What became of 1956 Hungarian Olympians?
Here is what became of the Hungarian athletes and coaches who defected after the 1956 Melbourne Games. Some of them returned home, where they were welcomed back and some even represented Hungary in later Olympics. Those who remained in the U.S. pursued a variety of careers, not just in sports, and many raised families and achieved considerable success.
Ervin Zador, Water Polo
There was still a faint scar over his right eye, a reminder of the incident that made his face the iconic image of Hungary's "blood-in-the-water" defeat of the Soviet Union in Melbourne. But after defecting, Zador, the finest young water polo player in Europe, never played competitively again. "Instead of going back a hero, making 3,000 forints a month, having a chance to go to the next three Olympics, I gave all that up to be a nobody with no marketable skills who didn't speak the language," he said before he died in April at age 77. "It wasn't an easy decision -- but I hated the system and the Hungarian Communists. I just couldn't see myself going back, especially with the Russians really ticked off. But whatever's happened the last 55 years, there hasn't been a moment I've regretted it."
For several months Zador joined a brother in Washington, D.C., and taught dancing at an Arthur Murray studio. "I stepped on the feet of senators' wives," he said, "but I left my heart in San Francisco." Back where the SI tour began, he took a job lifeguarding at an athletic club in Oakland for $6 an hour plus meals, then went on to install air conditioning, build furniture, work as a masseur, carve gun handles, open a restaurant and run a hotel. "It sounds funny," he says, "but I thought if I could win an Olympic gold medal, there was nothing I couldn't do."
When parents at the Bay Area club heard Zador had been an Olympian, they asked him to teach their children to swim. One of those kids turned out to be Mark Spitz.
Zador's lone Stateside water polo thrill came in 1999, when he watched his daughter, Christine, score the overtime goal for USC that beat Stanford and gave the Trojans an NCAA title. Now 75, he still coaches 12-year-old swimmers when not selling aquatics supplies and running a pistol range near Stockton, Calif. "My neighbors are cows," he says, "but if I were to win the lottery, I'd probably stay right here."
Joseph Gerlach, Diving
Young, single and one of the best divers in the world, Gerlach was only too happy to swan into Port-a-Pit foam padding for money. Yes, there was that time in 1965, the day before his wedding, that he misjudged a dive and wound up having his face reconstructed. But on the whole, life was good: a leap out of a hot-air balloon above Schaefer Stadium at halftime of a Monday Night Football telecast in 1972; a gig opening for Evel Knievel in the mid-'70s; his name on a marquee on the Vegas strip: jumpin' joe's sponge plunge.
Before the stunt work Gerlach coached three divers who made the 1964 Olympics, and after the stunt work dried up in 1978 he he helped create and promote a laser light show and then served as manager, coach and agent for his pro surfer son, Brad. All that time spent watching from the shore through wide-angle binoculars stoked his curiosity about how the laws of motion affect sports and led him to develop the Carveboard. "It's a skateboard that works like a surfboard," says Gerlach, who's 73 and lives in Ontario, Calif. "A board that can ride uphill. That's what surfing is: You go up; you go down."
After selling more than 50,000 Carveboards in 35 countries, the business has ridden the go-down part of that cycle. "It would be hard to be any more successful, except for the way success is measured, with money," says Gerlach, who says he doesn't mind that the Carveboard is being knocked off: "What's the value of being No. 1 if you're the only player? You come to a country of free enterprise, and you're going to bitch about someone other than you benefiting?
"My talents would have been wasted or not recognized if I hadn't come to the U.S. I had the freedom to develop those talents, and the biggest key, the freedom to make mistakes. I'm so much more American than Hungarian. I'm just an eternal optimist, a diver from a country that had one pool with a diving board."
Laszlo Tabori, Track & Field
He learned to run as a kid during World War II, when he'd bolt for his life after stealing food from occupying German soldiers. By the eve of the 1956 Olympics he had set a world record in the 1,500 meters and become the third miler to break four minutes. But after losing critical weeks of training to the Revolution, Tabori placed sixth in the 5,000 meters in Melbourne and missed a medal in the 1,500 by hundredths of a second.
