Season Seven: Heavy Medals Episode 2

American Hustle The Karolyis begin to build their gymnastics empire in the U.S. But they need a champion. Enter Mary Lou Retton, whose perfect 10 at the 1984 Olympics will make her and her coach household names — and explode the popularity of gymnastics across the country. Now Bela needs to harness that gold medal success to advance his own cause.


 [ABC News
Reporter: In those first months in America, Bela worked as a cleanup man and on the docks in Long Beach, California, learning English by watching Sesame Street and by discussing with his wife after a day’s work what his foreman had been yelling at him.

Bela Karolyi: And I said, I have learned a word. Son of a bitch. She said, “Huh? What does it mean?” I said, “I don’t know about. But let’s get the dictionary out.” So I took the dictionary and then look it up. And son, son, fine fine I’m the son of somebody. That’s fine then, bitch. Bitch you know, it’s a female dog. Said, alright female dog. So son of the female dog, that’s gotta be a puppy.]


GEZA POZSAR: Bela was very very into learning English. I mean he get some books, some cassettes, you know, and we listen to the radio, we watch TV. Bela spoke much better English than Martha. Martha’s English was awful. Bela’s wasn’t much better, but was better than Martha’s.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: This is Episode 2: American Hustle 

As Bela has always told it, after defecting from Romania, he and Martha stayed in a $7-a-night motel in a seedy part of Los Angeles. He worked at a restaurant, cleaning up at night, and as a dockhand, unloading cargo for cash. 


Bela Karolyi: My immediate goal was to get back in my profession rather than cleaning more restaurants and doing dock work in the harbor.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: But Geza Pozsar, their friend and choreographer who defected with them, remembers those months in California much differently. Instead of a seedy motel, he says they stayed first in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Rodeo Drive, and then in a guest house on the sprawling grounds of a friend’s fancy LA-area home. Geza knows because he stayed there, too.

GEZA POZSAR: We had a swimming pool. We had horses. We had tennis court. We went jogging. We are going around. We didn’t work. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The friend they stayed with confirmed Geza’s account. He doesn’t want to go on the record and dispute Bela publicly. But he said Bela Karolyi was not working at the docks or washing dishes to pay for a $7-a-night motel room. He was living rather comfortably off the generosity of a friend.

But Bela understood the power of the public persona he was building and the appeal of a rags to riches story in the United States, a country of immigrants.  

[NBC Sports
Announcer: The story begins in the foothills of Transylvania in a small coal mining village isolated on the side of a mountain. Bela Karolyi was a thinker and a doer, but most importantly, a man with a vision, a vision of fashioning little girls into champions.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mike Jacki, who had closely observed the Romanian coaches on that Nadia ‘81 tour was now the President of the US Gymnastics Federation. He watched as the Karolyis tried to adjust to their new reality.

MIKE JACKI: They thought they were going to come here and coach a kid, you know like, I’m gonna come here and coach an Olympian. And they realized that they had to coach lots and lots and lots of kids in order to pay the bills. 

BONNIE FORD: They’re walking into this world of private gyms scattered across a huge country with a handful at the top that were fiercely competing for both athletes and for coaching stature. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: My reporting partner, Bonnie Ford, is a longtime Olympics writer. 

BONNIE FORD: And this farm system, so to speak, was overseen by the U S Gymnastics Federation. Which is a nonprofit national governing body that’s very dysfunctional, and at that point, really struggling financially.

BONNIE FORD: There was no government involvement in sport here in the United States, and so there was no one to appoint Bela to anything and no one who was going to bring him elite athletes, he had to do it on his own.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Luckily, the Karolyis had a pretty decent calling card: they were Nadia’s coaches. That alone prompted a Houston gym owner to hire them. Bela and Martha recruited the 1981 junior national champion, Dianne Durham, to be their first elite gymnast. Now, they were officially on their way. They went on the road to scout other promising athletes, like 8-year-old Chelle Stack from Philadelphia. 

CHELLE STACK: I remember doing my back handspring for the very first time, and that little tryout, scared the living daylights out of me, but I did it. And there was one spot left on his first original team of 18 and I made the team.

Bela Karolyi: That was the beginning of my coaching career here in the
States. That was the time when I got finally back in my profession.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis set down roots in Houston, Texas, where they were reunited with their daughter, Andrea. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And less than two years after defecting, Bela and Martha were able to buy the gym where they were working and hire their own coaches.


