YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


He Can Do It

Poor Performances by U.S. Women After '96 Success Brought Karolyi Back Into the Fold


How could it happen, Bela Karolyi kept asking.

How could the little girls he had coaxed, cajoled, pushed, prodded, practically carried to an unprecedented gymnastics team gold medal in 1996 have fallen on their out-of-shape rumps to embarrassing back-to-back sixth-place finishes in the last two world championships?

Why were these girls--his "little kiddos," his "little pixies"--always injured, lacking the stamina to finish routines, looking dispirited and uninspired?

Karolyi was certain, he says, that his retirement after the emotional 1996 triumph was final.

In Atlanta, Karolyi had been the very visible hero. He had exhorted little Kerri Strug--"You can do it, Kerri, you can do it."--after Strug had severely sprained an ankle on her first vault. It was thought that the U.S. might lose its gold medal if Strug didn't complete her second vault.

With Karolyi's words bouncing in her head, Strug did her vault, landed on both feet, acknowledged the judges and collapsed in pain. It was Karolyi who carried Strug to the awards ceremony and Karolyi whose picture was on the cover of nearly every newspaper.

"I was certain," Karolyi says, "that the national team was in good hands. With Steve Nunno, with Mary Lee Tracy, with Kelli Hill. I thought they would go very far."

So Karolyi watched with dismay, despair, anger and angst as what he considers a very personal building job fell apart so quickly.

"What had happened, I did not like," Karolyi says. "It was crazy, it was wrong, it should not be. It is foolish, seeing the United States sixth place. Silly. How could such a thing happen after Atlanta? I did not understand."

After the 1999 World Championships, USA Gymnastics President Bob Colarossi flew to Karolyi's Houston-area ranch and made a request.

"I said, 'Come back, Bela. We need you,' " Colarossi said. "I told him I didn't care if feelings were hurt or if there was resentment from other coaches. What happened at worlds was unacceptable. Things had to change and fast."

Of course, Karolyi said yes.

It seems impossible to have an Olympic gymnastics competition without Bela.

There he was in 1976, gathering up Nadia Comaneci in his big paws after Comaneci scored the first perfect 10. Bela with his handlebar mustache and rumbling voice mugging for TV and making his "pixie," his "kiddo" a star.

There was Bela in 1984, coaching in the U.S. now, a refugee from a crumbling Romania, embracing freedom in a bearhug, building himself a ranch and a reputation and running out onto the floor in Los Angeles when his Mary Lou Retton became the first U.S. woman to win an all-around Olympic gold medal.

Karolyi was around in 1992, but it was in an uglier way. His hero-to-be, Kim Zmeskal, failed badly. The all-around favorite fell off the beam and stepped off the mat on floor exercise. As the distraught Zmeskal walked away, there was no hug for Karolyi. Zmeskal left the floor alone.

Karolyi retired after 1992. He came back to coach Dominique Moceanu and Strug and so there he was, out on the floor for the 1996 triumph.

Why the U.S. has fared so poorly since 1996 is still being argued.

There was too big a vacuum when all the members of the "Magnificent Seven" as the '96 team was called, retired. There was no unifying force, Colarossi thinks.

"Girls were training all around the country with nobody to compare themselves to," Colarossi says.

When Karolyi said he would come back as national team coordinator, Colarossi gave him full power to determine how the Olympic team would be chosen.

In January, Karolyi started a series of monthly training camps. These camps were invitation-only. If you got an invitation, it was wise to RSVP immediately.

"What I noticed first was that the conditioning, the stamina was not good," Karolyi said. "They just were not fit enough. For this sport you must have the highest endurance and these young ladies that I invited to my ranch, they did not have this."

Each month the invitees went back home with a program of rope-climbing, handstands, push-ups, pull-ups. Karolyi demanded that the girls take the rules of the ranch--no sitting, no standing around, no talking, only work--back to their own gyms.

"It was hard," 2000 national champion Elise Ray said, "but it was worth it. Bela was right. Getting us all together each month, we pushed each other. And you didn't want to come back the next month unless you were in great shape."

There was no hard-and-fast criteria to Karolyi's Olympic selection procedure. There would be the national championships, there would be Olympic trials and then there would be Karolyi taking six of his choosing.

The final result was a mix of old and new. Two veterans of 1996--Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes--will join Ray, two-time national champion Kristen Maloney, Jamie Dantzscher and Morgan White in Sydney.

After last month's grueling trials, where, by the end, even Ray and Maloney were falling on routines they normally complete easily, the team went to the Karolyi ranch for more intense training.

As the group left for Australia White, the 17-year-old who steadiness Karolyi so appreciated that he has tabbed her as the leadoff girl, the one who, hopefully, will set the tone on each apparatus, was suffering from a sore foot and had to sit out a farewell exhibition meet.

"Bela is hard on us," Maloney says, "but he makes you want to do something just a little better or just one more time. You want to do things for him."

Karolyi will not be the floor coach in Sydney. That job belongs to Kelli Hill, the coach of Ray and Dawes. White's coach, Mary Lee Tracy, will be the assistant.

But make no mistake.

This is Bela's team. Its success or failure will belong to Karolyi. He will be there to gather up White or Ray, Maloney or Dawes or someone in a big hug in front of the cameras if the U.S. wins a medal.

If there's another sixth-place finish, though, don't expect to see much of Karolyi. If that happens, his next retirement may be permanent.

Los Angeles Times Articles