He joined coach and fellow defector Mihaly Igloi on the American indoor circuit, where meager appearance fees made for a harsh existence until he retired in 1961. Having a background in mechanical engineering, he then spent six years as a wheelchair designer in Southern California before returning to track as a coach. That's what he has done ever since, including today, at 80, at USC. Throughout he has championed Igloi's twin rules: Do what Coach says; and Coach says to do interval training. The Svengali spirit of his mentor even permeated the running-shoe store Tabori ran for two decades, where he refused to put products on display because he didn't trust customers to pick out the right pair.
Women's marathoning pioneers Jacqueline Hansen and Miki Gorman flourished under Tabori, who repaid their trust with a confidence rare for male coaches of that era. "Women are stronger than men, just not as explosive," he says, citing the rigors of a nine-month pregnancy. At the 1987 World Veterans Games in Melbourne, Hansen made a point of entering the same two events Tabori had run, in the same city, more than 30 years earlier -- and after winning gold medals in each, she gave the 1,500 medal to her coach. "It's all turned out O.K.," says Tabori. "I have a pretty good reputation and can go back over my bridges. I didn't burn too many behind me."
Arpad Domyan, Water Polo; Katalin (Katherine) Szoke Domyan, Swimming
They had both tasted glory -- she as a sprint freestyler at two Olympics; he as a reserve on the water polo team in Melbourne -- but there wasn't much glitter to their first jobs in the U.S., where she worked in a bank in Beverly Hills and modeled on the side, and he served a Los Angeles architect as a draftsman. Then one day Arpad, while in a furrier's shop looking for a wrap for his wife, overheard a real estate broker mention a vacant lot in East L.A. The two began talking and agreed to put up a house on the site. Arpad would knock off his day job at five, then hammer away until after midnight. "We built the whole house by hand," says Arpad, who went on to erect many spec homes on cheap lots. He wound up developing office buildings and more than 25,000 dwelling units all over the country, including the early wave of singles-only apartment complexes.
Arpad and Katherine met their new country halfway. They anglicized their Hungarian surname Domjan to Domyan. Their son, Bryan, walked on at USC in a quintessentially American sport, basketball. And when the International Swimming Hall of Fame inducted Katherine in 1985, Arpad threw a huge party for her at L'Orangerie, with Zsa Zsa Gabor, Art Linkletter and Anna Maria Alberghetti among the guests. Now 78 and 76, respectively, Arpad and Katherine have been married 51 years, live in Beverly Hills and are devoted patrons of the L.A. Opera.
In one sense, Arpad Domyan completed his transit of the American Dream in the late '70s. That's when SI's parent, Time Inc., needed a place in Alexandria, Va., to house its Time-Life Books unit, and the company rented office space from one of the people it had brought to the U.S.
Jozsef Sakovics and Lidia Domolky Sakovics, Fencing
It looks like a still from Casablanca, the photo SI ran of Lidia Domolky's reunion with her brother George, who had swum a river and dodged landmines to escape Hungary through Austria and join her in the U.S. But Lidia had fallen in love with fellow fencer Jozsef Sakovics, and both had been world champions, Joe in 1954 and Lidia, at age 17, in 1955. After tasting stardom, the jobs they could find in a strange country -- as an auto mechanic and a draftswoman -- paled enough to prompt the couple to return to Hungary within a year.
Lidia went on to win gold in Tokyo and silver in Rome and Mexico City, then earn her phys-ed degree and coaching certification before working as a sportswriter and co-writing books on aesthetic movement and gymnastics. Joe, who just missed a medal in Rome, coached Hungary's national team to four golds in Tokyo. He died in 2009 at age 81; his widow, 76, still lives in the Buda apartment they shared for 52 years.
George Domolky, for his part, never looked back after getting a taste of the West: He joined the SI tour, then fenced at Stanford and got his MBA from Cal. Today he's a renowned fund manager with Fidelity Investments in Boston. In 1996 the Sakovicses spent a season as visiting coaches of the Harvard fencing team, living with George and his family in nearby Weyland, Mass.