STEVE NUNNO: I’ve felt like this would be a great opportunity for me to learn from the best.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Steve Nunno was a 25-year-old coach based in Boston when Bela offered him a job.

STEVE NUNNO: Yeah, I remember waking up the second night I was at their house to this shoo shoo shoo shoo. And I look at the clock and it’s like 3:30 in the morning. I’m like, what is that? Shoo shoo shoo. And I look out the door and Bela is sweeping his driveway. And I realized right off the bat that the guy was just a workaholic. Just a workaholic.

STEVE NUNNO: He just loved being free to do whatever he wanted to do. I don’t think he was able to do a lot of the things where he came from. I don’t think he probably was allowed to sweep his driveway at 3:30 in the morning. He was doing it just because he could.  

Bela Karolyi: You just think about doing the freedom, the life difference, the social life. And probably the most important: the professional opportunities what this country offers. You can do what you freely and deeply you feel you want to do.]


STEVE NUNNO: He did love being free, you know. I, you could just tell he liked driving. He liked doing everything about, he liked cleaning the bathrooms at the gym. As soon as we got to the gym, he was in the bathrooms, cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming. And he never sat down, never sat down a single time. And then when practice started, he was on it, hands-on, making sure he was right in there spotting everybody. Doing all this. And I was like worn out watching him. 


Interviewer: Is it harder to coach the athletes in a free environment?
Bela Karolyi: Well, you know, that was one of the things when I heard so much about it before I came here and immediately upon my arrival. Oh, gosh, I heard so many bad news, how that American kids are spoiled, how they don’t want to work, how they want, you know, to do everything in the world and that they are not consistent in one direction. That’s not true. That’s not the truth. That’s a lie.]


CHELLE STACK: Literally every day we did the exact same thing.

STEVE NUNNO: They did morning workouts.

CHELLE STACK: Bela would show up in the morning.

STEVE NUNNO: I mean, early morning workouts, 6:30 you know, had to be on your toes, ready to go.

CHELLE STACK: We would always start with conditioning, go to vault, go to bars. 

STEVE NUNNO: You know, there was a lot of repetitions of things. I mean, how many cartwheels can you do in a warmup that in a, could we get to the big stuff, let the kids make sure they have the energy to do those others. Just you know, once they have it they have it. You’ve got five, two and a half twist vaults. I think she’s got it, you know, don’t need to do anymore. You only have to do one at the meet. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela Karolyi’s program involved a demanding physical regimen, relentless pressure… and an intensely competitive atmosphere.

CHELLE STACK: There was like always a pyramid. Everyone had a place there was the winner. And then maybe the queen bee. And everybody else was kind of like a little pawn to help push to make that one person successful because not everybody can win. There’s only one winner. 

STEVE NUNNO: The one thing Bela was known for, he was a master motivator. I mean, he could make your shoes dance without you in them. But he was also a master DE-motivator. He could also tear out your soul and destroy you as a person so that you don’t want to dance. And I saw both sides.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: One afternoon, a promising young gymnast was struggling with a tumbling pass.

STEVE NUNNO: And he just didn’t understand it. Just was, you know, blaming her for not being able to do it. And he picks up this piece of foam out of the pit and he goes, “This piece of foam has more life in it than you!” And two days later she was gone. She just didn’t even want to do it anymore. And I went, okay that’s got to stop. I had to explain to them from a business standpoint, that was a $1000/month decision. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: To keep his gym open, Bela needed paying customers. Which was something Steve appreciated more than Bela did.

STEVE NUNNO: I taught him a little bit about business. Um, taught him a little bit about the American system. 

STEVE NUNNO: And he said, “I only want to train world champions.” That’s what he told me. And I said, “Well, then there’s only going to be six kids in this gym.”

STEVE NUNNO: These kids did it for fun. They weren’t selected and put into a program. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Steve ended up parting ways with the Karolyis after less than a year.

STEVE NUNNO:I left because one day they came and said they couldn’t afford to pay me.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: No matter what growing pains they’d had in their first couple of years, Bela and Martha were determined to repeat their success here in America. To prove Nadia was not a fluke.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mary Lou Retton was 14-years-old when Bela Karolyi met her in Reno, Nevada in December 1982. Just 4 feet 9 inches tall, she was a sturdy, powerful athlete with clear Olympic potential.



