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Karolyis' Olympics rise is gym dandy

Husband-and-wife team have shaped gymnastics in U.S.

Published August 3, 2008 at 9:19 p.m.

Coach Bela Karolyi carried injured gymnast Kerri Strug onto the podium after the U.S. won the women's team gold medal in 1996.

Coach Bela Karolyi carried injured gymnast Kerri Strug onto the podium after the U.S. won the women's team gold medal in 1996.

— Looking back, trying to make sense of it all, Bela Karolyi barely can fathom what happened to him on that autumn day in 1976.

In the rush of national pride after the Montreal Olympics, where Nadia Comaneci scored an unprecedented perfect 10, the Romania gymnastics coach was invited to join a hunt on President Nicolae Ceausescu's exclusive wildlife reserve.

But the notorious dictator forbid others from shooting big game, so Karolyi spent the early hours scanning the woods with his binoculars, marveling at the stillness and beauty.

Then, with nightmare suddenness, the situation changed. In the near distance, he spotted a black bear lumbering toward an elderly park ranger, who had fallen asleep, propped up against a tree.

In the ensuing panic, Karolyi faced a chilling dilemma: He could draw his gun and attempt to shoot the bear and save the ranger but risk severe punishment from Ceausescu, one of the most paranoid and oppressive Eastern Bloc rulers. Or do nothing.

By the time he was within shooting range, Karolyi says, the bear was on top of his prey, scalping and completely severing the ranger's arm with one swipe of his daggered claw.

As the man died, the hunt continued - a brutal metaphor, Karolyi said, for what happened in Romania under communism.

"It turned my stomach upside down," he said. "Made me think for many, many, many months. That was life in Romania - a clear-cut picture."

New life

In 1981, Karolyi and his wife, Martha, slipped out of a New York hotel and defected to the U.S., starting a tumultuous odyssey that took them from a Los Angeles slum to more Olympic glory and riches.

But now they find themselves caught in the vise of another historical moment, pulled back into the past in one of the world's last Communist nations.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Martha will be the women's national team coordinator and Bela will work as an NBC commentator. What happens in the next three weeks is something they've mulled for seven years, since the couple learned Beijing would host the Games.

"I see things in Beijing that maybe American-born people can't see," Martha said. "People watching you. Going into the hotel room and seeing that people have been there, that they've moved something, done something - you never know.

"Hopefully, we won't experience some kind of sabotage. But we have to be prepared. That's why we will be living in the Olympic Village, because it's a very supervised place. And the transportation is very well-organized.

"You kind of have a little bit of fear. So many people always around, and you don't know what their duties are. Maybe their duty is to just watch you. Who knows?"

When they opened a gymnastics school in Transylvania, Romania, more than four decades ago, the Karolyis expected to live a quiet, provincial life. Instead, they revolutionized international women's gymnastics, then single-handily reshaped the sport in America.

They developed Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton into Olympic icons but were forced to abandon their 6-year-old daughter for months in Romania when they slipped out of that New York hotel.

'Sesame Street' lessons

They graduated at the top of their university class in Bucharest but learned English by watching Sesame Street in the U.S.

They lived in a $7.50-a-night motel in a Los Angeles slum but stayed in Ceausescu's grandiose presidential palace when they returned to Bucharest 13 years later.

"I consider myself very lucky that I could live my life through all the ups and downs," Bela said. "I still believe it was fortunate the way I did it."

Playing it safe never has been the Karolyi way. Bela was born in 1942 in Cluj, the capital of Transylvania. When his father kicked him out for putting sports ahead of school, he slept in a local stadium and never returned.

After competing in the 1956 Olympics in the hammer throw, Bela enrolled at the Romania College of Physical Education, throwing himself into gymnastics after flunking a mandatory skills test in the sport.

His senior year, he coached the women's gymnastics team, whose star was Martha Eross. They were married in 1963, then moved to a small town in the coal-mining region where Bela grew up.

In their elementary school, they started a gymnastics class for winter entertainment.

"Those were some of my favorite times," he said.

Soon, they were invited to create a national gymnastics school. One day, Bela saw a 6-year-old girl doing cartwheels at recess. Her name was Nadia, and eight years later, she made Olympic and gymnastics history by scoring the first 10 on her way to the all-around gold medal.

