In the lobby of the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in
Oklahoma City, Russian icon Dimitri Bilozertchev, a triple gold
medalist at the 1988 Olympics, and one of the Hall's newest
inductees, admired the wall of legends that would soon bear his
name and likeness. "Like Heaven," he said. "Growing up, what I
knew of America was California for the beaches, New York for the
buildings and Oklahoma because it's gymnastics country. Just
look." ¬∂ To the north, there's Edmond, home to the Shannon Miller
Parkway. To the south, there's Norman, home not only to Bart
Conner and Nadia Comaneci, the sport's First Couple, and
International Gymnast, the world's largest gymnastics magazine,
but also to the Oklahoma Sooners men's team, which went 26-0
last season and won its second straight NCAA title. "I remember
the football players thanking us last year for carrying the
athletic program," says 2003 NCAA all-round champion Daniel
Furney. "That's respect."
While parallel bars will never supplant pigskin in the heart of
Oklahomans, gymnastics has won over one of the biggest football
names in the state. "The upper-body strength in gymnastics is
really superior to that in any other sport," says former Sooners
football coach Barry Switzer. "I can't understand how they do
what they do."
He might want to ask his wife, Becky (nee Dunning), a member of
the coaching staff for the 1988 U.S. Olympic women's team and a
pioneer in Oklahoma gymnastics. In the late '60s she was a
protegee of Leon Nance, the principal of Shields Heights
Elementary in Oklahoma City. In the school's cafeteria Nance
started the Oklahoma Twisters, a tumbling group that welcomed
girls ages 12 to 17 and became the forerunner of the country's
larger gymnastics clubs. "We didn't have state-of-the-art
training situations," Becky Switzer says. "We had a
state-of-the-heart situation." The girls tumbled on a hard tile
floor on which the 40-by-40-foot dimensions of a floor-exercise
mat were marked out in masking tape. "Everyone had shin splints
and bruised hands," Switzer says. "We didn't care. There weren't
many opportunities for girls then."
Nance went on scouting missions to Europe at his own expense,
bringing back film of gymnastics routines from major
international events. This gave the Twisters a leg up on domestic
rivals; the club has placed nine gymnasts on the U.S. national
team over the years. One was Janie Speaks, a 1964 Olympian who
became the first woman to perform a full-twisting backflip, a
skill that many at the time considered too manly.
After Nance retired, another teacher picked up the baton for
Oklahoma gymnastics. Paul Ziert was a high school math instructor
and gymnastics coach outside Chicago when OU hired him in 1973.
He ran the Sooners' modest men's program out of a rundown movie
theater west of campus. Building 24, as it was called, had a
leaky ceiling, peeling paint and holes that allowed snakes, rats
and raccoons to wander in.
Three years into his tenure Ziert landed Conner, a prized recruit
from the Chicago area who had made the 1976 Olympic team as a
high school senior and was so impressed with Ziert's optimism and
feel for the sport that he turned down offers from more
established programs at Michigan, Penn State and Cal. "We had the
pommel horse and rings on the theater stage," recalls Conner, who
led OU to the co-national championship in his first season and
the outright title the next. "To get enough runway for the vault,
you had to start your run in the ticket office."
One day in 1980 Lynn White, the wife of a member of the Oklahoma
Board of Regents, brought her son and daughter to Building 24 to
watch a workout. A python spooked one of the kids right out of a
chair, and Ziert seized the moment to campaign for a new gym.
Within a year the Sooners had erected the Sam Viersen Gymnastics
Center, where the team now trains. "No, I did not plant the
snake," says Ziert. "People ask all the time."
When Bela Karolyi, Comaneci's longtime coach, defected to the
U.S. from Romania in 1981, he sought out Ziert, whom he had met
at competitions. Ziert arranged for Karolyi to help out at OU and
at a private club that Ziert had opened. All the while Karolyi
struggled with English. He remembers a Russian saloon keeper who
gave him a job cleaning tables and called Karolyi what sounded
like "sunuvabeech." "After my wife, Martha, looked the word up,"
says Karolyi, "I thought, 'Oh, means like puppy.' For a week, I
go around the gym patting kids on the head, saying, 'Nice little
sunuvabeech.' If Paul hadn't pulled me aside to explain, my
career might have died in Oklahoma."
By 1984, when he won two gold medals at the Los Angeles Games,
Conner had reason to feel like an adopted son of the Sooner
State. The town of Pauls Valley, 40 miles south of Norman, had
literally held an adoption ceremony laying claim to him. In 1990
he reunited with Comaneci, who had stood next to him on the
awards stand at the American Cup gymnastics meet in New York City
in 1976. The pair married in 1996 at a state wedding in Bucharest
and then moved back to Norman. "People ask me, 'How did Bart
convince you to move to Oklahoma?'" Comaneci says. "He didn't
have to. This reminds me of Onesti, where I grew up; so much sky,
so friendly, so much gymnastics."
While Conner is the state's adopted son and Comaneci its adopted
daughter, Shannon Miller, the greatest U.S. gymnast, is a native
Oklahoman. She was coached from age nine by Edmond-based Steve
Nunno and won 16 world and Olympic medals between 1991 and '96.
Today an 18-foot-tall statue of her sits atop a nine-foot-high
pedestal in the middle of Shannon Miller Park in Edmond, about
three miles from the six-mile stretch of I-35 that bears her
name. "People in Oklahoma stopped at nothing to support me," says
She realized that in 1992, when locals raised $35,000 so her
parents and two siblings could attend the Barcelona Olympics,
where Shannon won five medals. Then came the parades. In '92 an
Edmond Saturn dealership gave her a car. A Chevy dealer replaced
it following the '96 Games in Atlanta.
Miller now attends law school at Boston College and may enter
politics when she returns to Edmond. Her former coach, Nunno,
oversees the OU women's team and operates a gym in Oklahoma City,
with about 300 gymnasts. Ziert, 60, runs a business out of the
International Gymnast offices, manufacturing and selling grips,
T-shirts, leotards and shoes.
Across the parking lot at the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy,
located on Bart Conner Drive, a new coach, Ivan Ivankov, is
picking up English more easily than Karolyi did. Ivankov first
visited Norman from his native Belarus in 1996. At the time he
was the world all-around champion but had ruptured his Achilles
tendon and was resigned to retiring. "Paul arranged for my rehab
in Oklahoma and convinced me I could come back [from the
injury]," says Ivankov, who went on to win the world all-around
crown again in '97.
Now Ivankov divides his days among English classes at OU,
coaching at Conner's gym and training for the Athens Games. He'll
be 29 next summer, trying to add his first Olympic medal to the
10 he has won at world championships. "Then my wife, Suzi, and I
will make our new life in Oklahoma," Ivankov says. "It's my
family and my gymnastics family together."
For more about sports in Oklahoma and the other 49 states, go to
The NCAA-champion Sooners used to train in an old theater with a
leaky ceiling, peeling paint and holes that let snakes, rats and
raccoons wander in.