Mary Lou Retton: I was just a wildcat.  You know, I would make a 9.9 on the vault but I’d fall five times off of the beam.  Very inconsistent.  And I just needed better coaching.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mary Lou had a coach, who she’d been training with in her hometown of Fairmont, West Virginia, since she was 7 years old. He’d helped her get to the elite level of gymnastics. But at that meet in Reno, when Bela first introduced himself to the star in the making, her coach wasn’t there. 


MIKE JACKI: A coach would not normally go up to an athlete and say, hey, you know, you should move in and train with me because I’ll do a better job. Totally unethical in the eyes of the gymnastics community.


Mary Lou Rhetton: He came up to me, I mean, smack dab in the middle of it.  And he, and he tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around.  And, you know, of course I looked up at him and he’s such a big man. And I was in complete awe.  I mean, this was the man who had coached Nadia. You know, my role model, my inspiration. And, and of course I knew who he was, he was the king of gymnastics. And he was talking to me. You know, I was completely blown away.  And he said to me in, in, and in his deep Romanian accent, “He said, Mary Lou, you come to me, and I make you Olympic Champion.” (laughs) ]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: That’s all it took. In the space of a single weekend, Mary Lou and her parents decided she would relocate to Houston and train with the Karolyis.

GEZA POZSAR: Nobody, not ever dared to approach Bela like that, you know? 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Geza Poszar was used to seeing gymnasts in Romania terrified by Bela, he’d never seen a gymnast treat him like a buddy.

GEZA POZSAR: You know, she was just acting like they are teammates, you know, not like they are coach and, uh, gymnast.  


Bela Karolyi: Mary Lou’s personality was honest.  Open.  Bubbly, bubbly and, and always ready for a joke, ready for a smile.]


GEZA POZSAR: Mary Lou learned some bad words in Hungarian and saying Bela, you know, making fun of him, how he speaks, his accent, you know? 

GEZA POZSAR: He’s, Bela’s a very shrewd guy. He’s figuring out very quickly the personalities and what approach. He didn’t try to impose on her a system that may just push her away.


[ABC News                                                    
Mary Lou Retton: What did he say? What did he say?
Kristie Phillips: Boof Boof Come on Boof Boof
Bela Karolyi: Boof Boof Boof Boof Boof Boof Ree-ooo. Opa! Woo!
Gymnast: He just gives a lot of different sound effects.                                           
Mary Lou Retton: Just a regular normal person would come in and think he was crazy.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But it wasn’t all jokes. Mary Lou was working … hard.

Mary Lou Retton: Bela needed to take me to the next level.  And that was that, that fire level. That, it doesn’t matter there’s no mountain you can’t climb level.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mary Lou had an Olympic goal. And the Karolyis had an Olympic goal. 

Mary Lou Retton: There is just a quality about Bela, when he would look at you in, in the eyes.  You know, you’re at the eighth hour of workout.  You are so sore.  You’re tired.  You’re mentally drained.  You’re thinking about going home and eating dinner and getting in bed, and Bela wants to play Olympics. Now is the time, let’s do it. You know, you’ve got to be perfect. He just would pull that every last inch of you, of energy and of motivation and of anything that you had left.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And as the 1984 Summer Games got closer, it was clear their hard work was paying off. Especially on the balance beam. 

[ABC Sports
Mary Lou Retton: And my beam has gotten so much better. And that’s due to Martha Karolyi. She really doesn’t get into the scene as much. But she has helped me so much on beam. It’s incredible.]

MIKE JACKI: All of a sudden, she was a rock. Not only stayed on the beam, but looked comfortable up there.


[CBS News

Anchor: Sixteen-year-old Mary Lou Retton is barely four feet, 10 inches tall, but she is a powerhouse on the vault. This year in competition, no one has beaten her. And by everyone’s estimation, she’s favored to win a gold in Los Angeles. Maybe two golds.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Los Angeles was the first U.S. city to host a Summer Olympic Games in 52 years. That put the heat on American athletes to shine at home. Bela and Martha felt the pressure in a very personal way. The Soviet Union and most of the Eastern Bloc countries were boycotting, making the Karolyis’ former Romanian athletes the gold medal favorites. Romania’s star? Ecaterina Szabo, who had trained with the Karolyis in Deva. 



