Houston — Bela Karolyi sends the short string of teen-age girls one at a time down the blue-mat runway, at the end of which they flip through the air as if gravity, as the rest of us know it, does not exist. The group Karolyi is working includes four or five of the girls he believes will be part of the US women's gymnastics team when it arrives in Seoul for the Olympics next summer. They include Kristie Phillips, the reigning national all-around champion; Phoebe Mills, one of Phillips's closest competitors; Rhonda Faehn, the national vaulting champ; and Chelle Stack.
Beyond them, scores of other girls tumble, flip, kick, and turn beneath banners with such slogans as ``K mart Supports the Karolyi Elite Team.''
``Of course some of the girls never make it to the highest levels of gymnastics,'' says Karolyi, the former Romanian gymnastics coach, who brought the world little Nadia Comaneci in 1976, before defecting to the United States in time to present Mary Lou Retton in 1984. ``But we are watching every one like a future little performer,'' he says, his smile and enthusiasm betraying an accent that is slightly reminiscent of a mysterious proprietor of some Transylvanian castle. ``In many gyms, the level of performance is secondary to body movement and exercise,'' he says, ``but in this gym, everybody is helped as future performers.''
The flip side of that philosophy is that everyone at Karolyi's World Gymnastics Inc. is expected to work each day as if the Seoul Olympics were on her 1988 calendar. It's not all fun and games inside the four metal gyms that sit off a residential side street 20 miles north of downtown Houston. But if there's anyone among Karolyi's 850 little tumblers - almost all girls - who minds terribly, it doesn't show.
``With Bela, very little is perfect,'' says Terri Phillips, mother of Kristie, who is sitting, as she does for several hours every day but Sunday, in the parents' waiting room outside the gym where Karolyi's Elites are training. ``It's not for everyone, the long hours, the hard work, and all the time living away from home.''
Mrs. Phillips and her daughter moved to Houston three years ago from Baton Rouge, La., to put Kristie in Karolyi's program. Every year between 40 and 60 girls from around the country, many of them spotted during the school's summer camps, move to Houston, often with their mothers, for the same reason.
Among this year's mothers was Lou Barbee, who moved from Cleveland with her nine-year-old daughter, Aren. Mrs. Barbee admits that the new surroundings, and seeing her husband on weekends at best, are hardly ideal conditions. But Aren's invitation to join the gym's ``Hopes'' group could not, Mrs. Barbee says, be passed up: ``It's kind of hard to say `no' when you're being offered the best training in the world.''
Karolyi, his thick mustache bobbing as he talks, is willing to accept that his program, which he has been running in Houston with his wife, Martha, since 1982, is ``one of the very best in the world.'' He attributes its financial success to the boom in girls gymnastics in recent years, a phenomenon he links in turn to the stardom of perhaps his most famous American prot'eg'ee.
``Mary Lou [Retton] did that for little American girls,'' he says. ``She proved that Americans do have what it takes for world-class gymnastics,'' he adds. ``She opened up to them the idea of giving up some things for enormous compensation later.''
As for his program's knack for producing world-class gymnasts, Karolyi attributes that to hard work, and an enthusiasm for competition. Yet other gyms might be expected to extol those qualities. For Kristie Phillips, the ``secret'' lies elsewhere.
``Bela has the experience, and he understands each one of his kids as an individual,'' she says, taking a short break from closely monitored dance exercises. ``He looks hard at each one of them, and picks out their strengths. He really knows how to make you want to do it.''
What Kristie wants to do, she adds, is quite simple: ``I want to make the world championships and the Olympics,'' she says, rotating one hand at the wrist. Then she adds, ``Just to be the best I can be at a sport God has given me the ability to do.''
Kristie estimates that between now and the Olympic tryouts early next summer, she'll spend 75 percent of her time in the gym. That leaves little time for schooling, even less for ``being a normal teen-ager,'' as she puts it. But the fact that she, and her teammates, find the rewards worth the sacrifices points up the dedication Karolyi finds necessary for those who wish to become ``a superstar.''
Outside the gym a muggy Houston rain begins as night falls. Inside, the lights are on, and the running, flipping, balancing, and turning continue. ``We've had a very positive influence on the general standard of gymnastics performances in the United States,'' Karolyi says of his program. ``You go around the country now and even little gyms are trying harder.''
As for his own ambitions, Karolyi says he hopes to train a few more Olympic gold medalists, and to attain US citizenship soon, perhaps next year. He would like to coach the country's Olympic women's gymnastics team someday, but he says that he will never campaign for that position.
His knees now twitching to carry him back to his girls, he adds, ``Beyond that, not to rest. Relaxing is not part of my goals.''