I don’t know how true this is but this is a fun read.
I got this off IG and before they delete it I wanted to save it. If it isn’t true than someone sure has a lot of time on their hands writing this
DISCLAIMER: This is what 80sgymfan posted on IG message board. All complaints and lawyers should contact her but if this turns out being true I always knew Jackie Fie was a cheater. What she did to change the score in 96 should have had her banned from the sport.
Here is the part about Jackie and the rest will follow
Jackie Fie (the queen judge) was coming to town. Bela told us we had to get her a gift. Why we had to do it, I don’t know. I thought it was wrong, and I said so. She never gave us birthday gifts. It was bribery. They bought her a 14K gold bracelet. It hit us parents for about $50 apiece. We didn’t have that kind of money to throw away, especially when we weren’t there when Bela gave it to her. Marta and Bela got the brownie points, and we paid for them. And Bela’s attitude was that we should have gotten her something “nicer.” Chelle didn’t get anything out of it. I certainly wouldn’t have done it after the Olympics.
Chapter I – STUMBLING ACROSS GYMNASTICS
If anyone had told me that I would one day give birth to an Olympic athlete, I would have been enchanted by the idea. Any mother would be, right? But dreaming about such success and actually living it are two different things. The price that such a life-style demands is very difficult for people outside of the sports arena to understand. Succeeding on such an intense level requires that every waking second of every day be devoted to competition, and that goes for every member of the family. Those who choose this life inevitably suffer from a special breed of insanity that starts with the coaches and infects parents, athletes, everyone involved. Of all the sports that fit this pattern, gymnastics has to be one of the worst.
Gymnastics. I hate that word. Getting involved in it was the biggest mistake of my life. The all-consuming greed for success and fame that is encouraged by the policies of the Untied States Gymnastics Federation blinded me to my own child’s best interests. I put my daughter through a universe of sacrifice that nobody, especially a child, should have to endure. By the time I opened my eyes, it was too late to back out. We had too much invested, personally and financially. Gymnastics was our lives.
We were living in New York state in 1973 when Chelle came along. (Chelle is short for Michelle, if you must know.) My husband Frank was a field operative for IBM, which meant we had to pick up and move every six to eighteen months. Newborn Chelle and her older brother Paul were thankfully very easy to move, but I was continually having to find things for them to do. As I played with Chelle, I noticed how extraordinarily flexible she was, so I took her to a beginning dance program when she was two. She enjoyed it quite a bit and I was told she had a real talent for it. After that, I tried to find a place for Chelle to dance everywhere we went.
When Chelle was five, we moved to a little town just north of Austin, Texas. She was taking jazz and tap when we got a flier in the mail for a local gymnastics program which was just starting up. A number of Chelle’s dance teachers had told me that she ought to try gymnastics, so I took her out there. Chelle loved it immediately. They would put her in a harness hung from the ceiling and bounce her on a trampoline. She could do any trick they asked for. About two months into it, the coach came out and told me how agile and fearless she was, and that I ought to seriously consider keeping her in gymnastics. Chelle was happy and it kept her busy, so I thought why not. Chelle started kindergarten that fall, but then we got transferred again, this time to Virginia. I couldn’t find a gym there, so I tried all kinds of different activities. Nothing kept Chelle’s attention like gymnastics, though. I remember T-ball being particularly unsuccessful. Six months later, we were thankfully moved again, to a suburb of Philadelphia. I went through the phone book and found a gym about ten miles away.
The owner, who became a very good friend of ours, put Chelle on his “mini-team” and she would go in once or twice a week. He had these impressive Russian coaches named Leo and Anna Belder who were doing amazing things with the older girls. Naturally, the rest of the mini-team parents and I wanted to know when we could get the Belders to spend time with our little girls. We kept hearing “soon, soon, soon.” Well, soon came about when the Belders left and opened their own gym a few blocks away. It wasn’t too long before we were over there with them.
Leo and Anna treated Chelle like their own child. They would help her with her homework and give her candy. When she did well at a meet, Leo would give her a Russian pin from a large collection that they kept on the wall. Leo babied Chelle, and she and the rest of the team never had to be afraid of falling when he was around. He would die before he’d let any of his gymnasts get hurt. I’ve seen him get concussions while catching little girls. In fact, the left side of his face is messed up from when he caught a boy coming off the high bar in Russia once.
Chelle loved Leo, and I was happy having something for her to do, but Frank had followed the Olympics to some extent, and he had more ambitious plans. He asked Anna one time if she thought Chelle might be Olympic material. She said, “Only way Chelle go to Olympics, she pay her way!”
Frank found that insulting, but it was a pretty important point. Like everyone who comes to this country, the Belders were here to make money. They kept increasing Chelle’s private lessons and the bills got higher and higher. They eventually trained me how to coach beginners just to help pay for Chelle’s lessons. Pretty soon, Chelle was up to four days a week, three or four hours at a time. When you’re eight years old, that’s a lot of workout. Chelle wasn’t overly fond of the actual gymnastics, really. She enjoyed working with Leo because he kept it fun, but she would get tired of the long hours and having to go out into the cold weather night after night. She wanted to stay home and play with her friends who didn’t know what she was doing or why. She didn’t really understand all the meets we were taking her to, either. But I thought it was healthy for her. I wasn’t going to have her sitting in front of the TV. She needed to keep busy.
As 1982 was beginning, Frank’s job in Pennsylvania was ending, and IBM wanted to send us back to “home base” in Virginia. I did not want to go back to Virginia. I was tired of living in the cold northern states with the crowded, expensive housing, and so was Frank. Besides, there was no place for Chelle to train where we had been in Virginia. I really missed the wide open spaces and the big houses in Texas. There had been empty fields as far as the eye could see where we lived in Austin, and our house had two stories with grassy yards on all four sides. We had gone through Houston once, and I had fallen in love with it. I told Frank that, if at all possible, I wanted to move to Houston.
Because Frank had followed the Olympics, he knew who Bela Karolyi was, and he remembered reading that Bela had recently defected from Romania and was coaching in Houston. Perfect for us! Frank made a few calls and found out that Bela was coming to Philadelphia with a gymnast named Dianne Durham for a meet at Temple University the following May. He arranged for Bela to come out and look at Chelle while he was in town.
Now Anna and Leo, being from the Old World, said, “Oh, you must entertain! He is special man!” They insisted we get expensive Napoleon brandy with real glasses and hors d’oeurves to welcome him. They acted as if God Himself had deigned to manifest in their gym. They still tell people about how Bela Karolyi came to their gym and took one of their gymnasts.
The big day came, and Frank drove to Philadelphia to get Bela while I made everything ready at the gym. It was a Sunday, so there was nobody there but us. Anna and Leo never turned the heat on unless it was absolutely necessary, so it was very cold in there that day. When Bela finally walked in, I wasn’t disappointed. He was just as huge and imposing as they said he would be. Everything he did and said, every move he made, let you know that he was in charge and you were not.
Once introductions were made, we brought Chelle out to show off what she could do. She weighed no more than 50 pounds then, and she looked like a flea next to that huge man. It was almost funny. At one point, Anna was having Chelle demonstrate back handsprings on the beam, which she had never done before without help. Predictably, she fell three or four times. Bela went up to help her and Anna spat, “Don’t touch my gymnast!” Bela backed off and Anna looked at Chelle and said, “DO IT!” And Chelle did it.
When Chelle was done, Bela talked with us a while. He and the Belders conversed in some other language, but he had a few choice words to say to all of us about Dianne Durham. His English was even worse than theirs, but I caught enough of it. He said that Dianne was spoiled and that he had to meet with her parents later that day to discuss how “unmanageable” she was becoming. I have since learned that “unmanageable” means “she won’t let me push her around,” but I had no way of knowing that at the time. I did pick up on his bigotry, though, as he kept reminding us that Dianne is black. The whole thing took maybe an hour, socializing and all, and Bela said that Chelle was welcome on his team, that he wanted her down there as soon as possible. We told him we didn’t think we could make it until August, but he was adamant. “You must get her down there right away! We must start with her immediately!” He really had us worried that if we didn’t get down there soon, he might change his mind.
Through all of this, I hardly said a word, which was unusual. I had no idea who this man was, but Frank and the Belders had impressed upon me that he was much more important than anyone I had ever met. And he was so charming. He had us convinced that bringing Chelle to him was the most wonderful decision we could ever make. At one point he said to Frank, “From the looks of her, she can be very, very great!” That was all Frank needed to hear. There was no way we were not moving to Houston after that.
With that decided, the next step was finding a job for Frank in Houston. He never took vacation time or sick leave, so he had amassed at least eight weeks of paid vacation, as much as IBM would allow him. We decided to use that vacation time to move to Texas and find Frank a position once we got there. It was a very reckless approach to the problem. The weeks went by, and Frank wrote to everybody at the corporate offices he could think of, but nothing seemed to be happening. August first was coming up, and it was looking like Frank would have to go back to Virginia leaving me with the kids in Houston. We even rented furniture in preparation for that very thing. I was scared to death. I had never been alone in my life.
