Bela Karolyi coached Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, and other greats such as Dominique Moceanu, Kim Zmeskal, and Kerri Strug.
Coaching in Romania:
Karolyi's best-known student was also one of his first. He coached Nadia Comaneci from the age of six to her Olympic debut at age 14 in 1976. When she made history by winning the all-around and scoring seven perfect 10.0s, Karolyi and Comaneci became household names in Romania and around the world. But Karolyi often clashed with the Romanian officials under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. After coaching Comaneci and the Romanian team to the silver medal at the 1980 Olympics, Karolyi and his wife Martha defected to the United States on a 1981 gymnastics tour in the US.
Coaching in the USA:
Karolyi had success right away in the US -- in 1984, just three years after defection, he coached Mary Lou Retton to the all-around gold, and Julianne McNamara to the uneven bars gold, at the Los Angeles Olympic Games.
In the '80s and early '90s, Bela and Martha Karolyi became the go-to coaches in the US. Gymnasts from around the country moved to Texas to be trained by the husband and wife, hoping they would become the next Mary Lou or Nadia.
Karolyi continued to win, too. He coached Kim Zmeskal to the 1991 world all-around gold -- the first American woman to win that title. Dominique Moceanu became the youngest senior national all-around champion in 1995, and she and Kerri Strug both earned gold with the 1996 Olympic women's team -- another historic medal for the United States.
Karolyi officially retired from coaching after the 1996 Games, but came back as the national team coordinator for the 2000 Olympics. Since then, Martha has taken over as the US national team coordinator, while Bela often works as a commentator and announcer with NBC or at USA gymnastics meets.
Allegations of Abuse:
Bela Karolyi's success at winning medals is undisputed, but his coaching methods have drawn criticism throughout his career. Former gymnasts like Dominique Moceanu have come forward, talking about emotional and physical abuse they were subjected to under Karolyi. Romanian gymnasts Emelia Eberle (now Trudi Kollar) and Rodica Dunca have also given interviews to the press about physical abuse they endured, and their stories have been backed up by Geza Pozsar, who worked with the Karolyis for 30 years as their choreographer.
Additional allegations, including deprivation of food and verbal abuse around the gymnasts' weights and bodies, were made in the 1995 book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.
The Karolyis have denied or refused to comment on the accusations, and some former gymnasts have supported them, or said that winning gold medals justified the training methods. In 2008, Kim Zmeskal told the LA Times, "I don't know where [Moceanu is] coming from. From my personal experience, she's coming from a different planet. It's a difficult process and there are a lot of pieces to becoming the very best in the world."
Bela Karolyi was born on September 13, 1942, in Cluj, Romania to Nandor and Iren Karolyi. He has an older sister, Maria. Though Karolyi was strong in track and field and boxing, he was never a good gymnast -- he struggled to make the gymnastics team in college, and after he finally did, he broke his arm, effectively ending his own gymnastics career. Soon afterward, he turned to coaching.
On November 28, 1963, Karolyi married Martha Eross. The couple has one daughter, Andrea. The Karolyis live on a ranch in Huntsville, Texas in the Sam Houston National Forest near Houston. It's also the site of their gymnastics camp, and the National Training Center for women's gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, trampoline, tumbling, and acrobatic gymnastics.