She was perfect in an imperfect world, a graceful gamine whose stunning performance at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal gave currency to the number “10” long before Bo Derek. Nadia Comaneci was for a time an international hero, and her coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, were revered in their Rumanian homeland. “[Bela] demanded absolute obedience and had complete power over us,” Comaneci writes in a soon-to-be-published autobiography. “I owe him very much. One lasting quality he gave me was self-discipline.”
After their Olympic triumph, however, Nadia and her coaches fell from grace and began squabbling among themselves. Nadia was distracted by her newfound celebrity, and the Rumanian Gymnastics Federation began a gradual campaign against the Karolyis that culminated last spring in their defection to the U.S.
Predictably, they have landed on their feet. After accepting coaching positions at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and at a nearby private club, the Karolyis, both 39, supported themselves by running summer clinics. Despite their advance billing as tyrannically demanding, they have been warmly received by fellow teachers and their students—coeds at the university and girls at the club ranging in age from 8 to 16. The Karolyis’ young American charges have not proved less malleable than the children of Rumania. “We are very glad to see how we can adapt,” says Bela, “and the girls, they have become so concentrated and ambitious!”
That happy ending punctuates a long and often bitter story that began in the early 1960s. Bela and Marta, who had been fellow student-athletes at the Physical Education Institute in Cluj, Rumania, started a school together in the Jiul Valley after their 1963 marriage. They founded it on a simple concept: Recruit girls to gymnastics at a very young age, then drill them to perfection. Signing up grade schoolers in nearby towns caused “big sensations,” Marta recalls. “They said we began the girls too early and did not let them grow.”
In 1968 the Karolyis persuaded Rumania’s Committee of Sport to let them establish the first gymnastics center in the industrial town of Onesti. Bela had spotted a 6-year-old kindergartner named Comaneci practicing gymnastics during recess. Nadia soon joined some 60 other girls who ate, studied and lived at the Karolyis’ school, where they worked out twice a day, six or seven days a week. To the Karolyis’ relief, physicians who examined their charges confirmed that hard work only made them healthier. The regimen worked so well that a jealous Rumanian Gymnastics Federation wouldn’t let the Karolyis’ girls enter the nationals in 1974, suddenly enforcing a long-forgotten clause banning competitors under 14. The federation finally allowed one of the Onesti students, 12-year-old Nadia, to compete in the European championships. “She won all her events and four gold medals,” Bela recalls proudly. Karolyi was subsequently named coach of the 1976 Olympic team, and Nadia’s three gold medals led Rumania to the team championship.
But when they returned home, Bela says, “Things weren’t too good for working.” A media darling, Nadia was besieged by microphones and cameras and began to chafe under the Karolyis’ tight supervision. She also downed enough chocolates to put on 30 pounds in the space of a year. The Karolyis’ other gymnasts were also smitten with celebrity. Bela recalls: “They acted like they were in front of movie cameras.”
The federation proceeded to lure some of the couple’s stars to Bucharest and promised Nadia money and an apartment. But the federation was foiled: With Nadia out of shape, her team dropped from No. 1 to near obscurity.
Nadia slimmed down, but things were never the same between the young star and her coaches, with whom she resumed training. When the Karolyi-coached national squad returned from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, having lost the gold to the U.S.S.R., the federation said coldly that the team had “competed acceptably but not satisfactorily.” Funding for the Karolyis’ program was cut. So by the time the couple came to America on an exhibition tour with the national team this year, they knew, as Bela puts it, “the situation was critical.” At 3 a.m. on March 30 in a New York hotel room, the Karolyis decided to defect. Their sole possessions were two suitcases but, as Marta says, “Our property is our knowledge of gymnastics.”
Their early days in America were emotionally draining. They spent a week in Washington with U.S. immigration officials, then used Los Angeles as a base while they were job-hunting. A month passed before they could talk to their 8-year-old daughter, Andrea, who was still in Rumania. In June they accepted University of Oklahoma coach Paul Ziert’s offer to teach at the school and at his Gymnastics Chalet, and when they set up housekeeping in Norman, their first priority was to decorate Andrea’s bedroom-to-be. Finally Texas Rep. Bill Archer, whose children are keen gymnasts, managed to cut through the red tape to get Andrea to the U.S. Recalls Bela of the family’s September reunion: “It was a beautiful moment.”
After settling into their campus apartment, the Karolyis began a crash course on the facts of American life—how to drive, pump gas at a self-service station and open a checking account. Shopping was a new experience. Oklahoma assistant coach Becky Dunning recalls when the Karolyis spent 40 minutes looking at 15 kinds of toasters. “It seemed they had too many choices,” says Dunning. A local clothing store owner outfitted them free of charge—Bela in standard jock attire, Marta in tasteful pink blouses and tight jeans. Their first big purchase was a television set with remote control. “That was real important for my English,” says Marta.
As for Comaneci, now 20, she has taken up modeling (in part as a way to promote her book, Nadia, published by Proteus) and is preparing to become a coach in Rumania. She is still competing; indeed, she won five gold medals in meets last summer, and she has no intention of stopping. “If I’m going to retire,” she says, “I will do it on a successful note.”
Meanwhile the Karolyis are enjoying their U.S. coaching experience. In Europe, Bela comments, “Coaches have more authority.” But the Karolyis have not lived up to the autocratic reputation that preceded them. “We all had this vision of them as slave drivers,” says Dunning, “but they’re not.” Sponsor Ziert cites the case of an overweight 12-year-old in one class who seemed to show little natural talent. Finally Bela settled on disco music as a way of motivating the girl—and it worked. Nominated for a prize at an awards ceremony later, she hugged and kissed him and promised to lose weight in time for next summer’s clinic. “He cared and loved her back,” says Ziert. “He didn’t make fun of her—he just hugged her. I was shocked to see him react that completely and quickly.”
There are still many changes to which the Karolyis have not adapted, among them, the disrespect they perceive among Americans for senior citizens, education and authority. But the biggest change, says Bela, has taken no getting used to at all—”the freedom to think what I want to think, say what I want to say and do what I want to do.” As he puts it, “This democracy is a good thing.”