book reviews

Repost: Nadia Comaneci’s Letters to a Young Gymnast…

Here’s another reposted book review, this time about women’s gymnastics. It was originally posted August 22, 2016, and appears here as/is.

I was only four years old in 1976, when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci became the first female gymnast to earn perfect 10s on her Olympic routines.  I grew up loving horses, not gymnastics.  I have absolutely no talent for gymnastics.  I’m not very coordinated and could never so much as turn a cartwheel.  I didn’t start watching the sport until 1988, when I was 16 years old and started noticing American athletes like Phoebe Mills and Kristie Phillips, both of whom are my age.

Nevertheless, I heard a lot about Nadia Comaneci when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s.  I grew up during a time when a number of European countries were Communist and closed off from the rest of the world.  I was always fascinated by what was behind the Iron Curtain.  I even lived in the former Soviet Union for a couple of years right after it fell apart.  As I started to become interested in watching gymnastics, I also became interested in Romania, which has been a source of so many great gymnasts since Nadia’s day.  Thanks to YouTube, I have been able to watch Nadia as a gymnast in her prime.  Even today, forty years after her victory in Montreal, I still think she is one of the most beautiful athletes I’ve ever seen.

Bear in mind that the floor she’s tumbling on is not nearly as springy as today’s floors.

Maybe it was the Rio Olympics that made me finally decide to read Nadia’s 2003 book, Letters to a Young Gymnast.  I’ve had it downloaded for awhile, though.  I finished it last night and I have to say, Nadia’s story is really fascinating.  The book is written as if she’s corresponding with a young person who has written her letters.  She refers to her unknown correspondent as “Friend” and makes it sound like they have been corresponding for awhile.  She writes about what it was like to train with Bela and Marta Karolyi when they were young coaches in Romania.  She explains things that a lot of young people of today would not understand because they are not growing up in a time when so much of Europe was cut off from the Western world.

For me, reading about Nadia’s experiences living in Romania under Ceausescu are fascinating.  I have done quite a lot of reading about Romania in the 1980s.  I’ve even seen some Romanian films; there are some surprisingly interesting movies coming from Romania, a country I haven’t yet visited but have always found intriguing.  Like a lot of Americans, I had seen the dramatized 1984 movie about Nadia’s life called Nadia.  Based on Nadia’s book, the movie did get a lot of the basic stories right, though some of what was presented as factual in the movie was not quite correct.  Nadia tells her story from her perspective, which for me, was very illuminating.

Nadia post defection.

I liked that Nadia addresses the way the Karolyis have been criticized by Americans for being too strict and abusive toward their athletes.  Nadia explains that she never saw the Karolyis as abusive.  She lived in a country where people had little food because their dictatorial leader was exporting everything that was produced in Romania.  Because she was an athlete, Nadia and her teammates ate very well.  They were taken care of much better than most of their countrymen.  It wasn’t until she was a young woman in her 20s that Nadia began to experience what life was like for ordinary Romanians.  In fact, in her case, it was somewhat worse because her coaches defected.  For several years after the Karolyis left Romania, Nadia was under constant scrutiny by the Securitate (Romanian secret police during Ceausescu’s era).

When it became clear that Nadia’s gymnastics career was “over”, she was treated more like everyone else.  When she turned twenty-five, a large chunk of her meager pay was withheld by the government because she was childless.  Imagine that.  She was being paid about $100 a month and a lot of that money she never saw, all because she had not produced any babies for the state.  Nadia writes that during Ceausescu’s era, women were ordered to have children.  Fetuses were considered state property.  Most women under age forty-five were escorted to doctors every three months to see if they were pregnant.  Nadia writes that she never had to go, but other women did.  More babies were born, but there wasn’t enough food for them and their mothers were not getting proper care during their pregnancies.  Nadia even references an excellent book about Romania during the Ceausescu regime, Red Horizons by Ion Pacepa.  I read that book myself several years ago and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about what life under Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu was like.

