Bela Karolyi sits tall in the saddle. It is spring in the Texas hill country, and Karolyi is right where he wants to be, comfortably astride his chestnut cutting horse, Law, following the fences across his 53-acre ranch. Dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt and well-scuffed boots, the 50-year-old Karolyi looks more like a happily prosperous Texan, which, by the way, he is, than like the Romanian-born World's Most Famous Gymnastics Coach, which, of course, he also is.
Karolyi rides easily among the pines, telling the story of how he found the land for the ranch—came upon it one day in 1983 when he got lost while rabbit hunting. It took him a year or so to save the money for the land and to persuade the owner to sell. In the years since, Karolyi bulldozed the land, built a log cabin and added dormitories for his gymnasts, a swimming pool, tennis courts and a 20,000-square-foot gymnasium. He has cattle, horses and a seemingly endless supply of dogs. And to Karolyi, it all seems perfectly natural. He knows what it took to get here—god knows, he'll never forget—and in typical Karolyi fashion, he wants to embrace it all. Why shouldn't a gym teacher from the mountains of Transylvania wind up as a prosperous rancher in Texas? Why shouldn't anyone?
People who couldn't tell you the difference between a back handspring and a flip-flop layout can tell you who Bela Karolyi is. He's the big guy with the mustache and the funny accent, right? Nadia. Mary Lou. All those little girl gymnasts. All those hugs. Out on the mat, with his tiny athletes prancing around him, Karolyi looks about eight feet tall. He is something less than that, of course, merely a bearlike 6'1", but in the world of women's gymnastics, no figure looms larger. In 29 years of coaching—first in Romania, and for the past 11 years in the U.S.—Bela's athletes have won seven Olympic gold medals and 15 world championships, Of the 10 most recent U.S. champions, seven have come from Karolyi. At last fall's world championships in Indianapolis, Karolyi, coach of the U.S. women's team, led his charges to the silver medal in the team competition, behind only the untouchable Soviets. His latest star, 16-year-old Kim Zmeskal, who has been with Bela since she was six, became the first woman in U.S. gymnastics history to win the all-around world championship.
"I never been happier in whole life, in whole coaching career," Karolyi said after that meet, his rich Romanian accent rolling with emotion. "It is greatest moment because this moment put U.S. gymnastics in whole new arena."
July 26, 1992
Indeed, heading into Barcelona, Zmeskal and the U.S. team—which includes two other Karolyi girls—seem poised to repeat their Indy performances. If they do, it will be the greatest moment ever in U.S. women's gymnastics. At the '84 Games, of course, Karolyi darling Mary Lou Retton won the gold in the all-around, and the U.S. women took the team silver. But that year the Soviets boycotted the Olympics and the Games were in Los Angeles. There will be no such breaks in Barcelona, but Bela, for one, is ready. "This gonna be our best team ever," he says, his broad face scrunched up behind that big mustache. "This gonna be it."
To some people in gymnastics, the reason seems obvious. Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation (USGF), puts it plainly: "The one thing over the past 10 years that's had the most effect on U.S. gymnastics, overwhelmingly, is the presence of Bela Karolyi."
Yet even after a decade of such consistent and visible success, it seems that not everyone in the U.S. gymnastics community agrees with Jacki. There are plenty of people, other coaches mostly, who see Karolyi as a kind of Coach Dracula, menacing the red-blooded American system. Don't be fooled by all those smiling, romping little girls, they imply. Women's gymnastics is a sport so factionalized, so fraught with infighting and blood feuds, that it could make Don King and Bob Arum blush. Talk to some national-level coaches and you will hear Karolyi accused of everything from raging egotism to intimidation of judges to violation of the child-labor laws. His peers paint a picture of Karolyi as a ruthless Svengali, overworking his innocent young gymnasts for his own megalomaniacal needs.
"You watch Bela on TV and then you watch him in the gym, you see a different man," says one national team coach, who insists on anonymity. "It is not pretty and it's not right."
"He's used to a totalitarian system," says another coach. "It shouldn't work in this country."
