RIDE 'EM, BELA!

A coach and four athletes who came to the U.S. talk with SI's Anita Verschoth
June 29, 1986

BELA KAROLYI
ROMANIA

Karolyi, 43, defected to the U.S. in 1981 after coaching Nadia Comaneci to a total of five gold medals in the '76 and '80 Olympics. Karolyi's many U.S. protégées include Mary Lou Retton.

The decision to stay in the United States came suddenly. Since our first big success at the 1976 Olympics, my wife, Martha, and I had been increasingly harassed by the Romanian Gymnastics Federation. When the federation decided to send a team to the U.S. in 1981, a large official delegation traveled with us, extolling at every press conference the importance of communist ideology in the progress we had made in gymnastics. I felt embarrassed.

One morning in New York, Martha and I decided to defect. We were both 39 years old and spoke no English. On the second day of our new life, we watched on TV what we presumed to be a gangster movie with people shooting and running around. We couldn't understand why they showed the same scene over and over until somebody explained that President Reagan had been shot.

With our last dollars we bought plane tickets to L.A., and I found work on the docks, loading and unloading ships, and cleaned restaurants at night. Finally, Paul Ziert, the gymnastics coach at Oklahoma, got me a job at the university and in his private gymnastics club. Martha and I found all the kids wanted to do was have fun: "I just want to have fun, have no responsibilities, no desire to feel proud of something achieved." I began my own program in 1982. We started with one gym in Houston; now we have three. We also own a 50-acre ranch in New Waverly, Texas.

Our success with Mary Lou Retton and Julie McNamara showed that our kids aren't coming for the fun anymore; they are shooting for Olympic gold.

MARIO ANDRETTI
ITALY

Andretti, 46, came to the U.S. at 15. He is the only man to be selected Driver of the Year in three decades ('67, '78, '84) and to win both Formula One and Indy Car championships.

Following World War II our city, Montona, which had been part of Italy, became part of Yugoslavia. We wanted to keep our Italian citizenship, so in 1948 we moved to Lucca, a charming little city in Tuscany. Italy's economy was in bad shape, though, and my father, a farmer, had a hard time making ends meet. My mother had relatives living in the U.S. who suggested that we give it a try over here.

The day we sailed past the Statue of Liberty was my sister Anna Maria's 21st birthday. It was a beautiful morning, and we all ran toward the ship's bow to look at the statue, which to us was the symbol of the future, the symbol of hope. For my father, who was almost as old then as I am now, it meant a dramatic change. We settled in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and he went to work for Bethlehem Steel. None of us kids ever wanted to go back to Europe. When I was older I got many offers from racing teams in Italy. I still love my homeland and I'm proud of my heritage, but I would never go back to live there. This is my home.

We had been in this country for about three days when we discovered a small racetrack near our home in Nazareth. They were racing modified stock cars, which looked to my twin brother, Aldo, and me like something we could do. We began building our own car after school. We got about seven partners to invest some money, and by the time we were 18 we were racing. We never looked back.

My whole family was sworn in together as citizens in Philadelphia on April 15, 1964. By then I had started driving Indy Cars. I had to give some thought to becoming a citizen. I felt apprehensive in some ways because I was very proud of my Italian heritage. I didn't want to give that up. Then I reasoned that I would really gain something, because the Italian in me will never change anyway. I do have an appreciation of what this country gave me, and I do feel that I owe something to this country. When I became Grand Prix world champion in 1978, I was only the second American to do that; the first was Phil Hill. I was proud for myself and for the U.S.

Last year I won a race on the 30th anniversary of our immigration day. The family talked about it—the moment, the start of it all, the life the statue brought us. More than most people, I know the meaning of "only in America."

SALLY LITTLE
SOUTH AFRICA

Little, 34, first came to the U.S. in 1970. She was the LPGA Rookie of the Year in 1971, and in 1976 won the first of her 14 professional victories. Her career earnings total $1,012,920.

In Cape Town my whole family played golf, and my father was my teacher. I came to the U.S. when I was 19 because I wanted to find out whether I would enjoy golf as a profession. After three months of playing in the U.S. I won the World Amateur team event in Madrid. I returned to the States in 1971 and, as an amateur, played in a few pro tournaments, finishing fifth in one. I thought, This is going to be a piece of cake, and decided to become a professional. As it turned out, it wasn't as easy as that.

It was hard being away from home. I missed my family, my friends. I missed South Africa. There is such a different life-style over here. When I was here, I wanted to be in South Africa. When I was in South Africa, I wanted to be here. I kept going back and forth.

I decided in 1975 I would stay in the U.S. for the whole year. If it didn't go the way I wanted it to, I would go home for good. As it happened, 1975 was a big turnaround year in my career. I was playing consistently well, and in '76 I won my first pro tournament. By 1977 I had become a permanent resident of the U.S. Last October I moved to Laguna Beach, California. I live in a small house high on a cliff and can see as far as Long Beach and Catalina Island. Cape Town is by far the prettiest natural piece of land I have ever seen in my life, but Laguna comes close. I have a wonderful, peaceful feeling when I'm in Laguna.