I remember back in 1990, I read an article in Life Magazine about Nadia’s daring defection from Romania.  She and a group of other Romanians decided to flee the country in late November 1989.  I was then a senior in high school.  No one in that group had any idea that there would be a revolution within just a few weeks and the terrible Ceausescu regime would dramatically fall apart.  Nadia writes that she was going crazy in Romania, working a boring desk job with barely enough money to eat and heat her home.  She wanted something more and knew she was unlikely to get it in 80s era Romania.  So she decided to leave.

I distinctly remember reading the article in Life, which was entitled something along the lines of “Fall From Grace”.  It basically portrayed Nadia as a cold hearted slut.  The author wrote about how Nadia was dressed, with too much makeup and short skirts.  I remember the writer’s insinuation that Nadia was bulimic.  She wrote about how Nadia ate from her companion’s plate and then disappeared into the bathroom, coming back smelling “sickly sweet”.  Here’s a link to an old article from People magazine that depicts her in much the same negative way.  And it seems that Nadia’s story has also been “told” by actress Katie Holmes, who may have some things in common with the gymnast.

Nadia explains that during that time immediately after she defected, she barely knew any English and had dressed the way people in Europe were dressing at the time.  She was ignorant about the local mores and did and said things to make her look unappealing to the American public.  I think part of her problem was the fact that she had little experience dealing with Westerners and didn’t know much English.  Part of the problem comes from the fact that she is apparently very introverted and doesn’t show emotion to others.  She initially came across as cold and unfeeling, which doesn’t appeal to a lot of Americans (even though she notes that Americans are generally a lot less physically affectionate than Romanians are).  I think that many Americans didn’t know what to make of Nadia back in 1990… and poor Nadia was dealing with some pretty significant culture shock.  Aside from that, her country was in chaos.  She’d risked her life escaping Romania, not knowing that had she waited a few weeks, she probably could have left with less drama.  But then, maybe if she’d done that, her story would have ended differently.

Nadia Comaneci has been married to fellow gymnast and Olympian Bart Conner for over twenty years.  I always thought they made an interesting couple.  Bart Conner is very friendly and extroverted.  He’s been a gymnastics commentator and always comes across as super people oriented.  Nadia, on the other hand, seems much more reserved and mysterious.  I enjoyed reading Nadia’s perspectives on how her relationship with Bart Conner bloomed into marriage.  They now live in Norman, Oklahoma and run a gymnastics school.  They have a son.  Nadia is a naturalized American, but she has kept her Romanian citizenship.  She loves Romania and, apparently, Romania loves her right back.

Anyway… I did very much enjoy Letters to a Young Gymnast.  Perhaps this book is even more interesting to those of us who remember when Communism was a reality in many more countries than it is today.  I would definitely recommend this book, not just to young readers, but to middle aged people like me.

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book reviews

Reviewing Landing On My Feet: A Diary of Dreams, by Kerri Strug

Bill is off on another business trip and will be gone until Friday. He got me up really early yesterday. He didn’t mean to, but his alarm went off, and once it went off, I was mostly awake. So I decided to read Kerri Strug’s 1997 era book, Landing On My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. I don’t know why I am so fascinated with women’s gymnastics, especially since I can’t so much as turn a cartwheel myself. I never could, even when I was much younger, thinner, and more limber than I am today.

Actually, I can’t say I’m that fascinated. I really only have an interest in the gymnasts who are close to my age, and some of the ones who testified against Larry Nassar, the perverted physician who was imprisoned for tormenting hundreds or many even thousands of athletes. Kerri Strug was, indeed, one of his patients, and she does mention him in her book. But her mention of him is more in passing… as this book was published about 20 years before Nassar finally got nailed.

I think I bought Kerri’s book on a whim, too. I had decided to read Bela Karolyi’s book, which hasn’t yet gotten to me. It’s only available in a print edition. I noticed Kerri’s book, which is also only available in print. I decided to chuck a used copy of it in my virtual cart. It got to me pretty quickly. Anyway, on with the review.

Who is Kerri Strug?

