On Second Thought
by Yvonne Puig
Bela Karoyli, the Romanian gymnastics maestro of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton fame, runs a gymnastics camp in the piney woods of Huntsville, Texas. The state’s oldest prison is located here, home of that notoriously well-worn death chamber. Other sites of note in and around Huntsville include: Sam Houston State University, the Sam Houston National Forest, and to the north up I-45, a 67-ft tall statue of Sam Houston himself, Texas hero eternal.
The camp features an impressive spread of leisure activities beyond gymnastics. Aside from the gargantuan gym, there’s horseback riding, a petting-zoo, a quiet lake, and pleasant paths on which to stroll through the sticky woods. Years ago, I attended this camp with my best friend Ashley, both of us dreaming of the elusive “flip-flop.” We were twelve.
Bela Karoyli drives around his camp in a pick-up truck. He wears shit-kickers and tucks his starchy khaki button-ups into his jeans. He hunts. The man might even walk the hallowed river-of-blood-a-la-Kubrick halls of the Texas Trophy Hunters Association. He’s an Eccentric Texan of the Kinky Friedman sort. Proof that anyone, even a Teddy-bearish women’s gymnastics coach from Transylvania, can go to Texas and become a Texan. To quote the great Alan Jackson, Bela Karoyli has “gone country.”
ashley and yvonne, gymnastics-aged
Very few people, however, can go to Bela Karoyli’s gymnastics camp and become gymnasts. Ashley and I learned this on the first day, when the coaches divided us into groups by skill level.
Though we’d worked tirelessly to perfect our front limbers and back-bend kickovers (the skill vital to mastering the flip-flop, the flip-flop vital to cheerleading!), we were sent to Group 16, the Karoyli camp short bus. If you can do a somersault or a cart wheel, they told us in that asinine tone typically reserved for Young Life leaders, you’re in Group 16! Group 15 was for the flip-floppers.
Shawn Johnson, not in Group 16
We spent the week, me absurdly homesick, Ashley annoyed with me for being absurdly homesick, doing round-offs across bouncy floors, feeling self-conscious about wearing the same leotards every day, and listening to “Holding Out for a Hero,” by Bonnie Tyler, the camp’s unofficial theme song, on repeat. We clapped our hands with uneven bar chalk to feel professional, and watched the real gymnasts doing quadruple layouts and 100 mph vaults.
By the fourth day, observing the compact power frog-legs of the girls in Groups 1- 15, and considering my own string-bean of a body, it occurred to me that, although the lanky, birdish Russian Svetlana Khorkina had defied the odds, perhaps I wasn’t a flip-flopper. Ashley, who in bored desperation had resorted to feigning a torn tendon to the indifference of the counselors, was just pissed. The heat outside was insane. We had a fight. I remember stomping off and scolding a girl for squashing June bugs beneath a dim porch light.
If she can do it, why can’t I?
I bring this up because Bela was on NBC the other day, chatting with Bob Costas at the Olympics trials in Philadelphia. His wife, Marta, is coaching the team this year.
“I am-a telling you de livalry and de nerves are real high but it is a positive lilvalry,” says Bela.
“So as a coach you like that kind of internal competition?” says Bob.
Bela leans in and lowers his voice. “I-a love it, a-deeply love it. Lemember every competition need to be reinforced. De force behind is livalry. If you don’t feel nothing, if you lay back and vaiting for something, that is nothing, there is no progress.”
The man manages to be charming while sounding quite literally like Dracula. His moustache is full and gray in that tender, grandfatherly way. Still, I wouldn’t want to anger him. His charm seems set on an easy pivot. The rivalry in question is between Shawn Johnson, current world all-around champion, and Nastia Liukin, winner of nine world championship medals.
Both will go to Bejing for the U.S., but only one will take the top spot in individual competition. (Watching them, the tautness of their bodies, the fierce gaze moments before they leap backwards onto a four-inch wide beam, one is awed by these tiny women, humbled by their absolute material greatness.)
Nastia Liukin, also not in Group 16
When Ashley and I were at gymnastics camp, the big thing was 15-year-old Kim Zmeskal, Bela’s latest sensation. In one of the few times I remember seeing him up close, he was presenting Zmeskal to the campers. Zmeskal seemed shy. She was rock-hard, definitely under five-feet tall. Her voice was exceptionally high. I was underwhelmed. She could do some incredible flips, but when I was fifteen I wanted to be a woman, or at least headed in that direction. It was pretty much over for me after that. If gymnastics meant possibly not having boobs, I wasn’t interested. (Zmeskal went on to disappoint at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, falling off the beam in the first rotation and out of medal contention.)
Camp went downhill from there. The glut of group activity proved too much for me, and my parents picked me up a day early, in the middle of a downpour. I don’t think Ashley was speaking to me at that point. I left her there with her bunkmate, a flip-flopper named Natalie who ate sliced green peppers out of a sandwich bag before bed.
Ashley and I never learned to flip-flop. And we never became cheerleaders. I’ve wondered if it was Bela Karoyli’s gymnastics camp, in fact, that propelled us into our prolonged adolescent hell, a period defined by our inability to do flip-flops and therefore, in essence, to be normal Texas girls. We attended our high school’s cheerleading tryouts however, judging from the sidelines with a scrupulous disdain we may not otherwise have perfected were it not for that week in Huntsville.
As for Bejjing, it will be interesting to see how Alicia Sacramone performs; she’s the underdog who was left off the team in Athens, but made a stellar comeback in this year’s trials. The big question mark at this point is whether Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 world all-around champion (with a shoulder injury), can give Nastia and Shawn a run for their money .
“Etsa great!” says Bela. “I am-a so excited!”
Yvonne Puig is the contributing editor to This Recording. She blogs here: It Was Evening All Afternoon.
SONGS OF THE UNEVEN PARALLEL BARS
“Ocean Front Property” – George Strait (mp3)
“She’s Gone Country” – Alan Jackson (mp3)
“Honky Tonkin'” – Hank Williams Jr. (mp3)
“Clear Blue Sky” – George Strait (mp3)
mary lou retton & goose gossage
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Marshall didn’t need hot tips.
Podhoretz vs. Buruma.
Love to drown.