All of a sudden, it came through. The company grudgingly found Frank a job because someone at the corporate office had ordered them to. They gave him a desk and a salary, but they didn’t really have anything for him to do, and they didn’t like it one bit.
He was told that he would be fired as soon as they could get away with it. So, even though Frank had a job, his career was over.
All that aside, I was very excited. Here we were back in Texas on this great adventure. Training with the Belders had been a very pleasant experience for all of us, and we had no reason to believe that training with Bela would be any different. Gymnastics to that point had been little more than a pastime for Chelle, just something to keep her occupied. We had activities and concerns outside of gymnastics, and I thought that would continue to be the case. I had no way of knowing that gymnastics was about to consume our lives.
Chapter II – BELA AND MARTA
I brought Chelle to Bela’s gym on August first, as we had arranged. It was just a little metal building with no air conditioning then, and the heat was unbelievable. We had come down south to get away from the miserable cold weather, but we weren’t prepared for East Texas in August.
Before Chelle could do anything, I had to pay money and sign release forms. That’s standard practice at all gyms, but here we had to come up with six hundred dollars right off the bat. The owner was a man named Pat Alexander and he didn’t want the two hundred dollars a month, he wanted it paid quarterly. That way, he knew he had you committed. It was real hard for us that first time.
In the few weeks we had been in Texas, Chelle had been getting migraine headaches from the heat, and as luck would have it, she had one during that first workout. As she was working beam with Marta Karolyi, Chelle would jump down and throw up. We’d wash her face off and send her back in, but then she’d come running back. This went on and on. Finally, Marta got very irate and began yelling, “This will not work! She will either work out or she will get out! If she cannot do it, take her home!” That was my introduction to Marta. I had come into this knowing only that Bela had a wife who coached with him, but I had no idea what to expect.
As I drove Chelle home, which for us was a La Quinta Inn at the time, my head was spinning. What had we done? And what were we supposed to do now? Frank had effectively ended his career, our relatives thought we were stark raving mad and refused all aid, financial or otherwise, and we were living like homeless people. All for Chelle and her gymnastics. If things didn’t work out, we would be flat broke for no reason. There was no way in hell Chelle was getting out of this!
It was at that very moment that I began thinking like a gym parent. Luckily, Chelle never had another migraine during workout, and the following weeks went smoothly enough. I temporarily put aside my anxieties about our future, and settled myself into the daily routine of the gym. Bela worked with Chelle and his seventeen other girls six days a week, so I had plenty to keep me busy. Parents were allowed to observe from a beat up old couch at the end of the vault runway, and I was there every single day for the entirety of each workout. I saw everything.
Bela personally supervised every part of the workout. He was on top of the girls at all times. They worked from five to nine each evening . . . if Bela was in a good mood. They conditioned at the end of each day’s workout, and if he didn’t like the way it was going, they might go on for forty-five minutes while he screamed and hollered. You did it right or you continued to do it. Bela would stalk around the floor while the girls conditioned and he would correct them, not necessarily nicely. If he didn’t like the way they were doing the exercises, he would tell them they were cheating and would make them redo them. Sometimes he would stop the whole workout while he screamed at one girl. It was just like being in the army. I didn’t like seeing that kind of thing, but I agreed with Bela to a certain extent. I mean, if you’re not doing the exercise right, it’s not doing you any good. But then, he was expecting the nine-year-olds to do the same kind of push-ups and as many push-ups as the sixteen-year-olds.
To be completely honest, I wasn’t worried about the other girls. Chelle was my only concern. She had only just turned nine and she was by far the smallest girl there. Her little body was terribly sore from the intensity of the workouts, and she was tremendously behind. All the other girls were working much harder skills, and it was that fact that bothered me more than anything else.
Training with the Belders had taught Chelle that you went to workout to work, but with Bela she couldn’t even get water or go to the bathroom between apparatus. And she certainly couldn’t come over and socialize with me. I was close enough to touch, but that would have been a huge no-no. Chelle had to learn a whole new way of doing things.
I had been good friends with Anna and Leo. If Chelle wasn’t paying attention or something, Leo would turn to me and say, “Carrol! You will have to make her behave! You will have to make her listen to me!” He would talk to me. But where the Belders had been like family, Bela and Marta did their best to intimidate. They looked down their noses at us parents and they didn’t deal with us directly at all. In fact, they never even spoke to us. If we had anything to say, we spoke to Pat Alexander, and then only about finances. We did not ask questions.
Despite all this, I liked Bela. I thought he was funny. He would joke with the girls and pat them on the head when they did well. I certainly didn’tf eel at ease around him, though. He’s a huge, imposing man, the kind you don’t just walk up to and start conversation with. And he had the life of my child in his hands. What was I supposed to say to him? He wasn’t friendly, but he was nice enough.
Marta was another story. She didn’t even pretend to be friendly. If you ran into Marta at the grocery store, she would turn away from you as if you smelled. She gave the impression, and I’m sure intentionally, that associating with parents was somehow below her. It gave a clear signal that parental input was not wanted, that parents are too stupid to know what they’re talking about.
The other parents were almost as unfriendly. They looked at us like we were crazy, especially when they learned why we had moved. They didn’t talk much at all, but one of them did say to me, “I can’t believe you moved down here for this . . . for a nine- year-old.” I eventually made friends among them, but it wasn’t easy.
As difficult as it was for me, it was much worse for Chelle. The other girls didn’t want somebody else coming into their group, it just meant more competition for Bela’s attention. None of them would invite Chelle over or include her in anything, and they made fun of her because she was so far behind. When school started a few weeks after we got there, one of the girls even did her best to make sure that nobody made friends with Chelle. That hurt Chelle a lot. She could deal with the physical discomforts of workout, but not having friends really depressed her. She had to make her friends outside of the gym, which ironically turned out to be healthier for her.
In Pennsylvania, most of Chelle’s friends had been outside the gym as well, but they conflicted with her training. Sometimes she didn’t want to go to workout because she was hearing things like, “Why do you have to go to gym every day? Why can’t you stay home and play? Why can’t you come to the birthday party?” In Houston, there were no such problems. Everybody knew who Bela Karolyi was and that his girls were training for the Olympics. Birthdays were held on Saturdays after workout. Everything was automatically arranged around the gym. It was really amazing.
The schools weren’t so cooperative, though. Bela started having morning sessions that he called “optional,” but we all knew that if you missed one, you were in the doghouse. He just didn’t understand that the girls had to go to school. You weren’t allowed to say things like, “We can’t come in today. We have school,” or “We have a big test today. We’re going to be late.” Oh, no, it didn’t work that way. You were there. Period. This gave most of the girls a terrible time. If any of them came to workout late, even once, Bela would lay into them. “If you can’t get here on time, don’t bother to come at all!” he would yell. There was even one girl who had to take a cab every day. Bela was particularly hard on her.
A couple of the parents tried to arrange things so the girls could have school in the gym, but Bela vetoed the whole thing. He didn’t want schooling associated with his gym in any way. “That’s your problem,” he would say. “Just get your kids out of school. I don’t care how. They should have one thing on their minds, and that’s gymnastics! School is a waste of time!” The schools were just as hard-nosed. They had their own rules and you followed them. Period. What most parents ended up doing was lying to the schools, saying they had to go to the doctor or the orthodontist. But we got around all that because Chelle had a real nice teacher who would let us quietly leave class without going through the principal’s office. Bela had evidently been a big hit with the media when he moved in, and his name pulled a lot of weight in a lot of unusual places. We were really lucky.
The primary reasons we had to sneak in and out of school were those ever-present private lessons. The competitive season was getting underway,and all the girls had to have their own individual routines. I took Chelle to the gym early one morning so that Marta and an assistant could choreograph a floor exercise for her, a process that Chelle had never gone through before. They spent the next eight hours working on it.
Poor Chelle had so much trouble. They would make up a move for her and practice it a few times, then go on to something else. When they would come back to that first move
a little later, Chelle would have forgotten it. This happened over and over. At one point, they wanted Chelle to move her hands back and forth in one direction while moving her feet in the other. They worked on that one part for over an hour, but Chelle was exhausted and she just didn’t have the coordination.
Marta had been getting angrier with each passing minute, and she finally burst. She got right in Chelle’s face and yelled, “Are you STUPID?!” Without hesitation and with real conviction, Chelle shot back, “YES!” The response couldn’t have come quicker. It was almost as if Marta had been practicing it with Chelle all this time. I realized only recently that, in a way, that’s exactly what had been happening.
Strangely enough, I was not shocked when I witnessed this. It sounds horrid, but I was beginning to wonder if Chelle wasn’t stupid myself. I had been watching every day as the rest of Bela’s girls learned new and more complex tricks, leaving Chelle behind. Why couldn’t she be like the others? Bela had said that Chelle could be great. Why wasn’t I seeing it? This is what happens to you when you become a gym parent. As you sit there and watch the team all day every day, your attention inevitably turns to the Elites. You begin to wonder why your child isn’t doing what they are doing, even though they’re years older.
