book reviews, sports

A review of Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics by Bela Karolyi and his ghostwriter, Nancy Ann Richardson…

The women’s gymnastics competition is over at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. For the first time in many years, the last name “Karolyi” was not part of the Olympic action. Although I have never been the slightest bit gymnastically inclined myself, I’ve watched the sport since the late 1980s. In those days, Bela and Marta Karolyi were super hot gymnastics coaches who were known for guiding athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to global stardom. By 1991, the Karolyis had added the teenaged phenom, Kim Zmeskal, to their stable of amazing gymnasts. In those days, it seemed the Karolyis could do no wrong, even if behind closed doors, things were not as they seemed.

I just finished reading the book Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics. This book, published May 31, 1994, was probably mostly written by ghost author Nancy Ann Richardson, but it’s Bela Karolyi’s life story, such as it was at that time. In the 90s, most of us either didn’t know or turned a blind eye to the abuses suffered by women gymnasts, particularly at the elite level. The Karolyis, while controversial, were also very charismatic people. And so, it made sense that Bela would share his story to the masses. As it’s written in this book, the whitewashed version of Bela Karolyi’s tale is the stuff of which American dreams are made. It would take many years before more of the truth about the Karolyis started to leak out, and their motives and methods were questioned.

I picked up a used copy of this book a few months ago. At the time, I also purchased Kerri Strug’s book, Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. Both Bela’s and Kerri’s books are out of print, so I had to wait for physical copies of them to reach me. Kerri Strug was one of Bela’s gymnasts, and she’s best known for sticking her second vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she was badly hurt. In the wake of Simone Biles’ controversial decision to withdraw from most of the Olympic events in Tokyo, there’s been a renewed interest in Kerri’s famous Olympic story. Consequently, I’ve noticed a lot of people hitting my review of Kerri Strug’s book, which I wrote in April of this year.

Kerri’s book got to me much faster than Bela’s did, and as I recall, I managed to read it within a day or so. It was an overwhelmingly positive book, even the parts about disgraced former physician, Larry Nassar, who was there to help Kerri after Bela carried her off the floor following her historic vault. I think I actually meant to read Bela’s book first, and threw Kerri’s into my Amazon cart as an afterthought, not realizing that Kerri Strug would be remembered at this year’s Olympic Games. But as it turned out, Bela’s book would prove to be less interesting and relevant than Kerri’s book is, especially in 2021. Kerri Strug is now relevant, while Bela Karolyi no longer is.

Feel No Fear begins with a story about the 1979 Gymnastics World Championships, which were held in Forth Worth, Texas. At the time, Bela Karolyi, and his with, Marta, were the women’s gymnastics coaches in Romania. They had brought a young team of gymnasts with them to Texas, along with Nadia Comaneci, who had recently gotten back into shape after having been “kidnapped” from Karolyi’s tutelage and “trained” by less oppressive coaches in Bucharest. Nadia had injured her wrist, and Bela had dressed the minor wound the night before, but a Romanian official– Bela’s nemesis– had spirited Nadia away to the hospital. There, doctors had supposedly done a surgical procedure on the injury, numbing and heavily bandaging it, and effectively rendering Nadia useless to the team. Bela was, of course, livid, but at the time, he was subject to the whims of government flunkies who did the bidding of Romania’s dictatorial president at the time, Nicolae Ceausescu. The Fort Worth story isn’t resolved until later in the book.; it serves as a hook to get people invested in Bela’s story.

After setting up the scene, Karolyi’s life story starts at the beginning. He was born in Romania on September 13, 1942, the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife. He also had an older sister. Karolyi mentions that his paternal grandfather was a very gregarious Hungarian man who liked parties and pretty women. His grandmother was a very stern German woman. Karolyi, who thinks he’s a bit like his grandfather, explains that his grandparents split up, and he was denied much of a relationship with his grandfather. Bela laments that he never really got to know the man, especially since his father was more like his strict and apparently humorless and demanding German grandmother.

Bela Karolyi’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an engineer. But Bela was more interested in sports. Bela’s interest in sports and lack of affinity for the sciences caused friction in his home. When Bela decided to study physical education instead of science, his father threw him out of the family home. Bela Karolyi had to live by his muscles and wits to get through university. He pursued sports with a passion– hammer throwing, handball, track, and boxing, specifically. He had to take a gymnastics class as part of his studies and apparently hated it, at first. But then he met Marta, who had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married.

The story/legend continues, much as I’ve seen it depicted in movies like Nadia

I watched this movie on TV years ago. It was made in 1984. Kerri Strug wrote in her book that she watched it many times. Nadia herself once said that this movie was “pure fiction”, but Bela Karolyi’s book indicates that this movie is pretty accurate. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Karolyi explains that he found the Romanian regime oppressive. He was constantly at odds with government officials, who wouldn’t let him run his program without interference. In 1981, having been forced to lead a team of Romanian gymnasts, including Nadia Comaneci, on a U.S. tour, Bela and Marta Karolyi, along with the team’s choreographer, Geza Poszar, decided to defect. They lost their minders in the busy streets of New York City. At the time, the Karolyis didn’t speak English, and they only had one of Marta’s aunts to help them assimilate. Their young daughter, Andrea, was still in Romania, and they weren’t sure if they’d ever be able to get her out of there. They had no home and no money. Still, through apparent grit and determination, the Karolyis were able to claw their way into the U.S. gymnastics scene, and they went on to create a “powerhouse” of women gymnasts.