"It was a very hard decision to go home," says Lidia, who in 2004 received the Hungarian Olympic Committee's lifetime achievement award. "And because George had gotten out, that really pushed us to try to stay in the U.S. But I was so homesick for my mother. And I was at the beginning of my career and so eager for success. To stop a sports career isn't easy. An actress can get another role and it's the same work. But I was so empty not competing."
Mihaly Igloi, Track & Field Coach
His runners -- Sandor Iharos, Istvan Rozsavogli and fellow defector Laszlo Tabori -- had been the Kenyans of their time, breaking 22 world records between 1954 and the Melbourne Games. In the U.S., Iogloi continued his magic, turning Jim Beatty into the first miler to run under four minutes indoors. Though he became a U.S. citizen in 1963, Igloi never returned to the States after 1970, when he left to coach in Greece; after the fall of communism he went back to Hungary, where he died in 1998 at age 89. Detractors maintained that Igloi did all the thinking for his runners. "Maybe so," says Ray Hughes, who ran for him in California during the early Sixties, "but it got us results. I loved the man."
Eugene Hamori, Fencing
Having studied chemistry at the University of Budapest, Hamori was able to hook on with a plastics company in Philadelphia for seven years, then study at Cornell before returning to Philly to earn his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Penn and then did postdoctoral work in biophysical chemistry at Cornell. A sabreman who won a gold medal in Melbourne in the team event, Hamori continued to fence, winning two individual U.S. sabre titles and, in 1964, a berth on the U.S. team in Tokyo. In 1972 he moved to New Orleans, where he taught at Tulane Medical School, presided over a local fencing salle and, with his former wife, Annemarie, also a Hungarian émigré, raised two daughters, both doctors. Now 78, he lives near Lake Pontchartrain in a home spared by Hurricane Katrina and visits Hungary, where he owns an apartment, every summer.
Attila Takach, Gymnastics
An Olympic teammate returning to Hungary from Melbourne smuggled a letter from Takach to his fiancée, Magda, encouraging her to escape. Five days after Takach's arrival in the U.S., Magda trudged over cornfields at night into Austria; eventually she joined him in Los Angeles. Takach studied electrical engineering at USC, then worked in the aerospace industry until the mid '70s when he followed the jobs north to Silicon Valley. There he developed recording materials such as laser discs -- appropriately enough, for he served as a kind of class secretary for the defecting athletes. In 1974 Takach climbed the Matterhorn, and as recently as 2010, before contracting melanoma, was still doing front flips on a mat. He died in February 2011 at age 82 at his home in Los Gatos, Calif.
Daniel Magay, Fencing
He won national sabre titles in three of his first five years in the U.S. while fencing for his Olympic coach and fellow defector, George Piller, at San Francisco's Pannonia Athletic Club and across the bay at Cal. While studying engineering and chemistry, Magay earned room and board at a fraternity by waiting tables and washing dishes, then found work with a fledgling Silicon Valley firm called Raychem. By the time he retired he had risen to chief of research and the firm employed 11,000 people. "In Hungary there were 20 or 30 great fencers, and it was so much fun to compete with them," says Magay, who's 80 and lives in Los Altos, Calif. "So I really gave up fencing when I came here. I worked. And I really liked working."
Andrea Bodo Schmid-Shapiro, Gymnastics
Her first husband, sportswriter Miklos Molnar, escaped to join his wife on the SI tour, and in 1958 the magazine ran a photo of their baby girl, Aniko. The Molnars soon split, and Andrea studied phys ed and teacher education before going on to help develop the nascent fields of sports psychology and rhythmic gymnastics in the U.S. She has been back to four Olympics as a gymnastics judge, and until 1979 she coached the sport at San Francisco State, where she also served as professor of kinesiology. Now 78, she lives with her husband, retired physics professor Charles Shapiro, in Novato, Calif., while Aniko lives nearby and works as a chemical engineer. "Without the Revolution, I wouldn't be here," Schmid-Shapiro says. "You need to work hard in life. But life is also luck."
