For Americans it began with Olga Korbut in 1972. When the petite, pig-tailed Soviet gymnast won three Olympic gold medals, Americans en masse took note of gymnastics for the first time.
By 1976, when the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci won perfect 10s in Olympic competition, the sport had grabbed more than just the superficial attention of Americans. Countless young girls wanted to grow up to be like Nadia.
And when Comaneci's coach, Bela Karolyi, defected to the United States and trained an American, Mary Lou Retton, who went on to fame and fortune and a box of Wheaties by capturing the 1984 Olympic gold medal as best overall women's gymnast, the sport became irrevocably established in the United States.
Still, it is gymnasts from Romania, from the new states that made up the Soviet Union and most recently from China who continue to dominate the sport. Those Americans who excel often come from Karolyi's gym in Houston, suggesting that there must be something to the Romanian method of teaching gymnastics.
With that in mind, Westchester Gymnastics and Dance in Hawthorne, N.Y., has hired Augustina Badea, a 20-year-old gymnast and coach from Romania. For the next three years -- the length of her visa -- Badea will be teaching toddlers as well as teen-agers, those taking gymnastics just for fun and those who have competitive goals. Ultimately, said Al Fleming, owner and director of the gym, she will select a few promising students for intensive coaching and training for national competition. The idea is to try to do in Westchester County what Bela Karolyi has done in Houston.
Badea has competed in and won numerous Romanian and international competitions, including two world championships, during 10 years of competition. She was an alternate to the 1988 Romanian Olympic team. She trained at Romania's top gymnastics school, Clubul Sportiv II in Bucharest, where she was coached by Comaneci. Badea was a coach there and in Germany before coming to the United States in November.
Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Badea. It was done with the help of a translator provided by Westchester Gymnastics and Dance because Badea understands only a little English. She teaches primarily by demonstration.
Q: At what age did you start gymnastics?
A: When I was 5. I was influenced by Nadia Comaneci when I watched Nadia on television and she won the perfect 10s. I began by taking gymnastics two times a week. I began competing at 6.
Q: Why did you want to be a gymnast? For the fame or for the excitement?
A: For both, In Romania, it is a big prestigious thing to be a gymnast.
Q: Do you love gymnastics or is it a job?
A: I love it because I began with it and I like it. It pleases me.
Q: Was it a big disappointment to you not to go to the Olympics? Is that dream over now that you are, perhaps, too old?
A: It was a big disappointment, but I would still like to try. I don't think I'm too old.
Q: What is your impression of gymnastics in the United States?
A: With Bela Karolyi, they have really made a lot of progress. He was Nadia's coach, and you could see what Nadia Comaneci did. He has made improvements with the American team, yes.
Q: Is your style similar to or different from Bela Karolyi's?
A: Perhaps different. He was in Nadia's time. Now things have changed. There is more difficulty involved now.
Q: Could Olga Korbut have competed today as well as she did in 1972?
A: I don't think that if she did the same routines, she would have gotten the 10s she got then.
Q: If someone is serious about gymnastics, is it necessary to start as early as age 5?
A: Four or 5 years old is about the best age to start.
Q: Are a person's bones strong enough at that age?
A: With gradual conditioning they will be OK.
Q: What should a person look for in a gymnastics teacher?
JTC A: The more disciplined, the better, but it shouldn't be too hard right away.
Q: We see many gymnasts with similar petite frames. Is that important? Does it give a woman gymnast an edge?
A: To have a small stature is the best way to be built. When I was 14, I had my best stature. I was much smaller than today.
Q: Was it hard work to keep yourself so tiny then?
A: Yes, definitely. There were some moments when I didn't want to do it.
Q: Is there a preferred build for male gymnasts as well?
A: Through a man's work, he will develop the muscles. No special build is needed to begin.
Q: In the United States, we often hear of the parent, often the mother, behind the scenes, pushing the child on. How do you deal with parents who are perhaps too pushy about their child's talent?
A: Sometimes it happened in Romania as well. It's not a good thing to be a stage mother.
Q: Here in the United States, are you training some people who might be able to compete at some future Olympic level?
A: There are some with talent here, but not if they come only two days a week. They will not get enough preparation for it. Someone who is serious should do it at least five days a week, perhaps seven.
Q: In the aftermath of the Romanian revolution two years ago, have things changed in Romanian gymnastics? It has been said that there is less money for government support of such fields.
A: Before the revolution, the team trained together in Transylvania. After the revolution, all the children went home and trained in their homes and separate gyms. Now they've come back together again. Certainly it's better that they're back together. But even before the revolution, there were problems with money. There is no money now, and there was no money then.