Bela Karolyi: Ecaterina Szabo was one of the best gymnasts, besides Nadia, what I had under my direct coaching.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis needed Mary Lou, their new star, to outshine their former star.


ALYSSA ROENIGK: No American woman had ever won an individual medal in gymnastics at the Olympics.


[CBS News
Bela Karolyi: I believe if I can provide the first Olympic gold medal for this country, that’s gonna be a great satisfaction and and just an expression of my gratefulness to this society. And this this country.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela wasn’t a part of the official US coaching staff. But he wrangled a credential from an equipment sponsor so he could be on the sideline during the competition.

[ABC Sports
Announcer: We have a microphone on Bela Karolyi. Maybe he’ll be commenting on this.

Bela Karolyi: Relax your legs. Be ready, ok? All right.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: As expected, Romania took the team gold. But the U.S. won silver – the country’s first Olympic team medal since 1948. 


[ABC Sports
Announcer: That’s a silver medal for the US almost for sure. 

Announcer: A gold medal performance for all of them, what effort and determination.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mary Lou qualified easily for the individual all-around, and the spotlight shifted to the matchup between her and Szabo.


[ABC Sports

Announcer: So the good competition between Mary Lou Retton and Ecaterina Szabo of Romania.]


[ABC Sports

Announcer: And the battle’s on.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Heading into the final rotation of the individual all-around, Mary Lou trailed Szabo by fifteen hundredths of a point. 


Mary Lou Retton: I knew that I needed a 9.95 to tie Szabo for the gold or 10 to win.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mary Lou had two shots at her vault.


Her first vault was a full-twisting layout Tsukahara, a skill she’d honed in the Karolyis’ gym.

[ABC Sports
Announcer: And I hope she has her wings on today for this vault.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mary Lou saluted the judges and started sprinting down the runway. 



Bela Karolyi: She was running toward that vaulting horse.Amazing take off, an incredible impulse on the horse. And her little body was flying through the air. Perfect.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: On the landing, her feet drove into the mat like a spike. In one motion, she lifted herself upright — and threw her arms and head back in triumph.



Bela Karolyi: It was perfect routine, perfect vault and sticking that landing.]


[ABC Sports
Announcer: YES!                                                                                            Announcer: She has done the best vault of her life! She knows what she’s done now. Full twisting Tsukahara.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela climbed over the barrier and Mary Lou jumped into his arms. Her celebration became their celebration, forever fused.


[ABC Sports
Bela Karolyi: ahahahah! Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it! Champion! Olympic champion! Woo-hoo!


ALYSSA ROENIGK: That bear hug instantly endeared him to the public.


[ABC Sports
Bela Karolyi: Woo-hoo!                                                                                  
Announcer: Bela Karolyi, can you hear him?                                                            
Bela Karolyi: We done it!
Announcer: And the crowd is on their feet, what a moment for American gymnastics!

Bela Karolyi: That’s a 10! Thats a 10!]


[ABC Sports
Announcer: There it is! 

Announcer:  She did it! 

Announcer: A ten! The gold medal! The gold medal goes to Mary Lou Retton. Oh, what a party they’ll have in Fairmont, West Virginia tonight.

Bela Karolyi: Good job! Fantastic!]


[ABC Sports
Announcer: What does it feel like to be the world champion? The best in the world at gymnastics?
Mary Lou Retton: Ahh oh my god I can’t express the feeling, the long hard years of work have paid off and every bit of it was worth it!]


[Bob Hope Christmas Special
Bob Hope: Ladies and gentlemen, Mary Lou Retton, right now.]

RITA BROWN: Everybody wanted to be like Mary Lou! Look at that cute little freckle little dimpled face.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: As a young coach and gym owner, Rita Brown celebrated Mary Lou’s rise to fame, along with the rest of the country. 

            RITA BROWN: She was spectacular, she was our little Wheaties girl. 

[Wheaties Commercial
Mary Lou Retton: Watch out big boys.]

RITA BROWN: Television, newspaper, radio, endorsements. That was the beginning.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Before the 1984 Olympics, Mike Jacki was president of a federation struggling to survive. After the ‘84 Olympics, he watched his sport explode. The one-two celebrity punch of Mary Lou and Bela changed everything for gymnastics in America. 

