A Dream for Gymnastics

New York Times, November 12, 1978    On several sparse acres a few miles from the turnpike in Milford, Conn., construction is expected to begin in January on a $600,000 dream -- a gymnasium where Muriel Grossfeld hopes to accomplish single-handedly what the Soviet Union has made a national goal.  Muriel Grossfeld intends to produce the finest women gymnasts in the world.

And after 14 years of coaching, after struggling to establish her gymnastics school in such places as an abandoned supermarket and a Masonic Temple, Mrs. Grossfeld is finally seeing some tangible results.  She has coached a world champion.

A Successful Student

Two weeks ago, Marcia Frederick, a 15-year-old from Springfield, Mass., who had worked with Mrs. Grossfeld for 14 months, became the first American woman to win a gold medal in international competition, scoring a triumph on the uneven bars at the world gymnastics championships in Strasbourg, France.

Miss Frederick executed a Stalder shoot with a full pirouette on the uneven bars -- the first time any gymnast had done the stunt, which involved a circle swing with the legs straddled apart, then a shooting pirouette coming off a handstand.  Her score was 9.95 with two judges giving her a perfect 10 points.

Miss Frederick's performance has put some reality in Mrs. Grossfeld's dream.  Before the world championships, the best performance by an American woman had been Cathy Rigby's silver medal at the 1971 world event.  And no United States woman has won an Olympic medal.  That is Mrs. Grossfeld's goal.

"Her gold medal is very meaningful to me," Mrs. Grossfeld said.  "I've been asked how I would have felt as a competitor if this had happened to me.  Honestly, it couldn't have happened."

"I started competing when gymnastics wasn't very popular and few women were seriously interested.  I entered my first national championships three months after I started competing and made the Olympic team.  I never even worked on real equipment until the Olympic trials.  That would be impossible today."

"In 1958 I offered to pay my own way to the world championships but the Amateur Athletic Union wouldn't let women enter until 1962.  What I resented most as an athlete was not having the chance to compete, to win, to be first."

18 National Titles

At 38, Mrs. Grossfeld has a reputation as one of the finest gymnastics coaches in the country -- certainly as the best on the East Coast.  She competed in the Olympics three times and coached the 1968 and 1972 women's teams.  She was a national champion 18 times.

After competing in the 1964 Olympics, Mrs. Grossfeld went to Hollywood, worked as a stuntperson, appeared in a few movies as a gymnast, and did some promotional work for Campbells Soup.  She started her coaching career with the women's team at Southern Connecticut State College where her former husband, Abie Grossfeld, remains as the men's coach.

"At that time," Mrs. Grossfeld said, "women didn't compete much internationally and weren't treated with much respect when we did."

"I saw exactly what was needed -- a good training facility, and a political structure."

In 1968, using her savings, she opened her first gymnastics school in a Masonic Temple in New Haven where there wasn't enough room and the ceiling was too low.  In 1971, she moved the school to an abandoned A&P.

Cinder-Block Gym

Two years ago, anxious to move to a smaller community where she could operate a live-in gymnastics school, she built her first gymnasium in Milford.  Constructed of cinder block, it sits adjacent to an old farmhouse which is home for Mrs. Grossfeld and 11 of her students.

Maybe one in a hundred applicants to the school's elite program is judged to have the stuff it takes -- straight, strong back, well-proportioned limbs, flexibility, a good jump, performance ability, willingness to learn and accept criticism and boundless determination for what Mrs. Grossfeld calls the "mission" -- to be the best.

Eleven who fit the bill, ages 12 to 16, live at the school in the three-story farmhouse watched over by dorm parents.  These youngsters must keep detailed notebooks on each workout (five hours a day, five days a week) and their meals are strictly Weight Watchers, each morsel weighed and noted.  An extra pound is not to be afforded when your business is flying through the air.

Each gymnast pays $2,700 a year for room, board and training, which is conducted in a brightly-lit, powder blue gym.  The new gym will be five times larger, with below-ground pits for uneven bars and a physical therapy facility.

The project is financed by bank loans, but money for daily operations, adding up to a $250,000 annual budget, comes mostly from classes given to 400 gymnastics students of all ages who crowd the gym seven days a week.  Corporate sponsors are rare in this sport, so Mrs. Grossfeld earns added money giving team exhibitions, making commercials and doing occasional TV sports commentary.

