It was, we told ourselves, a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Nadia hadn’t even noticed the man watching through the schoolyard fence as she turned cartwheels with her kindergarten pals. She hadn’t known he would go from class to class afterward looking for her, take her away to train with him, to change her life forever. We knew it was only a matter of time before one of us would be discovered by someone in the know. Bela Karolyi lived in America now, which seemed auspicious. Readiness was all.
We knew all about stranger danger, of course—creeps and weird guys who offered candy, coaxed children into cars or knocked on doors posing as salesmen or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Men like Bela Karolyi took little girls and made them stars; other men made them disappear like volunteers in a half-finished magic trick. At the supermarket, under the harsh fluorescence of the dairy aisle, rows upon rows of missing children peered at us from the sides of milk cartons. At the breakfast table those milk carton kids provided a doleful, grainy counterpoint to Mary Lou Retton’s triumphant, hi-res, Wheaties-box grin. We knew there were certain risks involved in seeking glory. You couldn’t flinch. You had to be able to hurtle your body through space and nail the dismount. You had to know which magician to trust so you didn’t end up sawn in half. We were pretty sure we’d be able to tell the difference. The real challenge was getting noticed.