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Bela Karolyi

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 contestants—many 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.


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

Awards and Accomplishments

1972 Coaches team to a silver medal and coaches Comaneci to the individual gold, at the Eastern Bloc Friendship Cup in Sofia
1976 Brings 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
1977 Wins the Romanian national championships
1978 Wins the Friendship Cup
1979 Sweeps the European championships and the world championships
1984 Brings 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
1996 Coaches the United States team to Olympic gold medal
1997 Inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsGymnasticsBela Karolyi Biography - Early Life In Romania, Recognition In Competition, Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Olympians, Dissatisfaction - SELECTED WRITINGS BY KAROLYI: