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"The school where Nadia trains?"
The school sits on the hillside behind walls and fences, a huge structure, faded salmon in hue, clearly very old. Dozens of tiny girls chatter brightly in the courtyard, their little noses and bare knees red with cold. The shepherding teachers, instantly wary, merely point out the way to the gymnasium, then watch.
The gym is down a dirt path, back among the trees. The contrast to the rest of the school is startling; it is quite modern, with graceful lines and big windows. It is also empty. The scrubwoman doing the floors in the tiled entryway does not suffer from a language barrier; her clear greeting is, get out of here or you're going to catch one upside the head with this mop.
It's cold waiting in the morning fog, but finally there is a crunch of footsteps along the pathway, and out of the mist comes a young girl. She is wearing a school jumper that doesn't quite reach her knees and a warm-up jacket, and she is carrying a gym bag. Her legs are bare and she walks, a little stiffly in her clogs, with her head down. Then she looks up and there is a flash of dark, brooding eyes. It is Nadia Comaneci.
Bela Karolyi is the kind of man who gets both brighter and better-looking as the day goes on; he peaks somewhere around dinnertime. Now, unshaven and grumpy, wearing a Pepsi-Cola T shirt and warm-up pants, he doesn't want anything that will tax his capacities. Tell me again, he asks the translator, who are these people? Yes, yes, I know Illustrated Sport, but here...and now? Don't you people at the ministry understand that we don't allow visitors up here? We are working on new and sensitive and...ahh, what the hell. It's cold out here. You can come in if you don't bother Nadia. You must stand at the very edge of the floor, and do not approach her. Or me.
This is, indeed, Karolyi's kingdom. He is 38 years old, a powerfully built former discus and hammer thrower and handball player. As head coach of the Romanian gymnastic team, he has set up his school here, and he runs it with a growling, Vince Lombardi air. Karolyi and his wife Marta scout kindergartens all over Romania for the right girls; this was how he discovered Nadia in 1968. The kids are tested for agility, then a 15-meter sprint, a long jump and a walk on the beam for balance, but it is clear that what Karolyi wants just as much is an un-shaped, gutsy quality, elusive in young girls. He seeks reckless kids, unsophisticated girls who can be molded into superior gymnasts who do what they're told and don't cry. The winners leave their families and move to Transylvania, often staying through their teens. It is considered an honor.
Inside the gym, Nadia and three other gymnasts surround Karolyi to tell him about the great adventure of the night before. It's a bit jumbled, with all of them talking and giggling at once, but there was this boy, and he was poised in this high window, and he was threatening to jump because of his love for, well, for one of them.
Karolyi yawns and scratches his stomach. "What happened?" he asks.
"He jumped," Nadia says.