I still have a lot of ties with South Africa. You never lose that. I made the decision to become a U.S. citizen because I expect to live here for the rest of my life. My father had always stressed that if I made my career in another country, I should become a part of it. I got my citizenship in '82 in a private ceremony in Tampa. The most exciting moment came when I got my American passport. That passport still looks unreal to me.

There are many things I like about America. I like the freedom of expression, something I really don't feel in South Africa.

The only fault I can find with Americans is that they are resting on their laurels. They are very placid. They are not inspired to work and pursue as they used to be. I see a lot of boredom here.

But when the time conies for me to leave golf, I won't have to think twice. Being a woman starting a new career is so much easier here than elsewhere. America is 100 years in front of all other countries when it conies to that.

TONY PEREZ
CUBA

Perez, 44, came to the U.S. to play baseball in 1960, and he is now in his 22nd year in the majors. A lifetime .280 hitter, Perez appeared in five World Series and seven All-Star games.

I come from Central de Violeta, a small town about 300 miles from Havana. My father worked in the sugar factory there, and I worked with him. Since I was a kid, I wanted to play professional baseball, and I knew the only place I could do that was in the U.S.

I played shortstop on the sugar-factory team. Scouts from the U.S. came around often, and one day Tony Pacheco from the Cincinnati Reds signed me. I didn't get a bonus, just a couple of dollars for the visa fee plus $250 a month.

I was 17, and I remember my first year in the minors in Geneva, New York. There were five other Cubans on the team, all about my age. We had a lot of problems. We didn't speak English well; we were homesick. But I loved baseball so much that I was able to put up with everything. I learned the game and how to say the baseball terms in English.

In 1962 the Reds assigned me to their farm team in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Things were different in the South then. The black players and I could not stay with the rest of the team. We were put in a hotel in the black section of town. I had never had that problem in Cuba or Geneva. We also couldn't eat with the white players, and sometimes we would wait in the bus outside a restaurant until the white players finished their meals and brought us hamburgers. After Rocky Mount, I played in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Macon, Georgia, and everywhere I found the same situation until, in 1964, they outlawed segregation. It was hard for me to understand why people of different colors couldn't live and eat together, but it was explained to me that it had been that way for a long time, and that this was part of the history of the U.S.

I was sent to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League in 1963, and I never had discrimination problems again. When I got to the big leagues for good in 1965, I was ready. If you have the ability and want to play, this is your land of opportunity.

I became a citizen in 1971 with my wife, Pituka, who came from Cuba also. We have a great family now with one son, Eduardo, in high school and another, Victor (photo, right), in college. My only regret is that I had to leave my family behind-my parents, brothers and three sisters. I've been back to visit three times, and I do whatever I can to help them.

My career is near its end now, and all I can say is, had it not been for baseball, I would still be working in the sugar factory.

JOHN LEE
SOUTH KOREA

Lee, 22, arrived in the U.S. 10 years ago. He was twice an All-America placekicker at UCLA, and the St. Louis Cardinals made him their second-round pick in this yearns NFL draft.

I remember my first ride from L.A. International Airport to the San Fernando Valley. Every time we went over the top of a hill, I saw a sea of lights, the lights of this big city, Los Angeles. I was especially excited because I had been a baseball player in South Korea, and I knew baseball was about the biggest sport in America.

I pitched for Downey High and played in the local Connie Mack and Mickey Mantle leagues. Because of baseball I made friends and learned English quickly. My father had been a businessman in Seoul, but he sold everything to come here, and now he and my mother run a frozen-yogurt shop in Yorba Linda. Had we stayed in Seoul, I believe I would have become a professional baseball player. But here in the States, all my baseball friends played touch football in the fall. One day my friends asked me to kick a football, and I made a field goal from 50 yards out. I played noseguard on the football team, but I thought I should concentrate on kicking. Finally the coaches agreed with me. I kicked 11 field goals-the longest was 45 yards-my senior year and got a scholarship to UCLA. Now my kicking has given me the chance to play pro football for the Cardinals. Only in America can people bang their heads together and get paid well for it.

I think Koreans are more interested in skills than in strength. Kicking is 90 percent mental anyway, and I learned to go out there and not make a big deal out of it. If you miss, you miss. I think Americans are far more laid-back than Asians. From being in America I learned to be cool. I became Americanized very quickly. Within our first year here my parents Westernized our names. I used to be called Lee Min Jong (the family name comes first in Korea). But you can't hide your physical structure. I'm not a blond California surfer type. I was lucky, I think, that I earned respect so quickly because I excelled in sports. By being successful in football, I avoided the racism I might have experienced as just another Korean walking down the street.

I became a citizen last November, a few days before the UCLA-USC game. That was my first game as an American, and I broke the [NCAA Division I-A career] field goal record with my 79th, though we lost. It was funny that I had made several All-America teams the year before, and I wasn't even an American.

Becoming an American was a matter of convenience, a practical decision, but it's nice to be able to say, "I'm an American."

ILLUSTRATION PHOTOBRIAN LANKER FOUR PHOTOSBILL BALLENBERG

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)