Kerri Strug was born and raised in Tuscon, Arizona, where her father, Burt Strug, was a cardio-thoracic surgeon and her mother was a housewife. At the beginning of her book, Kerri writes that her father overcame very long odds to become an esteemed surgeon. His father was also a surgeon, but was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who landed in New York City, where Kerri’s great grandfather worked in the garment district. Burt Strug joked that all of the men in the family made their livings sewing things.

Kerri Strug is five years younger than I am, but she has an older sister named Lisa, and a brother named Kevin, both of whom were also gymnasts. Kerri has a natural ability for the sport and would watch her sister, who was several years older than she was, at her high level classes. Then she’d come home and try some of the skills herself. She also watched the cheesy film, Nadia, over and over again, annoying her friends who weren’t into gymnastics. I’ve seen that movie, too.

Kerri Strug is now a retired Olympic class women’s gymnast. She competed in both the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain and Atlanta, Georgia, respectively. But, as she is the youngest child in her family of origin, I got the sense that her parents were initially reluctant to let her do what her big sister was doing. According to Strug, many people in the gymnastics world approached her parents in a bid to get her into the higher echelons of the sport, but living away from home. It wasn’t until Kerri was about 13 years old that she finally got her wish, and was sent to Houston, Texas to train with Bela Karolyi, the flamboyant Romanian-American coach who brought the likes of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to greatness.

Back 1990, when I was finishing high school and starting college, young Kerri was moving in with her very first of several host families. She was quiet, shy, and soft spoken, but she was a very hard worker with a lot of talent and grit, as the whole world saw firsthand at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Kerri Strug famously sprained her ankle during her first attempt at the vault during the vault competition. She was the last gymnast to perform, and two gymnasts before her had also fallen. With just one more chance to score high enough to clinch the gold medal for the “Magnificent Seven”, Kerri shook off the extreme pain she was in, having heard her ankle pop after falling on her first vault. She heard Bela shouting from the sidelines, bore down, and took off running…

And the rest is gymnastics glory history… This was the moment 18 year old Kerri Strug finally stopped being the bridesmaid and became a bride.

Up until that star defining moment in Atlanta, Kerri Strug was known as a very solid and dependable gymnast, who was always being outshone by someone else. She was in the shadows of Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller especially, but I think she also got less attention than some of the flashier women on the ’92 and ’96 women’s gymnastics teams. In 1992, the Olympic teams included exotic Betty Okino, who was mesmerizing on the balance beam, and Dominque Dawes, who was an incredible all around performer, but especially shone on the floor exercise. Dawes had a remarkable career and competed in THREE Olympics! When I think of how much physical, mental, and emotional trauma these young women go through to be gymnasts, I’m amazed anyone ever does more than one Olympic stint in women’s gymnastics. Kerri laments that she was often dependable in her competitions, but she always wound up just missing the cutoff for all around competitions in major meets, or she’d wind up being the alternate. Fortunately, that didn’t happen in 1992 or 1996, when it was time to name the Olympic teams.

A rather fuzzy Strug memory from the ’92 Games.

Kerri mentions that after the 1992 Olympics, she thought maybe she’d like to retire from the sport and be a “normal” teenager. Bela and Marta Karolyi had said they were going to retire from coaching, and it appeared that they were staying true to their word. Kerri’s dad had come up with a plan for making major decisions– to give them 24 hours before acting. After the ’92 Games, Strug’s family took a vacation in Europe, then Kerri went back to Arizona… and decided she wasn’t finished with her career as an athlete. But unlike a lot of her friends, Strug meant to stay a gymnast– she wouldn’t go on to be a cheerleader or a diver, like some of the other gymnasts she knew had after they quit elite gymnastics. But who was going to coach her, if the Karolyis were quitting?

One of the most interesting passages in Kerri Strug’s book is about how she “coach hopped” after her first Games. After consulting with Bela Karolyi on who should be his successor as her coach, Kerri started off at Kevin and Rita Brown’s gym near Orlando, Florida. The Browns had also coached Brandy Johnson, who was an ’88 Olympian, as well as Wendy Bruce, who was one of Strug’s teammates on the ’92 team. But that arrangement didn’t work out, because Kevin and Rita Brown were having marital difficulties and Kevin Brown stopped coming to the gym.

