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BELA’S BELLES : Karolyi Has a New Group of Exciting Gymnasts to Work With at Festival

Times Staff Writer

The future stars of American women’s gymnastics sat at a long table in Myriad Arena Thursday, giggling and adjusting their pony tails. Six of them sat on three metal folding chairs. Their futures may be big, but these athletes are not.

The smallest, and best, is Kim Zmeskal, who is 4 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 65 pounds. She is 13. The biggest, but not the worst, is Kelly Pitzen, who is 4-10 and 86 pounds. She is also 13.

Seated at the end of the table is Bela Karolyi, who is as big and tall as any two of the gymnasts. He is also the most recognizable figure in the sport--perhaps even as widely known as Mary Lou Retton, whom Karolyi coached to an Olympic gold medal in 1984.

Karolyi met with reporters at the U.S. Olympic Festival Thursday to do what he has done so well in past years--explain in his wonderfully fractured English why his young gymnasts will soon take over the world. And make us forget Retton.

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“I’m proud of them. Probably I am getting the most excited and proud as ever I am,” Karolyi said, a hint of Houston twang blending with his thick native Romanian accent. “These kids are coming in what know already what is hard work. These people grew up in the gym. They grew up watching the big ones. They grew up watching Kristie (Phillips) and Phoebe (Mills) and they see the rivalry. They compete every day.”

Karolyi was introducing a new generation of gymnasts because the last generation, teen-agers still, has left his fold.

Phillips, who was touted as the new Retton--a burden each new American female star must bear--retired after she failed to make the Olympic team in 1988.

Mills, who tied for a bronze medal on the balance beam in the 1988 Olympics, quit recently, saying she wanted to try to live a normal life.

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Brandy Johnson, who was 10th in the all-around at Seoul, has moved back to Florida to be with her family and former coach.

Another Olympian, Chelle Stack, is in Southern California, training with Don Peters.

Given this cycle, and the short shelf life of a world-class gymnast, such coming-out parties as this have become routine in the sport. The competition here will serve as the Junior National Championships and by most counts, the 1992 Olympic team will likely be chosen from among the 24 girls competing here.

Which brings us back to Karolyi. His six gymnasts, a group being called Karolyi’s Six Pack, had taken six of the top seven places after the compulsory competition Thursday.

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It is his youngest but most highly-skilled group. All six are enrolled in Karolyi’s gymnastics program in Houston, where they average 45-hour weeks in the gym. They are classified as “elite” in Karolyi’s system, which has hundreds of students, and as such are the only gymnasts he works with personally.

Karolyi said this generation of gymnasts may represent the trickle down from Retton’s success. They have learned the lesson of hard work. And, even as 11- and 12-year-olds, they know something of the ruthlessness of competition.

“These little ones are much stronger and more dedicated and have a better understanding of high performance,” he said. “They are going to come as a strong bulldozer behind the seniors we have. These kids don’t have any kind of consideration for nobody. No one in the world. They don’t care. They want to win. If you stand still, you will get bulldozed.

“I love it when I see the rivalry. I love to see the little ones chewing their little bottoms. No mommy or daddy can push them. They are so competitive. They want to eat each other, they want to eat the world. They have no consideration.”

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These are not monsters he’s talking about, despite his colorful imagery. Tenacity is a characteristic that Karolyi prizes in his pupils, for it is that stubbornness that may pull a gymnast out of a dicey spot in a program.

Listen to what he has to say about Zmeskal, who is first after the first day of competition: “You will see her in the optionals. She is like a wild animal. Biting, catching, flying. Bam! Pow! It is a kind of speed. You will see her, it is a God-given gift.”

And these gifted gymnasts still live the life of nomads. Richard Scherr, whose daughter Amy has been with Karolyi since 1987, has moved with his wife to Houston. Their two teen-age sons are living in the family’s house in Cincinnati. Scherr estimates that it costs $25,000 a year just to maintain two residences. But like many parents whose family is split by this sport, Scherr says it is all worth it.

“We all do lots of things to try to reach the goals we want in life,” he said. “Amy got into this because she wanted to be in the 1992 Olympics. She has a real shot at it. Why shouldn’t I help her?”

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Helen Grivich, whose daughter Hillary moved up to Karolyi’s elite group only two weeks ago, drives an hour each way to get to his gym. Gym fees and travel cost more than $8,000 a year. And Hillary, who just turned 12, spends three nights a week with a woman in North Houston so she can make the early morning workouts. That costs the Grivich family $1,200 a year.

“People think we push our kids,” Grivich said. “No way. Hillary told me, ‘I know you want me to give this up, but I’m not going to.’ This is what she wants. My husband is a poet. He hates this. Do you know anyone who buys poetry? I don’t. Like everyone else, we have jobs that can be flexible for our kids’ schedule.”

Hillary Grivich, as is the case with almost all serious gymnasts at Karolyi’s, does not attend public school. She has been educated at home and skipped two grades--she’s in the ninth grade.

The sacrifice and self-discipline are constants. So is Karolyi. These girls are merely the latest in a long line.

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“They are in kindergarten now,” Karolyi said. “But these kindergartners will grow into the 1992 Olympic team. I promise this.”


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