Thursday, July 15, 2004
For 40 years, Karolyis the guiding force of gymnastics
NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- Bela Karolyi was showing off his house
deep in the heart of Sam Houston State Forest, pointing out the
loft where Mary Lou Retton once slept, recalling the history of the
numerous hunting trophies when he heard the door open.
Bela Karolyi has been instructing Olympians for the last 40 years.
"Uh-oh,'' he said.
"Oh, Bela!'' his wife, Martha, cried when she saw the
unexpected guests. "The house is not quite in order!''
Soon after, the reporters were ushered out.
Bela may be the showman, a larger-than-life persona who inspired
delicate sprites to soar to wondrous heights. But it's Martha who
is the quiet force, keeping her husband on task whether they're in
the gym or at home.
For almost 40 years -- the last 23 in the United States -- the
Karolyis have set the gold standard in gymnastics. Together they
trained nine Olympic champions and 15 world champions, including
the sport's greatest icons, Retton and Nadia Comaneci.
Now, with Martha Karolyi in charge of the U.S. women's
gymnastics program, the Americans are poised for what could be
their biggest triumph. Four years after leaving Sydney in shambles,
the Americans head to the Athens Olympics as heavy favorites to win
"This is one of the strongest and deepest teams we've ever
fielded,'' said Kelli Hill, coach of two-time national champion
The Karolyi gymnastics dynasty began in their native Romania,
where Martha (pronounced MAR-ta) competed in college. Smitten by
her, Bela signed on as an assistant coach so he could spend more
time with her.
They are a portrait in contrasts.
Bela is a tall, bear of a man, with a thick mustache, booming
voice and an energetic personality that rubs off on everyone around
him. Martha is tiny with bright, dark eyes and a high-pitched
voice, a shy woman who still isn't comfortable in the public eye.
Engaging and caring with those she knows, she's also a model of
Yet their differences make them perfectly suited for each other.
They married after graduating from college, and moved to a small
coal-mining town in Transylvania to teach elementary school.
Looking for a way to keep their students warm and entertained
during the long and harsh winters, the Karolyis dragged out some
old mats and taught them gymnastics. Their students' exhibitions
thrilled the town -- and caught the eye of the Romanian government,
which hired them to coach the women's national team.
The world discovered the Karolyis -- or Bela, at least -- in 1976,
when Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics
and tumbled her way into the hearts of millions. But while Bela was
squarely in the spotlight, doling out his trademark bear hugs,
Martha's influence may have been more profound.
"There is a saying, 'People who do a lot, they don't talk a
lot,''' Comaneci said.
The Karolyis fell out of favor with the Romanian government
during the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Bela criticized the judging --
which some thought cost Comaneci a second all-around title -- and
Romanian officials were horrified that he would embarrass their
When the Karolyis took the Romanian team to New York for an
exhibition in March 1981, they were tipped off that they would be
punished when they returned home. Speaking no English and with
their 6-year-old daughter, Andrea, still in Romania, the couple
faced an agonizing decision.
After a sleepless night, they decided to defect.
"We knew what kind of risks we were taking, because nobody was
guaranteeing us anything,'' Martha said.
They weren't even able to tell their daughter, who was staying
with an aunt.
"We were waiting for the team and my parents to come home on
the train. Here were the girls. Where's mom and dad?'' Andrea
Karolyi Wise recalled. "It was pretty scary. ... (But) there was
no other choice in their minds.''
Mary Lou was coached by Bela Karoli en route to her goal medal in 1984.
Andrea came to the United States about six months later and the
family settled in Houston, where the Karolyis opened a gym. It soon
became the center of American gymnastics, cranking out eight
national champions in 13 years.
Three years after the Karolyis left Romania, Retton became the
first -- and, so far, only -- American to win the Olympic all-around.
"To them, it wasn't work. It was their life,'' Karolyi Wise
said. "It was hard because they were focused on gymnastics. `Why
can't you come to my play at school? Or my jazz recital?' But I
always saw how dedicated to the sport they were. And when they were
home, they were very loving and caring.''
No matter how late her parents got home, the three always sat
down to talk about their days, speaking in their native Hungarian.
When they weren't coaching, Bela liked to hunt and work on the
ranch he built 45 minutes north of Houston; Martha liked to shop.
The Karolyis retired after the 1996 Olympics and moved to the
ranch, which had grown from a small plot of land with a hunting
lodge to a 1,200-acre spread with a menagerie including everything
from cattle to camels.
But when the United States faltered at the 1999 world
championships, USA Gymnastics begged the Karolyis to come back.
They agreed, and Bela became the national team coordinator.
The experiment failed miserably. To compete with the state
machines of China, Romania and Russia, Bela came up with an idea
for semi-centralized training: Gymnasts would live at home and work
with their personal coaches, but it would be under the direction of
national team officials and there would be regular training camps
to monitor the athletes' progress.
The personal coaches chafed at the system, seeing Bela as more
of a coach than a coordinator. The tension exploded in Sydney, with
public sniping and finger-pointing, and the team left without
winning a single medal for the first time since 1976.
"I don't want to say anything against him, but it just didn't
work,'' said Hill, who was the 2000 Olympic coach. "It was more of
Bela left the job after the Sydney Olympics, and his wife
replaced him. Though coaches were initially wary, they soon saw
what Retton and other gymnasts learned long ago.
"Bela's the showman. Bela's the motivator,'' Retton said. "But
he would be a lost puppy without her. She's always been the stone
behind them. That's why they worked so well together.''
Even the Karolyis recognize she is probably better-suited for
this job. While he tends to charge forward regardless of the
consequences, she is a consensus builder who listens to everyone's
"We both look for perfection, to get as close as possible to
perfection,'' Martha said. "My approach is a little different.
He's more direct, and maybe I have a little bit more patience.''
And there is no arguing with the results. At the 2002 individual
event world championships, the United States won half of the gold
medals. At last year's worlds, the Americans lost half of their
team to injury and illness, and still won the gold medal.
"The team is again on top of the world,'' Bela said. "It's the
very best in the world, in my opinion.''
But for the first time in their careers, he doesn't have a
direct hand in it. Though he is proud of his wife's
accomplishments, Bela has taken great pains to avoid Martha's
He has no role in the team's training or selection. He didn't
even make an appearance at the national championships or the
Olympic trials, content to let his wife get the credit that is so
many years overdue. Instead, he spends his time promoting the sport
of gymnastics, working at their beloved ranch and doting on
"My dad was just ready to focus on other things,'' said Karolyi
Wise, a dietitian who runs the food service at the training camps
with her husband, Paul. "Now it's her turn to show she's as
knowledgeable as my dad. She's finally able to get that
Even if that was never her goal.
"I never had any kind of special aspirations,'' Martha said.
"I always wanted to be able to help raise the level of gymnastics
in the United States. I think it's great to have this