So then, Kerri moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to work with Steve Nunno. Nunno was once a coach at Karolyi’s gym before starting his own. He was Shannon Miller’s coach, and Miller was, at that time, the most decorated American women’s gymnast in history. But Nunno’s gym was also not a good fit for Strug. She tore a stomach muscle working with him and also vaguely alludes to flirting with an eating disorder. Her parents– dad in particular– were not going to allow Kerri to neglect her health in the name of pursuing Olympic gold.

Strug worked with a couple more coaches before the Karolyis decided they weren’t done with coaching gymnastics, after all. Apparently, Karolyi was the right coach for Kerri Strug, even though so many people have decried his methods, calling him abusive and manipulative. She went back to Houston and prepared for the Atlanta Games, much to the consternation of at least one coach who was apparently pissed off that he wasn’t going to get a chance to prove himself with an Olympian.

My thoughts on Kerri’s book

As I was reading Strug’s story of her life as an elite gymnast, it occurred to me how very long ago the 1990s were. When the 1996 Games were going on, I was living in Yerevan, Armenia. I think I saw Strug’s historic vault replayed on AFN (Armed Forces Network) more than a couple of times. It was huge news, and in the wake of Kerri’s triumph, there was quite a media sensation. This book, no doubt, was a result of the huge interest in her story.

Overall, I found Landing On My Feet to be a well-written book. Strug had help from ghost writer, John Lopez, who managed to make the story sound as if it came straight from Kerri Strug. She includes a couple of generous photo sections, which have pictures of other famous gymnasts of yore. Strug is fairly humble, and I noticed that her manuscript is meticulous about the finer points of grammar. For instance, more than once, she writes something along the lines of, “… was five years older than I”. I realize that’s technically correct, but it comes across as kind of awkward, particularly when it happens more than once in the span of a page or two.

Another thing I noticed is that the tone of Strug’s book is mostly very positive. Women’s gymnastics, as a sport, has gotten a lot of negative press lately, thanks to the abuses uncovered by people like John Geddert and Larry Nassar. Even in Strug’s day, people were talking about how abusive Bela and Martha Karolyi could be in their methods. But back in the 1990s, there wasn’t such a huge spotlight on the hidden horrors of women’s gymnastics.

The young women who participated were seen as powerful waifs– uniformly pretty in their leotards and ponytails, with toned, muscular, and tiny bodies that seemingly defied physics and gravity. Nobody was thinking about what Larry Nassar was doing in the name of “treatment” to scores of women. Strug does mention Nassar, but there’s no dirt on him at all. In fact, she keeps her comments about the sport very upbeat, save for a few passages about getting hurt. But even those passages are kind of minimized– except for when she describes the pain she felt after her second historic vault at the ’96 Olympics.

So… I wouldn’t call this book gritty or totally realistic, per se. But it is well-written, a fast, easy read, and Strug comes off as a wonderful person. And I think that was what she and her ghost writer, along with the publisher, were going for when they wrote this book. It may not be too interesting for today’s gymnasts, although it was an interesting walk down memory lane for me, a half-hearted gymnastics fan of a certain age. It’s been awhile since I last managed to devour a book in one day.

Where is Kerri Strug now?

Kerri Strug got married in 2010 to Robert Fischer, a lawyer and devout Republican… or, at least he was in the days before Trump. I don’t know how they feel about Republicans now. The two have a son named Tyler William Fischer, who was born in 2012. Unlike a lot of her teammates, Kerri initially opted not to become a professional gymnast and, instead, kept her amateur status so that she could compete as a college gymnast. I read in another article that Strug eventually did go pro, so she wasn’t a college gymnast, but worked behind the scenes as a team manager. Although she enrolled at UCLA, Kerri Strug eventually graduated from Stanford University, where she also earned a master’s degree in sociology. At one time, just after college, she was an elementary school teacher in San Jose, California. She now works full-time, splitting her time between Washington, DC and Arizona, although I’m not sure if she’s still doing now what she was doing last year, when Trump was still president. At that time, she was working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

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