March 2013: Olympic dreamers: Veteran coach visits YMCA gymnasts

Famed Olympics gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi appeared at the Darien YMCA last week to give a talk to young gymnasts from Darien and Newtown. He also appeared at a fundraiser Friday night for the Darien YMCA. (Bryan Haeffele photos)

John Schwartz, gymnastics director, thanking Bela Karolyi after a pep talk to the girl’s gymnastics teams (Bryan Haeffele photo).

One-hundred and thirty female gymnasts — from the YMCA in red, and Newtown in blue, were at the Friday afternoon event (Bryan Haeffele photo).

Dillan Aysseh, a level 4 gymnast, performed a back walkover, back handspring and standing back tuck for Karolyi (Bryan Haeffele photo).

John Schwartz, YMCA gymnastics director, and Károlyi at the event on March 8 (Bryan Haeffele photo).

The Olympic gymnastics trainer greets Boris Klatsman, founder of the YMCA gym and coach for over 25 years. Also pictured are coaches Anatolie Vartosu, Antonina Surmenko and Nicole Kapitan (Bryan Haeffele photo).

Karolyi signs a T-shirt for one of the gymnasts from Newtown, Conn. All of the girls recieved a signed souvenir after the speech (Bryan Haeffele photo).

Karolyi poses with a group of gymnastics students  (Bryan Haeffele photo).

A group of gymnasts from Vasi's International Gymnastics in Newtown, Conn. were invited to attend the event (Bryan Haeffele photo)

Alina Goncalves, from Vasi's gym in Newtown, with Karolyi (Bryan Haeffele photo).

This story was originally posted in March 2013:

Some Olympic wins seem to be fairy tales, but there’s lots of hard work that goes into creating the moment.

That’s the message that U.S. Olympic trainer Béla Károlyi conveyed to a roomful of Darien’s female gymnasts on Friday, March 8.

The group included 130 girls from the YMCA, a group from Vasi’s gym in Newtown and several coaches and parents.

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The fairy tale Károlyi started with was about a “little girl” who grew up to be Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who received the first perfect score as a female in an Olympics gymnastics event at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic games under his training.

Károlyi spoke about how he and his wife, Marta, coached Comaneci, who was 14 at the time of her first Olympic appearance, and that her success brought on a trend of young gymnasts competing in the Olympics.

The younger generation began competing with older gymnasts, Károlyi said, while pointing to the young girls seated in the front row.

“Yes, you are in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Another one of Károlyi’s champions— Mary Lou Retton — was the first non-European female gymnast to win a gold medal. She competed in the 1984 Los Angeles summer Olympic games.

The typical female gymnastics at the time was thin and her routine was “very airy,” Károlyi said, but Retton was strong and muscular.

“The only way to go against the champion… [was] to create a new style — the power performance,” he said.

Another iconic winner is Kerri Strug who won a gold medal for the U.S. despite breaking her ankle mid-performance.

One girl asked Károlyi how he felt about that moment.

“I told her, ‘Shake it off, shake it off.”

It wasn’t the best advice he has given as a coach, Károlyi said, but he tried to “reinforce her confidence.”

In that moment, “she had already decided [to continue] for herself and for her team,” he said.

“I think that moment was a great lesson, that young gymnasts are not ‘cry babies,’” he told the Darien Times.

“That was a great performance to show what kind of high integrity, what kind of courageous the young generation is.”

The girls at the YMCA, ages seven to 19, asked him many questions about his famous students and the qualities necessary to succeed.

“Practice, practice, practice,” he said in response to a question about getting over fear. Károlyi told the girls that losing fear doesn’t mean starting on the “high beam,” but at the bottom and slowly working up.

Beside of the Olympics, there are many paths possible, Károlyi said, including competing in national events and getting gymnastic scholarships for college.

“It’s up to you,” he said. “How much you dream and how disciplined [you are].” Throughout his speech and later in response to questions, Károlyi emphasized the same point: You can be the best if you keep trying.

All of the time spent practicing and learning the sport is valuable in itself, Károlyi said. His belief is life is a challenge and a competition, he said.

“You don’t necessarily have to be Olympic champions,” he told them. “As far as I’m concerned, stepping into the gymnasium, you’re already champions.”

Károlyi also told the gymnasts that half of the work comes from the coaches who support them.

“It is hard,” Károlyi said about coaching. “If you’re working hard…I guarantee I will keep up with you,” he said.

Károlyi’s visit was part of the YMCA’s capital campaign to pay for its $9 million renovation, which was completed this fall. Károlyi gave a pep talk to the girls and later attended an auction and fundraiser at the Darien Country Club. The Darien Times was one of the sponsors of the event.

Pat Morrissey, the YMCA’s excecutive director, said Károlyi’s visit was “really meaningful.”

“It’s an honor for someone like him to…. inspire our kids,” he said.

Károlyi had a brief tour of the YMCA before sitting down with the Darien Times.

“This facility is perfect,” he said, “absolutely perfect. I don’t see anything that I could add to it because everything is structured very well.”

Károlyi has his own official U.S. gymnastics training camp at his ranch in Texas.

After decades of coaching, Károlyi believes that the sport is evolving “for the best,” he said. The way that young gymnasts compete today, compared to 1978 — his first Olympics —is strikingly different. “You can’t even compare,” he said, “young juniors are performing easily what at that time Olympic contenders had to do.”

His coaching style has changed as well. “Obviously you have to go with the trends,” Károlyi said.

“Gymnastics is the number one watched Olympic event,” he said, “and we are very proud of that.”

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