You think to yourself, “She’s so sloppy! She’s got to do what the others are doing! We’ve got to catch up! When are we going to get there?” And you can see the same thoughts on the other parents’ faces. A very real sense of desperation, of time running out, comes over you. This turns you into a very pushy parent. “You’ve got to point your toes! You’ve got to straighten your knees! You’ve got to be like so-and-so! We’re paying all this money! You’ve got to do what they’re telling you!”
This cycle of competition between parents, and between parents and their own children, is encouraged by the atmosphere at Karolyi’s. Any girl who is not doing the same things as everybody else, who is not up there at the same level, gets yelled at, or worse, ignored.
When we would get home each day, I would report to Frank what Chelle could and couldn’t do and how she looked in comparison to the other girls. He’d say, “You’ve got to find somebody who can coach her! You’ve got to find somebody who’ll do better!” I really didn’t think Chelle had what it took, but Frank was fixated on the Olympics. He was pushing me to push her. Many times, when Chelle got home from workout, tired and sore, we would have her go through the conditioning again. If Bela had criticized a particular exercise that day, we would have Chelle repeat it until it looked right to us. Imagine making your little girl stand on her hands in the corner and do vertical push-ups until she’s almost unconscious! Chelle hated it. And sometimes, she hated us.
But we didn’t consider ourselves extremists, merely responsible parents making sure our child had a bright future. There were other parents who had multi-thousand-dollar beams or uneven bars in their homes. They were crazy. Not us.
Chapter III – GIZI AND RICK
At about the same time we arrived in Houston, Bela took on an assistant named Gizi Oltean. She and her husband had defected from Romania several years before, so Bela knew her professionally. She had short blonde hair, very much like Marta’s, and she had the small, muscular body of someone who had obviously been a gymnast, again like Marta. But Gizi always liked to point out that she had been an Elite gymnast while Marta had only been a Class I.
I liked Gizi very much. She sincerely cared about the girls. She was very tough on them when it came to coaching, but she let them know she was on their side. When Bela would get angry about something, Gizi would support his position, but she would do it while patting the girls on the head and explaining nicely how they needed to listen carefully. With her, coaching was a reasoning process, not a matter of “do it because I said so!”
Gizi was very much like the Belders in her relationship with the girls. She liked them to have fun, and would sometimes throw parties that they were all invited to. She would even spend personal time with them. When she taught private lessons, she would work until the job was done without charging extra, unlike Bela and Marta who were out the door the second your time was up.
But what really put Gizi in a different category from Bela and Marta was that she communicated with the parents. If there was something that Chelle needed to work on, Gizi would come to us and talk it over. Socializing with the likes of us was no difficulty for her.
The one real problem was that Gizi never got along with Marta. The two of them argued about everything under the sun, from choreography changes to elastic cuffs in the new warm-up suits. They never saw eye-to-eye on anything, primarily because they didn’t want to. How the girls looked and performed actually became secondary to their feuding.
Despite that, the common sense in Gizi’s coaching made things much easier for all of us. If Chelle had had to train with Bela and Marta alone, she would not have survived. Bela frightened Chelle, and Marta absolutely terrified her. The reason Bela had hired Gizi was because the team was growing, which wasn’t supposed to be happening. When we had first arrived in Houston, Bela had assured all of us that the team would never be larger than eighteen or twenty girls so he could coach them all himself. But then he kept bringing in more and more gymnasts. When twenty-four came, he promised that was his new limit. Then there were thirty . . . forty-four . . . These promises meant nothing to him.
In a way, Bela was telling the truth. His team never got over that many. In fact, he personally coached fewer and fewer girls. The Class IIs and IIIs became a group of their own, with different leotards and everything, while Bela kept the Class Is and Elites for himself. When more girls would arrive, he would just demote everybody to keep his own group small. No matter how much progress you made, you couldn’t get back up to Bela’s group because he kept bringing in higher-level gymnasts for himself. It was a real disappointment to me because we had moved to Houston specifically to train with Bela. We weren’t paying all that money to work with Bela’s assistants. We felt neglected.
By February of 1983, Bela had gained ownership of the gym. He put up a second building, doubling the size of the facility, and he built an observation area behind glass so the parents couldn’t interfere even if they wanted to. He also hired another assistant, this time a skinny guy with glasses named Rick Newman. Rick specialized in coaching uneven bars, and he was very good at it, but he couldn’t have been more different from Gizi. He was just plain rude. Four-letter words were his primary form of communication, even with the girls.
Rick had brought a few girls with him from wherever he had been coaching before and they got all of his attention. Chelle and the others that Rick inherited from Bela got comparatively little coaching, and their progress on the uneven bars suffered. Chelle never learned any new skills when she trained with Rick. He said it was because she was stupid. But she never had any problems learning from Gizi, or even Bela and Marta. We got so desperate, we secretly took Chelle to other coaches around town to help her on bars. She always made progress when we did that. The problem was Rick. He just wouldn’t teach Chelle anything.
When Chelle went to her first Class III meet, she performed very well on bars, but she got a score of 5.75. We asked Rick why. “She can’t do anything,” he said. We told him Chelle had learned a move called “the giant swing” in Pennsylvania, which we knew would make her routine
worth a 9.0, but he didn’t want to hear it. He would rather see Chelle get fives and sixes and be humiliated than compete something that he didn’t teach her.
We went round and round with Rick about those giant swings, but we never got anywhere. Finally, we pestered Bela into doing something about it. One day, he stomped out onto the floor and put Chelle on the high bar. He told her to do giants, and sure enough, she could do giants. He told Rick to put them in her routine, and under direct orders like that, Rick had no choice. Chelle’s scores were better at the next meet, but she never got any coaching from Rick after that. She had gotten very little before, but now it was official. That was how Rick worked. If you ever told on him, your daughter ceased to exist. Not surprisingly, complaining to Bela about Rick’s behavior never did any good. He would just say, “Rick is your coach. He knows what’s best,” and that would be the end of it. Complaints were just not in Bela’s programming. If there was ever a problem, it was obviously your fault because Bela didn’t make mistakes. This meant that Rick could pretty much do whatever he wanted. Once, when we went to a regional meet in Little Rock, we were greeted by some officials who wanted to know where our coach was. Rick had never shown up. We got on the phone to Bela who made some calls of his own and found out that Rick had changed his flight to a later date so he could pocket some of the hotel money. At least, that’s what Bela told us. When Rick finally got there, he was livid. He refused to even speak to the girls, and he spent the competition in the stands with his radio headphones on. He was furious that we had told on him, so he retaliated by refusing to coach our girls through the meet. That was typical of Rick. Whenever he was angry about something, he took it out on the girls.
Actually, how Rick treated individual girls on a day-to-day basis had little to do with the girls themselves. Over time, it became obvious that it was their mothers he was interested in. If you were skinny and would play “tennis” with Rick, he would treat your daughter real nice. But if you were a little bit overweight like I was, both you and your daughter were ignored. Rick made advances on just about every woman at the gym except me. Or Marta. I learned quickly that such favoritism is what gets things done at Karolyi’s, and much of a my time was spent trying to impress Bela. When he would have visiting dignitaries or some such thing, I and the other parents would fall all over each other volunteering to drive them around town or provide food. “Maybe Bela will notice how dedicated I am! Maybe Bela will notice how much of my own money I’m spending! Maybe Bela will be my friend and promote my daughter!” That was the thought process.
Similarly, I was always having to take Chelle to the gym at odd hours to put on exhibitions for Bela’s investors. He would bring in bankers and big businessmen from all over to see the girls perform, and if they liked what they saw, they might write a big fat check. We raised a lot of money for Bela, all the while paying those huge monthly bills. It made us all wonder just where the money was going. Bela told everyone that all the fund-raising was to help send Mary Lou Retton to the Olympics, but that didn’t make any sense to me at all. Mary Lou was a National Team member which meant that the U.S. Gymnastics Federation provided all of her travel expenses. I think Bela just kept the money for himself.
We did get new gym equipment from time to time, though. Bela held that we all profited from the fund-raising by getting to work on his new equipment. That’s right, it was his equipment, not ours. We never got a break on monthly bills or help in sending our girls to meets. In fact, we had to come up with air fare and hotel expenses out of our own pockets for every coach who traveled to a meet with us. Again, this was in addition to our monthly bills and private lessons. This kind of pressure never let up, and it was a real strain on all of us.
Every few weeks, Chelle would come home very despondent, saying she couldn’t go on, that she had to quit. I would tell her to stick it out until the month was over because it was already paid for. If that didn’t appease her, I’d give her the old “we’ve got too much invested in this and by God you’re going to do it” speech. I really meant it, too. I saw myself as the one making the sacrifices, not Chelle.
As if the girls didn’t have enough to worry about, Bela had what he called “verifications,” for which he would bring in a judge or two to evaluate everybody’s routines. The girls were warned that their performances would determine whether they would be allowed to compete at the next meet or not. This really frightened the girls, and it angered us parents to no end. Here we’ve been paying all this money for Bela to turn our girls into gymnasts, and he’s telling us they might not be allowed to compete. It was arbitrary and unfair. As always, it did no good to complain.