MIKE JACKI: There was a cultural shift in sport, nationwide. It became winning, money, power. Bela and Martha are just part of it. They took advantage of it. They took advantage of it like other people didn’t.

Bela Karolyi: After Olympic Games, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of young children wanted to become another Mary Lou. Hundreds and hundreds of  young children they been floating towards the gymnasiums. The gymnasiums were filled with young children, everybody was dreaming about maybe one day I’m gonna be the next Mary Lou.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela cashed in on his newfound fame as an American champion maker. 


Jim McIngvale Gallery Furniture is proud to be a sponsor of Bela Karolyi’s elite gymnastics team.

Gymnasts: Thanks Mack!

Jim McIngvale: Well thanks to all of you for showing us that hard work is still the spirit of America!]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Sponsorships sprung up. Enrollment skyrocketed.


[ABC Sports

Announcer: Bela Karolyi and his wife Martha have seen enrollments double at their gym on the northside of Houston.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Make that almost triple — from 600 gymnasts to 1600 in the months following Mary Lou’s gold. The Karolyis had to expand their gym and hire additional coaches. There were traffic jams as fans tried to get a glimpse of Mary Lou at the place where Olympic champions were made. 


[ABC Sports

Announcer: These are the eight year olds at Bela’s gym. These little dynamos of raw energy that he shapes into strong, graceful athletes. He calls them his little hopes.]


[ABC Sports
Interviewer: Bela, you’ve got thousands of young girls right now that want to be gymnasts. What can you say to them? How much has Mary Lou Retton’s style changed the style of gymnastics and will it hold in the future? 

Bela Karolyi: After that many Russians, Romanians finally we got the new American idol. And I am so glad, I’m so glad for them, so glad for this beautiful sport. From now we are going to have thousands and thousands of new “Rettons” coming up in the gymnasiums and certainly at the next Olympic Games.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: The media dubbed Bela and Martha’s new crop of elite gymnasts: Karolyi Girls. Phoebe Mills and Chelle Stack were part of this exclusive club. 


CHELLE STACK: Every part of the package was put together in an idea of first-class. You know, your makeup was done. You had lipstick on, you had your hair pinned back perfectly. 

Every little detail was taken care of, that the leotard fit perfectly. The warmup fit. You always wore white socks. You had white shoes.

[ABC Sports
Announcer: You recognize that uniform there, the white with the purple and the blue. That’s the uniform of Karolyi gymnastics. And it may look as though all the gymnasts here are wearing that uniform and so many of them are.]

CHELLE STACK: You walked in and you were so prepared and confident that it was kind of intimidating for other people. Because you’re like, ugh, the Karolyis are here. Yep. That’s our chance. We’re done. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha was responsible for the very particular presentation of the Karolyi Girls, which she more or less modeled after herself. 

CHELLE STACK: She always wore the same thing in the beginning, always. Little white Keds, white socks, black nylon parachute pants, and a solid colored t-shirt. She was always perfectly put together.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela was the face of the operation. Martha was behind the scenes running the business.

CHELLE STACK: Martha was the business woman. Martha was the leader. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: She worked the front desk. She did the billing. She sold leotards. And she coached beam, an event where Phoebe Mills excelled. 


PHOEBE MILLS: They definitely had their roles and they also I would say played off of each other a little bit too. Like if Bela was in a really bad mood, Martha would tend to be in a good mood.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela and Martha were building their stable of Karolyi Girls. And everyone was curious to see which of their young gymnasts would emerge as the country’s next best hope.

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: I was probably about 4’10” freckles, brace-face, short little red, strawberry blonde, Dorothy Hamill haircut. 

[CBS Sports

Reporter: Kristie you were absolutely unbelievable. And you looked like you enjoyed it. 

Kristie Phillips: I did (laughs) I just told myself to go normal like I do in practice and that I can do it. 

Reporter: Well you sure did and you made everybody up here gleam.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis saw tremendous potential in young Kristie Phillips. And so did her mom. 

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: My mother was very overweight, very loud, very obnoxious, and very proud of her daughter. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kristie’s mother, Terri Sue, spent her days at the Karolyi’s gym. She sewed mat covers. She drove her daughter around in a van custom-painted with a picture of Kristie on the side. Kristie was her job.

