There is the sound of a cello. Soft, slow, somber, it fills the room, which is bright with polished chrome and glass and white paint and overhead lights that cast no shadows. It is a large, high room with a gigantic mirror that rises almost to the ceiling. Standing before the mirror is a girl in black tights, a member of the Penn State gymnastics team. She is poised on the toes of one leg as if about to pirouette. She stares at her image, her arms in a halo around her head, her legs forming a perfect figure 4, and then, slowly, she begins to turn.
Across the room, near parallel bars that catch light and images and reflect them in silver slivers, a teammate is tying a heavy towel around her stomach, which has begun to swell from the force with which it whacks the bars during her routine.
The coach, a tall woman named Judi Avener, waits at the end of a 75-foot mat. She taps her toe impatiently and calls out, "Anytime, Karen." At the other end of the strip a girl who looks too heavy to be a gymnast and a little too soft is standing, head lowered and eyes closed as if lost in the sounds of the cello. Her arms are rigid at her sides, fists clenched and legs pressed tightly together.
"Whenever, Karen," calls the coach, who was an All-America gymnast at Springfield College at the age of 21. The girl, Karen Schuckman, was an Olympic-class gymnast at 15. For 10 years her life was consumed by her sport, until, at 16, she retired from competition. She returned to gymnastics when she enrolled at Penn State in 1973 as an East Asian Studies major, and in the fall of '74 became one of 17 women to be granted athletic scholarships, the first such scholarships in the school's history. As a freshman, Karen Schuckman was undefeated in collegiate gymnastics. She is the most visibly successful of all Penn State's women athletes and the first to receive national recognition. She thinks little of her achievement. "We used to laugh at college gymnastics when I was 14," she says.
Schuckman raises her head and opens her eyes. The coach steps off the mat. Schuckman stares down the runway at the leather horse that her coach has been leaning against. And then, suddenly, she is off, racing toward the horse with lengthening strides, building speed, her eyes wide, her mouth open and pulled back and down into her jaw. When she reaches the horse she leaps—aided in flight by her coach's supporting hands on her stomach—and performs a not-quite-perfect handspring about five feet above the horse, landing on a padded mat on the other side. She thuds down on her heels with such force that the shock travels up the spine of a bystander.
Once she leaves the gymnastics room dressed in rumpled corduroy slacks and a Capezio T shirt, Karen Schuckman seems to diminish in size from the girl who spilled out of her purple tights and appeared too big for gymnastics. She seems to have grown slack, to have lost her tenseness, all of that steely drawing up of mental and physical resources so evident when she is performing her routines. She walks about the Penn State campus with a deferential slouch, eyes down, as if, by not seeing, she could become invisible. Though her sport demands an extremely strong ego, she appears to lack self-confidence. She brushes off her successes at Penn State, as if embarrassed by them.
"I don't think gymnastics is very healthy for your body," she says. "It puts unnatural stresses and strains on you. My back has been bothering me lately. But when you turn upside down like that you get a terrific rush of blood to your head. It produces a physical high. That's the thing I remember as a child. I used to love the feeling I got when I stood on my head or hung upside down from a tree limb or did cartwheels. The mental part comes later. The satisfaction from beating someone. That's when it starts to mess you up."
In 1972 Karen was competing for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team. Her days and nights were filled with gymnastics. After school she traveled for an hour from her home in West Hartford, Conn. to New Haven, where she taught gymnastics for two hours to children younger than herself. "The feeling is that by teaching others you learn why you do things," she says. After those sessions, Karen practiced for four hours, seldom arriving home before 11 p.m. On weekends she competed in various AAU events around the country. She was the AAU Junior National Champion when she was in the ninth grade.
"I don't think it was very conducive to the psychological health of a 13-year-old," Schuckman says now. "It would have been hard on anyone, much less a young girl. I was always worn out physically. My parents didn't think the atmosphere was healthy. There were a lot of far-out people in the sport. They were mostly older. People I had strong feelings for were 10 years older than I was. My first boyfriend was 23. I was 15. I looked at my friends in school and saw what they were doing and realized what a warped social life I had. As a young kid you don't understand what's happening, how you got there, the route you took. You know only that you started to do it because it was fun and then you had a guide who led you and you just followed."
Like most athletes of Olympic caliber, Schuckman first discovered the extent of her talent as a pre-teen. She was told she had a greater gift than she realized, but that it could be fulfilled only if she surrendered unquestioningly into a coach's hands. When Schuckman acquiesced at the age of 10, her coaches (she had two became the dominant force in her life and remained so for the next six years. Such relationships between young girls and their coaches are common in Olympic circles and usually result in the athlete developing an emotional dependence that transcends sport. If that coach is a man, as was the case with Anne Henning, the Olympic speed skater, he may become like a father.