Karolyi, Bela

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Bela Karolyi


Romanian gymnastics coach

Visionary Romanian-born coach, Bela Karolyi, revitalized the field of elite women's gymnastics competition during the 1970s and 1980s. The sport, which was traditionally dominated by women in their late twenties, became a bastion of underage ingenues under Karolyi's watchful eye. By introducing very young girls to the sport and providing them with intensive training he introduced new displays of power and athletic movement to the traditional spins and aesthetic twists that were normally seen in competition and that were limited by the larger size and limited flexibility of older competitors. Karolyi added new leaps, flips, and contortions consistent with the lithe lightness of younger gymnasts.

Early Life in Romania

Karolyi was born on September 13, 1942, in Cluj, Romania. His father, Nandor, was a civil engineer. Iren, his mother was an accountant and homemaker. Karolyi was the youngest of two siblings; his sister, Maria, became a civil engineer like her father, while Karolyi turned to athletic

pursuits. As a teen he set national records in the hammer throw, learned to box, and was competitive in track and field. After winning the National Boxing Championship, he quit his day job at a local slaughterhouse and in 1959 enrolled at Cluj Technical College. There he played rugby and competed on the school's world championship handball squad. Also in college he became friends with a classmate, Marta Eross, whom he eventually married. Eross would figure prominently in Karolyi's future career as a gymnastics coach.

As a young man Karolyi was large and muscular, weighing 286 pounds in college. While earning his degree in physical education he confronted one of his biggest challenges: attempting to pass a gymnastics proficiency test, which was a requirement for the curriculum. For two years he persisted, determined to earn a spot on the school's gymnastics team. Although he succeeded in his junior year, soon afterward he broke his arm, thus ending his career in competition. After that he turned his sights to coaching.

Karolyi graduated second in his class in 1963; Eross graduated first. Karolyi then served a mandatory three-month tour in the Romanian national army. They were married on November 28, 1963, and went to live in the Vulcan mining region of Romania where Karolyi's own grandfather had once made a home and had served the townspeople as a community impresario. It was Karolyi's desire to serve the community tooby providing physical fitness training to area youth.

Karolyi at first offered youth programs in soccer, and in track and field. His methods generated controversy almost immediately because he encouraged the young athletes to dress in loose, comfortable clothing like t-shirts and shorts. While he patiently overcame the objections of conservative parents, the young boys began to wear appropriate attire, and eventually the girls were wearing more comfortable outfits too.

Recognition in Competition

In an unconventional move, the Karolyis provided the most agile of the young girls between the ages seven and eleven with training in gymnastics. Although training in women's gymnastics at that time was reserved for older girls in their mid-teens, Karolyi's students made rapid strides in part because of their youthful bravado. The pre-adolescent girls took easily to learning to perform somersaults and back flips in mid air. Because of their tiny frames, they performed these gyrations easily, even between the parallel bars. Because of their small lithe body types they experienced relatively few injuries from falls and other mishaps. Karolyi called them flying squirrels because of their graceful airborne movements.

Within three years he had assembled six gymnastics teams of pre-adolescent girls. He took the squads to competitions where they prevailed over much older contestantsmany as old as 15 to 17 years old. Gymnastics officials, taking notice of the new and younger gymnasts from Vulcan, labeled Karolyi's teams as experimental. A new, junior competition division was defined to accommodate these youngsters, and by the late 1960s junior gymnastic teams were forming nationally throughout Romania.

In August of 1968 the national Education Ministerium recruited Karolyi to start a national institute for the training of gymnasts. He abandoned the gym at Vulcan and established a facility at a decade-old chemical-factory town called Onesti. The mayor of Onesti donated a school building and a dormitory, and provided funding to Karolyi to build a gymnasium in the town. After scouting throughout the region, he recruited his first class of six- and seven-year olds for the new institute. Among them was a young street tumbler named Nadia Comaneci and her schoolmate Viorica Dumitru.Comaneci was destined to become an Olympic champion, while Dumitru developed into a premiere ballerina.

After a state-sponsored exhibition tour to the United States in 1971, Karolyi took his team to the Eastern Block Friendship Cup competition in Sofia in 1972. With the budding Olympian Comaneci on the squad, Karolyi's girls upset the competition, beating both East Germany and the Soviet Union for the silver medal.Comaneci took the gold medal in the all-around individual competition.

Under Karolyi the Romanians dominated the competition in 1973 and again in 1974, but they were barred that year by the Romanian government from competing at the global level before age 15. Karolyi's squad performed instead in a Paris exposition after the world championships. One year later, at the European championship of 1975, Comaneci bested a 23-year-old Russian, Lyudmila Turishcheva, who had dominated Russian women's gymnastics in the late 1960s and the women's all-around competition since 1972.


