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When Discipline Became Murder : Romanian Gymnast Adriana Giurca Was 11 When Her Coach Killed Her in a Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

March 22, 1995|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was on the balance beam when her coach, Florin Gheorghe, flew into a rage and slapped the tiny gymnast.

Then he kicked her.

He grabbed her by the neck and pounded her head against the beam, yelling, "This is going to teach you to get over your fear of the beam."

Then, eventually, he killed her. Adriana Giurca was 11.

The story of Adriana Giurca's death was largely ignored in this country, probably because it happened in Romania.

But her death, in November of 1993, could not be ignored for long by her teammates at the prestigious Dinamo Club sports school in Bucharest. Their account, which was subsequently published in Bucharest's Sportul Romanesc newspaper, spelled out the brutal details of the death of an athlete who was full of promise, who had hoped that someday the world would come to know her name. But not in this way.

From the beginning of that practice session, Gheorghe was in a bad mood, Adriana's teammates said. When it was Adriana's turn on the beam, Gheorghe asked her to do a dismount that she had seldom been able to do well. This time was no exception.

When Adriana fumbled it, Gheorghe exploded.

"He slapped her and he kicked her with violent kicks, followed by the threat. . . ." her teammates told Sportul Romanesc.

Another coach, Nuti Boboc, tried to calm Gheorghe but was told to mind her own business. Gheorghe then continued to kick Adriana, then banged her head five or six times against the beam.

"Crying, dizzy and confused, Adriana rotated to the next apparatus, the floor, the one which would be the fatal one," the paper reported.

"Here, the coach asked her to do a very difficult (routine), which he insisted he wanted done perfectly. Although she couldn't do it right, Adriana tried hard, fell, and tried again as the coach kept yelling.

"Her mistakes were punished with punches and kicks thrown at Adriana wildly. Those were followed by strikes with a thick bat, and yells, 'Shut up! Don't cry!' "

At that point, Gheorghe threw Adriana to the floor, her teammates recounted. The coach, however, said he slapped Adriana, which caused her to lose her balance and fall.

Adriana never got up again.

Gheorghe then took her in his arms, carried her to the locker room and desperately asked for help from Boboc, seeing that the girl was still breathing, her teammates said.

Adriana was in a coma when she arrived at the hospital, where she died later that evening.

Gheorghe said she had fallen off the uneven bars. Doctors who treated her said the injuries were worse than if she had fallen twice the distance of the bar.

Early this year, on Jan. 31, Gheorghe, 25, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was also ordered to pay restitution to Adriana's parents.

That, of course, will do nothing to make up for their loss, or, perhaps, salve their consciences.

For Adriana's parents said their daughter often came home from the gym beaten and bruised.

Still, they sent her back.

"Adriana would always tell her parents that she was content, and when they would ask her about the bruises, she would say that her coach didn't hit her, that maybe she had gotten bruised on an apparatus," said Andrei Nourescu, the reporter who covered the story for Sportul Romanesc.

"The coach was very close with the family and visited her (Adriana) several times in their home."

But the last time Adriana came home bruised, her parents did not believe her, Nourescu said. They complained to the sports school, asking that it change coaches, and finally arranged for Adriana to be transferred to a different club in town.

That transfer was to be made in two weeks.

"They did not complain to the (Romanian Federation) officials, or even to the police, they only tried to change the club," Nourescu said. "It was a strange attitude to take when their girl was beaten and, after she died, I think they felt badly that they didn't do anything to take her out of that situation."

Even after Adriana died, the coach was not immediately arrested. Adriana's teammates, when questioned about the incident by Romanian officials, said they hadn't seen a thing. One gymnast finally talked, prompting the rest to speak up as well. Eight months after Adriana's death, Gheorghe was arrested.

Romanian sports officials condemned Gheorghe's actions, saying that such behavior is not common in their gymnastics schools.

Adriana's teammates, however, told a different story in a Romanian courtroom, when they testified that corporal punishment was normal in their school when they failed to meet the coach's standards.

"We accepted the beatings and the pain because we were convinced that this would open the door to top performance for us," a young girl gymnast said during a court hearing.

Even Gheorghe testified that he was not the first to hit his students. He singled out Romania's most famous coach, Bela Karolyi, accusing him of using corporal punishment as a key to success.

Karolyi, who now coaches in Houston, firmly denied the charge, which he did not take lightly.

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