It was at one of these verifications, in October of 1984, right after the Los Angeles Olympics, that Rick broke the camel’s back. And very nearly Chelle’s.
Chelle was doing a complicated new vault that she was afraid of, so Rick had promised that he would spot her. She ran down the runway, and as she got to the horse, Rick stepped back and threw his hands up in the air. Chelle panicked. Seeing that kind of thing out of the corner of her eye in mid-vault would startle any gymnast. Chelle fell on her neck. As she lay there on the floor, Rick bent over her and said, “One way or another, I’m going to drive you out of this sport!”
Well, there was no way in hell I was going to let Rick anywhere near my daughter after that. I had put up with a lot of his nonsense, but threatening to hurt my little girl was going too far. I went to Bela and told him we were leaving unless Rick was fired, and as usual, I was wasting my breath. Bela said that there were no other coaches who would work as cheaply as Rick, so he was staying. It was simply a monetary matter to Bela.
To add insult to injury, Marta was demoting Chelle by three classifications because of her fall on that vault. The fact that it was Rick’s fault, that he had done it on purpose, was irrelevant. When Marta found out that we were leaving, she got real sweet and said that she would move Chelle back up, that it wasn’t important. I told her I wasn’t interested in playing those games with her. Rick was going to hurt Chelle and that was important.
We took Chelle in one last time to say good-bye. In the two years we had been there, she had managed to make some very good friends among the other gymnasts, so leaving was a difficult and emotional experience. Gizi cried and said it was like getting a divorce. That wasn’t much of an exaggeration, either. We had all become very attached to Gizi. The whole session had an air of formality and finality about it, and I was sure we would never be back. I was wrong.
CHAPTER IV – JUERGEN AND JACK
When we walked out of Karolyi’s, we didn’t leave ourselves hanging as to where Chelle would train. I had made arrangements with a gym across town that was run by Mike Rowland, one of Bela’s former business partners. He employed a coach named Juergen Achtermann who had taken a girl to the Class I state title a while earlier, so we knew there was good coaching going on there. Rowland’s wasn’t just a gymnastics facility, it was also a fitness gym that was open to the general public. There was an Olympic-sized pool, all kinds of weight training equipment and even a small eating area. People who weren’t gymnasts or coaches were in and out all the time, which made things very casual. And everyone was very supportive, even the other parents. It was a wonderful atmosphere to take a little girl into. And unlike Karolyi’s, which had a lot more girls paying tuition, the gym covered all of its coaches’ travel expenses.
But what really made things work for Chelle was Juergen. When we left Karolyi’s, Chelle had been ready to quit, she’d had all she could stand. She was even afraid of the apparatus. Juergen changed all that. He played with Chelle and made her enjoy working out again. That year, he took Chelle to the western national competition, one step further than she had gotten the year before. It did wonders for Chelle. Juergen is really the only reason that Chelle stayed in gymnastics.
The only problem was that Juergen was young and a bit inexperienced. He didn’t know how to be firm enough with the girls to get the most out of them, and he was afraid of upsetting the parents. Long-term training was a problem for him as well. He tended to teach the girls one skill today and go on to the next skill tomorrow. He didn’t stick with one skill long enough to really perfect it, which is probably the one thing that separates the good coaches from the great coaches. This fact really hit home a few months into Chelle’s training with Juergen when we took her to a meet in Austin. Chelle’s scores were high sevens and low eights, and she knew that was unacceptable. She cried all the way home.
Up to that point, Chelle didn’t live and breathe gymnastics like most other gymnasts. She didn’t even like gymnastics, really. The only reason she went to workouts at all was because most of her friends were there. And because we told her she had to do it, of course. She would never even watch gymnastics on television. When the Los Angeles Olympics was on, she would say, “I can see Mary Lou any day.” One time, at one of those parties that Gizi used to throw, an international meet came on television and everyone gathered around to watch. Everyone except Chelle. Gizi noticed this and said, “You can tell who is serious about gymnastics and who will do well. They are the ones watching!”
As little attention as Chelle paid to gymnastics, she did like to do well when she competed, and that meet in Austin hit her hard. It really made her angry, and any good gymnast can tell you that getting angry with yourself is the biggest step towards success in gymnastics. After that, I think Chelle realized that day-to-day workouts would have to become her priority in life if she wanted to keep winning meets.
As wonderful as Rowland’s had been, our goal was the Olympics, and it was obvious that we needed to take Chelle elsewhere. We had heard that Gizi was opening her own gym, so we gave her a call. She said that she would be coaching mostly beam while a man named Jack Thomas would handle everything else. Chelle had trained with Jack for a couple of weeks when we first moved to Texas, and she vividly remembered him. He was a fantastic coach, but he was really hard-nosed, and Chelle wasn’t sure she wanted to work with someone who was going to be as mean as Bela.
But by that time, Chelle was becoming as consumed by gymnastics as we were, and she didn’t think Juergen could get her to the national competitions consistently. Plus, at the age of twelve, she was starting to feel old. That’s a common problem with gymnasts. There is so much pressure on them to be Olympic quality before the peak age of sixteen that they begin to feel their biological clocks ticking when they’re only just becoming teenagers. Chelle was starting to feel the panic. It was time to move.
I didn’t enjoy saying good-bye to Juergen. Training with him had been a thoroughly wonderful experience, and I can’t think of a single unlikeable thing about him. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say anything less than complimentary about Juergen. That’s exceedingly rare in the gymnastics community and Juergen should be proud of himself. He never said how he felt about us leaving, but I’m sure he wasn’t happy. I’m still sorry we had to leave him.
In August of 1985, we made the move to Gizi’s, and Jack proceeded to do fantastic things with Chelle. The following summer, he took Chelle to the Class I Western Nationals for her second year in a row, and this time she finalled on bars and floor. Chelle had no release moves in her bar routine, but Jack had her swinging so well that her scores went through the roof anyway. And her tumbling was phenomenal, years ahead of her age Group. Make no mistake about it, Jack Thomas taught Chelle the basics of high-level gymnastics, not Bela Karolyi.
Through their working together, Jack and Chelle established a relationship that was just unreal. Chelle adored Jack and would do absolutely anything for him. When Jack would yell at Chelle, it would hurt her feelings so bad she couldn’t stand it, and she would cry uncontrollably for hours. As a result, Jack became afraid to be stern with Chelle. This meant that Chelle had control over their relationship when she wanted it, and she tried to wrap Jack around her little finger.
One day, while Chelle was working bars, Jack got mad about something and told Chelle to get out of the gym. That wasn’t very unusual, in fact Jack threw Chelle out fairly often. But what made this particular afternoon different was that Chelle got back up on the bars and told him she was staying right there. Jack started yelling. “I told you to get out!” he would say. “I told you I’m not going!” Chelle would shout back.
All other activity in the gym stopped, and Gizi and the other gymnasts gathered around to watch. Finally, Jack looked Chelle right in the eye and said, “Do I have to physically walk under this bar and pick you up and take you out of this gym?!” Chelle looked right back at him and said, “Do you think you can?” Jack took a step toward Chelle, and she jumped down from the bars. She pulled off her wrist bands and threw them at him and said, “Fine! I’ll leave for now, but I’ll be back!” Then she ran into the locker room and sat down and cried.
For one reason or another, I wasn’t in the gym that day, and when I got there, Gizi told me what had happened. I asked her why she hadn’t intervened and her answer made a lot of sense: Jack was the one who had lost control of Chelle, so Jack was the one who needed to regain it.
Now, don’t think for a minute that Chelle had behaved as she did because I wasn’t there. Chelle had learned long ago to ignore my presence in the gym, and she mouthed off all the time. Discipline during workout was the coach’s problem, not mine. I had enough trouble keeping Chelle in line at home. Obviously, if Chelle had been afraid of Jack, she wouldn’t have fought him, but there was more to it than that. Chelle knows how good she is on bars, and she doesn’t like anybody telling her she’s not doing well at it. If Jack had thrown her out during vault or floor, I’m sure she would have left happily, but she loves swinging bars. Chelle’s
relationship with Jack was a real problem, but there were more important troubles for us at the time. Chelle’s worst event has always been beam, and during our stay at Gizi’s, it became the worst it’s ever been. Gizi couldn’t spend as much time as she needed to on it because she was trying to run a business. She was always having to run answer the phone or deal with a parent. It’s too hard for anybody to run the business and coach at the same time. It just doesn’t work.