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: Bela Karolyi to this day loves my mother, because my mother did everything he asked her to do. 

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: “Oh, she did it Terri Sue! She did it! Very good, very good.” And my mom would be like “Yeah, I know she can when she wants to.”

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: Then I just remember getting home and always like “Well, so-and-so got more turns than you on the bars tonight! You got to get out of that chalk box! You got to do this, you got to do that!” And the intensity just never stopped. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Everything about her life was scripted. 

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: Bela and Martha Karolyi were masters at what they did, and they knew the details that worked. And different details worked for different kids. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis shaped Kristie’s image, right down to her Dorothy Hamill haircut.

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: And part of my persona, was my hair and it bounced with me in my floor routine. And I was a very, very showy performer. I don’t ever think I was the most outstanding tumbler or the most outstanding bar worker, never. But my ability to hit when it counted and my ability to perform was captivating.


[CBS Sports
Announcer: Phillips again with that classic, powerful, Mary Lou Retton style. Announcer: Incredible! That’s a roundoff onto the board, a backhand spring onto the horse, and a layed out tucked full twisting backflip off the horse. Very difficult vault and she handled it perfectly.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In 1986, Kristie won her first big international competition, the American Cup. She then won every U.S. competition she entered that year. And the 14-year-old landed on the September cover of Sports Illustrated.

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: This perfect picture with the crystal blue eye shadow, the feathered hair, the big smile with braces.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The caption on the cover of Sports Illustrated read: The New Mary Lou.

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: When I got this quote-unquote title as The New Mary Lou, it was like, wow! They think I can do this. I, I want to win the Olympics! The expectation was, I was going to win the gold in ‘88.

Mike Jacki: She’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated. You know, she’s a superstar. She was winning everything. And then we had an issue that took place in ‘87 with the Pan Am Games.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Pan Am Games are held once every four years, in the year before the Olympics. And they’re an early indicator of who has a shot at making the U.S. team.

MIKE JACKI: If you said to me what are the chances of Kristie Phillips being on the ‘88 Olympic team, I go guaranteed hundred percent, not a chance she won’t make the team. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kristie and Bela both had their sights set on the 1988 Summer Olympics. Four years earlier, he’d given the U.S. its first gold medal. This time around, he expected the U.S. Gymnastics Federation to reward him with the position of head coach.

MIKE JACKI: Bela was not a guy that understood or had any respect for rules.  Bela was if you won then you ruled. So he felt like that should be me. I should be the head coach. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But the Federation had a different plan. They named a neutral head coach — someone who didn’t coach any elite gymnasts. 

Bela did not take the news well.  

MIKE JACKI: Bela calls me up, “Ahhh this is ridiculous. I don’t like this, I don’t like this at all.”

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mike Jacki was the President of the US Gymnastics Federation. And he refused to give in to Bela’s demands. So Bela decided to protest. He boycotted the Pan Am Games. 

Leaving Kristie Phillips to compete without her famous coaches.

[CBS Sports
Announcer: A reminder that her coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi are not here for this competition.]

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: He didn’t go to prove a point that his kids could not perform without him. 


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Without her motivator-in-chief, Kristie faltered.


KRISTIE PHILLIPS: I couldn’t run down the runway in warmups. I couldn’t get my steps right on vault because I didn’t have that little voice in my ear going, “Come on, buddy, you can do it! You got this! You can do it! Come on! 


[CBS Sports

Announcer: Ok. Ugh.

Announcer: Kristie Phillips has fallen off the balance beam twice this past week.]


[CBS Sports

Announcer: You have to wonder how much Bela not being here has affected her performance.]


MIKE JACKI: She did a vault landed on her knees, and from that point on Kristie started going downhill.


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela continued to protest. And Kristie continued to falter. He skipped the World Championships, and Kristie finished 45th overall. Her Olympic hopes were slipping away.


KRISTIE PHILLIPS: Part of the reason I left Karolyis in the beginning of the season in 1988 was just that, I was depressed. I didn’t want to go to the gym.


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Six months before the Olympic Trials, Kristie left Houston for Southern California.

She attended public high school and made friends. On the weekends, they rode bikes on the beach. 

