In the lobby of the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Russian icon Dimitri Bilozertchev, a triple gold medalist at the 1988 Olympics, and one of the Hall's newest inductees, admired the wall of legends that would soon bear his name and likeness. "Like Heaven," he said. "Growing up, what I knew of America was California for the beaches, New York for the buildings and Oklahoma because it's gymnastics country. Just look."� To the north, there's Edmond, home to the Shannon Miller Parkway. To the south, there's Norman, home not only to Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci, the sport's First Couple, and International Gymnast, the world's largest gymnastics magazine, but also to the Oklahoma Sooners men's team, which went 26-0 last season and won its second straight NCAA title. "I remember the football players thanking us last year for carrying the athletic program," says 2003 NCAA all-round champion Daniel Furney. "That's respect."
While parallel bars will never supplant pigskin in the heart of Oklahomans, gymnastics has won over one of the biggest football names in the state. "The upper-body strength in gymnastics is really superior to that in any other sport," says former Sooners football coach Barry Switzer. "I can't understand how they do what they do."
He might want to ask his wife, Becky (n�e Dunning), a member of the coaching staff for the 1988 U.S. Olympic women's team and a pioneer in Oklahoma gymnastics. In the late '60s she was a prot�g�e of Leon Nance, the principal of Shields Heights Elementary in Oklahoma City. In the school's cafeteria Nance started the Oklahoma Twisters, a tumbling group that welcomed girls ages 12 to 17 and became the forerunner of the country's larger gymnastics clubs. "We didn't have state-of-the-art training situations," Becky Switzer says. "We had a state-of-the-heart situation." The girls tumbled on a hard tile floor on which the 40-by-40-foot dimensions of a floor-exercise mat were marked out in masking tape. "Everyone had shin splints and bruised hands," Switzer says. "We didn't care. There weren't many opportunities for girls then."
Nance went on scouting missions to Europe at his own expense, bringing back film of gymnastics routines from major international events. This gave the Twisters a leg up on domestic rivals; the club has placed nine gymnasts on the U.S. national team over the years. One was Janie Speaks, a 1964 Olympian who became the first woman to perform a full-twisting backflip, a skill that many at the time considered too manly.
After Nance retired, another teacher picked up the baton for Oklahoma gymnastics. Paul Ziert was a high school math instructor and gymnastics coach outside Chicago when OU hired him in 1973. He ran the Sooners' modest men's program out of a rundown movie theater west of campus. Building 24, as it was called, had a leaky ceiling, peeling paint and holes that allowed snakes, rats and raccoons to wander in.
Three years into his tenure Ziert landed Conner, a prized recruit from the Chicago area who had made the 1976 Olympic team as a high school senior and was so impressed with Ziert's optimism and feel for the sport that he turned down offers from more established programs at Michigan, Penn State and Cal. "We had the pommel horse and rings on the theater stage," recalls Conner, who led OU to the co-national championship in his first season and the outright title the next. "To get enough runway for the vault, you had to start your run in the ticket office."
One day in 1980 Lynn White, the wife of a member of the Oklahoma Board of Regents, brought her son and daughter to Building 24 to watch a workout. A python spooked one of the kids right out of a chair, and Ziert seized the moment to campaign for a new gym. Within a year the Sooners had erected the Sam Viersen Gymnastics Center, where the team now trains. "No, I did not plant the snake," says Ziert. "People ask all the time."
When Bela Karolyi, Comaneci's longtime coach, defected to the U.S. from Romania in 1981, he sought out Ziert, whom he had met at competitions. Ziert arranged for Karolyi to help out at OU and at a private club that Ziert had opened. All the while Karolyi struggled with English. He remembers a Russian saloon keeper who gave him a job cleaning tables and called Karolyi what sounded like "sunuvabeech." "After my wife, Martha, looked the word up," says Karolyi, "I thought, 'Oh, means like puppy.' For a week, I go around the gym patting kids on the head, saying, 'Nice little sunuvabeech.' If Paul hadn't pulled me aside to explain, my career might have died in Oklahoma."
By 1984, when he won two gold medals at the Los Angeles Games, Conner had reason to feel like an adopted son of the Sooner State. The town of Pauls Valley, 40 miles south of Norman, had literally held an adoption ceremony laying claim to him. In 1990 he reunited with Comaneci, who had stood next to him on the awards stand at the American Cup gymnastics meet in New York City in 1976. The pair married in 1996 at a state wedding in Bucharest and then moved back to Norman. "People ask me, 'How did Bart convince you to move to Oklahoma?' " Comaneci says. "He didn't have to. This reminds me of Onesti, where I grew up; so much sky, so friendly, so much gymnastics."
While Conner is the state's adopted son and Comaneci its adopted daughter, Shannon Miller, the greatest U.S. gymnast, is a native Oklahoman. She was coached from age nine by Edmond-based Steve Nunno and won 16 world and Olympic medals between 1991 and '96. Today an 18-foot-tall statue of her sits atop a nine-foot-high pedestal in the middle of Shannon Miller Park in Edmond, about three miles from the six-mile stretch of I-35 that bears her name. "People in Oklahoma stopped at nothing to support me," says Miller.