At that same competition where Chelle had done so well on bars and floor, she finished a dismal 58th out of 64 in the all-around just because of her beam scores. Chelle was humiliated. We were hoping she would become an Elite competitor the next year, and we knew that wouldn’t cut it. That night, I sat on the hood of the car with Jack at the motel and cried hysterically while he told me that Chelle really wasn’t very talented. “She’s a wonderful child,” he said, “but Elite is probably not in her future.” He wanted her to repeat Class I. I told Jack I knew Chelle could be as good as Sheryl Dundas, a girl from Austin who was winning everything that year, and that we needed to go Elite. Jack said that if Chelle became half as good as Sheryl Dundas, it would be “a miracle.” He told me that we would have to give up our dreams of the Olympics, that it just wasn’t going to happen. This image of a coach telling a mother that her daughter isn’t going to make it is probably the most common in gymnastics. If you could sneak around behind the scenes at any of the big meets, in the hallways and in the hotel bars, you would invariably run across hysterical women crying on the shoulders of their daughters’ coaches. They’re being told that their child is talentless. Every mother of every successful gymnast in the world has been through this. The girls who go through their lives being told that they are destined for greatness, on the other hand, never make it. One would think that coaches in general would learn after a while. But learning is not what coaching is about. It’s about being in charge and telling people how things are going to be.
Frank wasn’t about to accept Jack’s evaluation of Chelle, and when we got back to the gym, we discussed it with Gizi. She said she was going to have to decide which girls she would take to the Elite level next year, to give her some time. That was in July. By December, we still hadn’t gotten a decision. “We’ll see. We’ll see,” Gizi kept saying. In the meantime, Chelle was still training Class I routines. 1987 was close upon us, and if Chelle was going to go to the `88 Olympics, she was going to have to learn Elite routines. Soon. Unfortunately, Gizi ran her gym much like Bela’s. She had her investors and she had her favorites. She had picked one little girl to be her star, and she went on and on about how great that one girl was going to be. She showered the child with free leotards, free travel, even free coaching. When Frank finally lost his job that year, we got free nothing. Chelle was just not a priority. That other girl, by the way, never went anywhere. Remember what I was saying earlier?
Anyway, we knew we were going to have to change gyms again. I had no idea where to go, but Frank did. He made the announcement that we were going back to Karolyi’s. Chelle and I wanted nothing to do with it, but Frank had made up his mind and he went about making another one of his arrangements for Bela to see Chelle. I had taken Chelle to Rowland’s, I had taken Chelle to Gizi’s, and now Frank was taking Chelle back to Bela. I didn’t have any better ideas, so I let Frank do it. The Olympic team was the only thing that mattered, after all, and Bela was the only coach around who had Olympic experience. What choice did we have?
Now let me explain the gym-hopping process. Whenever you change clubs in gymnastics, you have to do it on the sly. You have to sneak around and hope so-and-so doesn’t see you so word won’t get back to your coach. You arrange your secret meetings first, then you announce you’re leaving. If you’re careless about it and your coach hears what you’re planning, he or she might never speak to you again. Then, if your plans fall through, you might be stuck with no coach at all. You’re forced by the nature of the community to do everything in secret. Almost every switch we’ve ever made has had to be planned this way. It’s just the way things are done in gymnastics.
So, Frank snuck Chelle over to Karolyi’s one night while I stayed home and chewed my nails. When they got back, Frank told me that Bela wanted Chelle on his team. His team. “Are you sure that’s what he said?” I asked. Frank was positive, Bela wanted to train Chelle personally. But I repeated myself again and again, “Are you SURE?!” I knew how misleading Bela could be. I knew he was going to put Chelle back in there with Rick, and I wasn’t going to let that happen. I made Frank call Bela at home late that night so I could hear it for myself.
Bela assured me that Chelle would be in his personal group. He wouldn’t move her down and she wouldn’t work with Rick. I further made him promise that Rick would not have any association whatsoever with Chelle. He couldn’t touch her, he couldn’t yell at her, he couldn’t even breathe on her. That had to be part of the deal, it was the only way I would let Chelle back in that gym. Amazingly, Bela agreed to everything. After that, we had to tell Gizi the bad news. I let Frank do that bit, too. Ialways chicken out on the tough stuff. I think Gizi was very bitter about our leaving, but she has remained a friend, especially in recent years. I respect her for that.
Jack was another story. The whole thing hurt him real bad. He was just as stuck on Chelle as she was on him, and he went into a deep depression when Chelle left. He quit coaching altogether for a time. The last I heard, he ended up in Guatemala where he’s helping out one of their Olympic hopefuls. Chelle was hurt badly, too. She cried bitterly for weeks and weeks over Jack. I didn’t realize until then how close she and Jack had been. In retrospect, it was really unhealthy. If we hadn’t had to leave Gizi’s over the whole Elite situation, we would probably have ended up leaving because of Jack. He had gotten too close.
CHAPTER V – BACK TO BELA
Anyone who lived in the United States during the mid-eighties remembers what a phenomenon Mary Lou Retton was
after the 1984 Olympics. You couldn’t pick up a magazine or turn on the television without seeing her face. Or Bela’s. They became real celebrities. There had been famous American gymnasts before, like Cathy Rigby, but nobody had achieved the level of public recognition that Mary Lou did. And it made Bela a very rich man.
The gym had changed drastically during our two-year absence. There were hundreds of gymnasts and assistant coaches everywhere. Bela had added a third building and a parking lot, and he had bought the houses on either side of the gym and was renting them out. He had also bought a huge tract of land just south of Huntsville to complete his self-image as a real Texan with a real ranch. He was building his home and a gymnastics camp out there. Gymnastics businesses all over the country were booming because of Bela’s notoriety, but his success also had a more subtle and insidious side-effect. Before the Los Angeles Olympics, nobody believed there was any money to be made in gymnastics. Girls had traditionally pursued gymnastics with the Olympics or a college scholarship in mind. But after Mary Lou became such a super-star, there were suddenly thousands of little gymnasts, and their parents, fully expecting to become rich and famous off the sport. In fact, the popular thing to do at that time was to get an agent for your daughter. With so many people imagining so much to be at stake, gymnastics became even more cutthroat than ever, and this was the atmosphere we stepped into when we moved back to Karolyi’s. The parents there had been in competition with each other before, but now they were waging all-out war. I was immediately informed upon my arrival that Chelle did not deserve her new spot on Bela’s personal team, that it belonged to somebody else’s daughter. And I was reminded of it constantly.
What really angered the other parents, though, was how nice Bela was to Chelle. He would actually spot for her, and that’s something he doesn’t do for anybody. I couldn’t explain it, but I loved gloating over it. Actually, I think it had to do with Chelle’s size. At thirteen years old, she was 4-foot-7 and only 68 or 70 pounds, not that much bigger than when we left. She was a little bitty thing, even compared to the other girls. And Bela loves them little.
That December, Chelle learned the Elite compulsory routines, and she spent the next couple of months working up some Elite optionals of her own. Bela continued to treat her nicely, so it was a happy time for Chelle. It didn’t last, though.
That February, Chelle went to a competition in San Antonio with Bela. Early on in the competition, she fell off the bars, and he blew up all over her. “You are not a gymnast! You are no good! You are never going to be anything!” he screamed. And the television cameras were pointed right at him. After that, Chelle was understandably flustered, and she left out a difficult move during her beam routine, substituting a safer one. That’s when Bela really came unglued. During the instant replay, the commentators were trying to figure out what was so wrong with Chelle’s routine that Bela would reduce her to tears like that. Then, Chelle had to do her new floor exercise. It was the hardest routine she had ever done and it was her first time to compete it. Naturally, after all Bela had put her through, she fell. “I’ll teach you to fall! You’ll do two full-ins at your next meet!” he said. (A full-in is a double back somersault with a full twist in the first somersault. It is one of the most difficult things that anybody does on the floor, and almost nobody does more than one in a single routine.)
Well, Chelle showed him. When she went to that next meet a month later, she did her two full-ins plus a double-back, and she hit all of them. In fact, she earned a 9.6 or better on every event. That kind of thing is unusual in regional competitions, and it made a real stir. People began complementing Bela on his new little “hot shot,” which you would think might work toward improving Chelle’s standing in the gym. But it didn’t. In fact, Bela seemed to resent Chelle for showing him up. As far as she was concerned, Bela’s old screaming act was back to stay.
Then there was Rick Newman. He had been unbearable when we left, but now he was just off his gourd. He worked with a mostly younger group of girls, and he treated them like trash. When he was especially upset about something, he would tell them they should commit suicide. Sometimes he even told them how they should do it.
Unfortunately, everybody had to work compulsories with Rick on Wednesdays because that was Bela’s day off. (The girls never got days off, but Bela sure did.) This made me angry until I saw how well Rick treated Chelle. Bela had evidently made it very clear to Rick that he could not harass Chelle in any way, as per my demands. Bela must have seen more potential in Chelle than he was letting on, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble. These restrictions made Rick so mad he couldn’t stand it. He would get furious at Chelle over stupid little things, but all he could do was stand there and turn purple. One day, in a fit of rage, he said to Chelle, “You know I’m not allowed to yell at you!” And she said, “Yes, isn’t it nice.” Chelle took advantage of the situation every chance she got. I enjoyed watching Rick squirm myself.
Rick also taught all of the private lessons, and boy did we have privates. Private dance, private tumbling, private bars, even private stretching. It really got ridiculous. And it was always cash up front. When you paid for private lessons, you bought them in blocks of four, and if you missed one of those pre-paid privates, you lost your money. But what was really amazing was that Rick could kick a girl out of a private lesson if he felt like it. Of course, he kept the money.