Karolyi writes a bit about some of his more famous American clients, to include Dianne Durham, one of the first Black elite gymnasts. Durham recently died, and her first name is repeatedly misspelled “Diane” in the book. He includes comments about Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, and her mother, Phoebe Mills, Chelle Stack, Brandy Johnson, Rhonda Faehn, and Kim Zmeskal. I found this part of the book interesting, although I also thought some of his more candid comments, particularly the negative ones, were kind of telling. I remember reading an unofficial manuscript Chelle Stack’s mother wrote about working with Bela. It seems there wasn’t much love lost there.

Throughout the book, Bela Karolyi comes off as passionate, dedicated, and even kind. He includes several well known stories about how he achieved the American Dream. Some of the stories are kind of funny, like, for instance, his tale about how, when he was learning English, he thought the term “son of a bitch” was a compliment. Karolyi is supposedly an animal lover who loves dogs, and thought it was a good thing to be called a “child of a dog”. He writes that he’d actually wanted to be a veterinarian, but lacked the political and social contacts in Romania to achieve that dream. Physical education was actually Karolyi’s second choice of a career.

This generous, humorous, and gregarious side of Karolyi’s was also the public persona most people saw, especially when he was on television. However, in the wake of the gymnastics scandal of a few years ago, we found out that this was mostly a facade. Gymnasts like Dominique Moceanu have spoken out about Karolyi’s methods, which were said to be abusive and even sadistic. In fact, just this year, there was a book published in Romania called Nadia and the Securitate, which includes information about Bela and Marta Karolyi. It was written by Romanian historian, Stefjarel Olaru, and based on interviews with Romanian gymnasts and records kept by the Securitate (Romania’s secret police during Ceausescu’s reign). The gymnasts reported that the Karolyis beat and starved them, and in fact, Comaneci supposedly attempted suicide by drinking bleach when she was fifteen years old. She reportedly was happy to be hospitalized for two days, because it meant she didn’t have to go to the gym.

I remember reading this article. It made Nadia sound like a bulimic tramp.

I remember in March 1990, an issue of Life Magazine came out. Nadia was on the cover, as she had recently defected from Romania, just weeks before the Ceausescu regime fell. I recall reading that article in the library at Longwood College (now university), shocked by the negative way Nadia was portrayed. She reportedly had bulimia and was “narcissistic”, although it later came out that the much older man who had helped her escape Romania was actually holding her captive. Nadia revamped her image and is now married to fellow Olympic gold medalist gymnast, Bart Conner. But I clearly remember that in the early 90s, Nadia was depicted as some kind of “euro trash”, while her former coach was supposedly the greatest gymnastics coach ever. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t always trust what you read.

I think Feel No Fear is basically well-written. The ghostwriter did a good job making the story sound like it came directly from Bela Karolyi. There are two photo sections, which include old photos of Karolyi and his family. Those photos might have even been worth the price of the book. However, I think this book is largely whitewashed PR, which depicts Karolyi in an undeserved flattering light. I notice that Karolyi is quick to take credit for successes and just as quick to deflect blame when things go wrong. There’s no question in my mind that many of Bela’s methods were extremely abusive, even if the Karolyis did produce some champions. I wonder if the fleeting fame of a gold medal is worth a lifetime of psychological and physical trauma. I suppose I’d have to ask Karolyi’s former gymnasts about that. Karolyi himself is reportedly now suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

I did find Feel No Fear to be intriguing reading, although perhaps not in the way Karolyi had intended it to be. It’s especially interesting to read about Karolyi’s methods in the aftermath of Simone Biles’ decision to look after her own mental health and well-being over taking one for the team. Biles was one of Larry Nassar’s many victims, and she has suffered incredible stress. Not only was she under tremendous pressure to perform perfectly at the Olympics this year, but she’s also had to contend with her brother’s serious legal issues, which only now seem to be rectifying. I think if Bela or Marta Karolyi had been coaching this year’s gymnastics team, Biles would have been under insane pressure to perform, even if it meant seriously injuring or killing herself. As the world witnessed back in 1996, Bela Karolyi had no problem spurring his gymnasts on to fame, even when they were seriously hurt, as Kerri Strug was. Yes, she stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t tragically permanently injure or kill herself on live TV?

I don’t think Feel No Fear is widely available anymore. I do think it’s worth reading, if only for historical purposes, and if only to demonstrate how much bullshit the U.S. gymnastics machine has been peddling for so many years. Joan Ryan’s 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, is the first one I remember reading that shined a light on just how abusive the sports of women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating can be. It’s taken over 25 years for people to realize how right Joan Ryan was, especially in light of Larry Nassar’s abuses. Remember, Nassar was regarded as a “nice guy”. Gymnasts trusted him because he was “kind” and gave them food and comfort, while coaches like the Karolyis (and others) would scream, throw things, starve them, and even beat them to get results. That trust set them up for even more egregious abuse.

The Karolyis defend themselves.

I, for one, am glad to see this sport evolving, and people like Simone Biles, who is unquestionably extremely athletically gifted, showing everyone that there’s more to life than winning… and more to gymnastics than competing at all costs. I hope she’s able to continue to usher an end to the abusive era in which Bela and Marta Karolyi encouraged and participated. I admire the Karolyis for their ability to get out of Romania and succeed in the United States, but I do not appreciate the unethical manner in which they achieved those dreams– by abusing impressionable and ambitious young women (and their parents) who simply wanted to win at all costs.

As for Feel No Fear, I think it’s a well-polished and whitewashed version of the Karolyi legend. It’s an enjoyable enough read, if you don’t know anything about gymnastics or the truth regarding the Karolyis. But I think anyone who knows anything about elite gymnastics during the Karolyi era is going to see this story for what it really is… well-formed and highly polished bullshit.

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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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