal at the 2007 world championships, and 15-year-old Johnson won the all-around gold medal.

This year Johnson and Liukin are co-favorites to win the Olympic all-around gold medal (Carly Patterson of the U.S. won in 2004), and the team is favored to win gold.

And coming to the ranch is a privilege akin to being accepted to Harvard or Stanford.

Alicia Sacramone, 20, the oldest member of the national team, remembered receiving her first invitation to the ranch when she was 14.

"I was petrified," she said. "I got on a bus from the airport to the middle of nowhere. I was petrified of the animals. When you're new, they put you way, way, way back by the lake in cabins with bunk beds and not much else. You walk to the gym, a nice 15-minute stroll in the morning and all you heard were animal sounds. I was such an outsider, I had no idea what this world was like."

Darling Hill, 18, of Mount Laurel, N.J., stumbled into gymnastics after performing a high-amplitude jump at a dance contest. Now she is a rising contender after her daring floor exercise routines filled with high-flying tumbling passes caught Martha Karolyi's eye.

Hill, who changed her name from Darlene to Darling, "just because," she says, received her first camp invitation about two years ago.

"I had heard Martha was looking at me," Hill said. "I didn't really know anything much about gymnastics and I was totally built different. I came here and no one knew me. I was the power child and I got here and my cellphone didn't work, there was no Internet, no TV and I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I cried. I honestly cried. I couldn't even call my grandma. I couldn't e-mail."

But Hill keeps coming back.

"If you're invited," she said, "you come."

Besides the old cabins out by the lake, there is a building with hotel-like accommodations that athletes can work up to. They still share rooms, but the building has a TV room with "good" cable, as Liukin described it, where teammates gather to watch their favorite shows. Also recently added was wireless Internet, a comfort to the gymnasts and their coaches who can more easily keep track of business back home.

Bela, whose title is director of the U.S. Women's National Team Training Center, carries around a ring of about 40 keys like a high school janitor. He jangles when he walks and laughs when he says he has no idea what doors most of the keys open. "But I'm afraid to throw any away," he said. "They might open a door I need."

Bela and Martha first bought 38 acres of the ranch in 1982. Bela had found the place when friends took him hunting in the forest. Over the years, as the old-time farmers and hunters moved on, Bela would buy bits and pieces.

With Martha having taken over the coaching duties, Bela has immersed himself in animals. His latest project is raising red deer, an animal more like a European elk, he said.

But Bela walks with a strut when he speaks about the ranch as it becomes the U.S. national training center, if only for a few days every month.

"So many struggles, so many fights to go through in order to create what we are very proud of now," he said. "It is a very American national system, a semi-central national training center. Now we are always ahead of the game."

Because girls have to come for only three or four days once a month, most of them can train with their coaches, live with their parents and attend high school. Last week, Johnson went to her prom and Ivana Hong, 15, did her homework between workouts.

The Karolyis bring to camp international judges and experts in the different disciplines. Martha speaks constantly to coaches and judges from around the world to gather concrete criticism and even bits of gossip about what is being said of her gymnasts.

Teams from Germany, Canada, Italy, Brazil and Colombia also are invited so that their coaches can learn techniques and so that friendly competitions can be held out of public view but with the pressure to perform in front of Martha.

Liukin, 18, has been coming since she was 11. Her father and coach, Valeri, badgered Martha into letting him bring his daughter when he was bringing other students.

"I thought it was so cool when I got to come the first time," the gymnast said. "I felt a little out of place at first. Most of the girls were 16, 17. But you prove yourself on the floor and you get included.

"Webecome a real team here. People bring DVDs. We rush out from dinner to watch 'Gossip Girl' and 'The Hills' and 'American Idol.' We talk about stuff, not gymnastics. Shawn was showing us pictures of her prom dress. It sounds not true but, honestly, we all like each other. We all have the same goals, to make the team and win medals, but we really aren't jealous."

There is a ranch lineage forming too. Kim Zmeskal-Burdette was coached by Bela and first came to the ranch in 1991, the year she became the first American to win the all-around world championship. Now 32 and the mother of two, she brought her first student to the ranch this session. Chelsea Davis, 15, is barely age-eligible for the Olympics and was mentioned by Martha Karolyi as a dark horse to sneak onto the Olympic team.

"I was so intimidated by the ranch the first time I came," Zmeskal-Burdette said. "It was just a big, scary place out in the middle of nowhere.

"Now I think it is the perfect system. Girls come here, learn what others are doing, go home and work on what they need."

Chellsie Memmel, 19, who won the world all-around title in 2005 and has struggled with injuries since, said she was skeptical at first about the ranch.

"I wasn't sure it would help me," she said. "Now I understand. It forces you to see what you need to do. Martha is a blunt person. She tells you the truth. You see other girls doing hard skills. I come here and realize I have to upgrade things. It's easy to get comfortable alone at home. Here, your comfort zone is gone. The girls are all good. And then you have to dodge the camels."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

ON LATIMES.COM * For a close-up view of Karolyi's ranch in Texas, see Myung J. Chun's video report at latimes.com/olympics.

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