1942Born in Cluj, Romania, on September 13
1963Graduates from Cluj Technical College; marries Marta Eross on November 28; establishes a physical fitness facility for miners' families in Vulcan region
1968Establishes national institute for the training of gymnasts in Onesti
1971Brings Romanian team to the United States for a state-sponsored exhibition tour
1973-74Dominates Friendship Cup competition
1974Brings Romanian team to Paris for exhibition tour
1977Closes Onesti facility; reopens facility in Vulcan
1980Resigns from national post in protest of Moscow Olympic gymnastics judging, but resignation is rejected
1981Brings Romanian team to the United States on tour; remains in the United States and requests political asylum; moves to California and then to Oklahoma; secures backing for a gymnastics facility in Houston
1982Buys out his backers in the Houston gymnastics facility; secures a $500,000 loan for expansion
1986Publishes Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion with John Powers and Mary Lou Retton
1989Opens a gymnastics summer camp at Texas ranch
1990Adopts American citizenship in May 1
1992Retires from Olympic coaching
1994Publishes Feel No Fear with Nancy Ann Richardson

Awards and Accomplishments

1972Coaches team to a silver medal and coaches Comaneci to the individual gold, at the Eastern Bloc Friendship Cup in Sofia
1976Brings Nadia Comaneci to the Montreal Olympics where she wins the individual gold medal; coaches Romanian team to first Olympic medals since 1960; wins Romanian Labor Union Medal
1977Wins the Romanian national championships
1978Wins the Friendship Cup
1979Sweeps the European championships and the world championships
1984Brings Mary Lou Retton to the Los Angeles Olympics where she wins the individual gold medal; coaches the United States team to first Olympic team medal since 1948
1996Coaches the United States team to Olympic gold medal
1997Inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame


At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, working with premiere choreographer Geza Pozsar, Karolyi brought 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci into the competition, where she stole the show with an uncanny series of performances. Karolyi's girls made history when they took a silver medal in the team competition for the first time in Romanian history. Overall it was Romania's first Olympic medal since 1960.

Comaneci herself received an unprecedented perfect score of 10 in seven events. She was the first gymnast to receive a perfect 10 ever in the history of the Olympics. Her seven perfect scores, therefore, were extraordinary. She returned home with three gold medals, plus one silver, and one bronze.

Encouraged by the exceptional Olympic showing in Montreal, the Romanian government removed the athletes from Karolyi's care and relocated the national team. They were taken from Onesti to train in Bucharest instead.


Karolyi was neither consulted nor advised of the team's movement in advance. Highly offended and upset at losing his best students, he shut down the school at Onesti and returned to the Vulcan region where he established a new facility at Deva in early 1977.

Karolyi's new students won the Romanian championships in October of 1977, and in 1978 they beat the Russians again at the Friendship Cup in Cuba that year. The girls from Deva took the top six places in the final standings of the national championships of 1978. Under pressure, soon afterward Karolyi accepted an eleventh-hour assignment to coach the Romanian national team. With only five weeks to train for the world championships, he brought the team to nothing less than a second place finish. His team swept both the European championships and the world championships in 1979.

When Comaneci received unjustified low scores and failed to win a gold medal at the Olympic competition in Moscow in 1980, Karolyi lodged a protest, causing a temporary disruption of the games. Upon his return to Romania he received a reprimand from the national government.

Although Karolyi resigned in protest, the government refused to recognize his resignation.


In 1981 the Karolyis along with Pozsar, their choreographer of seven years, were dispatched with the national team to tour the United States in an exhibition that was guaranteed to raise a minimum of $180,000 for the Romanian Gymnastics Federation. When the exposition drew to a close, a midday flight departed from New York City on March 30, returning with the gymnasts to Romania. Karolyi was not on board. He had decidedalong with his wife and Pozsarto remain in the United States and request political asylum.

After filing appropriate immigration paperwork he migrated to Southern California at the urging of the vice president of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. In California Karolyi picked up an odd job as a janitor and addressed the task of adding English to his six-language repertoire that included Hungarian, Russian, Romanian, German, French, and Italian.

Related Biography: Choreographer Geza Pozsar

Geza Pozsar was born in Romania around 1950. He spent his early years in Cluj, the hometown of Karolyi. As choreographer and coach of elite gymnasts, Pozsar was instrumental in bringing Olympic medalist Nadia Comaneci to the podium.

On March 30, 1981, he was among the trio of defectors that included Bela and Marta Karolyi who requested political asylum in the United States. Along with his wife and a young daughter, Karina, who was only two years old at that time, Pozsar left behind in Romania his parents and one brother. Eventually he was reunited with his wife and daughter. When the Karolyis went to California in 1981, Pozsar accompanied them. He found work and remained in Sacramento when the others moved to Oklahoma.

Pozsar, who worked with a string of Olympic gymnasts for three decades, spent much of his time in the 1990s traveling as an elite coach for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. He owns a gymnastics club with Tami Ross on El Camino Avenue in Sacramento and is a member of the Northern California Women's Gymnastics Association.

Before long an opportunity at the University of Oklahoma sent the Karolyis packing to accept a summertime position at a gymnastics camp in Norman. A long-term post with the physical education department at the university was also in the offing for the following fall. With help from then-Texas Congressman Bill Archer, Karolyi sent for his seven-year-old daughter, Andrea, who had not attended the Romanian gymnastics exhibition and was in Deva on the day that her parents defected. She arrived in the United States some months later, after the diplomatic channels were cleared.

