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Karolyi back in picture

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Bela Karolyi thought he was done in 1992. After 1996, he really meant it. But Olympic gymnastics and Karolyi just go together, so he's coming back for more.

Karolyi, who led Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to gold and carried Kerri Strug to the medals podium, has signed on as the coordinator for the U.S. women's gymnastics team. He won't be the coach at the Sydney Games, but he'll establish training programs for elite athletes, advise their personal coaches and oversee the team's preparations for next summer's Olympics."When I've seen that things are not going as I want to see it and the way I was fighting so hard for the past 18 years, then I felt it was my duty and obligation in a way, but it's my pleasure in another way, to . . . place us back where we belong," Karolyi said Tuesday.

For the past 20 years, Karolyi has been the center of U.S. women's gymnastics. He rose to prominence in his native Romania as the coach of Comaneci, the somber teenager who scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics in 1976 and then repeated the feat six times.

Three years after he and his wife, Martha, defected, he was coaching world champions again. Retton, who in 1984 became the only American to win an all-around Olympic gold, trained with Karolyi. So did Kim Zmeskal, who in 1991 became the first American to win the world championships.

Of the six U.S. champions between 1987 and 1992, only one trained with someone other than Karolyi. When The Magnificent Seven won the first U.S. women's team gold, it was a Karolyi pupil providing the Kodak moment. After she completed a vault to seal the gold medal and collapsed with a badly sprained ankle, Karolyi carried her to the medals podium.

After the 1996 Olympics, The Magnificent Seven moved on, Karolyi retired from elite coaching, and the U.S. women's team faltered. The United States has finished last in the two most recent world championships. At last month's world championships in China, even Australia finished ahead of the United States.

Karolyi will meet with athletes and coaches next month to explain the new program. Then he'll hold six training camps at his ranch outside of Houston between January and the Olympics, with 14 athletes being invited to each one.

He'll also be available for consultation with individual coaches, though he insisted he won't be training any athletes himself.

"I'm not going to step onto the floor and take any of the credit," Karolyi said. "I'm called the coordinator, I'm not called the national team coach."

He also wants to change the way the Olympic team is selected, with athletes going through another training camp after Olympic trials before final cuts are made. That would give them more motivation, he said.

"We have to make sure that athletes understand that all the effort, all the intermediate competitions are geared toward elevating their preparation, their readiness for the most important goal, the Olympic Games," he said.

And no one knows better than Karolyi how important the Olympics are. But no, there's no truth to the rumor he's already got his eye on the 2020 Games.

"I'm expecting 2000 to be the greatest year of my coaching career," he said. "2001 is too far away to talk about."