Kristen Maloney was at the end of her rope earlier this month as
the national women's gymnastics training camp was just
beginning. That's when the U.S. all-around women's champion
started to climb. This was not the rope-climbing drill you
learned in P.E. In this one the body must be piked at the waist,
toes pointed, no leg touching the rope, no pausing and no
sliding back down. From across the room shot the unmistakable
throaty approval of Bela Karolyi, the coach who picked the dozen
gymnasts at this camp from among 15 who attended an earlier
camp, in February. "Is very guud," said Karolyi, especially
pleased because Maloney, 19, had had shoulder surgery in
November. "Now starts the full work."
Karolyi was hired four months ago as national program coordinator
in the hope that he would reverse the U.S. women's flagging
fortunes. They won a team gold at the 1996 Olympics but slumped
to sixth place and won no individual medals at two subsequent
world championships. The man who guided Nadia Comaneci and Mary
Lou Retton to Olympic all-around titles had twice retired from
elite coaching, vowing only to run age-group camps at his
1,200-acre ranch in Huntsville, Texas, 66 miles north of Houston.
But at the end of last year, at 57, he agreed to oversee
mandatory monthly training sessions for gymnasts and their
personal coaches in Huntsville, narrowing the field of invitees
at each successive five-day camp.
Karolyi will also head the four-person committee that will
decide, based largely on Olympic trials results in August, which
six gymnasts will compete for the U.S. in Sydney in September. "I
worked too hard for 20 years building this program to see such a
spectaculous falling," says Karolyi, who emigrated from Romania
in 1981 and soon achieved the same first-name cachet as Olga,
Nadia and Mary Lou.
Perhaps it's his exaggerated gyrations or his penchant for bear
hugs, or even his charmingly mangled English, but Karolyi
instills fearlessness in his gymnasts almost by osmosis. "I was
running down the vault runway last month, and I don't remember
what he yelled at me, but it was the best vault of my life," says
Morgan White, 16, an alternate on the 1999 U.S. team at the
worlds. "With Bela you learn to push through things. We were
pretty much dying when we were done."
April 2, 2000
His sessions include at least one daylong gymnastics exam with
more than 40 drills that test flexibility (e.g., maximum
elevation of straight-legged plie), endurance (sets of 10 lunging
jumps on alternating legs) and strength (the rope). "It wasn't
only killing us," says Maryland gymnast Erinn Dooley, 17, "it was
killing the coaches who had to spot us."
Some coaches feel his emphasis on repetition and conditioning
doesn't translate into better routines. Other coaches see stress
fractures in the making. "We don't need to be ready now for a
meet we'll have in six months," says Mary Lee Tracy, an assistant
on the '96 U.S. Olympic team.
Kelli Hill, who trains Elise Ray, 18, and Dooley, opposed
Karolyi's plan from the start. "I fought it strongly," she says.
"If the girls are trying to learn anything new back home, then
this is a deterrent. But if we're doing it this way, nobody else
could lead this program."
Another coach scoffs at the wiggle room Karolyi will most likely
have in picking the team despite the trials results. "It won't be
a committee," the coach says. "It will be the gymnasts Bela wants
on the floor, period. But it definitely will be our best-prepared
team. In that sense, it's fair."
Karolyi's current gymnasts may be his staunchest defenders.
Everyone interviewed said she was better off for having attended
the camps. "The first correction he made, I thought, Wow, he's
coaching me," says Vanessa Atler, 18, whom Karolyi often compares
to Retton. "He makes you want to do it for him."
Comaneci stresses Karolyi's willingness to see teenage girls as
athletes, to address them no less frankly than a high school
football coach would talk to his players. "If somebody tells you
you're perfect, why would you train harder?" says Comaneci, now
38. "Bela's honest. I don't know where he gets it, but he can
terrorize you in a good way and then joke with you after.
Something good will happen for this team because of Bela."
At the recent camp Karolyi's instructions broke an otherwise
eerie silence: "Attack it.... Must punch the horse.... Go
straight your back.... No sleeping your jump." Closed gym doors
kept away unwanted spectators: Karolyi's antelopes, chickens,
camels, emus, ostriches, turkeys, swans, llamas, deer and 25
dogs. Karolyi has relished the ranch lifestyle since 1983, when
he persuaded his wife, Martha, the less visible member of the
Karolyi coaching duo, to spend less time at their house in
Houston, home of their first gym. "First she told me, 'You go
your boonies,'" he says. "'I'm staying shopping.' But she comes
Many rooms in the ranch house are decorated with hunting
trophies, including the head of a 1,400-pound moose Karolyi
bagged in Alaska. Caribou heads overlook his refrigerator, on
which a magnet proclaims, EVERYBODY IS ENTITLED TO MY OPINION.
To understand how Karolyi still musters the zeal to tell his
charges, "You are made to be vaulter," you almost have to watch
him chase down a loose ostrich or coax a roving swan back into
the lake he bulldozed by yelling, "Yours is the water. The water!
You don't make the rules."
Later, as he pointed to a bear rug at his feet, he said, "This
team can win a medal in Sydney, but we gotta be full of grrr."
Above the fallen bear were trophies and pictures of smiling
gymnasts with medals hanging from their necks. It's the law of
Karolyi's jungle: Some with grrr can be champions. Others with
grrr won't make it.
"Bela's honest," says Comaneci. "He can terrorize you in a good
way and then joke with you."