A Tough Program

The training program is rigorous.  The students travel to school each morning and return promptly to the gymnasium at 1 o'clock.  There, five days a week except Wednesday, Mrs. Grossfeld puts her gymnasts through their five hours of practice and exercise, and although she has a reputation for being a tough perfectionist, hundreds of letters of application pour into the Grossfeld Gymnastics School each year from all over the country.

Usually, the letters come from the dreamers: pigtailed little girls with pumpkin bellies who prance in the style of Olga Korbut at Y's throughout the country; hefty 17-year-olds unmindful of obvious limitations; ambitious parents who see in a daughter's graceful cartwheel the makings of an Olympian -- if only Mrs. Grossfeld would consider them for the elite squad.

But, says Mrs. Grossfeld, "You cannot buy your way into this school, though some parents try.  I don't believe in allowing a child to train five hours a day with total commitment unless I am one hundred percent sure that kid can succeed."

She sat back in her office and took elegant puffs on a thin, brown cigarette.  She is 5-4, has dark, intense eyes, a pale complexion, and the graceful, erect body of a ballerina, which is what she started out to be as an adolescent growing up in Indianapolis.  But she changed her mind and switched her allegiance to gymnastics because of its intensity and challenge.

"Nobody," she said, "can give a ballet dancer a perfect 10 score."

While competing, she earned a degree in dance at Southern Connecticut State, and later on became one of the first to add modern jazz dance routines to gymnastics.

Stern Taskmaster

Her ability to turn out consistent champions has a lot to do with her intense personality.  She talks in a direct, clipped fashion, her thoughts as neatly organized as the three floor exercise routines she choreographs each week.  She is strict and demanding.

With reluctance, she tells the story of the girl who refused to complete her floor exercise and broke down crying.  "I told her to run 20 laps.  And she cried some more," Mrs. Grossfeld said.  "Then I took her by the arm and ran the 20 laps with her.  The next week, she was back performing her exercises almost perfectly."

"Most people want to give up when the pain comes."

All evidence aside, Mrs. Grossfeld says her reputation as a tough coach is overrated:  "I would never consider myself one-tenth as mean or tough as Olga Korbut's coach," she says.  "He just stared and yelled at her.  If somebody needs me to yell, I will.  But I like a positive approach.  I try to be motivational as long as I can.  But if it gets down to the nitty gritty, I'll do whatever I have to."

A Catalyst

"Often a gymnast gets up on the balance beam, afraid to try a new trick.  She'll stand there forever!  Well, I'll just say something in such a way that she'll figure out that if she doesn't go, what I'll do is much worse.  Sometimes it is better if they are a little bit more worried about me than about what they're doing."

Christine Frederick, Marcia's mother, said that Mrs. Grossfeld has been fair, and says she admires the relationship between her daughter and the coach.  "Mrs. Grossfeld is an excellent role model," Mrs. Frederick said.

"Last year, Marcia asked us if she could go to Muriel's school.  She said that if we said no, she would continue all her activities to please us, but she would not be able to reach her goal in gymnastics.  So, we let her do it and it has worked beautifully.  With Muriel's help, she has gained a lot of self confidence."

This was only Miss Frederick's second international competition, so to most of the judges she was an unknown.  As usual in this sport, politics played a part in the competition.  Mrs. Grossfeld and head coach Don Peters made the rounds of the judges, alerting them to their star pupil.

"Either you participate in the game-playing -- letting the judges know you're something special -- or you sit back and wait for a miracle that never happens," says Mrs. Grossfeld.

Among the competitors, another kind of politicking went on.  Romania's Nadia Comaneci, 16, won on balance beam, but when she realized she was losing the uneven bars to Marcia, she stalked by and shook some chalk dust at her.

"Maybe it was an accident," said Miss Frederick, "but everybody who saw it happen said it wasn't."  A more gracious competitor was Russia's Elena Mukhina, the all-around winner, who kissed Marcia after her victory.

"What Marcia proved," Muriel Grossfeld said, "is that American women no longer have to consider themselves second class to anybody."

This page was created on October 25, 2003.
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