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U.S. Men’s Gymnastics Coach Mark Williams Talks Olympic Success, Cultural Confluence

Germany's Fabian Hambuechen, Britain's Nile Wilson, and United States' Danell Leyva celebrate during the medal ceremony for horizontal bar during 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 16, 2016.
Rebecca Blackwell
/
AP
Germany's Fabian Hambuechen, Britain's Nile Wilson, and United States' Danell Leyva celebrate during the medal ceremony for horizontal bar during 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 16, 2016.

An Olympic hallmark since the 1932 games, the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro hosted University of Oklahoma men’s gymnastics coach Mark Williams and his team this summer. Of all the spectacles he saw in Brazil, Williams found the facility one of the most striking.

“The Olympic village is just an amazing place. You can sit down and have lunch and have five different languages in your ear,” Williams said. “One day I just started to count, and I think I got up to 35 different countries represented within about 100 feet of me.”

However, such a large international gathering can also illuminate wealth gaps between delegations. Williams found financial connections do make a difference in a country’s success, especially when it comes to where athletes train.

“I do see, in my travels, that you go to different countries and the facilities and the support in different countries is very different from what we have the luxury of in our country, and certainly that's helped our success for sure,” Williams said.

Despite initial concerns and media coverage of athletes’ health in Rio, Williams said most venues and lodging were more than adequate. When it came to Zika, Williams had no worries.

“I think I saw two mosquitos while I was down there,” Williams said. “For the first week we're dousing ourselves with Off and stuff, and after a while, we opened the windows and just kind of forgot about all that and did our jobs.”

As the head coach for the U.S. men’s gymnastics team, Williams witnessed an explosive opening ceremony and Simone Biles’ historic domination. Men’s team members Alex Naddour and Danell Leyva also earned medals in Rio.

“The all-around final may have been one of the best-contested men's gymnastics meets ever. I think in the gymnastics sense of things, it was a huge success and certainly if you look at the women, USA women probably had their best Olympic games ever,” Williams said.

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On competing in Brazil

Because we are part of the men's program, Brazil was in the first session for the team prelims. We showed up sort of in the middle of their competition, and it was crazy. It was loud, they were excited-- energy in the building was amazing. Our team was then in the second group, and some of them stayed over, and we still had a pretty good crowd, but Brazil wasn't on the floor. I actually had to warn my guys that when we got into the team finals, we were going to compete at the same time the Brazil men were competing. And I said, "you're going to have to be ready for that ovation, because they're going to be screaming and yelling and there's going to be a lot going on that you guys have to stay really focused."

On the significance of the Olympic Games

It seemed like at the track, there were so many more nations there and a bigger realm between the very top elite athletes and then some that were there, happy to be part of the Olympics, that in terms of their competitiveness, they're a lap or two behind the leaders, but just happy to be at the Olympic Games competing for their country. So I love the fact that it is sort of an apolitical event, that you're there representing your country and doing athletics at the highest level.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Coach Mark Williams, welcome to World Views.

MARK WILLIAMS: Well, thanks for having me.

GRILLOT: So you've just returned from Rio, where you served as the coach of the U.S. men's gymnastics team. It was an interesting experience for you. You told me before that you've been to Rio before, but how was it? We obviously were watching the Olympics for more than one reason, more than sports, just to see how Brazil managed the Olympics. There was a lot of news, as you know, prior to the Olympics about how they did. How would you score the Olympics in Brazil?

WILLIAMS: Well, they did a good job. In the end, I think a lot of the problems were overblown. From our standpoint, we were able to arrive in the village and get set up, go to the practice areas, get what we needed there-- We were able to get the transportation we needed back and forth generally on a schedule, and the venue was amazing. It was great. There were issues-- Like they said, some parts of the village weren't complete, and they were doing a pretty good job of trying to get all that stuff done. The week prior to the opening ceremonies-- we were there a week ahead of that because we started immediately after the ceremony, so we didn't have hot water for about four days. It kind of felt like they were a little bit behind in their preparation, but in the end, I think they did a good job. Now, we had to stay sort of within the Olympic bubble because that was our business, was to train, and it was really a two week competition process. There wasn't a whole lot of sightseeing or getting around to the other events while we were there, but, you know, I think I saw two mosquitos while I was down there. So, you know, for the first week we're dousing ourselves with Off and stuff, and after a while, we opened the windows and just kind of forgot about all that and did our jobs.

