Other women's gymnastics coaches spend a great deal of time wondering aloud about the success of Bela Karolyi. They say he often steals girls from other gyms when they are just about to peak and then takes the credit for their success. They say he's not the best technical coach, that he just works the girls harder than other coaches.

It happened with Mary Lou Retton before the last Olympics. She came to him only months before and produced an Olympic gold all-around medal.And now it seems to be happening with 15-year-old Brandy Johnson, who came to Karolyi's five months ago from Brown's Gymnastics in her home state of Florida.

Johnson screeched into fourth place Thursday night after the compulsory round of the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics trials. In that round, she scored a career-best compulsory total of 38.401 that tied for the second-highest figure of the night with Kelly Garrison-Steves, who stands second.

Going into Thursday's meet, Johnson had been sixth overall after scoring 38.35 in the compulsory and 38.25 in the optional round of the Championships of the USA in Houston July 9.

This afternoon in an optional round that will be televised live by ABC-TV beginning at 2 p.m., Johnson could challenge leader Phoebe Mills, Garrison-Steves and third-place Hope Spivey for top honors in the finals of the Olympic trials in the Salt Palace.

The top six finishers - as determined by a complex scoring procedure that counts the Houston championships as 40 percent and the two Olympic trials sessions in the Salt Palace as 60 percent - will be the 1988 U.S. Olympic women's team. The seventh place finisher will be the traveling alternate.

The team will be known immediately following today's competition. The women's and men's team, which was decided last night in the Salt Palace, will be introduced together tonight at a Natalie Cole concert in Symphony Hall. The concert is part of the Olympic trials festival in Salt Lake City this week.

Johnson stands just ahead of teammate Chelle Stack - Mills, Johnson and Stack are all Karolyi Kids - and Stack stands .236 point ahead of Salt Lake City's Melissa Marlowe, who moved up from 11th place to sixth place with her 38.538 total Thursday.

Marlowe is .85 ahead of seventh-place Doe Yamashiro, and Karolyi Kid Kristie Phillips, the former national champion, is eighth, .102 out of sixth. Rhonda Faehn of Karolyi's Houston gym is ninth, .2 behind Marlowe.

From there, Christy Henrich of Great American in Kansas City, Mo., is nearly .3 behind in 10th; Joyce Wilborn of the Pennsylvania Parkettes, who scored a unanimous 10.0 in vaulting Thursday, is 11th, .604 behind Marlowe; and Kristen Kenoyer of the Parkettes is 12th, .078 behind Marlowe's all-important sixth-place spot.

Stacey Gunthorpe of SCATS (Calif.) dropped eight places Thursday but is still less than a point behind Marlowe, and so is Lisa Panzironi of the Parkettes, in 14th place.

The meet scoring is more complicated than just 60-40. The Salt Lake trials count 60 percent of the overall score, but the Thursday compulsories count 60 percent and today's optionals count 40 percent of the trials total. That means competitors can't move quite as fast today.

For example, in the compulsories that were weighted 60 percent, Marlowe totaled 38.538 in actual judging points, but her weighted score counted for 46.246. The total was multiplied by 120 percent. Today, the same actual score would be weighted to 30.830, factored by 80 percent.

"It will take four solid routines Saturday," noted Marlowe, aware that today's scores count less. "I need to at least maintain where I am and give myself a chance to move up." To do that, she needs "to be consistent and strong and no bobbles, of course," she says.

In the Houston championships, with a fall from the beam, Marlowe scored 37.90 in the optional round after getting 38.25 in the compulsory. "I don't fall off the beam in compulsories," she pointed out, noting she can make no mistakes in optionals today.

Johnson says the move to Karolyi's was just what she needed to give her the final polish for such high-class competition. She'd been thinking of moving for about a year but had a couple of places in mind. When she visited Karolyi's, "I knew where I should be.

"I had been struggling with myself at my gym for a long time and wasn't getting any better," Johnson said, urgently adding that it was her fault and not that of coaches Kevin and Rita Brown.

She visited Karolyi's "because he's produced so many champions," she said.

For her personal needs, the methods there have been beneficial. Training two workouts a day instead of one and with so many other high-class gymnasts to push her provides motivation. After workouts that perhaps doubled in intensity from her old gym, "It's incredible how good you feel about yourself," Johnson said. "I used to pray really hard before all my routines because I was afraid I was going to miss it or afraid I would get hurt," she says. That's no longer the case. And part of it may be because Karolyi won't spot her.

"My coach used to spot me a lot," she says, adding that was by her own request. "Bela doesn't spot at all. I would rather do it that way. I have had it both ways, and now I'm more confident in myself. I depended on the coach too much."

Oddly, Karolyi's statements over the past four years _ that he must be on the floor to coach his gymnasts while the rules prohibit him from being there since he's not an official American team coach _ seem contradictory here. He says his gymnasts have to have him on the floor to feel comfortable when they do their routines in pressure-packed international meets. Johnson says she doesn't worry about whether he will boycott the Olympic trip, as he announced he would do three weeks ago and still maintains.

"I don't think I need him there," Johnson says. "Some need him there more than others, but I haven't been there that long and am not dependent on him. Before, that (being dependent upon the coach) messed me up. Now I know better.".