New moppet giving Nadia a run for the money

"Nadia '81" is the way the billing reads on the marquees and advertising posters, and there's no doubt that the world's most famous gymnast is the main attraction. The grace and skill that won all those Olympic gold medals are still very much in evidence, too, as La Comaneci dazzles the crowds during the Romanian team's current american tour. But then, irony of ironies, a tiny 14 -year-old calmly proceeds to steal the show -- just as Nadia herself did when she first exploded upon the scene at Montreal.

Lavinia Agache is the name of this pert, vivacious, and tremendously talented young performer -- and it's one well worth remembering in terms of 1984. Indeed , if she puts on anything like the show she's been giving on this tour, she could well turn out to be the successor to Olga Korbut and Nadia as the crowd-pleasing TV heroine of the Los Angeles Games.

Part of the appeal is her size, for at 4 ft. 5 in. and 68 pounds she is even smaller and more childlike in appearance than either Olga or Nadia, each of whom was several inches taller and 15 pounds or so heavier at a similar stage. But the strength and agility she packs into that Lilliputian body are truly amazing, as she demonstrates with a brilliant routine on the balance beam, an explosive floor exercise, and a performance on the uneven bars that is just what the show announcer calls it -- "awesome."

Like her predecessors, agache (pronounced "a-ga-ki") knows how to milk the crowd, too. Before and during each event, she has that incredible poise beyond her years which appears to be the trademark of all these child standouts. Then when she is finished, she marches off to thunderous applause as if she'd been receiving it all her life -- head high, tiny body erect, and a confident look that seems to say, "I'm already a star; I know it; you know it; and I know you know it."

Bela Karolyi, the famed Romanian coach, discovered Lavinia in a kindergarten class when she was 6 years old -- "the same age as when I found Nadia," he notes.

And how does his new protege compare now with Comaneci at the same stage? Might she, too, go on to Olympic fame?

"She's just as good," Karolyi said. "Certainly she has a chance."

Lavinia will get the opportunity to demonstrate her skills to American crowds in a competitive environment on this trip, too, as one of two up-and-coming young Romanians chosen to participate in the American Cup Meet this coming weekend (March 21-22) at Fort Worth, Texas. She'll be vying with athletes from some 18 other countries including the United States, China, and Japan in the prestigious competition, which was formerly held in New York City and in the past has spotlighted such performers as Nadia, Kurt Thomas, Bart Conner, etc.

Meanwhile the rest of the group, after a six-city swing through New York, Hartford, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Philadelphia, is now continuing the exhibition tour in Caracas, with one more stop planned in this country -- March 28 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. -- before returning home. Everywhere they go, of course, Comaneci is the one besieged by both the media people and the public. And even if her tiny teammate does upstage her at times during the actual performance, Nadia puts on enough of a show to demonstrate that she is still quite probably the best female gymnast around.

The judges at Moscow last year said otherwise, to be sure, for although Comaneci was the only competitor to emerge with two individual gold medals in the women's events, she was edged out for the all-around title by Yelena Davydova of the host country. But most observers chalk that one up as a "hometown decision" with more than a few political overtones -- and in any event her combined 1976-80 Olympic harvest of nine medals, including five gold, speaks for itself.

It was Nadia's emergence at Montreal, of course, that turned the spotlight on the outstanding overall job being done by Karolyi -- an effort that reached a climax when the Romanian women finally dethroned the Soviet Union for the team title in the most recent world championships. But even though he now has such other feathers in his cap, Bela still enjoys talking about his prize pupil.

"Nadia was just one of many little girls with some promise when I first found her," he recalled as the group gathered in the hotel lobby here to head for the airport and the next stop on the tour.

"She was nothing special then -- just a normal girl," he added. "But after two years, we knew she was going to be exceptional."

That was 1970, and by the time she arrived at Montreal as a 14-year-old, the whole gymnastics world was abuzz with word of the spectacular newcomer. She was still unknown to the public at large, however, until she got that perfect score of 10 (the first in Olympic history), went on the gain six more, won five medals including gold on the balance beam and uneven bars and in the all-around competition, and totally captivated the live crowds in the Forum and a worldwide TV audience.

Nadia was 4 ft. 11 in. and 85 pounds then, but a combination of normal growth plus difficulty in handling her sudden fame created a situation in which she shot up to 5-4 and 110 pounds in little more than a year. She seemed heavy at that weight and less graceful than before -- and she didn't fare as well competitively. She withdrew from some meets, lost in others, and appeared as though her best competitive days might be behind her.

Through it all, Karolyi recalled, she never lost her enthusiasm for the sport , though, and eventually she trimmed down to her present weight of 100 pounds -- and began winning again. She won the European all-around title in 1979, then late that same year in the world championship meet, despite a hand injury that forced her out of most individual competition, she ignored doctors' advice and courageously competed on the balance beam for her team, scoring a 9.5 to help lift the Romanians past the Soviets for the crown.

Then came Moscow, with a fall marring her performance in the uneven bars and with the controversial silver medal in the all-around -- but also with some triumphs in the end via gold medals in both the beam and floor exercises.

"Of course she was the best," Karolyi insisted once again as a questioner recalled the final rotation of the all-around competition, when a 9.95 score for Davydova on the uneven bars and a 9.85 for Comaneci on the beam lifted the Soviet competitor to victory. "The scoring was too low on the beam, and too high for Davydova on the uneven bars."

The whole team was in the lobby now, getting ready to board a bus for the airport. They were in street clothes, and so completely did Nadia blend in with her teammates that most of the stargazers and autograph hunters hanging around didn't even recognize her until she was pointed out. she's no longer the pixie of Montreal, of course, but a fullgrown, attractive young woman of 19. and obviously she doesn't play the role of prima donna -- at least not in circumstances like this.

What did she think about the events in Moscow, a questioner asked as they walked toward the bus. Did she feel she was really the best?

"Yes," she replied matter-of-factly.

Was she "robbed," so to speak, on the balance beam?

"Yes," she said again. "I thought my score was too low."

And was Davydova marked too high on the bars?

"I can't think about the judging," she said then, obviously not wanting to pursue this line any longer. "My work is to compete, not to look at the judges or worry about the judges."

By now we were at the bus, so time for just one more question. Will she compete in Los Angeles?

In other cities at other times, she had answered that one with the standard "It's too early to say" line. And just moments earlier, Karolyi had given the same reply. But now as she stepped abroad, Nadia turned and said most definitively: "Yes. I will be there."

That's still more than three years away, of course, and many things could change -- but what a prospect! Nadia, Davydova, little Maxi Gnauck of East Germany, and a whole host of newcomers headed by Agache. One can hardly wait for the show to begin.

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