Karolyi brings the sun with his fun stories
FIVE years ago, I first saw what kind of motivator Bela Karolyi is when he visited a local gymnastics club to talk to a bunch of young girls too little to have any idea who in the world he was. And it took just minutes for him to go from a strange man with a strange accent to their hugging him, and being ready to run through walls.
That was nothing.
Yesterday at the Honolulu Quarterback Club he launched immediately into full Bela mode, the energy, the accent, the mustache, the life. He'd left the mainland with one mission, he said:
"And that mission was -- bring sunshine to Hawaii!"
The roar was immediate. The realization hit everyone instantly -- maybe he had done it. After all, Bela Karolyi really is that good of a coach.
HE WAS BORN in Romania in 1942, as that "crazy, crazy Second World War started to rage in Europe." It's impossible to describe what war can do to a continent, but Karolyi tries: "I grew up with that particular type of sorrow that all felt after the war was over."
But something saved him, then. As a boy he was into "the sports." Then he went to "the college," and he discovered the greatest sport of them all. Gymnastics.
"I didn't realize what a complex, what amazing, what an amazing sport it is," he says. "This is the sport, you don't have a ball. You can't blame anybody but yourself. You, your body, your mind. And that was such an amazement to me."
He fell on his head. He wrenched his back. He realized something. He realized he was not going to be a gymnast. But more importantly, he discovered that this sport was about "what's inside a person."
He knew its secret. And as a coach he would share it, again and again.
THEN CAME 1976. The little girl from Romania, the kid. "You remember," Bela says.
Nadia Comaneci. She broke the Soviets' hold on the sport, she was a miracle, she was perfect. The first perfect 10. She was his first champion. They'd done it. She'd done it.
"For who? For Romania," Bela says.
A NEW SOCIETY. A new mentality. "It wasn't easy," Bela says. He'd defected, come to America. New language, new everything.
"It wasn't easy to figure out exactly what the people are expecting from you," he says.
Could he communicate? Would his style still work? Were Americans coachable? Was he really that good?
But then came the first time he looked in a young girl's eyes, tousled her hair, asked if she wanted to be a champion, asked if she wanted to fly. Told her she could do it.
Told her they would do it, together.
"And you take their little hand, 'Let's go for it!' " he
cries, ready to sprint out of the room. The room ready to sprint with him.
It was only three years later: "The All-American pixie, Mary Lou! Mary Lou Retton! Maybe you remember the smile, the teeth, the smile on her face.
"Wow! Wow. Such a satisfaction it was for me. What a pride for the whole country."
FOR ALL ITS power, with all its people, all that potential, the United States hadn't won a women's gymnastics team gold medal.
In 1996, with Karolyi as coach, it did that. And in a way which finally showed the world what he'd known all along -- that these girls weren't dolls, but athletes with toughness and heart, what he calls "moral integrity." The world saw all of it summed up in a single vault.
He heard a voice calling for him through the arena. He ran down the tunnel to the medical area as Olympics security tried to stop him. "Don't touch me, don't touch me. I bite. I'll kill somebody now."
He picked Kerri Strug off the stretcher, and carried her to the medal stand in his arms.
TODAY, THE OLYMPIC training center is his home gym. His new way of organizing the national team helped the USA to a record number of medals at the last world championships. He's in town to promote the Pacific Alliance Championships, April 13-15.
It's good to be an old coach.
"Nadia is 45 years old. Oh my!" he says. "Can't believe it. Can't believe it. She's 45 years old, she's living in Norman, Okla., married with a former gymnast, Bart Conner. Happily married. And expecting now, 45 years of age, a child!"
And, "Mary Lou -- Mary Loooooou!" (He sounds like Ted Knight.) She's outdone Nadia in the kid department, it seems. "She has" -- he dramatically thrusts a hand forward, thumb inward -- "FOUR!" (He sounds like the Count.)
Kerri Strug. "She is not married yet, but she is very close to get married. She is working on the state department in Washington, D.C. Very, very active in politics -- wow."
It's good to be an old coach.
The joy hasn't left him. He still savors his old discovery of why he loves this sport so. Still relishes the excitement of seeing it in each new group of little girls, taking them by the hand and saying "Let's go!"
"My little granddaughter," he says, "she is so proud: 'Pop-pop! Let me show you!' OK, OK, OK. And of course it starts to, 'Pop-pop! When are you start to coach me?' All right."
He trails off, talking to himself now.
"There's going to come a time," he says.