The wonderful new blog The Olympic Effect posts detailed analysis on who’s who in the runup to the USA’s selection of its athletes for the 2008 Olympic team.
It also goes way in depth about the potentially harmful media effects on young athletes, spotlighting the stories of Vanessa Atler and Kristie Phillips.
Atler went as far as to refer to uneven bars as ‘the devil’ in her online diary. Atler’s coach, Steve Ryabcki, remained determined to prove that she could complete the skill. His insistence lasted three years and resulted in a nationally-televised explosion at the 1999 Nationals. Even though NBC muted most of Rybaki’s comments, the damage was done.
“Steve cursed me out at the meet and then refused to talk to me for days,” says Atler. “To his credit, it was the only time he ever did anything like that. Unfortunately, I was devastated. I was the perfect student and worked so hard for them for so long, but still got screamed at.”
Bela Karolyi sensed Atler might quit the sport and phoned her agent, Sheryl Shade, immediately. Karolyi, Shade and Atler’s mother, Nanette, met several times throughout the championship to discuss Karolyi coming out of retirement to coach Atler. This was unprecedented; Karolyi had refused a substantial salary from Dimitru Moceanu to continue coaching Dominique [Moceanu] following the Atlanta Games. With their plan in place, Atler promptly left the Rybakis.
It was not to be.
“We couldn’t get in touch with Bela for weeks,” recalls Atler. “I got a call from the women’s elite program director, Kathy Kelly, who told me that Bela didn’t want me and had never agreed to coach me.”
Shade received a similar call from then-USA Gymnastics President Bob Collarassi.
Vanessa Atler, 1999 U.S. Championships Finals, Uneven Bars:
The blog also reports that Atler had a few things to say about Valeri Liukin’s treatment:
Atler landed out of bounds on a floor exercise mat that failed to meet regulations. Landing on wood instead of padding, Atler’s left ankle chipped off pieces of bone. A USAG doctor misdiagnosed it as a sprain, but x-rays after the World Championships required two surgeries to remove the bone chips.
“When I arrived in Texas after worlds, Bela picked me up at the airport,” recalls Atler. “He saw me on crutches and was pissed that I had surgery.”
New coach Valeri Liukin was equally upset, especially when Atler gained four pounds during her recovery. Liukin’s gym weighs its gymnasts three times per day; the coach instructed his athlete not to drink water.
“I am the type of person who eats when I’m stressed,” admits Atler. “Valeri had his wife take me to a sauna for a half-hour after each work out. I became bulimic and binged for comfort. My weight kept going up and down, and my conditioning suffered.”
And Liukin’s reaction to Atler not making the Olympic team:
“Valeri came up to me the second the cameras went off and told me I didn’t make it because I was fat. He can be a great coach, unless you embarrass him. There was a lot of pressure on him and he’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met.”
It’s interesting that Atler never gave any hint that things were horribly wrong when she was writing in her online diary during her elite days. Perhaps it was just one more vestige of her trying to maintain that everything in her life was “perfect.”
Liukin, however, occasionally appears tempermental, particularly when his gymnasts don’t do well. His coldness toward daughter Nastia after she bobbled on balance beam during her last routine of the 2006 U.S. Championships is proof of that.
Nastia Liukin, 2006 U.S. Championships Finals, Balance Beam: