London Olympics: Steve Penny wrote different tune as USA Gymnastics' CEO
Mercer Island native Steve Penny helped remake USA Gymnastics program, creating powerhouse favored to win men's, women's team medals
Special to The Seattle Times
Penny fun factsThings you don't know about Steve Penny
• Graduated with a degree in marketing and speech communications from the University of Washington
• Helped Bob Walsh of Bob Walsh Enterprises put together a proposal that Vancouver and Seattle should host the 2008 Olympic Games. It was an interesting idea, but never really got off the ground, partly because the Seattle City Council wouldn't get behind it.
• Became president/CEO of USA Gymnastics in 2005, the same day his wife gave birth to their triplet daughters.
LONDON — Mercer Island native Steve Penny has never claimed to be able to do the flips and twists that have landed the U.S. men's and women's gymnastics teams as top medal contenders at the London Olympics.
What the president and CEO of USA Gymnastics can do is sing Motown. And while not as useful as being able to do an Amanar vault, it does have its benefits.
Penny turned heads 13 years ago when, as the newly hired senior vice president at USA Gymnastics, he got up and enthusiastically serenaded Chinese gymnastics officials by belting The Temptations' "My Girl" after a formal dinner at a competition in Asia.
The Chinese hosts were impressed. So, frankly, were the Americans.
"We didn't expect that," said Ron Galimore, USA Gymnastics' COO, who got to know Penny on that trip. "We cracked up. We thought, 'I guess he's OK!' "
"My Girl" was just the beginning. Since becoming president and CEO of USA Gymnastics in 2005, the 6-foot-4 Penny, a graduate of Mercer Island High School and the University of Washington, has emerged as an outgoing presence in a reserved sport.
That makes him not unlike Bela Karolyi, the controversial coach he championed bringing back to USA Gymnastics after the American women's dismal performance at the 1999 World Championships.
It was a gutsy move, since Karolyi possessed a controversial reputation, but Penny was certain it was the best thing for the U.S. women's team, which had been flagging since winning the team gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The new U.S. program, implemented first by Bela Karolyi and by his wife Martha in 2001, hinged on cooperation between the national team staff and coaches of individual gymnasts. While the gymnasts train at home with their club coaches most of the time, they also meet for national team camps at the Karolyi Ranch outside of Houston every four to six weeks. The men's program centers on national team camps held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Off the international competition floor, USA Gymnastics has generated grass-roots support and awareness of the sport through programs like National Gymnastics Day, implemented in 2000, which cultivates a steady stream of new talent and fans.
Some gymnastics pundits question whether the rigorous training and expectations of the national team coordinators, particularly Karolyi, leads to overtraining and unnecessary injuries. Penny points out that the results over the past 12 years have been hard to argue: The U.S. women have won a team medal at every World Championships and Olympic Games since 2001, and the men's program is stronger than it has been since 1984, the only time the Americans won Olympic team gold.
Both teams are heavy favorites to earn a medal in London, where the U.S. men stunned Japan and China on the first day of gymnastics to qualify in first position for Monday's men's team final. The U.S. women's team includes all-around gold-medal favorites Jordyn Wieber and Gabrielle Douglas.
"(Penny) may not look like a gymnast, but he's a gymnast at heart," said Peter Vidmar, chairman of the USA Gymnastics board of directors.
Though nobody would mistake Penny for a gymnast, it doesn't stop him from trying out a few moves to supplement his singing skills. Galimore said Penny has been keen to master a handstand — no doubt to impress officials at Olympic functions.
"He's not afraid to step out and do something that just cracks everybody up that you'd think is out of character. I have to give him credit for it," Galimore said. "At international functions, he does whatever he needs to support the sport at the highest level, including handstands. And I'm the one who has to spot him."
Blythe Lawrence: email@example.com
Information in this article, originally published July 28, 2012, was corrected July 31, 2012. A previous version of information that accompanied this article incorrectly said that USA Gymnastics Steve Penny played baseball at Mercer Island High School.