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Original Issue


The author plunges into the mists of Transylvania in quest of the world's favorite gymnast, Nadia Comaneci. She had been perfect. Then she had faded from view. Now, it develops, there is a new Nadia

The taxicab is bombing along the autostrada, full bore, when the driver lifts both hands from the wheel. He puts his thumbs and forefingers together to form little circles in the air. A gun emplacement is looming up fast on the right, the muzzles pointed skyward and draped with camouflage netting. A soldier is standing in the grass wearing a uniform of the same flat green as the guns. The cab driver swings around and looks back over his shoulder, holding the circled fingers up to his eyes, peeking through. He smiles, and a pewter eyetooth flashes. His expression completes the message: You are always being watched in Romania. You get it, stranger? You are always....

Now the taxi careens around a horse-drawn wagon loaded with hay. This is more like it, even if the quick tableau is too perfect—a prop horse and prop wagon, stationed by the tourist department to clomp forever along this lonely stretch of road to Bucharest. Still, a more relaxed feeling slowly sets in after the military shakedowns of the airport. Gradually, more cars and more people appear. Finally, the cab is threading its way through city traffic to the Athenee Palace.

This is still a luxe hotel, complete with a shadowy ornate lobby inhabited by Otto Preminger rejects; off to one side is the Versailles Ballroom, whose ceiling is a magnificent stained-glass dome. However, in the current social order, the room is no longer used for fancy dress balls. There are three couches and a few chairs in the vastness, where guests sit drinking coffee and talking in hushed tones. As they talk, they watch the others in the room.

There is a message waiting from the translator-guide assigned to this case: Be ready to catch the midnight train to Deva, a town 190 miles to the northwest. The message adds that it would be a good idea to take along a sweater, as it will likely be cold and damp in Deva. Inquiries are made in the Versailles room, where voices ring hollowly. Deva? Ah, Deva. It is always cold and damp in Deva. It is in Transylvania. And it is there, according to the plan, that one will find the elusive Nadia.

There was a time, not too long ago, when women's gymnastics was more of an art form than a sport. It was a lyrical exercise somewhere this side of ballet, an activity pursued by serene young ladies with swanlike necks. There was some bouncing around, sure, but the gymnasts cut elegant arcs with their bounces, even on the bars, and one could persuade oneself that a clutch of nymphs had wandered out of L'Aprèsmidi d'un faune. Audiences were polite, judges were immovable, a perfect 10 was out of the question, and there was always the chance to sneak a quick nap during the floor exercises. All of this was before the attack of the mini-monsters.

Then, in 1972, Olga Korbut came flying out of Russia, probably without a plane, and laid some moves on the Munich Olympics that sent shock waves through the sport. Korbut was Instant Athlete, a tiny explosive force at age 17. She was, in that era, all the wrong things at the right time. She had an inelegant, stringy body, with the hint of knotted-steel calf muscles, and a go-to-hell hairdo barely controlled in horsetails. But she could do flips and twists never before attempted by girls, and between events the Russians had to put rocks in her pockets to hold her down. Korbut swung the focus of the sport toward athleticism, and probably can be said to have spawned the bigger shock to come: Romania's Nadia Comaneci, then 10 years old.

The world in general didn't awaken to the Nadia phenomenon until she brought down the house at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, but insiders in the sport had foreseen her inevitable arrival. She had become Romania's junior champ in 1971, three years after taking up gymnastics; she was national champion at 11, in 1973—and in 1975, at 13½, she became the youngest gymnast ever to win the European championship. She was 14 when the Romanians turned her loose at Montreal.

From that point, the story is more familiar. Nadia came on with an unprecedented repertoire of double twists and somersaults to win the first perfect 10 ever awarded in an Olympics. That was on opening day. She added six more perfect marks, and came out the other end with three gold medals, one silver and a bronze. She was the new queen of her sport and, without saying more than 20 words or so, had become a worldwide TV celebrity.

Western Europeans and Americans, particularly Americans, found the silence puzzling. Americans tend to fret when they can't immediately grasp a sense of personality, when their sports heroes don't speak in sweeping, heroic utterances, a la Bruce Jenner, who has to be dragged off stage with a hook. Weighted down with medals, small and somber, Nadia turned her sad, dark eyes on the world and said:

"Olga Korbut is just another gymnast." And:

"Yes, I can smile. But I don't care to." And:

"No, I never cry. I have never cried."

