Old man still doing good. Uh-huh.
Bela Karolyi Returns
A Good Fix For the U.S.
Even though he retired three years ago as the most celebrated gymnastics coach ever, Bela Karolyi hasn't stopped collecting trophies. He has caught wild boar in his native Romania and collared moose, caribou and grizzlies in Alaska. This summer in Hungary he bagged his first elk. "The head was about 10 kilos and a half, but that was only good for a silver medal," says Karolyi, who would have preferred a bigger kill. "First place is the best place."
It sure beats sixth, which was the spot the U.S. women's team sank to at the world championships in Tianjin, China, two months ago. What's more, the defending Olympic champions also failed to take any individual medals. When Bob Colarossi, the no-nonsense president of USA Gymnastics, returned from China, he called Karolyi and asked him to assume the newly created position of national team coordinator. Karolyi enthusiastically accepted. "I gave a lot of years seeing this country become a gymnastics power," says Karolyi. "I'm not happy when I see 18 years of coaching here going down the drain."
Karolyi, 57, guided Romania's Nadia Comaneci to the all-around title at the 1976 Olympics, and after emigrating to the U.S. in 1981, he coached Mary Lou Retton to the same crown in '84. He was a member of the U.S. coaching staff at the last four Summer Olympics. In his new role he will organize mandatory monthly training camps for Sydney hopefuls, help select the team's head coach after the Olympic trials in Boston next August and travel to any elite gym that requests his counsel.
The decision to bring back such a headstrong personality as Karolyi so late in the Olympic quadrennium is risky. Getting the current U.S. coaches to mesh with him and buy into his philosophies will be a challenge. In practice, Karolyi preached repetition and stamina over aesthetics, infusing youngsters with the optimism that they could do in competition what they'd successfully done countless times in the gym. Other gymnasts may have pointed their toes better, but Karolyi's charges nailed their dismounts when it counted. His emotion on the sidelines also pushed judges into forking over extra tenths when scoring his athletes, something he won't be able to accomplish as an administrator.
Karolyi believes that the U.S. team should get a medal in Sydney, and he singles out Vanessa Atler, Kristin Maloney, Elise Ray and Jennie Thompson as capable of winning individual medals. "Holy moley, do we have a talent pool in this country," he says, "but we must have the fight in us. Mary Lou, she knew she was a winner. On this team, I believe we have some tigers like that."
Leon Stukelj, 1898-1999
Slovenian Lord Of the Rings
When Leon Stukelj was introduced at the New York Athletic Club last year as the oldest living Olympic champion, the 99-year-old former gymnast was using the furniture as an apparatus. "You welcome me," he said as he lifted himself on a chair's arms and pulled his legs up until they were perpendicular to his chest, "and I perform for you." Stukelj (pronounced SHTOO-kel) died on Nov. 8, four days before his 101st birthday.
The self-trained Slovenian represented Yugoslavia at the first world championships, in 1922, when gymnastic competitions included the rope climb, high jump, shot put and 50-meter swim. By the time he ended his Olympic career at the 1936 Berlin Games, Stukelj had won six medals, including three golds.