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 too—by 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.
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