Feel No Fear by Bela Karolyi

Everybody who knows anything about gymnastics (and even many who don’t) know who Bela Karolyi is. He is the man who makes champions. Under his coaching came Nadia Comanedi, Teodora Ungureanu, Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, Kim Zmeskal, Betty Okino and Dominque Moceanu, among others. He has coached nine Olympic champions, fifteen world champions, sixteen European medalists and six U.S. national champions. He revolutionized the sport (whether one would argue for the better or worse is another question). But how did he become the controversial, but highly successful man in gymnastics?

Feel No Fear tells Bela’s life story, from his desire to study sport education at the behest of his parents (in Rumania to be a coach or phys ed teacher you needed to get a degree in that area) to his first gymnastic sessions in a tiny coal mining town to his large scale success on the international level. 

Karolyi always believed that a disciplined and rigorous work ethic is the key to success. He also believed in innovation and creativity rather than copying previous success (if you copy you will always be a step behind). Karolyi’s work with young gymnasts earned him prestige in Rumania, but in a Communist world of politics, he was eventually ousted by other coaches who were jealous of his success. 

Forced to defect for his country, Bela (and his wife Marta who he met in college and who is also well known for her involvement in elite gymnastics–she is currently the women’s national team coordinator) searched for a way to rebuild his gymnastics career. With help from friends and more than a little luck, Karolyi managed to do for the American gymnasts (the believed to be too lazy and undisciplined to ever challenge on an international level) what he had for the Rumanian team. 

But though he thought he’d left behind the politics, Karolyi discovers that while somewhat different, American gymnastics was filled with politics all the same. Jealousy and maneuvering was not exclusive to Communist Rumania. Through all his struggles, his yelling matches, his fights with convention, it is clear that though his methods may be questionable to some, he truly cares about his gymnasts–his little guys, as he calls them. 

There is something touching about reading his account (an admittedly one-sided view of his methods) and finally getting to see the man behind the reputation. Even if you dislike his policies you can’t help but admire his strength and tenaciousness. 

Unfortunately, this book is from 1994, so there are questions left unanswered and events unaddressed. Hopefully a newer version will be published to include the last 15 years during which time many big things happened (including Kerri Strug’s 1996 Olympic performance on an injured foot).

I would also recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about the politics and power behind gymnastics. In shows like Make It Or Break It and in movies such as Stick It, these behind the scenes maneuverings are alluded to, but reading Karolyi’s book, you begin to really understand how deeply they run.

Check out the book: Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics


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