Not much there to hang a legend on. Journalists fought over the meager human-interest items: Nadia loved yogurt and never ate bread or sugar. She collected dolls—more than 100 dolls, you guys! She was 5 feet tall and weighed 85 pounds, gym bag and all. But her exploits were quite enough. Nadia had stolen moves once used only by men—her piked back somersault from the vault was done more crisply than by Japan's Mitsuo Tsukahara, the guy who invented it. She also introduced startling new gyrations that now carry her name, like the Salto Comaneci dismount off the top of the uneven bars, a high arc featuring a half-twist into a back somersault. Other Comaneci numbers seemed so physically taxing that gymnastic critic Josef Goehler wrote in International Gymnast magazine: "From a biomechanic viewpoint, this is hardly conceivable." And her whole routine on the bars seemed so reckless that Max Bangerter, secretary general of the International Gymnastics Federation, grumped that it should be banned, that it could lead to pelvic fractures, among other awful things. But he was much too late. The blast-off, go-for-broke mode was here, and little girls the world over were hurling themselves into a sport of which the U.S. gymnast Ann Carr observed, "This is madness."

Back home, Nadia became a Hero of Socialist Labor of Romania. And she went on winning—for a time. Then suddenly she began to lose a few events here and there. In December of 1976 she "failed to dominate" the Romanian Cup. In 1977 she was named the world's best gymnast, but she failed to show up for some meets and walked out on others. Clearly, she was in some sort of slump. Americans got word that Nadia had—horrors—become fat, ballooning up to 112 pounds. The East Europeans, less squeamish, said openly that it was the onset of puberty, and that the slump would come to an end if everybody would just be patient.

In October of 1978, Nadia was beaten by teammate Emilia Eberle in a West Germany-Romania meet, and the crash followed later that month when she lost the world title to Russia's Elena Mukhina, 17. The Washington Post said that Nadia was 22 pounds overweight, and quoted Agence France-Presse to the effect that she had been ordered onto a crash diet and had taken to skipping school. People magazine also carried the overweight item and captioned the photo with IS HER CAREER BOTTOMING OUT?

The world of women's gymnastics is a mean place, insulated in its jealousies, and if Nadia's difficulties were perfectly natural—perhaps it was puberty, after all—insiders in the sport appeared to take a savage delight in kicking her around. This attitude seemed to persist even as she launched an apparent comeback. Last May, Nadia showed up in Copenhagen to win the European championship with a record 39.45 points, while her Russian rival Mukhina faded to fourth place, and in June she took the World Cup at Tokyo, scoring a perfect 10 in the floor exercise as well as capturing the vault.

But the rumors continued. Had the queen of the sport, at 17, become "just another gymnast," as she had once described Korbut? Nobody in the U.S. seemed to know.

Obviously, there was only one way to get a handle on this thing: the old Romanian scouting report.

It is cold in Deva, as promised, and not quite daylight. A wet fog hugs the ground, curling around the dark hulk of the station. The village lies across the tracks, in soft focus. The train had crossed the Transylvanian Alps during the night, passing close by Castle Dracula at Poenari, and now, in this half-light, another castle looms on the hill above the town. Its battlements are jagged, half tumbled, and a thin black stake rises next to the main tower. It was on such stakes that the 15th-century Dracula, son of Dracul (the Devil, in Romanian), had impaled his victims, to die slowly. But seen from across the street, at a slightly different angle, the stake turns out to be a television antenna.

The official name of the place sought is the History and Technological Studies High School with Special Training in Gymnastics and Athletics. That mouthful gets no response on the streets. The few peasant women approached shake their heads cautiously beneath their shawls. No, no, there cannot be such a place here in Deva. Well, how about Gymnastics High? This produces more glazed looks. Then the translator solves the problem:

"The school where Nadia trains?"

"Ahh, Nadia."

The school sits on the hillside behind walls and fences, a huge structure, faded salmon in hue, clearly very old. Dozens of tiny girls chatter brightly in the courtyard, their little noses and bare knees red with cold. The shepherding teachers, instantly wary, merely point out the way to the gymnasium, then watch.

