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Olympic Obstacles Were No Match for Karolyi

August 08, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

The gym is quiet, dark. Mats are piled every which way on the floor and a book sits forgotten on a table, its owner finished with classes for the summer.

Bela Karolyi sees none of this. He sees and hears what is not there. To him, this airless gym in the John Wooden Center at UCLA is a scene of happy chaos, of high-pitched laughter and bodies hurtling through the air.

Just down the corridor is the window through which he crawled to enter the gym and work with Mary Lou Retton and Julianne McNamara during the 1984 Olympics. Returning a few weeks ago, for the first time, it seems to him that nothing has changed, that the bouncy Retton and the meticulous McNamara might come through the door any minute, young and eager for him to mold them into Olympic champions.

"Oh, my gosh. It's amazing," he said, his eyes devouring the room. "This is the same, the short runway. It was such a controversy because it was shorter than it was supposed to be. It was no problem for Mary Lou, but Julianne was slower and had to have a long runway.

"Mary Lou, she ran like dum-dum-dum," he added, miming heavy, decisive strides. "I can hear it, such powerful running. Such a pounding in her running. Julianne, when she was running, you barely could hear it."

In 1984, Karolyi's name elicited barely a nod of recognition in the United States. He had coached Nadia Comaneci in 1976 and 1980, but that wasn't worth much when he and his wife, Martha, walked away from a 1981 Romanian gymnastics tour and sought a better life in the U.S. He worked menial jobs around Los Angeles before connecting with an old gymnastics friend, Paul Ziert, who steered him toward a coaching job in Oklahoma. He went into the gym business with a Houston group but was forced to run it himself when the group pulled out.

He did door-to-door advertising and relied on word of mouth to draw kids from neighboring subdivisions until he attracted a group that won a state title. His first major success was Dianne Durham, who'd won U.S. junior titles before joining him but became national champion under his tutelage in 1983. Her success drew Retton and, later, many others, but in 1984 he had little sway on the U.S. scene.

He had no official standing with the Olympic team because Don Peters of the SCATS club in Huntington Beach was the official coach. But Karolyi had no intention of abandoning Retton and McNamara.

"I did not even accept this idea, to turn them loose at the most important time," he said.

Durham had been injured at the Olympic trials and wasn't allowed to petition onto the team, so Karolyi accompanied McNamara and Retton to Los Angeles. Before the Olympic village opened, the gymnasts were housed at the distinctive, cylindrical Holiday Inn near the Sunset Boulevard exit of the San Diego Freeway. He wasn't allowed inside, so he slept in the parking lot, in a car that belonged to fellow Romanian Karel Stabisevsky, who played piano for the gymnasts' compulsory exercises.

"A compact car," he said. "I believe it was a Chevette."

He'd stand atop the dumpster outside the hotel and shout to Retton on her balcony high above, urging her to rest and share with McNamara details of their practice schedule.

"She'd say, 'Bela, I can barely see you,' " Karolyi said, looking almost fondly at the dumpster during a recent visit to his Olympic landmarks.

"For me, I could visit them and see them and talk to them. I spent a lot of hours in the reception area, waiting while the kids were sleeping and eating, and I'd follow them to the workout place, which, at the time, was open.

"When the time came and they officially opened the Olympic village, my participation in workouts was limited. I had to stay outside and try to sneak in. I did sneak in at UCLA, through open windows and doors. But that was cut out when the village started receiving the foreign delegations and security was set up much higher. At that moment, I was lost. I was thinking, 'What can I do?' "

The closest he could get was a parking garage. The sight of it stirred more memories, not all pleasant.

The time he spent there "was the hardest part," he said. "Three days I was sitting in the parking lot. The police came one time and got me, probably close to midnight. They put a flashlight on my eyes and wanted to see my license and asked, 'What are you doing here?' I was out of language, No. 1, and, No. 2, I had no proper ID. I had a green card. He tried to get me to the security [office] across the little alley, but I told him, 'Honestly, I have kids here and the car is not mine but I can use it.' "

He wasn't arrested, but he wasn't home free, either. Inspiration struck one day when he saw employees of the company that supplied and assembled the gymnastics equipment at Pauley Pavilion.

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