Istvan Hernek, Canoeing
He coached four Olympic paddlers at a kayak club in Ohio and spent 32 years as a hydraulic engineer. "For years, before I'd engage in any political talk, I'd look around to see if anyone was listening," says Hernek, whose parents had spent time in custody of the AVO, Hungary's secret police. When laws mandating seat-belt use passed in the U.S., he'd sometimes drive a while before buckling up as a kind of protest: "The government was telling me what to do." Hernek and Mary Ann DuChai, who was a U.S. Olympic tandem kayaker in Rome, have three children, and they've spent 50 summers running a riding resort on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. At 77 he still serves on the ski patrol at HoliMount Ski Area near his home in Lawtons, N.Y.
Miklos (Nick) Martin, Water Polo
As the best English speaker on the SI tour, Martin found himself quoted so often that he feared he'd be punished as a ringleader if he were to return to Hungary. So, with an art history master's degree from the University of Budapest, he enrolled at USC but played only one semester of water polo because he found the sport there "too Mickey Mouse." Instead he buckled down, earned his B.A. in French in three terms and, after earning a Ph.D. in Romance languages at Princeton on a Woodrow Wilson scholarship, became a professor. "The U.S. of that period was a land of endless opportunities," he says, "but my teaching career has been like an avalanche, straight down -- from Princeton to USC to Pasadena City College." At 80 he's still an adjunct professor of French at PCC and swims a mile each day. "PCC has a gorgeous pool," he says, "and I have the key."
Attila Keresztes, Fencing
He arrived with an engineering degree and fenced well, winning or sharing three U.S. titles and representing the U.S. in the Tokyo Olympics. But he drank heavily and, after driving a cab in Manhattan into the late '90s, wound up in a wheelchair with a leg condition. With no health insurance, he accepted the Hungarian sports ministry's offer of medical care, an apartment and a pension to return to Budapest, where he died in 2002. "The story he told me on our last visit sounded true," says former teammate Eugene Hamori, who saw Keresztes shortly before his death. "When returning to his favorite nightclub after 50 years, the old bartender asked him, 'Mr. Keresztes, do you want to pay cash this time, or just leave your watch here as you used to?'"
Ferenc (Frank) Siak, Diving
Siak learned English chatting up college kids at the pool in Winter Park, Fla., where he lifeguarded, then joined the Water Follies for three years before a broken shoulder forced him to quit. By then he had met his beautician wife, Barbara. "She told me I should be a hairdresser," he says, "because I have an accent and I'm a fairly good-looking guy." Until retiring 10 years ago the Siaks ran Frank and Barbie's beauty salons in Central Florida while raising three children. "Only later do you find out whether your decision was bad or good," says Siak, 79, who is widowed and lives in Orlando. "I went back in the '70s and couldn't believe I'd lived there. In Florida it's summer all year long. In Hungary everything was kind of gray."
Susie Ordogh Zimsen, Swimming
Only 16, she skipped the SI tour and lived in Seattle with the family of teenage U.S. swimmer Nancy Ramey. She memorized 25 English words a day, figuring, "if I forget 20, I'm still five ahead." After winning national breaststroke titles in 1958 and '59, she enrolled at Seattle University, studied chemical engineering and then joined Boeing, where she created gold paint that wouldn't flake off the tails of Continental's planes. The five children she raised with her husband, Dan Zimsen, have dual citizenship. Zimsen, who is 72 and lives with her husband in Bremerton, Wash., proudly points to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer front page from late 1959, where a picture of her happens to run adjacent to one of Soviet premier Nikita Kruschchev. "Mine's bigger," she says.
Gyorgy (George) Karpati, Water Polo
He and beauty queen Eva Timar, the fiancée for whom he returned to Hungary, were married for 10 years. He competed in two more Olympics, winning another gold in Tokyo, then served as coach as Hungary won Olympic gold in 1976 and three world titles. "I became an Olympic champion again, so no regrets," says Karpati, who in the mid '90s showed his two adult children his footprints at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. With water polo golds in Sydney, Athens and Beijing, Hungary is in the midst of yet another golden age, Karpati points out: "I've recommended to this generation to stop -- enough. They already have as many as I do." Now 76, he works for the Munkacsy Foundation, a cultural institute in Budapest.
Laszlo Nadori, Hungarian Sports Ministry Chief of Staff
Reduced to serving as the rec director of an orphanage on Long Island, he was afraid to return to Hungary because of things he had been quoted as saying. He returned after learning he'd be spared reprisals, and he became a decorated professor of phys ed and sports science. He died in April 2011 in Budapest at age 87.