The gym is down a dirt path, back among the trees. The contrast to the rest of the school is startling; it is quite modern, with graceful lines and big windows. It is also empty. The scrubwoman doing the floors in the tiled entryway does not suffer from a language barrier; her clear greeting is, get out of here or you're going to catch one upside the head with this mop.

It's cold waiting in the morning fog, but finally there is a crunch of footsteps along the pathway, and out of the mist comes a young girl. She is wearing a school jumper that doesn't quite reach her knees and a warm-up jacket, and she is carrying a gym bag. Her legs are bare and she walks, a little stiffly in her clogs, with her head down. Then she looks up and there is a flash of dark, brooding eyes. It is Nadia Comaneci.

Bela Karolyi is the kind of man who gets both brighter and better-looking as the day goes on; he peaks somewhere around dinnertime. Now, unshaven and grumpy, wearing a Pepsi-Cola T shirt and warm-up pants, he doesn't want anything that will tax his capacities. Tell me again, he asks the translator, who are these people? Yes, yes, I know Illustrated Sport, but here...and now? Don't you people at the ministry understand that we don't allow visitors up here? We are working on new and sensitive and...ahh, what the hell. It's cold out here. You can come in if you don't bother Nadia. You must stand at the very edge of the floor, and do not approach her. Or me.

This is, indeed, Karolyi's kingdom. He is 38 years old, a powerfully built former discus and hammer thrower and handball player. As head coach of the Romanian gymnastic team, he has set up his school here, and he runs it with a growling, Vince Lombardi air. Karolyi and his wife Marta scout kindergartens all over Romania for the right girls; this was how he discovered Nadia in 1968. The kids are tested for agility, then a 15-meter sprint, a long jump and a walk on the beam for balance, but it is clear that what Karolyi wants just as much is an un-shaped, gutsy quality, elusive in young girls. He seeks reckless kids, unsophisticated girls who can be molded into superior gymnasts who do what they're told and don't cry. The winners leave their families and move to Transylvania, often staying through their teens. It is considered an honor.

Inside the gym, Nadia and three other gymnasts surround Karolyi to tell him about the great adventure of the night before. It's a bit jumbled, with all of them talking and giggling at once, but there was this boy, and he was poised in this high window, and he was threatening to jump because of his love for, well, for one of them.

Karolyi yawns and scratches his stomach. "What happened?" he asks.

"He jumped," Nadia says.

She is suited up now, ready for the first of her two-a-day workouts. She is wearing faded leotards and dirty yellow sweatsocks. A support stocking is pulled above her right knee and her right wrist is taped. Karolyi strolls over to explain.

"She is not taped because of an injury," he says. "She is just being sensible. She sometimes tapes to prevent injury. Actually, Nadia is very robust. She never sprains."

Robust may be exactly the right word, although it seems a bit hefty at first for one so slender. Still, there is no way that Nadia will ever again look fragile, even in repose. Standing with one hip cocked, her arms loose, she is as lean and sleekly muscled as a cat. She offers no feminine hipline from any angle, and there are even clearly defined muscles in her buttocks, with no hint of softness. Sharply etched ribs climb in steps up to her deep chest and broad shoulders. And as a result of that much-publicized puberty, Nadia now has breasts.

Ah, yes. Nadia also has a new hairstyle.

Now, this is a patently dumb item to include in a scouting report, the sort of thing People and International Gymnast magazines will go goofy over, but it had better be mentioned, since this is the new Nadia, on the comeback trail. Her hair is close-cropped and shaggy, somewhere between Joan of Arc and Dorothy Ham-ill. It flies fluffily when Nadia is upside-down and it more or less falls back into place when she is right-side up. It remains brownish-auburn in color.

Nadia warms up slowly in the floor exercise while the pianist plays one snatch of melody over and over again and Karolyi sits on four stacked mattresses and watches, emitting an occasional growl. He is coming alive, slowly. It is a painful process for him, and he is not due to smile until about noon.

