Gymnasts on Move to Seek Coaching

By Frank Litsky

New York Times, March 16, 2984   Top-level gymnasts, with their grace and flow and acrobatic ability, seemingly perform effortlessly, without a care in the world.  In truth, behind the glamour lies an undercurrent of tension common to the world-class level of many sports.

For example, Mary Lou Retton, Dianne Durham, Julianne McNamara and Kathy Johnson are America's four best female gymnasts.  They are among the 36 men and women from 14 nations who will compete in the McDonald's American Cup championships tomorrow and Sunday in Madison Square Garden.  Consider these brief biographies:

Mary Lou Retton -- 16 years old; hometown Fairmont W. Va.; lives and trains in Houston.

Dianne Durham -- 15 years old; hometown Gary, Ind.; until a month ago lived in Houston and trained there with Miss Retton and others; now lives and trains in Fort Worth, Tex.

Julianne McNamara -- 18 years old; hometown Danville, Calif.; until a month ago lived in Huntington Beach, Calif. and trained there with Miss Johnson and others; now lives in Houston and trains there with Miss Retton and others.

Kathy Johnson -- 24 years old; hometown Indiatlantic, Fla.; lives and trains in Huntington Beach, Calif.

The burden of living away from home and family is often difficult for teen-agers, though usually necessary to get the best training conditions and coaching.  That burden was compounded this year by a game of musical coaches.

Miss Durham, formerly coached by Bela Karolyi, is now coached by Scott Krause.  Miss McNamara, formerly coached by Don Peters, is now coached by Karolyi.

The athletes involved say they are happy with the changes, though they admit such changes can be perilous in an Olympic year.  And they say the problems that led to the changes are now resolved, though everyone seems to have a different version of what the problems were.

Miss Durham is the women's national all-round champion, but when she trained with Karolyi she apparently thought Miss Retton was getting more attention.  Miss Durham did not state it exactly that way.

"My focus had been diverted from my primary goal, the Olympic Games," she said.  "I was training for the wrong reasons.  I was training to please other people.  I had to be happy, and I wasn't."

Miss Durham decided to leave Karolyi, but she did not tell him directly.

"My mother talked to him," said Miss Durham.  "I didn't.  Why?  Because my mother said she would take care of it."

Karolyi coached Nadia Comaneci, the star of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, before he left his native Romania to live and work in the United States.

"I would never advise changing coaches in an Olympic year," he said.  "Dianne had her reasons for leaving, apparently because she couldn't handle the competition from Mary Lou.  Sure I'm disappointed.  I put in a lot of work to make her an Olympic medal winner."

"It wasn't the competition with Mary Lou," said Krause, Miss Durham's new coach in Fort Worth.  "They're good friends.  But if a coach slights one athlete in favor of another, it can create problems.  He can do it unconsciously, and the athlete who is slighted will be sacrificed.  I don't know what went on there, but I can tell you Dianne is a different girl now."

When the athletes from the United States and other nations worked out yesterday in the Garden's Felt Forum, Karolyi slighted no one.  He coached Miss Retton and Miss McNamara, and chatted in an animated but amiable manner with Miss Durham.

Miss McNamara said she was happy with her move to Karolyi.

"Basically," she said, "I needed a change.  I guess you can get stale in any environment.  I've been in gymnastics long enough to know that I had to do something.  In an Olympic year, you have to do what's best for yourself and your country."

Peters, who used to coach Miss McNamara in Huntington Beach, talked of other reasons for her move.

"We're a non-profit corporation run by the parents of the kids on the team," said Peters.  "We require a lot of time from the parents to raise funds and run the program.  He parents lived far away and her mother had to rent an apartment here.  I think it was a strain on the family, and Julianne was unhappy about it.  I could see it coming."

Miss Retton said she sympathized with her friends.

"It's a big thing to move," she said.  "I was training in West Virginia, and the facilities and coaching weren't good.  At a competition, I saw Bela Karolyi and his girls, and I saw they were prepared and confident.  So I moved to Houston to train with him.  I left my big family to live with a family there.  I'm adjusted perfectly now, but it was hard at first.  I was 14 and left my family home."

This page was created on July 24, 2004.
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