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27-March - 2000

...about Bela Karolyi and more:

- from Melissa Isaacson

. The mad hugger is back. And not a moment too soon.
He has been enlisted to apply a solid kick to the tush of U.S. Gymnastics, to rescue a team that has lost its way, to instill confidence, he laughs, in the most powerful country in the world. You may not have known Bela Karolyi was gone. But he was, content for the last few years to devote his time to the "little kiddos" he welcomed to his summer camp. And to tend, mostly by himself, to his 1,200-acre ranch, where he lives with his wife Martha, 11 horses, five llamas, a pregnant camel named Elvira, her common-law camel Leroy, and assorted dogs, turkeys and swans.
"I'm so happy here, so happy," beams the former coach of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, arms outstretched among the cabins he has built, the lakes he has bulldozed and the paradise he has
created. Still, it did not take much to pull him back in. Consecutive sixth-place finishes for the U.S. women in the world championships in the two years following the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta got everyone's attention. "That's stupid. It's crazy. You can't accept that," Karolyi says. "The human talent is there. Nothing has changed. No one grew an additional head or nobody had a funny leg."
They're an inexperienced group, to be sure, led for the moment by women who were not on the '96 Olympic team. Talented but also completely unprepared for the rigors of international competition, and apparently unsophisticated in the ways of the world.
Touring the Forbidden City last fall during the world championships in China, one member of the U.S. team whined, "I'm so sick of this." In competition they were intimidated by the crowd, overwhelmed by the
U.S. Gymnastics officials knew they needed help and they turned to Karolyi, 57, creating the title of U.S. women's national team coordinator. The coach of nine Olympic champions who defected from Romania during a U.S. tour 20 years ago and learned to speak English curse words first developed a plan. He would hold monthly training camps at his ranch in the hopes of inspiring the troops, instilling team spirit and whipping them into shape. One of the first things he deduced was that his new charges were not well-conditioned. So they each received a list of skills they had to perform in order to be invited to one of the training camps. Stuff like climbing a rope in the pike position (to you and me that's sitting legs straight out, toes pointed), as well as a grueling series of sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups that, trust us, you won't see in any high school gym class.
Karolyi's rivals sneered at him for playing to the cameras with his famous bear hugs only to turn into a Svengali in the gym. Yet even his critics now realize their athletes desperately need the brand of motivation he can supply. And now, because he does not have an elite gymnast of his own he could be accused of favoring, there are no professional jealousies. "There's going to be some whining and some
crying, some praising and some kicking and some biting," Karolyi says. "But it doesn't matter. The wagon's going to go forward."
Karolyi's gym, buried in national forest land some 60 miles outside Houston, is so quiet you could hear a pregnant camel moan in the distance. And it's all business. Many of the gymnasts are practicing among athletes as talented as themselves for the first time, and they sneak nervous, furtive glances at one another. Karolyi loves creating this tension. He does not bark as much as command. "There's no hocus-pocus in our training camps," he says. "It's straightforward, it's work. It is intensity. Repetitions,
not wasting time, not hanging around, not scratching, not sulking, not big preparations. Want to talk? There's no talking."
Mary Lee Tracy, who has two gymnasts here from her Cincinnati gym, says the team had its eyes opened on the China trip. "We learned how good life is in America," she says. "There were parts that were embarrassing. We weren't united in our training. "We have really talented kids. It's not that. It's society. Americans are spoiled. We have so many luxuries kids don't want or need. They sit on the couch and hold five remotes. Life is a little too easy. Sports are challenging.
"But life becomes a little more difficult coming to the ranch. You can feel it. You know what you're here for. There are no shopping excursions to the mall, no sightseeing." Sightseeing is limited to running from overly aggressive swans, excursions are to the lunchroom. "He makes you work hard," Vanessa Atler, one of the top hopefuls, says of Karolyi. "It comes with the territory of being a champion. You have to be pushed and prodded to be great."
Karolyi has no problem there. A verse that hangs above his desk was copied and handed out to the girls. "When you're happy, work. When you're sad, work. When you're tired, work. When you feel good, work. When you're about to give up, work. When you're riding high, work." Simple. To the point. No hugging here.
"Pretty good, honey, do better next time,'" Karolyi says. "I want you to understand. Hey, it wasn't good. It was sloppy. Let's see what we really have to do, what we are working for here.' No hocus-pocus. Just tell them the truth. That's the most important thing now."
No question who's the most vital component.

(Source; "Chikago Tribune" / 27-03-2000
- after information of Jac van Beemt/Netherlands)

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