The hours in the morning and evening sessions were getting longer and longer, and together with the private lessons, we were missing a lot of school. We were supposed to be at school at 10am every morning, but Bela and Rick didn’t care. If they decided to work until 11 that day, it was just too bad. And they got furious if anyone mentioned school.
About two weeks before the end of that school year, Bela announced that the girls would have to do their training at his ranch for some reason. This meant that the girls would have to literally move away from home and miss the last two weeks of school. I certainly didn’t want Chelle to flunk the eighth grade, and I dreaded having to wrestle with the school
board over it. But to my astonishment, the school just looked the other way. They pretended Chelle moved, and she passed without having to take a single exam. I think they did it because Frank and I were not among those parents who yelled and screamed when we wanted special arrangements. The schools were always willing to work something out if you were nice about it, and that’s precisely why Bela had so much trouble with them. That summer was bad. As the important meets approach, Bela gets harder and harder to deal with, making increasingly ridiculous demands of the girls, and this pattern is always worst in the year before the Olympics. All of the girls were driven ruthlessly. Chelle, her favored status long gone, became a specific target of Bela’s derision. He screamed at her constantly. Everything was always her fault.
Then, just a few weeks into summer, Chelle committed the ultimate sin: she got injured. Bela simply cannot deal with injuries. He hates them with a passion, and he hates any girl who has the audacity to get herself hurt. He just can’t understand how a little girl can break a bone or tear a muscle while attempting one of those super-human feats. He interprets injuries as a deliberate show of insubordination against him and treats them accordingly. Chelle had pulled a hamstring, which any athlete can tell you is a painful and difficult injury. It can take up to a year for an injured hamstring to fully recover, but of course, that didn’t mean anything to Bela. He wanted it healed immediately, and Chelle never got a break. He was making her vault when she couldn’t even run. And he insisted that we take Chelle to his hand-picked (and expensive!) therapist each and every day. My insurance wouldn’t cover it, but I was under orders. “You go get it fixed right now!” “Fixed,” he would say, like all I had to do was get Chelle’s fan belt replaced.
Despite her injury, Chelle continued to perform well in competition. In fact, at the 1987 Junior National Championships later that summer, she finished second. But again, this didn’t make things better for her in the gym. Bela picked on her mercilessly. She couldn’t do anything right. After each workout, Bela would have the girls go through their routines in their entirety, repeating them if something was wrong. And every night, he would make Chelle do her routines over and over and over again. Once, he made her do her bar routine thirteen times in a row. There was nothing wrong with it. The other girls even said so.
Bela was just picking on Chelle for some reason, and it was wearing her out. I think that’s what he was trying to do, actually, but Chelle survived and remained a damn good gymnast at the same time. Looking back, I really don’t see how she did it. I certainly couldn’t have.
That December, Chelle was scheduled to compete in Japan, and as the day approached, Bela put more and more pressure on her. It was her first time to ever compete overseas, and Bela seemed determined to have her go into it as exhausted and depressed as possible. He even changed their pre-arranged flight date to get them into Japan late on the night before competition, giving Chelle no time to adjust to the backward hours. She had to get up early the next morning and go through an entire workout, then go straight into the competition.
Naturally, all of this resulted in an injury. During the warm-up before the competition, Chelle took a bad dismount from the beam and hurt her right foot. She didn’t know it at the time (because nobody checked!), but she had broken two toes and chipped a bone in the side of her foot. Bela reacted to this by marching Chelle to the first aid station, wrapping her foot real tight, shooting it up with Novocain, and putting her right back on the floor. Karolyi girls do not have the option of not competing. If Bela has gone to the trouble of taking them to a meet, they will compete if it kills them. And he doesn’t have to tell them that. They know.
Chelle finished that entire competition, without further incident and without complaint. It’s amazing that she didn’t break her neck. With her foot full of Novocain, it was like performing with no foot at all. Despite her bravery, Bela never spoke to her again. She had shown weakness in front of others, and that was unforgivable.
From there, all of the competitors had to take a long bus trip to an exhibition in another part of Japan. Chelle, sitting in the back, icing her swollen foot, became violenlty ill after eating a sausage she had gotten at one of the bus stops. She began throwing up, so they passed her out a window to somebody she didn’t even know. Bela was at the front of the bus drinking with some Russian buddies, completely unaware of what was happening to his own athlete. When somebody told him that they were taking Chelle back to the hotel he said, “Who cares! I don’t care what you do with her!” By the time Chelle returned home, her foot had been fourteen days without treatment, and it was in terrible condition. It was swollen, from knee to toe, to the size of a watermelon, and it was a sickening blackish blue all over. There were burn marks from where Bela had applied a freezing spray when he wrapped it. (The spray is supposed to be applied after the bandages go on, to cool the injured area, but he had sprayed it directly onto her skin.) I’ve never seen such a sad piece of meat. And Chelle said it looked good by then. This whole thing made me furious. My fourteen-year-old child was supposed to be under Bela’s care, yet he had not shown any interest whatsoever in her well-being. Worse, not a single official had stepped in to prevent Bela from competing her in an injured state. This showed me how alone we parents were in the gymnastics community. We could not count on the United States Gymnastics Federation to look out for our babies when we were not around. Bela punished Chelle for that trip to Japan. He didn’t speak a single word to her for at least six weeks. It was even worse than being picked on. When Chelle would go up to vault, he would turn his back and walk away. On bars, the same thing. He would not acknowledge her existence in any way. Bela is not much of an adult.
Just like before, Chelle would come home every few days and tell me she couldn’t go on, that she hated gymnastics. I gave her the same old speeches. “I’ve spent too much money on you, and by God you’re going to do it!” Why couldn’t I just walk away from Bela? How could I continue to send my baby into that dangerous place every day? There was only
one reason: the Olympics. I had seen how good Chelle could be, and every day I became more and more convinced that she was going to be a member of the 1988 Olympic team. And I had told all the other parents, in no uncertain terms, that Chelle was going. I couldn’t let them see me give up. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to let Bela see me give up. I wasn’t going to give him an excuse to call the Stacks quitters.
And again, there was the fact that Bela was the only proven Olympic coach within reach, and no matter what, I could not take the chance of a less experienced coach blowing it for Chelle. I saw myself as having no choice. As much as I hated him for his degrading treatment of Chelle, as much as I hated him for the injuries Chelle had incurred because of his neglect, I was convinced that I was stuck with him. So, despite the fact that we had to declare bancruptcy, losing our home, our car and everything else, we continued to pay Bela his $750 a month.
Chapter VI – DEALING WITH BELA
Bela’s group was an odd bunch in those years before the ’88 Olympics. The gym was dominated by Kristie Phillips who was ranked first in the country at the time. She had been there for a while during our first stint with Bela, so we were familiar with her. She was a tiny, wiry little girl with freckles and blonde hair, made to order for Bela. Kristie was an unbelievable gymnast and she was already famous in her own right. She had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1986 with the screaming headline “The Next Mary Lou!” Television crews and reporters were coming to the gym all the time, but Kristie was the only thing they were interested in. She was the chosen one, and she knew it.
The other major force in the gym was Phoebe Mills, who had moved down from Chicago by herself and was ranked second nationally. She was not as naturally talented as Kristie, or even Chelle, but she was an extremely hard worker, and that’s how she got where she was. You never saw Phoebe not working out. She even took dance lessons from an outside instructor in the spare time she could find.
Kristie and Phoebe were both Chelle’s age. They were good friends, and they wanted to be friends with Chelle, but they each wanted Chelle for themselves. She would have to be Kristie’s friend when she was with Kristie and Phoebe’s friend when she was with Phoebe, but they wouldn’t let her be both. They were not a threesome by any means. Both Kristie and Phoebe attended the Northland Christian Academy, a private school that was very accomodating to Karolyi gymnasts. Almost all of the girls went there, primarily because Mary Lou had, but Northland is the last place I wanted Chelle to go. It’s not a real school at all. As long as the girls got their bible classes in, they were given A’s across the board. The widely held notion that Karolyi girls are honor roll material is pure mythology.
No, I kept Chelle in public school. We got by with as little as two hours a day most of the time, and we supplemented her studies with an occasional correspondence course, but for the most part, Chelle got the same kind of education that any average kid would. There was another girl by the name of Tina Snowden who did the same. Tina’s mother and I were the only ones who worked hard at keeping our girls in public school. The other parents thought we were fools, and they said so often. Brandy Johnson came in February of 1988. She was the Junior National Champion then, and she and Chelle were already good friends. Brandy didn’t go to school at all. She lived with us for a month or so until her mother could move up from Florida to join her.
I had met Brandy’s mother Kathy only once before, at the Junior National Championships the previous summer, where Chelle had come in second to Brandy. I had tried to introduce myself to her in the hotel bar and congratulate her, but she didn’t want to talk. I learned later that it was because the people she was with were Brandy’s coaches, Kevin and Rita Brown, who were in the process of telling her that Brandy was stupid and talentless and would never be anybody. Sound familiar?