"Jealousy," Karolyi replies, fiercely. "I am challenging the system, challenging their sweet mediocrity. They are protecting so aggressively." He gives an elaborate shrug. "Holy cat! All I am saying is you must push hard. And you must have the highest standards." To Bela, it is that simple. With his walrus mustache and his theatrical cheerleading and his charmingly fractured English—holy cat?—it is easy to lose sight of just how serious Karolyi is. "He plays up the country-bumpkin image, the cowboy from Romania," says Paul Ziert, former coach at the University of Oklahoma and a longtime friend of Karolyi's. "But he is brilliant. And he represents absolute commitment to gymnastics." Maybe that is what is so threatening.
When Karolyi defected to the U.S., he was already the World's Most Famous Gymnastics Coach. He had grown up in Transylvania, working the family farm and hunting and fishing in the rugged mountains around his home. A talented athlete—he was a heavyweight boxer and a junior national champion in the hammer throw—Karolyi enrolled in the five-year Physical Education University in Bucharest. There, at the age of 18, he flunked a required gymnastics course. Determined to make up for the failure, Karolyi devoted himself to learning the sport. He did well enough to make the college team—and well enough to win the affection of a fellow gymnast named Martha Eross. In 1963 they married and together started a small gymnastics school in Vulcan, a tiny coal-mining town in northern Romania. A few years later Karolyi found his prize pupil, a skinny dark-eyed kindergartner named Nadia Comaneci.
At Montreal in '76, Comaneci made gymnastics and Olympic history by scoring the first perfect 10 on her way to the all-around gold medal. Suddenly Karolyi's success was Romania's success, a glorious product of the government's system. The authorities, says Karolyi, began interfering with his program. They had the girls—his girls!—traveling and making propaganda appearances. To Karolyi it was all a disruption in training. When he protested, he was threatened with removal from the national team. Comaneci was transferred to another gym, in Bucharest, and Karolyi's funding was cut. "All of a sudden they forget everything I do," he says. "I am 'controversial.' " Discouraged, Karolyi considered leaving competitive coaching.
The breaking point came in March '81, during an exhibition tour of the U.S. by the Romanian team. Secret police accompanied the delegation, clumsily disguised as masseurs and journalists, and Karolyi found himself under increasing pressure to toe the party line. The leader of the Romanian gymnastics federation, Nicolai Vieru, made it clear to Karolyi that the coach was suspected of intending to defect. Fearful of reprisals upon their return to Romania, Bela and Martha did just that. On the last day of the tour, March 29, accompanied by team choreographer Geza Pozsar, they walked out of their hotel and disappeared into the crowded streets of New York City. It was the beginning of a wrenching odyssey.
"We just decide, suddenly," says Karolyi. "We haven't been prepared. We had not saved any money. We had even bought a big stuffed bear to bring home to Andrea." Andrea, their seven-year-old daughter, had stayed behind in Romania with an aunt, and now Bela and Martha had no way of contacting her. They carried her bear with them into the street.
With two suitcases and $360 between them, the Karolyis took refuge in a one-room Manhattan apartment belonging to Martha's aunt. Though at the time Bela spoke six languages, none of them was English, and his visits to the immigration office were nightmares in miscommunication. "I tried German first, then Spanish and Italian, but nothing worked," says Karolyi. "People were rude and ignorant. Nothing I could do was right."
On their second day of freedom, Karolyi came in to find Martha's aunt weeping in front of the television set. "I look at the screen, and it looks like just another gangster movie," recalls Bela. "People shooting and ducking." In fact it was a videotape of the attempted assassination that day of President Reagan by John W. Hinckley Jr. "Holy Jesus Christ!" says Bela, eyes wide. "I thought, What kind of a place am I coming to?"
He couldn't have had any idea. After a week, with the help of other èmigrès, he and Martha contacted the State Department and applied for official asylum, which was eventually granted. Although their defection made the newspapers, no one in the gymnastics community contacted Karolyi, and after the initial swirl of publicity, he and Martha were left to fend for themselves. An acquaintance named Les Sasvari, an expatriate Hungarian coach living in the U.S., helped pay their way to Los Angeles. California, Sasvari told them, was the promised land of American gymnastics, a land of sunshine, gyms and jobs. A friend of Sasvari's worked as a manager at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and there, improbably, Bela and Martha stayed for free for several days. Karolyi, English phrascbook in hand, called every gymnasium in the Los Angeles phone book, offering his services. There were no takers.