GRILLOT: The response from the Brazilians, from what we could tell anyway, from a distance, was that the Brazilians were really excited. There was a lot of energy. Every time I've been to Rio, of course, I've noticed it's a very vibrant and energetic city. So how was the reception of the home country?

WILLIAMS: It was great, especially for the gymnastics. Because we are part of the men's program, Brazil was in the first session for the team prelims. We showed up sort of in the middle of their competition, and it was crazy. It was loud, they were excited-- energy in the building was amazing. Our team was then in the second group, and some of them stayed over, and we still had a pretty good crowd, but Brazil wasn't on the floor. I actually had to warn my guys that when we got into the team finals, we were going to compete at the same time the Brazil men were competing. And I said, "you're going to have to be ready for that ovation, because they're going to be screaming and yelling and there's going to be a lot going on that you guys have to stay really focused." So they supported their team, the event was fantastic-- On the men's side, the team finals was amazing, between the top teams. We kind of struggled out of the box. It took us a while to get going. Once we did, we had a great fight and got ourselves back into it, but a little too late for the medal stand. And then we got individuals into the event finals. The all-around final may have been one of the best contested men's gymnastics meets ever. I think in the gymnastics sense of things, it was a huge success and certainly if you look at the women, USA Women probably had their best Olympic games ever.

GRILLOT: It was incredible, how much the women won by. But you're right, we watched - with major excitement - the men's gymnastics competition. And I think this raises an interesting issue, though: many sports-- and I've talked to some other people about the Olympics recently, that were also there, and talking about how men's and women's sports are often treated differently, and the crowds that turn out for men's versus women's sports. How do you feel about that in gymnastics?

WILLIAMS: We're on the other side.

GRILLOT: The other side.

WILLIAMS: A little bit, yeah. Actually, internationally, the men's sport is more popular around the world than the women's. So from the U.S. standpoint, it's kind of the reverse: that everybody's more involved in what happens on the women's side of things. So Simone Biles became the huge phenom of this Olympic Games, and rightfully so. She was so much better than any of the competition. The USA was the best team by far. Their prelims may have been the best gymnastics meet that I've ever witnessed, in terms of dominance, and perfection, and enthusiasm, and just-- what a great job that was for them. So, they were a huge hit. On the women's side, there's just not as many countries that have the kind of depth that the United States has. So, when you try to make those comparisons, it's just almost unfair, because they're just so much better at this point. We have Japan, China, Russia, who did very well this time; Great Britain has been very good-- there's a lot of top teams that were really fighting just to get on the podium. We looked at Simone's scores and put her scores with the Russian team, and the U.S. still wins without their best girl. They're just so good that it's something to admire and something for the men's program to be striving for.

GRILLOT: That's incredible. Well, so you are obviously no stranger to international competition. You've been in this sport for a while, and have traveled the world, I presume-- world championships and various things, you've coached world championship teams before. So, given the purpose of these types of events - certainly the Olympics, anyway - the idea is that you put aside your national differences, even though everybody stands up with their flag and you hear the national anthems, but, nonetheless, it's a time for sports to reign over politics and economics and a time where people from around the world gather to celebrate sporting achievements and athleticism. Is that your sense? Because you still see some of these political and economic issues creep though-- issues of inequality, obviously; the U.S. team dominates because there's just so much support for U.S. Olympic athletes in this country and in other typical countries. In others, not so much. So, that really brings to the forefront some of the concerns and issues that we have around the world. As a coach, and as an athlete in the past, how do you experience that traveling the world and seeing all of these kinds of similarities, but also differences?

