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They Made His Day : After 3 1/2 Years, U.S. Pistol Coach Gets His Family Back

Times Staff Writer

Another interminable day drags on without mercy, and Dan Iuga is more than ready to leave the dark and dusty ranges and head home to his Corona apartment.

A meeting, at which Iuga has just won approval for a new selection procedure for the U.S. national pistol team, has lasted well over an hour. After that, he still has no rest, as competitors approach him individually and grill him about bureaucratic details for another 30 minutes or so.

Nearly two hours later, the room is beginning to grow gloomy. Scattered lights hang dimly overhead but are almost useless.

Dan Iuga is weary. He steals several furtive glances at his watch. He has been describing, or at least attempting to describe, what it meant to be separated by politics from his wife and two daughters for 3 1/2 years. Now, he wants to leave, to join the family that for so many restless nights he longed to have join him.

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“I can’t tell you how much I suffered being separated from them,” he said, explaining that the long hours he keeps as the national pistol coach still prevent him from being with his wife and daughters as much as he would prefer.

Finally, he prepares to leave the Prado Tiro Range, the site of the U.S. national shooting championships, which will last another week. He drives the short distance to his home, where his family awaits him. He is long overdue, but they will understand. His wife Nina and daughters Laura and Ileana know how he felt when they were so long overdue.

When Iuga made the fateful decision to relinquish his position as national coach of the Romanian team and to defect from the country, he was unaware of the complete nature of the risk. He didn’t realize it was a gamble that was in neither his nor his family’s hands. The dice belonged to the Romanian government. And it became a 3 1/2-year war of nerves that nearly ruined him.

In 1981, Iuga became disillusioned with what he considered ironclad constraints placed upon him in Romania. He had been a member of the national shooting team for 16 years. He had been a three-time Olympian and had won a silver medal in free pistol in the 1972 Olympics. As the national coach he had very definite ideas about how to run his team and no interest in listening to advice from government officials. He didn’t tell them what the proper way to govern was; they shouldn’t tell him about the proper way to coach.

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There was hardly a choice in the matter. It was either include in your coaching discussions of communist principles, or else. Don’t take your best shooters out of the country for international matches because they might defect, or suffer the consequences.

And so he left.

He was invited to a shooting meeting in West Germany and decided to extend the visit. Iuga stayed in West Germany for almost a year and a half, working as a consultant in a pistol factory in Ulm, coaching a club team. He never went back to Romania.

“I was not happy in my work,” he says of the trying times in his homeland. “I could not perform the way I would have liked. It’s years and years of work, you have the team built, and you have to leave home someone who is the base of your team and take someone not as good. You feel you work in vain. It’s like you’re aiming to shoot and someone hits your hand.”

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The fact that he had been made a member of the Communist Party in 1975 because of his status as an elite athlete had no effect on his views. Sports was sports, politics was politics.

“I have a technical mind,” he says. “For me, one and one is two. In politics, sometimes one and one is three, or something else. One of the duties of my job would have been to promote Communism. That made my work impossible. If you don’t follow the political line, it’s difficult to perform your job and get advanced in your career.”

In May 1982, Terry Anderson, then the national coach of the U.S. pistol team, learned of Iuga’s situation. He had met him in 1974, knew of his outstanding reputation and became determined to bring him to the United States in an attempt to improve the American team. Out of his own pocket, Anderson paid for Iuga’s plane ticket, brought him over temporarily to a training clinic at Ft. Benning, Ga., and eventually, in February 1983, landed Iuga the job that he had held as coach of the national team in West Palm Beach, Fla.

In May 1984, the national team moved its headquarters to the Chino Valley. Here, the facilities were far superior to those in Florida. It was a convenient location to train for the Olympics. It was, in fact, the Olympic shooting venue.

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Things seemed to be progressing smoothly for Dan Iuga. Except for one small thing. His family was still half a world away.

Said Iuga: “I thought it would be difficult, but I didn’t expect it to be so difficult. They were a little more cruel than I would have expected. I never thought it would last 3 1/2 years.”

The Romanian government closed its eyes to the fact that Nina, Laura and Ileana had a legal right to join Iuga. It closed its ears to the seemingly endless string of pleas from Iuga’s wife and from U.S. officials.

Letters and phone calls were all that linked Iuga with his family. His phone bills generally were several hundred dollars a month. He managed to maintain enough emotional stamina to coach his team, but he could not help but bring his despair with him to the range each day.

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Iuga’s wife, often distraught and once near suicide, could not comprehend what was happening, and it made far less sense to his daughters. When he defected, Laura was 6 and Ileana was 5. Suddenly, without explanation, their father no longer lived with them. Last summer, Ruby Fox, one of Iuga’s pupils, won a silver medal at the Olympics. It was a time for celebration. But for Iuga, the moment was bittersweet, though he may not have given such an impression outwardly. While all the nations participating in the Games gathered in Los Angeles supposedly in the spirit of international good will, international politics had long since left a vile taste in his mouth. No matter how he tried, he was unable to rid himself of the vulgar sensation that was slowly poisoning him.

During the first week of last March, his wife reached the absolute limit of desperation. Her only recourse was to go on a hunger strike. Her husband’s only recourse was to stop eating, too.

It lasted about 10 days. Iuga survived on two to three quarts of mineral water a day and nothing else. He lost about 15 pounds but kept his hope.

“He felt a very strong obligation that he had to suffer as much as she did,” said Gary Anderson, executive director of the National Rifle Assn.

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Finally, his wife was asked to pay the required fees for exit visas for her and the children. Nina Iuga was assured a passport would be given her. Dan Iuga had grown too cynical to begin a complete celebration.

On April 24, it happened. He left Mexico City, where his team was competing in a match, and arrived at New York’s Kennedy Airport for the reunion.

To this day, it is a chore for Nina Iuga to summarize what happened at that moment, to capture in a few words 3 1/2 years of bitterness and despair suddenly being washed away with one look at a familiar face.

“It was so many things,” she says. “We were all together. We were all free.”

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Her husband remembers it in precisely the same terms.

“It was really strange,” he says. “We couldn’t speak too much. After so many years, the words don’t have importance. You just feel everything. It was like we were born again.”

Says Iuga: “I can now laugh about things. It’s a really pure laugh, a relaxing laugh. Other times it was forced. This is natural and free.”


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