"I don't blame them," says Bela. "Most of them could not even understand me." But then he hints at darker reasons for those early snubs. At the time of the defection, several U.S. papers had run stories citing American coaches' reactions to the Karolyis' arrival. "It was said I could not adapt to the different social realities, that the Romanian system was not going to work here," says Karolyi. "At the time I did not understand. Now, I do. It was pure business resistance. They didn't want the competition."
Whatever the reason, there were no jobs for the coach of the 1976 Olympic champion. After being politely but firmly asked to check out of the Wilshire, Bela and Martha moved to a motel near the docks in Long Beach. "I think it was the cheapest hotel in the country," says Bela. "Seven dollars a night." He pauses. "There, most of the helpless and desperate people are living. They were the drug dealers and the prostitutes and all the time the sailors having fights. Always you feel unsafe. Uncovered."
Karolyi found work as a longshoreman on the docks of L.A. In the mornings he took jobs cleaning out the seedy restaurants and bars along the waterfront for whatever pay he could negotiate in broken English and sign language. "The first word I think I learned," he says, "was sonovabitch. 'Sonovabitch, this not clean!' 'Sonovabitch, sweep that again!' " Sometimes he was given leftovers from the kitchen; more often he bought a pretzel on the street. Often he had to walk three hours from the motel and three hours back, trudging alongside the freeways. Exhausted, he would collapse in front of the television, cramming into his mind whatever English he could pick up from Sesame Street and the soap operas.
"At first, you feel anger," says Karolyi. "I thought, Who needs this? Why not go back and face it in Romania? But finally you start to drop that pride. Just like an animal, when you want to survive, you don't think anymore."
After two months Karolyi got in touch with Ziert at Oklahoma, one of the few American coaches he knew. The two had met several times at international competitions and, despite the language barrier, had become friends. Ziert knew of the Karolyis' defection, but he thought the couple had settled comfortably in California. Stunned to learn of their plight, Ziert invited the Karolyis to Norman and offered them jobs, first at his gymnastics summer camp and later at the university, as part-time coaches. With a measure of security at last, Bela and Martha sent for Andrea. "They had had this absolutely terrible time," says Ziert, today a promoter of gymnastics shows and a manager for Comaneci and U.S. Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner, among others. "But all Bela wanted to do was to prove he could duplicate his success within the American system."
Karolyi got his chance the following year. Invited to Houston to work in a new gym, he arrived to find that the business had folded. Undaunted, Karolyi borrowed money and opened his own gym. He tacked up posters on trees and telephone poles all over Houston and came up with 24 students. Word quickly spread that the coach of Comaneci had opened up shop. Within eight months he had 80 students, and in a year and a half he had 500, mostly girls, including a youngster from a West Virginia coal-mining town, Mary Lou Retton. Soon, the Karolyi bear hug was back on TV, as Retton bounded her way to the '84 Olympic gold medal. Since then Bela has continued to produce—and attract—the nation's best gymnasts, whose parents pay up to $3,000 a year to send their children to him.
Despite the complaints of many in the U.S. gymnastics community, Karolyi has successfully brought his system to America. What drives him is an obsession with proving that he can make his system work anywhere, that the Karolyi way—an aggressive, explosive style of performance steeled by relentless preparation—can outstrip anyone else's.
Karolyi has waged several well-publicized battles with the U.S. gymnastics establishment. In '84 and again in '88, Karolyi (who became a U.S. citizen in '89) was passed over for an Olympic coaching position. Both times the USGF named Don Peters of SCATS as coach. In Los Angeles, Bela was reduced to using an equipment handler's pass to get on the floor of Pauley Pavilion to guide Retton. In '88, when Peters declined to name Karolyi as an assistant, the USGF offered Bela the ceremonial title of chief of the American gymnastics delegation. Karolyi flatly refused to go to Seoul at all. In the final trials meet, four of Karolyi's athletes made the team—and none of Peters's. Peters subsequently quit, and Karolyi was installed as the coach. The selection process was changed so that any coach with an athlete on the team is named to the squad. "Some people say we bend the rules for Bela," says the USGF's Jacki. "We don't. Other coaches complain about him, but they should realize he helped make it possible for all of them to be with their athletes."