Brandy was not as consistent a gymnast as the rest of the girls. She had better skills and tricks and had more natural talent than probably any gymnast I’ve ever seen, but her workout ethic was lazy compared to Bela’s girls. Nobody in the country worked as hard as Bela’s girls, and it was a difficult transition for Brandy. She went from being the only gymnast in her class to being screamed at in the face like the rest of the commoners, and she didn’t handle it well at all. When Bela would scream at her, and sometimes he would be vicious, she would just throw up. That was Brandy’s way of dealing with Bela’s screaming fits.
Each of the girls had her own way of doing it. Chelle would stand there with her hands on her hips, rolling her eyes, which was the wrong approach. It only made him angrier. Kristie was the same way. Phoebe, on the other hand, would not do anything to bring his wrath down on herself. She would just stand there with a blank, pathetic street urchin expression on her face until he was done. He liked that.
Likewise, they each had their own way of dealing with Bela’s workout demands. If he told them to do something fifty times, for example, Phoebe would just go do it immediately, without question or complaint. She would work until she fell down dead if he told her to. Brandy, on the other hand, would do maybe thirty repetitions and then get sick. Then Chelle would come along and say, “Why fifty? That’s stupid!” And he’d throw her out.
That happened to Chelle often. She and Tina were a lot alike in that respect. Bela would yell and they’d get flustered and start missing. That would make him mad and he’d yell even more. This would get the girls even more flustered and they’d start missing everything. Then Bela would throw them out.
All of the girls had a lot of anger they needed to vent at Bela. Of course, they couldn’t do it to his face, but they managed to get their digs in. When Bela chewed Phoebe out, for example, she would wait until he turned around to drop her pitiful expression and give him the arm. The girls had a wide variety of such gestures. It was usually an extended tongue, but every once in a while it was a certain finger.
Bela didn’t see these things, but those of us observing sure did. And during the summer when the giant garage doors along the side of the gym were opened up to keep the place cool, people could even hear the girls muttering what Bela could go do with himself. The parents loved reporting these things to each other. “Oooh! Your daughter is in so much trouble! Bela’s gonna get her for that!” Terri Phillips, Kristie’s mother, was especially prompt with those reports. When a parent would walk in and ask how things were going, it was always, “Not good! He’s really on your daughter’s case! She doesn’t look good today!”
All of the parents played serious mind games with each other. Any opportunity to get an edge on someone else’s daughter was taken. I had learned very early on to avoid letting Chelle ride home with another parent because she would more often than not arrive home in tears. They would say things like, “Oh, Chelle you look so tired! The big meet is coming up, but you’re not ready are you? You poor thing!” And the other girls would do the same kinds of things whenever they got the chance. Nobody was on anybody’s side but their own.
Terri Phillips couldn’t have been more different from Kristie. She was huge, and she ruled the Karolyi parent community with an iron hand. When she would walk into the observation area, it was like the queen entering her throne room. If there was anyone sitting in her designated spot near the window, they would get up immediately in deference to her. Terri was a sweet woman that made you want to put your arms around her and hug her real tight, but when it came to gymnastics, you got the hell out of her way. It was Terri who got the angriest about Bela’s nice treatment of Chelle when we first returned. She complained loudly about it all the time, even after it stopped.
One time during that month, she (Brandy) said she was quitting. A couple of times. But who didn’t. She was always getting sick and throwing up across the floor. She was real nervous and high-strung, and Bela’s screaming . . . he got to where he screamed at her and called her names pretty bad, too. Phoebe was smart. She would get up on the bars real quickly, Chelle would chalk up too long, and he would get mad.
Chelle has always been afraid of gymnastics. A fear of the apparatus. A healthy fear. Especially beam. She would procrastinate, she had her own way. She’s obstinate, and they butted heads over that. She butts heads with all her coaches over that.
Rhonda (Faehn) would just continue to do it at her own slow pace and ignore him. She didn’t butt heads. And he ignored her right back.
Julissa (Gomez) had an immense stomach problem.
Brandy and Chelle wouldn’t mount bars. He would raise the bar. Chelle was 4’6″ and Brandy was only a half inch taller. Rhonda was 5’4″. He set the bars for Rhonda and didn’t change them. For compulsory bars, you have to jump over the low bar doing a half twist and grab the high bar. It was frightening for them. Brandy would just run under the bar. And Chelle would just stop. It made him so mad. He would threaten to chase them down the street and beat them if they wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t stand it. He threatened Chelle that if she didn’t catch the bar on her optional mount he wouldn’t move the board. She would break her foot that way. He was going to teach her to catch one way or the other. That’s sick. She caught, but what if she hadn’t. His method was like Gestapo method. Fear. It’s not want to do it, it’s fear of what he’s going to do to you. And these children don’t understand that the worst he can do to them is kick them off the team.
That’s where his hold over the parents comes in. He says if you don’t make your child do exactly what I say, and shut up and take it, we will kick her off the team. And there is fear there. They have moved here for him. All their eggs in one basket. What do you do, where do you go if you’re kicked out. Can’t afford to go anywhere else. And if you do, you’re branded a “gym-hopper.”
Kristy said (after failing to make the 1988 Olympic team), “Maybe somebody will get hurt.” It’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s honest. That’s how Bela teaches you to feel. “Maybe I’ll make the team or maybe she’ll get hurt. She broke her leg! Thank God!”
Sometimes I would pick Rhonda up and take her to gym. She was always saying, right in front of Chelle, “Oh, Mrs. Stack, she’s over-worked! She’s tired! Bela’s working her too hard! She’s gonna have a hard time! Oh, Chelle you look so bad!”
It’s humiliating to have to sit there and know your daughter is going through that. In morning workouts, he’d say, “Get out!! Get out!! You cannot come back until your father comes to see me!!”‘ And Frank would have to go up there, what’s the problem. “She has to pay more attention! She’s not raising her knees high enough!” It was always something stupid like that. “Chelle waht’d you do?” “Mother, I don’t know! It’s seven o’clock in the morning, he starts us running before our hamstrings are stretched out. He won’t let us stretch out. I’m not going to have my hamstring pulled again.”
She knew that running cold is bad. He would run them for 45 minutes and start immediately, “raise your knees to your chest!” That’s how hamstrings pull. But he wouldn’t listen. You can’t teach or tell him anything. They were beat up. Like old ladies. Every morning at seven o’clock they’d have to be there and run in a circle for 45 minutes. While he stood there and yelled like a dictator. They’d run backwards, forwards, Raise your knees up! Up to your chests! And it hurt. It would be 30 degrees! He never came early to turn the heat on. It was cold in that metal building.
Chelle has been a wonderful child in that no matter how much she wanted to quit, every morning she would get up. “If you don’t want to go to gym today, you call. I’m not calling. I’m scared to call him. You call him.” And Chelle wouldn’t call him. You had to be dying.
I’ve even had Marta call me from the ranch and say, “Carrol I think Chelle just wants to miss today. She called and said she’s sick. You make her come! She has to be here!” And I’d call Chelle up and say, “Get your butt in the gym! They’re calling me!”
After Kristie made that comment about somebody getting hurt, they were frightened to death. Nobody wanted to have Kristie go before them because the one who goes first sets the board. They didn’t want Kristie doing it! Rhonda was older than the others, and she just went home and slept. No school either.
“She doesn’t pay attention! She makes faces at me! I’m losing control of the whole group!” How can a 14-year-old cause him to lose control? “Did you make faces?” “Only little ones.” She forgot there was a whole wall of mirrors. It was wrong but it kept her sane. It kept her from having eating disorders. Julissa lingered in a coma for three years before finally dying in 1991. During that time, Chelle and all other gymnasts in the area were strictly forbidden by the USGF from visiting her under any circumstances. She died alone. Any of our daughters could have suffered Julissa’s fate at any moment, but although her accident put the fear of God into many of us . . .
Chapter VII – PLAYING THE POLITICS
Up until this time, we didn’t really know what gymnastics was all about. We were only into it enough to know what Chelle and her little group were doing. We were impressed with the bigger girls, but we didn’t understand what an Elite gymnast was, what they did, how the competitions were arranged. The U. S. Gymnastics Federation doesn’t give this information away, so we had to learn all these things for ourselves. By the time we knew what we were doing, we had already been doing it for some time. It kind of sucked us in. The first big thing I had to learn about the U. S. Gymnastics Federation was that it does not promote fair play. Politics is what they are interested in. Gymnastics has no definite “cross the finish line first” way of determining who the winner is, like swimming or track-and-field. This means that the entire sport revolves around judges, and if the judges don’t like you, you’re screwed.
