Nicola's Reviews > Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics

Feel No Fear by Bela Karolyi
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Bela Karolyi’s ghosted autobiography covers his upbringing in Communist Rumania, where he coached Nadia Comaneci to Olympic Gold in gymnastics, and his defection to the US, where he successfully resumed his coaching with Mary Lou Retton.

Though it will appeal mostly to gymnastics fans, in some ways, the gymnastics in Feel No Fear feels incidental. It’s the rest of Karolyi’s story that is compelling. In particular, his account of finding himself in a new and difficult-to-navigate society where he didn’t speak the language makes for powerful reading. The gymnastics element of the book, however, never really comes to life. It’s a book about coaching in general more than about specifically coaching gymnastics, and there’s a strong sense that Karolyi would have been just as happy coaching a different sport.

Karolyi is not the most likeable of narrators. There’s one moment early in the book when he appeals to a classmate for extensive help when trying to gain entrance to university. She helps Karolyi with his entrance exams and, as a result, he gets in – and she doesn’t. Karolyi’s sweeping arrogance is sometimes too much to take. However, the book does go a long way to adding nuance to a man who is viewed as the stereotypical Soviet tyrant coach.

The views on coaching that Karolyi outlines in Feel No Fear are broadly admirable. However, there’s some notable white space that remains around his interactions with some American gymnasts. There are those he gushes about – Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal – and those where his silence is deafening. Quite often the words, “[X:] did not compete in this meet, because of an injury” appear in the book and never, ever elaborated upon. It’s hard not to feel that the rigours of gymnastics on young bodies are being glossed over. There’s also a particularly shocking section where Nadia – who has been training elsewhere and is out of shape – loses 40lbs in a matter of weeks under Karolyi’s instruction.

Feel No Fear is an entertaining read about a man who has lived an interesting life. However, I suspect I will find it fairly forgettable – and I’m not surprised it’s drifted out of print.

(Note: though the cover of my copy features Dominique Moceanu, the book was written in 1994 and has no mention of her. This is mildly frustrating, since the book also does not cover Karolyi’s most infamous moment – telling Kerri Strug to perform her second vault at the 1996 Olympics.)
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