Zoltan Torok, Rowing coach
He decided to defect in part because he had lost a Supreme Court judgeship for making anti-Soviet rulings. Jack Kelly, brother of Grace Kelly, helped arrange a coaching position for Torok in Philadelphia, but within months he returned to Hungary to tend to his sick mother.He has since died.
Gyorgy (George) Piller, Fencing coach
After landing in the Bay Area, he served as fencing master of the Pannonia Athletic Club, and a year later he signed on as coach at Cal. He died in San Francisco in 1960 at age 61.
Margit (Margaret) Korondi Szalay, Gymnastics
She chose to defect in part because of a failing marriage to her first husband, former Olympic boxer Matyas Plachy, from whom she kept her decision a secret. Plachy escaped and joined her in Houston. They later divorced. Like her father, a gymnastics coach, she taught sport. Now 79, she and her husband, Janos (John) Szalay, live in Henderson, Nev.
Laszlo Jeney, Water Polo
Known as Pierre for his French affectations, Hungary's water polo goalie refused to stand for the Soviet anthem after the "blood-in-the-water" match. Upon learning that his wife back home was pregnant, he bolted the SI tour early and returned to Hungary, which welcomed him back for the 1960 Rome Olympics. He worked for the Vasas sports club and ran a Budapest bar popular with athletes until his death in 2006 at 82.
Gyula Dobay, Swimming
After 16 months of surviving on temp jobs and unemployment benefits, he lit out for Hungary. Without a passport, he was detained by Austrian guards at the border for trying to use his Olympic I.D. card, but he charmed them by playing U.S. LPs on their record player. He represented Hungary in the Rome and Tokyo Olympics, then ran a sports shop in Budapest.
Odon Grof, Swimming Coach
He had a family back in Hungary, but he seized the chance to start a new life in the U.S. and asked a returning Olympian to give his wedding ring back to his wife. He worked as a lifeguard in Virginia, then as a masseur in the Bay Area. He is now deceased.
Robert Zimonyi, Rowing
He went on to become U.S. Olympian, serving as coxswain of the men's eight that won gold at the 1964 Games. A photo of him in Tokyo with the medal hanging from his neck dominates the lobby of the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, where he coached for years. He retired to Miami, where he died in 2004 at 85.
Janos Gergely, Swimming Coach
His decision to defect was one of the easiest, as both of his parents had died, his father at Auschwitz. Upon leaving Budapest he made sure to pack his birth certificate and schooling certificates. He ran the pool at a rec center in Lynwood, Calif., before coaching at Miami, then in Spain and finally in Australia.
Marta Nagy Wachter, Gymnastics
Using a scholarship reserved for Hungarian refugees, she enrolled at Colorado, studying dance and phys ed and competing in and coaching gymnastics. She met her husband, Bernd Wachter, an international marketing executive for an oil company, in New York City while studying art history there. Now 75, she and her husband have two children and live in Boulder.
Balint Papp, Diving Coach
He settled in Florida, lifeguarding and coaching divers, and went on to design swimming pools, run an adult bookstore and rent himself out as bridge partner.He told Hungarian TV in 2006 that he simply followed defecting divers Frank Siak and Joe Gerlach: "Fifty years later, I'm still here." He died in Port Orange, Fla., in 2009 at age 88.
Bela Rerrich, Fencing
Pithy and outspoken, he told a reporter during the SI tour, "Russians would have worked for years to arrange this." He landed a job with the government in Washington, D.C., that used his ability to speak six languages, but he feared an escalation of the cold war and fled to coach in Scandinavia. He became close to the royal family in Sweden, where he died in 2005 at 87.
Rypszyma Szekely Nagy, Swimming
Upon completion of the SI tour, she was taken in by a family in Walnut Creek, Calif. Fifty-five years later, at 75, she is back in Walnut Creek with her husband, Julius Nagy.
Laszlo Magyar, Swimming; Olga Gyarmaty Track and Field
Neither the SI archives, Hungarian sports officials nor fellow 1956 Olympians could shed light on what became of these two athletes.
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