Now wait just a minute here, let's see if we've got this straight. The coach of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team is going to Korea to coach the girls of his bitter rival, and his assistant coach will be, say what?, his rival's wife.

Uh-huh.Fate has played a cruel hand for America's team, soon to be a prime time Olympic soap opera for your viewing pleasure.

As the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials wound down Saturday afternoon in the Salt Palace, this strange, ironic, tabloid's-dream-come-true came true.

Don Peters, the head Olympic coach, failed to place a single gymnast from his Scats Club on the Olympic team. One by one his three athletes faded - Sabrina Mar and Doe Yamashiro both came up lame and withdrew from the trials on Saturday, and Stacey Gunthorpe went into a mysterious tailspin and finished 11th.

All of which opened the door for Peter's pal, Bela Karolyi, who placed five of his seven gymnasts on the eight-woman team - Phoebe Mills (first place), Brandy Johnson (fourth), Chelle Stack (fifth) and alternates Rhonda Faehn (seventh) and Kristie Phillips (eighth). They'll be coached by none other than Peters in Seoul; Karolyi, in a huff because he can't be accredited as an Olympic coach, has vowed to remain in Houston during the Games.

"I don't anticipate any problem," said Peters. " . . . I've coached other people's kids before. It's no big deal."

Karolyi thinks otherwise, of course. "The handicap will be there," he says. "If the Olympics were tomorrow, it would be no problem. But in a month, the situation will be changed. There will be work to do (with his gymnasts)."

As proof he points to the '87 Pan Am Games, which, for similar reasons, he refused to attend. In his absence, his gymnasts bombed. "They did very poorly," says Karolyi.

Shortly after Saturday's competition, Karolyi and Peters stood back-to-back, some six feet apart, answering reporters' questions. They should have marched 10 paces with a revolver, turned and fired. It might clear up this mess.

Surely you're familiar with the Peters-Karolyi rivalry by now. It's simple enough to understand: Peters is the U.S. coach; Karolyi wants to be the U.S. coach.

In January, the national federation named Peters head coach, just as he was in '84, this time by a 4-3 vote. Peters could've named Karolyi as one of his two assistants, but his camp was having none of that. Peters seemed to be throwing Karolyi a bone when he named Karolyi's wife, Marta, an assistant, but Karolyi is hardly pacified and the rivalry continues.

In the press room reporters darted back and forth between the two coaches, seemingly trying to patch up relations. With five gymnasts on the team, wouldn't Karolyi change his mind and come to Seoul, they wanted to know. "No," said Karolyi. "If I go it would create problems. It would stir up feelings. People would get nervous . . . No, I am positive this is the best thing I can do."

Meanwhile, Peters was asked if he would personally ask Karolyi to come to Seoul. "Yeah, if you want me to," said Peters. Then, more seriously, "I'll ask all (the girls' personal) coaches to be there."

And would Karolyi come under such circumstances? "Look, this is not a slumber party," said Karolyi.

"Either I'm fully accredited (as a coach) and have access to the floor and the facilities or I'm out. Nobody can ask me to come and stay like a dog under a bridge."

And from Peters: "I hope he at least comes to the training camp (in Huntington Beach, Calif., Peters' home base)."

Karolyi: "I think the training camp should be in Houston (where he and his gymnasts train)."

Ohhhh, Don! "No comment."

And how do the gymnasts feel about The Situation?

Let's ask Phillips, who, more than anyone, is clearly in the middle of all this. She defected from the Karolyi camp last year to join Peters' club, went into a slump and returned to Karolyi two months ago. Now she'll be reunited with Peters in Seoul.

"The coach with the most gymnasts on the team should be the coach," said Phillips. "Anyone can understand that."

Mike Jacki, the executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, agrees with Phillips. So does, surprise!, Karolyi.

Karolyi's coaching record speaks for itself. He coached Rumania's Nadia Comaneci to a gold medal in 1976, then defected to the U.S. in 1981 and put the golden touch on Mary Lou Retton. Since then he has sent first Phillips and now Mills to the top of the U.S. rankings. Still, rival coaches shy away from Karolyi because of his domineering personality and what they perceive to be his grandstanding plays, which they say overshadow the athletes.

Karolyi was at his best (worst?) during the '84 Olympics, when he managed to get on the floor by obtaining accredidation as an equipment manager. He proceeded to set an Olympic record for bear hugs, and it nearly cost the American team.

Under international rules, only national coaches can be on the floor during competition, not personal coaches. Karolyi was warned after jumping a barricade and running onto the floor to hug one of his athletes, that a repeat performance would result in a penalty for the team and the gymnast. Ignoring the warning, the next day Karolyi again jumped the barricade to hug Retton after she clinched the gold medal. If the rule had been enforced, it could have cost Retton .05 of a point and the gold medal.

It's that type of behavior that turns off coaches; nevertheless, on Saturday Peters was saying, "I don't consider us to be mortal enemies, as it seems to be coming out."

Peters is confident the U.S. team will be unhurt by Karolyi's absence in Seoul. "We'll have training camp for 31/2 weeks and all the (personal) coaches will be involved," he said. But not Karolyi, who said he won't attend training camp either, unless one of his gymnasts calls for help.

The rivalry continues.