Nadia likes the floor exercise least of all the gymnastic disciplines. It calls for semi-balletic moves that she regards as too tame, even though she bounds to incredible heights during her routine, seeming to hang for moments in the air. One portion of the program calls for a jazzy dance step in which she is supposed to shake her backside provocatively, but it is apparent that Nadia is not much of a morning backside-shaker, and she glowers at the choreographer.

"Be more dynamic," he says.

She nods solemnly and shakes it again. They both seem to agree that this is better. They both understand that, in formal competition, with Nadia in makeup and dress leotards, this move provides the flicker of a moment when the audience will say, "Awwwwwww," in unison, finding it unbearably cute.

What Nadia really likes is the uneven bars, where she can blast everybody's doors off, where she can uncork the dangerous and scary moves that are hers alone. Normally, she operates totally without expression, but when she approaches the bars a subtle change comes over her face, a sort of fleeting look that seems to say, "O.K., you guys, mama's about to show it to you." On this morning, she works almost exclusively on her flyaway dismounts, landing—slam!—on the mat and arching her back and throwing her arms up.

Over in the corner, the team pianist, bored, softly plays boogie to amuse himself.

Karolyi crosses the gym. He is slightly more awake, a bit more ready to negotiate.

"Okay," he says. "You shall now be permitted to talk to Nadia."

There is a tendency on the part of someone not intimately connected with a sport to look for some sort of sign, some subliminal flash of insight, that might tell more about an athlete than mere performance. After all, athletic achievement is measured in points and scores that are posted for all to see and assess, but now, aside from the suggestion of coiled steel, what is there about Nadia Comaneci that would betray her calling? She sits demurely, knees together, her hair tumbled and her eyes downcast.

And, suddenly, there it is. Even after a shower, giving off the smell of a strong soap, Nadia still has chalk on the palms of her hands. It has been irrevocably ground into all the cracks and lines, and it accents the ridges of tough calluses that will probably never go away. Nadia will have chalk on the palms of her hands until after 1980; she may well wear it the rest of her life, like a pair of gymnastic minstrel-show gloves.

The group is seated around a low table in Karolyi's office. He sets out small glasses and pours pear brandy for everybody but Nadia. The brandy tastes like Exxon Unleaded. The translator works fast and in excellent English, hobbling only slightly on the obvious Americanisms. The Western world wants to know what Nadia is up to in Transylvania. Gymnastics is a tightening game; the level of competition is rising fast. Lord knows, it is tough enough to hang in at all without trying to make a comeback. But will there be a new Nadia at the world championship in Fort Worth next month, and in Moscow?

"Yes," she says. "I have already introduced all new elements into my routine. I have now but to practice them. I make some 20 to 25 moves on the apparatus in the allotted 70 seconds. On the uneven bars, everything is changed. There are three new jumps that only I can do. I am not worried."

Are they dangerous?

"They seem dangerous in the beginning," she says. (Karolyi pours more pear brandy and cues her with a glance.) "No, they are dangerous in the beginning," Nadia says. "But after a while...if you work on a certain move constantly, then, finally, it doesn't seem so risky to me. The idea is that the move stays dangerous, and it looks dangerous to my foes, but it is not, to me. That is our secret."

What other secrets are there?

Nadia shrugs and spreads out her white palms. "There is a dismount from the upper bar," she says. "It involves much flying and, in flight, a 180-degree turn. Right now, there are three elements in gymnastics named after me. All of them are said to be quite..."

"Daring," says Karolyi.

"...daring, and that is a compliment. Not to me, but to our team and what we do here."

When Nadia bags a 10 in competition, there is no grateful blushing and tugging at her forelock. She looks up now, unblinking. "If it was perfect," she says, "I deserved it." This is followed with just the hint of a shrug; it is obviously a statement and not a boast.

This single-minded dedication to gymnastics seems to have buried any sense of personal joy several layers deep in Nadia's psyche. She has to concentrate to search it out, first struggling through a translation of the question that runs through several Romanian words for "kick." Then she nods at the TV set in the office. "Sometimes, just after an event, I will see myself on television," she says. "First, I'm curious—and then I'm always surprised. Is that really me? It is hard to relate the two, me and the girl on the television."

But she wants to make it clear that it isn't like watching the Muppets.

