Okino is survivor among women gymnasts Oft-injured American may be success story BARCELONA '92

July 26, 1992|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Staff Writer

BARCELONA SPAIN — BARCELONA, Spain -- She has survived the gunfire at Entebbe and the governments of a dictator and communism. Her parents are immigrants, who left her in Romania for the freedom of America and later borrowed $20,000 to send her to Bela's Gym in Houston.

American gymnast Betty Okino could become one of the 1992 Summer Games' biggest success stories, but she still has to complete the final chapter:

Can Okino overcome the rash of injuries that set her back in the last year to win a medal? Competition begins today.

"I have come a long way in such a short time," said Okino, 17, of Elmhurst, Ill. "My goal was to make this team. Now that I'm here, I want to win a medal. Nothing less."

"A lot of people don't know I'm on this team," Okino said. "They have forgotten about me. A lot of the spotlight goes to Kim Zmeskal. But I like that. That takes all the pressure off me. I feel as good now as when I won the America's Cup in 1991."

Here's a refresher course on Okino: From 1990 through 1991 she was one of premier gymnasts in America, even having a move on the beam -- a triple pirouette -- named because of her. She placed second in the all-around at the 1991 World Championship Team Trials and won the all-around, vault and uneven bars at the 1991 McDonald's American Cup.

They loved her in Europe. Her style was traditional. She was tall (5 feet 1) and big (91 pounds) and her big, brown eyes and sweetness offset her intensity. Her movements were likened more to ballet than to the short and compact Americans, who relied more on power.

In Europe, where she once placed second in the all-arounds of the Arthur Gander Memorial in Switzerland and the Recontre Beaucaire in France during 1990, there were whispers of her being another Nadia Comaneci.

And one of those doing the whispering was Bela Karolyi, the sport's best-known coach.

It never happened.

In April 1991, everything started to come apart. She broke her right

elbow. Then, in January, Okino pulled bone away from the tendon in her right knee. A pin was surgically inserted to hold them together.

Okino, though, still managed to train and later won a silver medal on the uneven bars at the World Championships in Paris last April.

But it proved costly. Because she was favoring her knee on landings, Okino put extra stress on her back, causing fractures to the fourth lumbar vertebra.

Doctors warned her to take time off or risk a slight chance of paralysis. Okino was skeptical, but heeded the advice. She skipped the U.S. Championships in May and was a no-show at Olympic Trials in June.

An Olympic team berth became remote.

Quitting became an option.

"Quitting did cross my mind several times, but not to the point where I was real serious," said Okino, who is now 5-4 after growing three inches in one year. "It's just that I kept getting injured. Some people said my back problems came from the rigors of the sport, that I outgrew it. I became real frustrated. The only thing that kept me going was that I always wanted to make an Olympic team. I've been drawing those Olympic rings since I was about four."

Under the Olympic selection rules of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, Okino successfully petitioned to become a member of the eight-member training squad in Tampa, Fla., last month. It was there that Okino, working out for less than three weeks, impressed a panel of seven coaches enough to be named to the team.

"I had not slept nights in about three weeks," Okino said. "Even on the night they held their meeting to make the decision, they didn't call me until the next morning. I had to learn how I made the team from watching the news. It was a huge relief, especially after you have worked so hard for four years."

Okino and her family have had a tough life. She was only a year old when Israeli commandos, less than one mile from the Okino household, opened fired at Entebbe and rescued 97 of 100 passengers who were previously held hostage for a week by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Okino's father, Francis, a native Ugandan, always feared Amin because he persecuted northerners and Catholics. Francis Okino was both. Amin also hated whites, and Okino's mother, Aurelia, is Romanian. Three months after the raid, Francis Okino received a grant to study for his master's degree at the University of Minnesota.

Aurelia took Betty and son Eddy home to stay with her mother in Romania. Three weeks later some of Amin's army broke though the Okino's roof with orders to kill them.

"Lucky, huh," Betty Okino said.

Aurelia Okino later had problems in Romania under the communist rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. She later joined her husband in Minnesota, leaving the two children with her mother in Romania. It wasn't until Betty Okino was 2 1/2 that her parents brought the children to America.

It was in America that Betty Okino started to excel in gymnastics. Finally, in November 1989, the Okinos raised enough money to send Betty to Karolyi's gym.

"At first, Betty just took a modest place in the group, never excelling at anything, just taking her turn," Karolyi said. "But she had unusually rapid improvement. Now she is smooth and consistent, but not dramatic. This could be big for her in Barcelona."

"She had a broken back," Zmeskal said. "It was like, there was no way she was going to be ready. She is really strong mentally. It's amazing. She sort of makes me feel bad. I'm at practice, my leg is hurt and I'm like, "Oh, God, she has a broken back. Why am I complaining?' "

Okino said: "The European judges do score me a little higher than the American judges. Before Mary Lou Retton, gymnasts were taller, like I am. The Europeans haven't forgotten. With a few breaks, I could do very well here. I'm very confident."

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