Besides, what U.S. coach has anywhere near the international experience that Karolyi has? Ziert recalls the time in 1983 when he and Bela shared coaching duties at an international meet: "During warmups for the vault, I noticed that [Boriana] Stoyanova of Bulgaria, who three months before had won the world championship on vault, was using a springboard setup that was against the rules. I told Bela and said we should tell the judges. He'd already spotted it. 'Not yet,' he said. 'Wait till after warmups.' Then, right before Stoyanova went up to compete, Bela protested. They changed the board on Stoyanova, and she wiped out on the vault. Mary Lou won that event."
"He is a supreme student of the game," says Jacki. "He uses every angle. I watch Bela at these meets. He runs around yelling at the judges and complaining about the scoring, but he never takes his eyes off his girls. In the meantime the other coaches are all watching Bela and ignoring their own kids."
Kevin Brown of Orlando, Fla., coached Brandy Johnson, a silver medalist at the 1989 worlds, before she left him to work with Karolyi and again when she left Houston in '89 to return home to Florida. Brown has watched Karolyi as intently as anyone. "Bela is very aggressive," says Brown. "Whatever it takes, he'll do it. But most successful business-people are like that. Still, I think maybe he's ruffled too many other coaches' feathers."
From the outside, Karolyi's Gymnastics, a collection of three one-story prefab buildings on the north side of Houston, looks like a warehouse. It sits in a quiet residential area. Bela lives nearby. So do the Zmeskals. At seven each morning Bela's athletes arrive for the first workout of the day. They begin by stretching and move on to light tumbling. There is no music, no laughter, no talking. "Oh, no way," says Zmeskal, in mock horror.
In Karolyi's gym, Karolyi does the talking. "Harder, harder," he calls as the gymnasts tumble. Occasionally he emits a low, rolling "Gooood," more often a chiding "What are you doooing?" Sometimes it's a roaring "Is no good! Do it right!"
Karolyi drives his "leetle ones" through workouts that would make an NFL linebacker woozy. Yet despite the often frightening intensity, he encourages parents to stay and watch the workouts. And so the mothers and fathers sit in the front room and stare through the glass while this Romanian madman puts their children through their paces. "Sometimes the preparation is so hard, so intense," says Karolyi, shaking a clenched fist. "They crying, they screaming. Is over the top."
"He does the coaching; we do the parenting," says Zmeskal's mother, Clarice. "But sometimes it is hard to take."
Karolyi's athletes work out for eight hours every day—eight hours of ferocious effort and endless repetition. The point, says Retton, is to build the gymnast's confidence. "When you get to a meet, it's a relief," she says, "because you only have to do it once."
Critics say Karolyi's athletes pay too high a price for their success. They talk about burnout and the psychological damage that comes with such a ruthless, success-at-all-costs mentality. "I don't think it's the best system," says Stormy Eaton, coach of world championship team alternates Sandy Woolsey and Liz Crandall. "I haven't seen any other sports where the kids have to cry to get ahead."
Bela waves away any talk of tears. "We are not in the gym to be having fun," he says. "The fun comes in the end, with the winning and the medals." It all seems so simple. Let the other coaches relax. Or let them fume. The World's Most Famous Gymnastics Coach will do what he has always done. "They are mistaken to make it personal," he says of his rivals. "That's the name of the life! You got to reach. You got to challenge. Relaxing—that's the worst thing can happen to you."
It has never, it seems, happened to Bela Karolyi. Standing on the porch of his log cabin, Bela tries once more to explain: "Back in Romania, always I was struggling to compete with Vladislav Rastorotsky, the great Russian coach of Lyudmila Turishcheva. He was a powerful coach, internationally. I took him like the major challenge of my life, and pretty soon I'm beating him and we are pushing each other so hard, so fierce. But out of the arena, we are friends. We could drink all night together, tell stories, laugh." He shrugs. It seems so clear. "If you look back and you have some sincerity, you think, Thanks god he was around."