"A routine on the floor, or the beam, or the bars is not a play-act," Nadia says. "It may be difficult, but I must make it look easy. There is a psychological element involved for my enemies. It is this element that surprises me on the TV. I must look serene, no matter what."

But serenity doesn't quite seem the Comaneci style.

Nadia considers the incongruity of trying to look madonna-like while sizzling through a piked Arabian front. "Well," she says, "the floor exercises can be classified as classical, lyrical or modern. My floor exercise is more full of temperament. It is more energetic, more intense. While I am doing it—or when I'm on the beam or the bars—I think only of doing things right, not of what might happen. My mind is full of getting it exactly right. Do that and the medals will come."

So much for serenity. Have the Romanians scouted the opposition?

"The Romanians are the ones who introduce all the new stuff," says Karolyi. "We gave up studying tapes of other nations because we didn't want to be influenced by what they do. We rely on our own imaginations—which produces results every time. In terms of comparative tapes, it is they who are inspired by us."

The smell of pear brandy is starting to hang heavily over the table. If anyone lights a cigarette now, the future of Romanian gymnastics will end in one blinding explosion. Nadia has a math class. She stands and shakes her hair.

"No, this isn't a hairstyle, it's a plain haircut," she says, scissoring her fingers in the air to indicate that it was done with dull hedge clippers. "I was at the seaside this summer. It was so hot. So I just had it all cut off. If it grows back for Moscow...who cares? If it bothers me, I'll cut it again. I don't make such decisions; if it grows, it grows."

Clomping out of the office in her clogs, Nadia says that, yes, she's grown since Montreal. "I'm 48 kilos (106 pounds) now," she says, "and I am 161 centimeters (5'3½") high. I'm in very good condition. I eat all the usual food while training, but not excessively. And yes, I do, too, eat bread. Toast every morning."

Outside the gymnasium, glory be, the fog has lifted.

The man stands on the school steps, a cigarette in the middle of his mouth, watching the approaching group. He is stocky and florid-faced, and he looks as if he had just stepped out of a train crash. On closer inspection, this turns out to be the effect of Socialist tailoring. There is a party emblem in his lapel and the knot on his tie doesn't quite meet the junction of his shirt collar. His wariness eases visibly when he sees that Karolyi is awake and smiling.

Mihai Banulescu is the director of Gymnastics High, which is a party job, not an academic post. In another time and in another place, Akron, say, or Newark, Banulescu would be the executive who could be counted on to have a pint of Southern Comfort in his lower right-hand desk drawer. He is openly fond of Karolyi, who made the school possible in this remote outpost.

A few years ago, the national gymnastics school was located in Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, on the other side of the' country, by coincidence in Nadia's hometown. The old school in Deva was falling apart when Karolyi found it. He began making the switch not long after the Montreal Olympics, and while the move of students is now complete, workmen are still busy refurbishing the main building.

"There are a number of reasons for this school," Banulescu says. "For one thing, it is in a location where Bela Karolyi and his gymnasts can work undisturbed, without distractions. It is away from everything. And, besides, it is close to his homeland here..." he punctuates his little joke with a slap on the arm, "Karolyi is really a Hungarian. He is a true sportsman, a hunter. The hunting is very good around here."

Banulescu conducts the grand tour, creating eddies of tiny girls on both sides. The entire main floor of the old ruin has been converted into gymnastics classrooms—the sala de paralele, the sala de birna—all with mirrored walls and scaled-to-size equipment. A swimming pool-size hole has been blasted through the floor of one room and filled with blocks of foam rubber. It is approached by a long, carpeted runway—"the girls are encouraged to run fast and throw themselves into this pool," Karolyi says. "They gradually come to do crazy jumps at insane angles, totally without fear." Other rooms feature beams set at various heights, starting from the floor to the regulation four feet, and graduated sets of uneven bars. All of the foam rubber in Romania is in these rooms. When the girls get good enough, they are sent to Karolyi in the new gym down the dirt path.

"There are 600 to 650 students here," says Banulescu. "Forty-five percent of them are gymnasts, who start at six years old. Karolyi here finds them."

