Biggest gymnastics upset: naming Martha Karolyi Plenty of messages seen in choice of women's coach

July 02, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Choosing the U.S. Olympic team for women's gymnastics certainly had its share of politics, if not intrigue. And choosing the team's coach after the Olympic trials ended Sunday night at Boston's FleetCenter had more of both.

In the 90 minutes that USA Gymnastics officials spent behind closed doors, rumors reverberated through the arena.

Someone said he saw Bela Karolyi storm out of the meeting and leave the building in a huff. Someone else heard that Steve Nunno was going to pull Shannon Miller out of Atlanta if he did not get the head coaching job.

"Will they send up white puffs of smoke when they make a decision?" a spokesperson for USA Gymnastics was asked.

There were no white puffs, but the announcement that Bela's wife, Martha, would be the team's head coach was certainly viewed as a conciliatory gesture toward the man who coached the women's team at the previous two Olympics.

It was also an indication that the coaching combination of Bela Karolyi and Mary Lee Tracy, who was named Martha Karolyi's assistant, did not work out well last November at the world championships in Sabae, Japan.

Before the shocking choice was announced early yesterday morning -- "I'm sure you are all surprised -- I am, too," Martha Karolyi said at a news conference -- Bela Karolyi had called last year's trip to Japan "the worst coaching experience of my life."

Though he never attributed it directly to Tracy, their conflicting philosophies about life and gymnastics were apparent. Karolyi coaches by intimidation, Tracy by encouragement.

"Extremely different coaching mentality," Karolyi conceded after the optionals Sunday night.

For her part, Tracy was diplomatic about her relationship with Bela Karolyi.

"I really didn't know Bela before, since he had retired [after the 1992 Olympics] and he didn't know me," said Tracy, who, like Karolyi, had two of her club members from Cincinnati make the team. "It was OK. It wasn't great."

Another coach, Lori Forrester of the Colorado Aerials, said, "Mary Lee did all the work in Japan."

Tracy said that it really doesn't matter who the coaches are, since this year's women's team has three members from the 1992 Olympic team that won a bronze medal in Barcelona, Spain, and all seven of its members have international experience.

"These girls have their own reputation internationally," said Tracy. "They will be able to get scores on their own."

Bela Karolyi said this could be the best U.S. women's team in history.

On paper, it already is. It has a former world champion in Miller and a likely future one in Dominique Moceanu, the 14-year-old coached by Karolyi since she was 9 1/2 . The average age of team members, including Moceanu, is nearly 18. Three will be going to college after Atlanta: Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow to Stanford, Kerri Strug to UCLA.

"It's better than 1984, a lot better than 1988 and better than 1992," said Bela Karolyi.

Perhaps the only thing that could prevent the U.S. team from medaling is meddling, namely by Bela Karolyi. Meanwhile, USA Gymnastics officials were trying to downplay any burgeoning controversy involving the Karolyis or the fact that two women would coach the team for the first time in Olympic history.

"We did not set out to get two women," said USA Gymnastics president Kathy Scanlan. "But, of course, to have a woman head our team is a sign of continued progress by women in sports."

As for Bela Karolyi not being named head coach, Martha Karolyi, who has a tremendous amount of respect herself in the international gymnastics community, said it came down to injured star Moceanu, who missed the trials because of a stress fracture in her leg and returns to the gym this week in Houston.

"Dominique needs real special attention," said Martha Karolyi. "Bela would be the best person to handle that."

Sounds like a lot of white smoke.

Last best shot?

Theresa Kulikowski has a chance of being on the 2000 Olympic team, but at 16 her best shot might have passed here this weekend. Kulikowski finished eighth and needs an injury -- certainly within the realm of possibility given Moceanu and Miller's situations -- to go to Atlanta as anything more than an alternate.

Asked whether she thought it was fair that neither Moceanu nor Miller had to compete in the trials, yet still made the team, Kulikowski said: "I don't know if it's fair they didn't compete. That's how you're supposed to get to the Olympics. I know they're going to be a great asset to the team, but I don't know how I feel about them not competing here."

Cuban defections

The defection of two members of the Cuban boxing team over the weekend in Mexico will certainly make Cuban government officials think about who to send to the Olympics. Not only in boxing, a sport the Cubans dominated with seven golds in Barcelona, but in baseball.

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