When Karolyi defected to the U.S., he was already the World's Most Famous Gymnastics Coach. He had grown up in Transylvania, working the family farm and hunting and fishing in the rugged mountains around his home. A talented athlete—he was a heavyweight boxer and a junior national champion in the hammer throw—Karolyi enrolled in the five-year Physical Education University in Bucharest. There, at the age of 18, he flunked a required gymnastics course. Determined to make up for the failure, Karolyi devoted himself to learning the sport. He did well enough to make the college team—and well enough to win the affection of a fellow gymnast named Martha Eross. In 1963 they married and together started a small gymnastics school in Vulcan, a tiny coal-mining town in northern Romania. A few years later Karolyi found his prize pupil, a skinny dark-eyed kindergartner named Nadia Comaneci.
At Montreal in '76, Comaneci made gymnastics and Olympic history by scoring the first perfect 10 on her way to the all-around gold medal. Suddenly Karolyi's success was Romania's success, a glorious product of the government's system. The authorities, says Karolyi, began interfering with his program. They had the girls—his girls!—traveling and making propaganda appearances. To Karolyi it was all a disruption in training. When he protested, he was threatened with removal from the national team. Comaneci was transferred to another gym, in Bucharest, and Karolyi's funding was cut. "All of a sudden they forget everything I do," he says. "I am 'controversial.' " Discouraged, Karolyi considered leaving competitive coaching.
The breaking point came in March '81, during an exhibition tour of the U.S. by the Romanian team. Secret police accompanied the delegation, clumsily disguised as masseurs and journalists, and Karolyi found himself under increasing pressure to toe the party line. The leader of the Romanian gymnastics federation, Nicolai Vieru, made it clear to Karolyi that the coach was suspected of intending to defect. Fearful of reprisals upon their return to Romania, Bela and Martha did just that. On the last day of the tour, March 29, accompanied by team choreographer Geza Pozsar, they walked out of their hotel and disappeared into the crowded streets of New York City. It was the beginning of a wrenching odyssey.
"We just decide, suddenly," says Karolyi. "We haven't been prepared. We had not saved any money. We had even bought a big stuffed bear to bring home to Andrea." Andrea, their seven-year-old daughter, had stayed behind in Romania with an aunt, and now Bela and Martha had no way of contacting her. They carried her bear with them into the street.
With two suitcases and $360 between them, the Karolyis took refuge in a one-room Manhattan apartment belonging to Martha's aunt. Though at the time Bela spoke six languages, none of them was English, and his visits to the immigration office were nightmares in miscommunication. "I tried German first, then Spanish and Italian, but nothing worked," says Karolyi. "People were rude and ignorant. Nothing I could do was right."
On their second day of freedom, Karolyi came in to find Martha's aunt weeping in front of the television set. "I look at the screen, and it looks like just another gangster movie," recalls Bela. "People shooting and ducking." In fact it was a videotape of the attempted assassination that day of President Reagan by John W. Hinckley Jr. "Holy Jesus Christ!" says Bela, eyes wide. "I thought, What kind of a place am I coming to?"
He couldn't have had any idea. After a week, with the help of other émigrés, he and Martha contacted the State Department and applied for official asylum, which was eventually granted. Although their defection made the newspapers, no one in the gymnastics community contacted Karolyi, and after the initial swirl of publicity, he and Martha were left to fend for themselves. An acquaintance named Les Sasvari, an expatriate Hungarian coach living in the U.S., helped pay their way to Los Angeles. California, Sasvari told them, was the promised land of American gymnastics, a land of sunshine, gyms and jobs. A friend of Sasvari's worked as a manager at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and there, improbably, Bela and Martha stayed for free for several days. Karolyi, English phrascbook in hand, called every gymnasium in the Los Angeles phone book, offering his services. There were no takers.
"I don't blame them," says Bela. "Most of them could not even understand me." But then he hints at darker reasons for those early snubs. At the time of the defection, several U.S. papers had run stories citing American coaches' reactions to the Karolyis' arrival. "It was said I could not adapt to the different social realities, that the Romanian system was not going to work here," says Karolyi. "At the time I did not understand. Now, I do. It was pure business resistance. They didn't want the competition."
Whatever the reason, there were no jobs for the coach of the 1976 Olympic champion. After being politely but firmly asked to check out of the Wilshire, Bela and Martha moved to a motel near the docks in Long Beach. "I think it was the cheapest hotel in the country," says Bela. "Seven dollars a night." He pauses. "There, most of the helpless and desperate people are living. They were the drug dealers and the prostitutes and all the time the sailors having fights. Always you feel unsafe. Uncovered."
Karolyi found work as a longshoreman on the docks of L.A. In the mornings he took jobs cleaning out the seedy restaurants and bars along the waterfront for whatever pay he could negotiate in broken English and sign language. "The first word I think I learned," he says, "was sonovabitch. 'Sonovabitch, this not clean!' 'Sonovabitch, sweep that again!' " Sometimes he was given leftovers from the kitchen; more often he bought a pretzel on the street. Often he had to walk three hours from the motel and three hours back, trudging alongside the freeways. Exhausted, he would collapse in front of the television, cramming into his mind whatever English he could pick up from Sesame Street and the soap operas.