These politics pervade all aspects and all levels of life in gymnastics. Even in local, inconsequential meets, I used to see little girls get scores that were higher or lower than they deserved. The rule books are so complicated that the judges can always find some reason to explain whatever score they’ve given, and an experienced judge can intimidate a novice judge into changing her score to a more politically acceptable one. Most often, though, the judges use transparent excuses to explain away why they have given a questionable score. The ones I’ve heard most often are: “She doesn’t have the right body type,” which actually means “she’s too fat” or “she’s not a white girl;” and the one that really gets me, “We know she’s capable of winning the meet,” which really means “Her parents and her coach are politically favored and you’re not.”
Chelle never had trouble with these things until she got into the higher levels of competition, and it got real bad real fast. At the Western Nationals that Chelle did so poorly at in 1986, I asked Jack Thomas what Chelle’s chances were. He said, “We might as well go home. Brandy Johnson has been chosen to win this meet.” I though he was exaggerating at the time, but I soon learned differently.
At the 1987 Junior National Championships where Chelle came in second to Brandy, I got my first real taste of hardball politics. It was the last event of the competition. Chelle and Brandy were almost tied, and each of them were getting up on their worst events, beam for Chelle and bars for Brandy. Chelle did a pretty good routine, Brandy didn’t do very well. Chelle finished first, but instead of giving her a score immediately, her judges turned around in their chairs and watched Brandy finish her routine. Then they waited for Brandy’s score to come up before they gave Chelle a score of her own. That’s not how the game is supposed to go.
When they finally gave Chelle a score, it was precisely what she needed to stay in second place. When they saw this, Bela and Marta started yelling and screaming, (which they do anyway) but the officials wouldn’t let them file a protest. Bela was yelling right in the head judge’s face and she just ignored him. They told him the meet was over. Too bad. Tough luck. That was it. Afterwards, an influential judge named Audrey Schweyer who had been on Chelle’s judging panel said, “I wouldn’t give that kid more than a 9.0 on beam no matter what she does. I don’t like the way she does it.” She admitted right there to exercising bias in the course of her duties. It’s not supposed to have anything to do with how much a judge “likes” it, it’s supposed to be whether the girls can do the skills or not. But that would be true only in a perfect world. In the real world, Brandy had been pre-chosen to win. I was livid, but I couldn’t say a word. Parents aren’t allowed to file complaints. If you raise a stink and file one anyway, you can just consider your daughter’s career over and done with. The only thing that parents can do is complain to their coach, but the coaches always respond the same way.
They don’t say, “We have to get back in the gym and do better,” they say, “We have to get judge so-and-so on our side.” Bribery is what they’re talking about. (When I say bribery, I mean back-scratching.)
Dianne Durham didn’t get her invitation to the American Cup. Calvinita (her mother) was saying it was because she’s black. I didn’t believe her, I thought it was just sour grapes. But then, in 1988 when Chelle went to the American Cup, I learned later that Chelle had not been invited, that Bela had withheld Rhonda Faehn’s invitation because he wanted Chelle to go. I gather that’s how Mary Lou got invited to the American Cup her first time. The USGF sent the invitations to the coaches, not the gymnasts.
Mary Lou and Dianne were supposed to go to the World Championships one year before the Olympics and Bela put out this horrible report that they were injured. There was nothing wrong with them. And the USGF went along with it. They don’t require anything in writing. But that wouldn’t matter anyway because Bela can pay anybody, especially doctors, to give him what he wants. I always knew the judging was funny. Mary Lou 9.9 with 3 steps on vault. It’s always, “We know she’s capable of doing it.” They don’t say that in swimming.
Bela was telling Chelle that she was going to get invited to the America Cup. Before she got her invitation. He knew it was going to happen. She got it just a couple of weeks before the competition, and those invitations go out months in advance. That meant that somebody had gotten hurt and scratched to make room for Chelle. But nobody was hurt.
$40 a pop for verifications, except Elites. Sharon Weber always came down. She’s always the most expensive.
Jackie Fie (the queen judge) was coming to town. Bela told us we had to get her a gift. Why we had to do it, I don’t know. I thought it was wrong, and I said so. She never gave us birthday gifts. It was bribery. They bought her a 14K gold bracelet. It hit us parents for about $50 apiece. We didn’t have that kind of money to throw away, especially when we weren’t there when Bela gave it to her. Marta and Bela got the brownie points, and we paid for them. And Bela’s attitude was that we should have gotten her something “nicer.” Chelle didn’t get anything out of it. I certainly wouldn’t have done it after the Olympics.
I never made of habit of getting to know the judges, I didn’t think that was my place. Phoebe’s mother and Brandy’s mother knew everybody. I was wrong. I didn’t play the game right. I didn’t play it at all. You’ve got to sweet-talk and buy judges or you don’t get the scores. I spoke to Audrey Schweyer once when Chelle was switching gyms and she was pushing the gym in her area of the country. The ones that I’m sure she gets the most money from.
Banquet in Houston, 1988. I just wanted to see what was going on. One of the girls got so drunk she had to be carried out. Alcohol was flowing freely. Rick Newman was so drunk, he couldn’t tell which way was up. The boys and the coaches had beer and wine, and they were giving it to the little girls. A lot of coaches have “things” for their girls. Rick especially. Whether any of them have ever done anything about it, I don’t know. I don’t think I’d want to know. It was just a big party. Kristy Krafft (a coach from Oklahoma) was the worst I’ve ever seen. Every meet she’s drunk. This is the reason coaches go to meets, so they can get real drunk. The parents too.
The coaches say, “Go to our room and don’t you move.” The girls haven’t eaten since 2 o’clock. If the meet starts at six, you eat at two, you get there at three for an hour of stretching, from five to six you have workout, six to seven you have timed warm-ups. Then you have the meet for three or four hours. You come back to the hotel, they’re not going to feed you. Bela didn’t want you seeing or touching his kids, they go to their room. They don’t eat. They’re machines. Long periods without eating. Some of the other coaches would let their girls carry a coke or a snack. But you do not ever EVER put anything in your mouth in front of Bela. You’re gonna get fat. He sees you instantly blow up six pounds. He makes half his kids function on salads. That’s all they can have when they’re out on a meet with him is salads. One a day. Chelle would run out of gas all the time. You could see it. She couldn’t pull the last part off. Chelle was big eater, which Bela hated, and he would say she had a “watermelon stomach!” She didn’t have an ounce of fat. But she had a little girl belly. Like all little girls do. That bothered him. He constantly told her she looked like a spider. A belly with legs and arms sticking out. She hated him for that.
Chelle would report that kind of thing nightly. Or I would ask what he said today, and she say, “Same stuff he always says.” “Y’all were lined up for a long time. What was he saying?.” “Well, he didn’t pick on me tonight. He went off on somebody else.” They would stand there for forty or forty-five minutes, at attention in line, while he took off on somebody about how fat they were, how stupid they were. They couldn’t look around, they watched him the whole time. Humiliation. The closer it got to a meet, the worse it got. He had the proven track record. You go somewhere else and you can’t get the judging. He can get you into meets that you can’t get into. He has pull. And he does teach discipline. I didn’t know at the time how much fear he employed. Well, yes I did. But I knew he had results. At the time, the end justified the means. I was no different than anybody else. Our girls made the Olympic team and Seagram’s was paying for one parent of every single Olympian to go to Seoul. USGF said, “Oh, no. We’re not going to be represented by alcohol.” They just told us we couldn’t accept their money. “We want to go see our daughters in Korea.” “No. Sorry.” Mike Jacki (the director) said no way. We had to get irate. We wanted to go to the Olympics! Finally they came up with their own sponsorship program. USGF gave each family $4500, which took both me and Frank over there. But it only happened because we raised such a stink. They didn’t want us over there. I don’t understand their rhymes or reasoning.
They put on a big show up front. Mike Jacki was having to explain himself on television about the limousines and parties.
He just said they’re not going on.
The trust fund jeopardized college scholarships. Chelle was only fourteen. I just needed to pay Bela’s gym bills. Kathy Johnson and I decided that Chelle and Brandy would room together whenever they travelled together. Because they didn’t drink. The girls aren’t watched after dark. They go where they want with who they want. Nobody checks on them. American Cup was always the worst. The banquet would let out at 1 AM or so, and nobody saw that the girls got back to their rooms. The coaches went out drinking. Bela and Marta were always out hobnobbing with judges.
But Bela did do something on Chelle’s first day back that made us all a little angry. He removed the high-scoring tricks from her floor exercise that we were so proud of. Jack Thomas had taught her . . . But Bela took one look at it and said, “Looks like hell. Get rid of it.” Nobody is allowed to do tricks that Bela’s chosen stars aren’t doing, and however much he seemed to like her at that time, Chelle was not his chosen star.
Kathy Johnson went to the Chiunichi Cup, and got to be a part of the team. I don’t know how she got to go. I never got to go to any of the meets. I’ve never figured out how you do that. She took care of Chelle. Bela got mad at her cause she broke her foot. he wouldn’t feed her or anything. He told her to go to her room and stay. Kathy would take her to Kentucky fried chicken or something.
It was just as humiliating for me to sit there knowing what Chelle was being put through. I took some comfort out of the fact that, no matter how much they postured and bragged, the other parents were just as miserable. It was our inability to admit this to each other that allowed us to let it go on.