And now Karolyi, growing more cheerful by the minute, steers the group back outdoors. "You see, what we must do here is to produce superior gymnasts," he says. "And to do that, we must work in secret, without distractions. We must keep our goals in mind. Take Nadia, who is so celebrated outside Romania. This is a difficult role for a young girl. In order to maintain her, we must keep her simple. We must..." he searches for just the right literary allusion, "we must keep her far from the meddling crowd."

The cook carefully refills the tumblers with red wine and asks if anyone can hold any more perisoare, which is pork and rice soup.

"Noroc!" say Banulescu, holding his glass aloft. This is the Romanian national toast, spoken forcefully before every drink. "To your very good health!"

The group has moved to the school's private summer chalet on top of the hill near the ruined castle, after stopping at Karolyi's house for afinata, his own homemade brandy. Karolyi's battered old Mercedes, the only one in Deva, possibly in all of Transylvania, is parked outside.

"Let me tell you why we have such good gymnasts in Romania," says Banulescu. "It is because your sportsmen in Western nations are produced in laboratories; I mean, urban settings. It's no good, laboratories. In Romania, 90% of our gymnasts come from rural environments. Farms. They benefit from peasant food from peasant farms. Look at these tomatoes! No pollution ever came near them. Noroc!"

There isn't time to put the tumblers back down on the table: "Noroc!" says Karolyi. "Now let me tell you what it's like to be a coach of Nadia." He has grown visibly more charged now. "I feel like a father when my girls are out there—but yet I'm not allowed to grab at my throat. My whole insides are there on the floor, my guts. But it is not allowed for me to put on a show by acting too grave. Our competitions by nature are very long; three to five days in all. It requires much power to master my own emotions and master the emotions of the team; if a coach lets himself go, he could be a bad influence on the girls. And so I hang there, midway between enthusiasm and severity."

The cook is too slow; Banulescu refills the tumblers himself. "To the friendship of sportsmen everywhere. East or West," he says.

The wine is heavy, with a solid, fruity aftertaste. It lies in the stomach like ballast. A plate of dill pickles is produced, as if they were dessert. They are dessert. It seems to make perfect sense.

Karolyi waves his glass for attention; he has something important to say. His eyes are pale green in the afternoon light.

"And now I will tell you of our secret," he says. "Perhaps a few people in the West know this—but soon everybody will. We have a new gymnast, a young girl who will one day be the best in the world. She shall succeed Nadia one day in the role. She has been a junior. This last April she came out by winning a meet in Moscow. We could no longer hold her back. She was suddenly ready', and we began training her ever harder and harder. She won again at Antibes in June. In July we held a testing competition in Romania, and she beat Nadia. I sent her to Tokyo in August for the international junior invitational—it was her first at the world level—and she won it all." He pauses and shrugs. He is proud, but he doesn't want this to seem as earth-shaking as his voice might have indicated; Romania is expected to produce top gymnasts.

"Noroc!" says Banulescu. Everybody drinks to the new girl.

"She will be on the Romanian national team at the world meet in Fort Worth and at the Moscow Olympics," Karolyi says. "Her name is Anka Kiss [pronounced kish] and she is 13 years old."

It figures that Transylvanians would be night people, their internal clocks set to that time when shadows fall across the school yard and the fog reappears. It is about 7 p.m. and the only light in this end of town comes from the gymnasium. Karolyi sparkles now, clean-shaven and combed, wearing a fresh T shirt and pale-blue warm-up pants. Nadia is loose and easy, standing atop the beam and watching herself in the mirror. She does an experimental backflip, then turns and strolls away as if the four-inch-wide surface were a boardwalk. She doesn't look down.

Perhaps dark, brooding eyes are a prerequisite for Romanian gymnasts; heiress-apparent Anka Kiss stands watching everything soberly from beneath dark hair caught up in a ponytail. She is a miniature, barely reaching as high as Nadia's shoulder, and she has the featureless figure of a rubber doll. There is no way she can be even 13.

"She is 13," says Karolyi.

Kiss comes from Oradea, in the northwest of Romania. Like Nadia, she has been at the school for a long time and, like Nadia, she does not cry. Karolyi says she has never cried. Nor does she smile. She repeats each drill over and over, her brow knitted in concentration. When she falls, she rises and looks at the offending apparatus, then goes back and tries it again. Yet there is a difference.

