Kristen Maloney was at the end of her rope earlier this month as the national women's gymnastics training camp was just beginning. That's when the U.S. all-around women's champion started to climb. This was not the rope-climbing drill you learned in P.E. In this one the body must be piked at the waist, toes pointed, no leg touching the rope, no pausing and no sliding back down. From across the room shot the unmistakable throaty approval of Bela Karolyi, the coach who picked the dozen gymnasts at this camp from among 15 who attended an earlier camp, in February. "Is very guud," said Karolyi, especially pleased because Maloney, 19, had had shoulder surgery in November. "Now starts the full work."
Karolyi was hired four months ago as national program coordinator in the hope that he would reverse the U.S. women's flagging fortunes. They won a team gold at the 1996 Olympics but slumped to sixth place and won no individual medals at two subsequent world championships. The man who guided Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Ret-ton to Olympic all-around titles had twice retired from elite coaching, vowing only to run age-group camps at his 1,200-acre ranch in Huntsville, Texas, 66 miles north of Houston. But at the end of last year, at 57, he agreed to oversee mandatory monthly training sessions for gymnasts and their personal coaches in Huntsville, narrowing the field of invitees at each successive five-day camp.
Karolyi will also head the four-person committee that will decide, based largely on Olympic trials results in August, which six gymnasts will compete for the U.S. in Sydney in September. "I worked too hard for 20 years building this program to see such a spectaculous falling," says Karolyi, who emigrated from Romania in 1981 and soon achieved the same first-name cachet as Olga, Nadia and Mary Lou.
Perhaps it's his exaggerated gyrations or his penchant for bear hugs, or even his charmingly mangled English, but Karolyi instills fearlessness in his gymnasts almost by osmosis. "I was running down the vault runway last month, and I don't remember what he yelled at me, but it was the best vault of my life," says Morgan White, 16, an alternate on the 1999 U.S. team at the worlds. "With Bela you learn to push through things. We were pretty much dying when we were done."
His sessions include at least one daylong gymnastics exam with more than 40 drills that test flexibility (e.g., maximum elevation of straight-legged pli�), endurance (sets of 10 lunging jumps on alternating legs) and strength (the rope). "It wasn't only killing us," says Maryland gymnast Erinn Dooley, 17, "it was killing the coaches who had to spot us."
Some coaches feel his emphasis on repetition and conditioning doesn't translate into better routines. Other coaches see stress fractures in the making. "We don't need to be ready now for a meet we'll have in six months," says Mary Lee Tracy, an assistant on the '96 U.S. Olympic team.
Kelli Hill, who trains Elise Ray, 18, and Dooley, opposed Karolyi's plan from the start. "I fought it strongly," she says. "If the girls are trying to learn anything new back home, then this is a deterrent. But if we're doing it this way, nobody else could lead this program."
Another coach scoffs at the wiggle room Karolyi will most likely have in picking the team despite the trials results. "It won't be a committee," the coach says. "It will be the gymnasts Bela wants on the floor, period. But it definitely will be our best-prepared team. In that sense, it's fair."
Karolyi's current gymnasts may be his staunchest defenders. Everyone interviewed said she was better off for having attended the camps. "The first correction he made, I thought, Wow, he's coaching me," says Vanessa Atler, 18, whom Karolyi often compares to Retton. "He makes you want to do it for him."
Comaneci stresses Karolyi's willingness to see teenage girls as athletes, to address them no less frankly than a high school football coach would talk to his players. "If somebody tells you you're perfect, why would you train harder?" says Comaneci, now 38. "Bela's honest. I don't know where he gets it, but he can terrorize you in a good way and then joke with you after. Something good will happen for this team because of Bela."