By the fall of 1981, plans were in progress for Karolyi to open a gymnasium in Houston, Texas. With $40,000 in backing from a small group of investors, Karolyi opened the Sundance Gym in Houston in the early months of 1982. He brought his first American team to competition soon afterward, winning the Texas Class I title. By September of the year Karolyi successfully bought out his partners, thus owning the facility outright. With 86 students in October of that year, he nearly doubled the enrolment to 168 by January of 1983. Additionally he secured one-half million dollars in loan funding from Texas Commercial Bank, to purchase the entire grounds and building of the facility. He expanded the gymnasium and purchased new equipment.

By 1983 Karolyi had purchased 1,200 acres near Huntsville, just north of Houston; and in 1989 the Houston gymnastics facility overflowed onto the rural acreage. That year the Karolyis established a summer camp, with log cabin residences for the gymnasts. In addition to athletes, the ranch housed chickens, turkeys, and swans along with such exotic livestock as camels, emus, ostriches, and llamas. Local wildlifeincluding deer and antelopegraced the grounds as well. By the early 2000s the camp accommodated more than 2,000 gymnasts annually.

Success in the U.S.

Just prior to his September 1982 buyout of the Houston gymnasium, Karolyi met a young gymnast named Mary Lou Retton at the Junior Nationals in Salt Lake City, Utah. He invited her to come to Houston to train at his gym. She departed from her home in Fairmont, West Virginia, and arrived at Karolyi's on New Year's Day.

Less than three months laterin March 1983Retton competed in and won the McDonald's American Cup competition in New York City. In December Karolyi brought her to Japan where she won the Chunichi Cup. In all, from the spring of 1983 until the time of the summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984, she collected 14 consecutive all-around titles, including a successful defense of the American Cup title early in 1984. She was one of two of Karolyi's trainees to make the Olympic team that year, the other being Julianne McNamara.

The Olympic gymnastic competition that year was held at the Pauley Pavilion at the University of California. Ironically, the entire Communist Bloc of nations participated in a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympicswith the exception of Romania. Karolyi, although not a member of the official coaching staff, managed to secure a spot as an equipment mover on the Olympic competition floor.

At the finals McNamara scored a 10 on the parallel bars; it was the first time an American woman recorded a perfect score in any gymnastics event in the history of the Olympics. What is more, the team won a bronze medal that year. It was the first U.S. medal for women's gymnastics since 1948. In the all-around competition Retton scored a perfect 10 on the floor exercise and another 10 on the vault event. She emerged with a gold medal in the individual competition, after a neck-and-neck rivalry against Ecaterina (Kathy) Szabo, one of Karolyi's former students from Romania.

Back in Houston after the Olympics, the enrollment at Karolyi's gym skyrocketed to 1,400 students in the shadow of the impressive outcome. Then-16-year-old Retton continued her domination of women's gymnastics by taking the American Cup for an unprecedented third time in 1985.

Karolyi adopted U.S. citizenship on May 1, 1990. He accompanied the U.S. women's gymnastics team to the Olympic games in Barcelona, Spain in 1992, to a disappointing outcome. Although he retired from Olympic coaching after Barcelona he continued to operate his Houston gym and the summer camp in New Waverly. He remained one of the premiere gymnastic coaches worldwide.

Having published Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion, with John Powers and Mary Lou Retton in 1984, Karolyi in his retirement wrote a personal memoir. The book, Feel No Fear: the Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics with Nancy Ann Richardson, was published by Hyperion in 1994. In both volumes he presents his philosophies of aggressive coaching. He praises further the personal fortitude of the many gymnasts who have displayed the presence of character to follow his regimen and reap the rewards.


Address: Office: RR 12 Box 140, Huntsville, TX, 77320-9812.

Where Is He Now?

Unable to resist the lure of Olympic competition, Karolyi returned to coach the U.S. women's team that won Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996. As the team competition came to a dramatic conclusion that summer, he swept an injured gymnast, Kerri Strug, from the floor as she completed her final vault despite a seriously sprained ankle. The gesture by the coach left onlookers with a lasting impression of his warmth and concern for his young gymnasts.

Despite intermittent controversy over his aggressive coaching style with such very young athletes, Karolyi's innovative contributions to the sport of women's gymnastics endure into the twenty-first century. On September 12, 2001, he accepted an appointment as the national coordinator for the U.S. women's gymnastics team, in preparation for the 2004 Olympics.


(With John Powers and Mary Lou Retton) Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.

(With Nancy Ann Richardson) Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics, New York: Hyperion, 1994.



Jackson, Kenneth T. and Arnold Markoe, The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives: Sports Figures, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.

Karolyi, Bela, John Powers, and Mary Lou Retton, Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.


Newsweek, August 5, 1996, p. 40.

Publishers Weekly, March 28, 1994, p. 76.

Sports Illustrated, April 3, 2000, p. 88.

Sketch by G. Cooksey