But everything unraveled at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when Soviet soldiers booed the opposing teams, judges made controversial calls and, after Russia's Elena Davidova was named the all-around winner over Comaneci, Bela staged a protest that stopped the Games for 40 minutes.

"That was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. That confirmed all my doubts and worries," Bela said.

Threats to Karolyis

The Romanian government quickly retaliated, cutting off funds for the Karolyis' school, threatening Bela with jail and transferring Comaneci to another gym.

In March 1981, Ceausescu ordered the couple to take the Romanians to the U.S. for an exhibition. Accompanied by secret police masquerading as journalists and aides, the Karolyis were shunned during a reception at the Romanian embassy in New York, the tour's last stop.

A government official accused them of intending to defect. Facing the prospect of a long jail term in Romania on trumped-up

charges, they sat up the entire night talking.

"Our daughter (Andrea) was there, so the obvious question was: What's going to happen to her?" Bela said. "We could go back and take the consequences. I knew I'd be in big trouble. Or try to go on with our life, with a very somber-looking future."

On the morning of March 30, the Karolyis met with their team, returned to their room, grabbed their bags, slipped by five unsuspecting Romanian policeman and disappeared into the street, alone in a strange and crowded new world. Efforts to call their daughter were unsuccessful.

"It was the day President Reagan was shot," Martha said. "By the time we were able to get through the phone lines, the secret police knew that we hadn't returned. They cut the connection. We couldn't get in touch with anybody."

The Karolyis found their way to a distant relative's Manhattan apartment, slept on the floor a couple of nights, then flew to California, hoping American coaches would set them up with jobs. The call never came.

Soon, the Karolyis were living in a fleabag motel, surrounded by addicts, prostitutes, drifters and homeless ex-cons, struggling just to survive.

Martha remained in the room, learning English. Bela found a $15-a-day job on the docks and made an extra $10 sweeping out a bar from midnight to 7 a.m.

"That was a swamp, a human trash pile," he said. "I kept telling Martha, 'We're going to be out of here, we're going to get out of here, we're going to get out of here.' She was having the biggest loss of her life leaving Andrea behind. But she saw me working and fighting to make a living."

Added Martha: "We had moments, nights when we said, 'How do we make it through this?' But we were together."

Six months after the Karolyis defected, Romanian officials released Andrea, who flew to New York on Sept. 18. Standing behind a glass panel, Martha and Bela anxiously watched as passengers filed out of a doorway. When she spotted Andrea, Martha raced past customs officials, screaming "Andrea, Andrea, Andrea."

"I was crying," she said. "and I'm not a big crier. But for that, I was very emotional. She traveled by herself. She didn't speak any English. But she wasn't crying. She was a tough little girl."

New start in Texas

In 1982, the Karolyis landed coaching jobs in Texas, and when Retton won gold in the all-around at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, their fates in America were secured.

But their rise has not come without controversy.

The Karolyis have different coaching styles. Martha is known for her patience and diplomacy, Bela for his impulsiveness and iron-fisted discipline.

In an interview that aired recently on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, 1996 Olympian Dominique Moceanu criticized the Karolyis, describing diet restrictions and physical stresses that led to leg, wrist and shoulder injuries.

Even with criticisms, though, fate has smiled kindly on the

Karolyis.

On Christmas 1989, a firing squad executed Ceausescu and his wife in Bucharest, completing a blood-soaked revolution and ending Communist rule in Romania.

In China, meanwhile, the Romanian revolution was seen as a cautionary tale of what could have happened in Beijing in 1989 had the army not crushed the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square - and what still might unfold.

The Karolyis finally returned to Romania in 1993, entering by car at a rural checkpoint, fearing retribution even then.

"It was a little scary," Martha said. "When we defected, we were condemned as enemies of the Communist system. There were a lot of cases where people disappear."

Instead, the Karolyis were the toast of Bucharest, invited to stay at the grandiose palace that Ceausescu built on top of an artificial hill.

It's the third-largest building in the world, even bigger than the Palace of Versailles, with reception halls that have been compared - in size alone - to the columns of Luxor. There are 47 state reception rooms, each the size of a small apartment block, with displays of pomp and ostentatious splendor.

"I couldn't sleep that night," Martha said. "It was strange."

For the Karolyis, it was another step on an unreal journey - a journey that continues this month in Beijing.

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