Kiss glares. She glares at the choreographer when he snaps at her. She glares at Karolyi, at the pianist. She is a tiny Roberto Duran in her approach to the sport, and it is unnerving to see such burning combativeness in someone who should be wandering around in Dr. Demons at this time of night. It is only when she looks at Nadia that Kiss eases up. They clearly respect each other.

Nadia works on the uneven bars, repeatedly going from hip-spins to handstands on the lower bar, moving faster and faster until she becomes a blur. With each spin Karolyi says, "Hey!" and with each handstand he yells, "Whup!" She has taped foam-rubber gauntlets to her hands and rubber slabs to her feet to ease her landings, in which she seems to come down from the rafters.

Nadia, just 18, will graduate next spring and then take an examination to become a coach, although she probably won't make that move until she is 20 or so. She will stay on the national team until she's ready to hang it up, possibly doubling on the faculty as a recruiter for Karolyi. "I'd like that," she says. "Visiting the kindergartens to find suitable little girls, the way Karolyi found me." Because she is a Hero of Socialist Labor, Nadia's parents and kid brother Adrian have been moved to an apartment in Deva, and she lives at home with them instead of in the dormitory. Adrian also attends the school. "He's majoring in tennis," Nadia says. "He gave up his early ambition to be a soccer star. All the boys now want to be Ilie Nastase."

The team moves down the gym and assembles on the large carpet for floor exercises. The tape deck is plugged in and a jazzed-up rendition of Tea for Two fills the gym, while Nadia launches into a series of double twists and a full back-gainer. The tape segues to La Golondrina and then into rock and at last, after dark, under the lights, Nadia is ready to shake it for the world. She throws in a couple of fanny wiggles and then stops, looking puzzled. "I can't get it right," she says.

"You got it right," says the choreographer.

Nadia does it again, biting her lower lip and undulating in a parody of, possibly, Marilyn Monroe, maybe Mae West. And then, while the team is still laughing, she is suddenly upside down in an effortless bound, her back arched. Off to one side, Kiss watches intently.

The training session doesn't so much end as wind down. One by one, the girls drift off to the showers. It is now nearing 9 p.m. Nadia stands alone, peeling off tape.

"Perhaps the reason Eastern European gymnasts are so good is perseverance," Karolyi says. "We take constant training, with no gaps for holidays. There are no one-a-day sessions, always two. We have fewer days off or moments of relaxation. We have no involved socials." Nadia throws down the tape as if Karolyi's statement has just summed up her career. "All that will come later."

Banulescu offers a choice between pear brandy and Havana Club, a smooth Cuban light rum. "To the first journalists ever to visit this school, from East or West," he says. "Noroc! To the solidarity and friendship between our great nations."

"The next time we meet, it shall be as old friends, not strangers," says Karolyi.

The group has moved to a tiny dining room just off the school cafeteria. Outside, little girls in warm-up jackets are fuzzy silhouettes in the fog.

Karolyi is now at his ebullient peak, and he launches into a long story about hunting wild boar and black sheep. He tells it with sweeping gestures, playing all the parts, changing his voice for the dialogue of the animals, imitating a mountain sheep standing atop a narrow rock, peering down at the hunter. The translator falls hopelessly behind, and Banulescu pours more Cuban rum. "I tell you, I used to sleep at night before Bela came to town," he says.

A Jeep is waiting outside for the run to the train station at the foot of the hill. Banulescu listens, beaming, to a final toast that thanks him for being such a gracious host. "You must come back again," he says. "There is not time now, but when you come back, I shall tell you the story of the drunken rabbit that attacked the bear. It is an old Romanian folk tale."

Now the school is dark, and one by one the lights in the dormitory are going out. The little girls have all vanished. And again, the fog doesn't just hang there, it swirls. Fog is supposed to swirl in Transylvania. It is a shame, but in this light it is impossible to see the old castle on the hill.





Gymnasts like Nadia attend this special school. They may not return home until after their teens.



Since Montreal, Nadia has grown 3½ inches and added 21 widely noted pounds to her elfin frame.



On the beam, Nadia works out in the airy modern gymnasium of Coach Karolyi's Gymnastics High.



Nadia keeps an eye on successor Anka Kiss—and vice versa.