Karolyi drives his "leetle ones" through workouts that would make an NFL linebacker woozy. Yet despite the often frightening intensity, he encourages parents to stay and watch the workouts. And so the mothers and fathers sit in the front room and stare through the glass while this Romanian madman puts their children through their paces. "Sometimes the preparation is so hard, so intense," says Karolyi, shaking a clenched fist. "They crying, they screaming. Is over the top."
"He does the coaching; we do the parenting," says Zmeskal's mother, Clarice. "But sometimes it is hard to take."
Karolyi's athletes work out for eight hours every day—eight hours of ferocious effort and endless repetition. The point, says Retton, is to build the gymnast's confidence. "When you get to a meet, it's a relief," she says, "because you only have to do it once."
Critics say Karolyi's athletes pay too high a price for their success. They talk about burnout and the psychological damage that comes with such a ruthless, success-at-all-costs mentality. "I don't think it's the best system," says Stormy Eaton, coach of world championship team alternates Sandy Woolsey and Liz Crandall. "I haven't seen any other sports where the kids have to cry to get ahead."
Bela waves away any talk of tears. "We are not in the gym to be having fun," he says. "The fun comes in the end, with the winning and the medals." It all seems so simple. Let the other coaches relax. Or let them fume. The World's Most Famous Gymnastics Coach will do what he has always done. "They are mistaken to make it personal," he says of his rivals. "That's the name of the life! You got to reach. You got to challenge. Relaxing—that's the worst thing can happen to you."
It has never, it seems, happened to Bela Karolyi. Standing on the porch of his log cabin, Bela tries once more to explain: "Back in Romania, always I was struggling to compete with Vladislav Rastorotsky, the great Russian coach of Lyudmila Turishcheva. He was a powerful coach, internationally. I took him like the major challenge of my life, and pretty soon I'm beating him and we are pushing each other so hard, so fierce. But out of the arena, we are friends. We could drink all night together, tell stories, laugh." He shrugs. It seems so clear. "If you look back and you have some sincerity, you think, Thanks god he was around."