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Defector Builds a New Life and Careers of Gymnasts

May 08, 1987|HEATHER HAFNER

New York City can be a lonely place if you're the newest Romanian defector in town.

Just ask Carol Stabisevschi.

In 1977, after an international gymnastics competition in New York City, Stabisevschi, a member of the Romanian national coaching staff, purposely missed the team plane to Romania. He wandered through Central Park at night, oblivious to the real possibility of being mugged. Stabisevschi had more on his mind than muggers.

"I was confused," Stabisevschi said. "I was frustrated . . . and I was scared because I thought the Romanian KGB was after me."

Ten years after his defection and eight years after gaining permanent residency in the United States, Stabisevschi (pronounced staw-bee-SHEV-ski) no longer worries about the KGB, and the only footsteps he pays attention to are those of young gymnasts filing in and out of his Valencia gym.

Stabisevschi, 48, owns and operates Gymnastics Unlimited, where he teaches students from 2 to 18. Stabisevschi, a Romanian coach, pianist and choreographer for five years and a member of the American national staff since 1978, has worked with world-class gymnasts such as Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton.

At the time of his defection, Stabisevschi was part of a Romanian coaching staff that included Bela and Marta Karolyi and choreographer Geza Pozsar. All three eventually defected and Bela Karolyi achieved fame as Retton's personal coach. But when Stabisevschi saw them for the first time after his defection, at the 1979 World Championships in Fort Worth, Tex., they were still with the Romanian team. Their conversation included everything but his defection.

"I didn't feel they would listen to me and I didn't want them to feel I was trying to pull them over," Stabisevschi said. "So, they didn't open the discussion about it and I didn't either. We just talked about old good times.

"They knew what kind of life was here."

Stabisevschi's defection had hurt Romanian gymnastics. "It left a serious gap in our coaching team," Bela Karolyi said from his Houston gym. "He was the spiritual support of the whole team. But we especially missed his expertise. It is very, very important, especially in the floor exercise, to have a good pianist. He was the best pianist in the country."

Although the defection created opportunities for Stabisevschi, who has composed the music for the compulsory floor exercises in the past three Olympic Games, it ended them for his wife, Gabi, and daughter, Julia, who remained in Romania. In 1978, Gabi was a coach at the Olympic training center in Onesti, the country's top gymnastics facility. Julia was an up-and-coming gymnast.

The day after his defection, Gabi sent Julia to live with her grandmother. Gabi was transferred to a less prestigious sports school in Bucharest. Stabisevschi said the government prevented him from speaking by phone to his family and tried to persuade Gabi to divorce him.

"It was real, real hard," Gabi said. "They told me, 'Your husband doesn't want you anymore.' But after six months they gave up."

Only after Stabisevschi received his permanent U.S. residency in October, 1979, did the American government allow him to file papers to reunite the family. Immigration papers were granted in December of the same year and the family arrived in Texas in March, 1980. Athletes from the Arlington Gymnastics Club, where Stabisevschi was a coach, decorated his house with banners that read "Welcome to Freedom."

In 1985, Stabisevschi decided to leave Texas and told Pozsar. Pozsar, who now lives in Sacramento, had a friend in Valencia, Maggie Ullman, who was interested in selling her gym. Pozsar immediately called her and set up an appointment for Stabisevschi. He arrived a week later to check out the facilities and bought the gym.

Stabisevschi now coaches more than 100 boys and 300 girls, including the Pikes, a junior team composed of the gym's select athletes. Gabi also coaches at the gym. Julia, a Hart High junior, no longer competes but coaches part time.

"We try to work with the students in a very relaxed atmosphere," said Stabisevschi, who will be the U.S. team's pianist during this year's Pan American Games and World Championships. "I say work , in a very relaxed atmosphere, not play in a relaxed atmosphere. You give them the opportunity to prove to themselves that they can do things. When you see something going right you emphasize that, and they feel it and they push themselves.

"There are so many things that kids want. And especially here, there are so many opportunities."

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