Bela Karolyi dug into his pocket, pulled out two coins and let go with a deep Transylvanian laugh. "These are for good luck," he said late Sunday afternoon at the McDonald's American Cup gymnastics meet in Fairfax, Va. "A penny and a nickel—they each stand for one medal." Karolyi had found the coins outside his hotel earlier in the week and knew right away that his two latest prodigies, Phoebe Mills, 15, and Chelle Stack, 14, would do very well at this, the first important international meet of an Olympic year. The penny, he said, presaged a bronze medal, and the nickel, being bigger, foretold gold.
Karolyi must have had a sixth sense, as well as six cents, working for him. By Sunday evening Mills, a would-be successor in the Karolyi line of champions to Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, had set the Patriot Center a-tweeting ("Pheee-BEEE!" chirped her young fans) and established herself as America's top woman gymnast with a poised gold medal performance. Meanwhile, Stack, 4'7" and all big brown eyes, had won the hearts of the fans—and the bronze.
For Karolyi, who defected from Romania in 1981 and now coaches in Houston, the timing was perfect. In recent weeks he lost his best-known active gymnast, Kristie Phillips, to rival coach Don Peters and got further embroiled in a continuing feud that is tearing the U.S. women's gymnastics program asunder. "I was a little down," Karolyi said after the American Cup competition. "I really wanted to turn the bad things around."
Historically, the American Cup has been a bellwether of Olympic success: Both Comaneci and Retton first rose to prominence by winning the meet. This time there were competitors from 18 countries on hand, among them the Soviet Union's Svetlana Baitova, 15, who was fourth all-around at last October's world championships in Rotterdam.
March 14, 1988
Yet the ascendant star was Mills, the third of six children in an extraordinary sports family from Northfield, Ill. (SI, June 22, 1987). A versatile athlete who still holds an international age-group record for 500-meter speed skating set when she was eight, she moved to Houston four years ago and logs so many hours at Karolyi's gym that she has a private tutor instead of going to school. "It's easier this way," she says. "There are fewer distractions, like other kids asking me to sign autographs."
Mills has long been overshadowed by Phillips, a showier performer. In fact, she was invited to compete last weekend only because Phillips, the 1986 and 1987 champion who has been off her form recently, decided to pass up the meet in order to train. But though she's a mere 4'10" and 80 pounds, Mills is no tiny talent. "Phoebe doesn't explode like dynamite, but she does excellent tricks with good rhythm to them," says Karolyi, and in the all-around finals she was marvelously consistent, taking a huge lead after both Baitova and Stack lost their grip on the uneven parallel bars and fell. (Romania's Marious Toba finished first in the men's all-around, followed by the U.S.S.R.'s Igor Korobchinsky and Americans Kevin Davis and Dan Hayden.)
Karolyi was ecstatic. "Phoebe's victory will carry her all the way to the Olympic Games," he said. "The judges will remember what they saw."
Unfortunately, that may not be all they remember. On Sunday the U.S. Gymnastics Federation dropped a bombshell by announcing that Karolyi—whose flamboyant personality and media star status have made him unpopular with some rival American coaches—will head the U.S. gymnastics delegation to the Seoul Olympics. It wasn't immediately clear whether Peters, who on Sunday was named the U.S. women's Olympic coach, would protest Karolyi's appointment, which he learned about that night from a reporter.
The latest round of infighting in women's gymnastics has gone on for months. Karolyi boycotted both the Pan Am Games in August and the world championships because then-national coach Greg Marsden, who resigned in December, didn't offer him the slot as his assistant coach. Karolyi sent his wife and coaching partner, Marta, to both events, but his absence noticeably hurt his athletes, especially Phillips, who felt he had deserted her.
"To not have Bela Karolyi involved would be a mistake," said USGF executive director Mike Jacki on Sunday night. "He's a great politician, a master planner and a strong international presence. Most of all, he's a winner. The coaches are going to have to learn to put aside their personal animosities."
No coach, of course, can argue with Karolyi's record. This was the sixth year in a row in which one of his athletes won an American Cup title. Add it up—a nickel plus a penny.