WILLIAMS: I think one of the great things about the Olympics is that, for a short period of time, it brings the world's best athletes together. And the Olympic village is just an amazing place. You can sit down and have lunch and have five different languages in your ear, very close to you. One day I just started to count, and I think I got up to 35 different countries represented within about a hundred feet of me. It's just a phenomenal thing to see the cultures of the world all together. And we've maybe homogenized the world a great deal because of mass media and all that stuff, but there's still-- when you see someone that's from a very small country in Africa, it's like, wow, that person has a very different life from what I live. It's really a spectacular event. It's great to see the competition. I did get to see a little bit of the track and field; one of the days I got out to that venue and you could really see a lot more representation of the world at a track and field event when they had runners in the 5000 meter heats, where there were 25 in each heat. For gymnastics, we had to do a very significant qualifying system just to be at the Olympics, so only the top 12 teams were represented and only a few individuals. But it seemed like at the track, there were so many more nations there and a bigger realm between the very top elite athletes and then some that were there, happy to be part of the Olympics, that in terms of their competitiveness, they're a lap or two behind the leaders, but just happy to be at the Olympic Games competing for their country. So I love the fact that it is sort of an apolitical event, that you're there representing your country and doing athletics at the highest level. But I do see, in my travels, that you go to different countries and the facilities and the support in different countries is very different from what we have the luxury of in our country, and certainly that's helped our success for sure. We've got private gymnastics clubs across the country that are businesses, that are making money developing gymnasts, and we have a huge pool of athletes, while I know in Ukraine, after the Soviet system sort of fell apart, and they broke up into different-- their own nations, the support's just not there. They've got facilities that are from the '50s, and they don't have the number of athletes they used to have, and the system has broken down. A lot of their good coaches have come to the United States where they can make a better living. So, you know, there's so many of those variables that go on in how you develop the talents around the world. But for me to be a part of the Olympics was fantastic. I had a great time. My team gave their all. I have no regrets whatsoever for the process that we had. It was exciting. It's just so cool to sit back - even in the midst of the highest pressure, when you're competing for a medal - to look around and go, wow, this is something that I've spent a lot of time in my life to have the opportunity to be a part of.

GRILLOT: It is true. Even - obviously as a spectator - to feel that incredible energy-- I think it's one of the few times that many of us become very emotional along with you, in terms of appreciating your passion for what you do and all the years of training and preparation. It's just really remarkable, and I just want you to know that we really appreciate that. But I'm curious, again, about this notion of traveling the world and experiencing people from different countries. Do you feel like athletes, coaches, those involved in international sports at an elite level - because it's mostly elite athletes that travel around the world to compete - but you end up having a greater appreciation for international things and news-- more open-minded about the way other people live. You mentioned before, making that distinction between wow, we live in such different ways, but here we are at the same event, competing. I'm just curious, because a lot of people don't get to do what you've done in terms of traveling the world, and what your athletes have done, that really contributes-- maybe that's ultimately the purpose of sports diplomacy, is just getting people out around the world to have those types of experiences.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, and there are different parts of the world that are very similar to what we are used to. If you go to competitions in Japan, they've got some of the same technology. Their cities are big metropolitans just like we have in Oklahoma City and whatnot. But there are other places that have traditionally had some good gymnastics, like-- you know, when I went to Ukraine, like I said. Their national training facility hadn't been upgraded for decades. The facilities weren't great, and yet they have the second best all-around male gymnasts in the world right now. It's not necessarily about how nice and how new the equipment is; I mean, this very talented kid that worked very hard is at the top of the sport right now. Sometimes that stuff isn't a huge factor in terms the elite of the elite. But it is amazing what he has to go through to have good workouts compared to what I experience with my team on a day to day basis. That's also why you don't see teams from Costa Rica or Bolivia. Those are not gymnastics countries, and it takes a system and it takes backing financially, and it takes good coaching. Those smaller countries don't have the resources or don't have the expertise-- or maybe they don't even have the interest in doing that. Maybe the other sports they do are far more of a priority. We're fortunate that in the United States, we've got great facilities in all of the Olympic sports, and great coaches and great opportunities, and there seems to always be some way to help finance it. Now, the difference between a professional track athlete and the guys I have-- there's probably some things that are very different in terms of how they are as professionals, but we're still capable of putting on a very competitive group on the floor from our USA Gymnastics support.

GRILLOT: What's really remarkable is that you and your athletes get to see this with their own eyes. I think it's just-- it must be life changing to do that. Just very quickly, what stands out for you the most from this experience in Rio?

WILLIAMS: I think living in the village was significant for me, because this was my fifth Olympics, and the first time I actually stayed in the village the whole time. I felt like I was sort of at summer camp for three weeks, and it was all about going to the gym and hanging out with the guys and working with the coaches, and then on top of that, having this great event to be out there, competing against the best in the world. So, pretty neat experience. I enjoyed it. It was really exciting. Now that it's over, it's a little bit of a post-Olympic depression like you said, and I had to get right back into school starting on Monday so I haven't had much of a downtime between the two.

GRILLOT: Well, good luck recovering from that depression. I'm working on it myself. Thank you so much, Coach Williams, for being here today and for what you did for the USA Men's Gymnastics Team. Congratulations on all your success; we really watched you with a great amount of pride, so thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

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