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: The move out to California may not have been the best for my gymnastics. It was the best for my soul, and it was the best thing for my mind and my heart as a human being. And then my body started developing, like a normal human being does at 16 years old. However, not very good for the sport.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But Kristie’s desire to fulfill that prophecy of being the New Mary Lou still tugged at her.

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: If I’m going to do this Olympics, and I’m going to go for it, I’m not going to be able to do it this way. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In May of 1988, just two months before the Olympic Trials, Kristie returned to Houston to finish what she had started with the Karolyis. They put her on a strict diet.


KRISTIE PHILLIPS: About 500 calories a day. We’re talking boiled eggs, tuna fish from a can and a salad and a slice of toast here and there. Like the intention was to help me get this under control. And again, we’re talking 112 versus 92. Twenty pounds, on a little frame. 


[ABC Sports
Bela Karolyi: When she came back, that was that was shocking, shocking to me. Overweight, out of shape, dragging herself around the floor.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela and Kristie had worked hard to get her back in competition shape. But Bela wasn’t counting on her as he once had. 

[ABC Sports                                                                                                    Announcer: At one point it was thought that Bela would give the United States its   top gymnast in the name of Kristie Phillips. Well, as she continues her comeback, he has given the United States its top gymnast. But her name is Phoebe Mills.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: He showed up at the Olympic Trials with a slate of talented gymnasts. 

[ABC Sports
Announcer: Watching, quietly, wondering just how many of his gymnasts will make this Olympic team is Bela Karolyi. He parades around the arena. He is really a media darling,

Announcer: Right now, it looks as though Bela Karolyi will send three gymnasts on the main team and have both the backup alternates to the U.S. Olympic team. 

Announcer: And that, I think, is a credit to Bela in the way he teaches these athletes to concentrate and to be so focused and once again to practice so many repetitions. 

Announcer: And we are waiting for the score for Chelle Stack. Fifteen years old. Seventy four pounds.



ALYSSA ROENIGK: In all, five Karolyi Girls made the cut. Chelle Stack, Phoebe Mills and Brandy Johnson all made the team. Rhonda Faehn was named as an alternate. 


[ABC Sports
Announcer: Remember 6th is the cut off, seventh place is an alternate in Seoul, eighth place is an alternate that remains back in the United States.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kristie finished in eighth place. It was good enough to earn a spot as the second alternate. But it meant she wouldn’t get to go to Seoul with the team.

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: I don’t even remember saying goodbye to them. I don’t even remember them saying goodbye to me. That was crazy hard. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: It had been a challenging year for Kristie without Bela on the sidelines. In what had felt to her like the blink of an eye, she’d gone from phenom and Bela’s favorite, to the girl who didn’t make it.

But for Bela, that yearlong protest had paid off. He had what he wanted: the title of U.S. head coach. Four years earlier, he hadn’t even been able to get a coaching credential. This time, he was heading to the Olympics as the undeniable centerpiece of women’s gymnastics in the U.S.

[NBC Sports

Announcer: Good evening and welcome to Seoul and NBC’s coverage of the games of the 24th Olympiad.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: The 1988 Summer Games were the first time since 1976 that none of the top teams boycotted. The U.S. would have to go up against gymnastics’ greatest powerhouse: the Soviet Union.


[NBC Sports

Announcer: Let’s start with three basic facts. One, the Soviet Union, since they first entered Olympic competition in 1952, their women have never, never lost the team competition. The U.S. until ‘84 had won only one women’s gymnastic medal. That was way back in the 40s, a bronze.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Even the Karolyis were realistic enough to know that Team USA was not on the same level as the Eastern Bloc.

But the U.S. team exceeded expectations. They were in bronze medal position after the first day of competition, until a technical deduction from an East German judge dropped them into fourth place… and pushed the East German team into the bronze medal spot.



[ABC Sports
Announcer: And they knew what they were doing because it was the difference in a bronze and fourth place.]


[ABC Sports 

Bela Karolyi: I believe this should not happen in the Olympic Games. Just a shamely, dirty maneuver and uh shame for those ones who done it.]


PHOEBE MILLS: So that was pretty disappointing for our whole team. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Even Phoebe Mills’ bronze medal on the balance beam couldn’t make up for the letdown of having a team medal within reach. 


PHOEBE MILLS: And then have it stripped away from us for this technical deduction.


CHELLE STACK: You know, I’d spent a very long amount of time and hours training and we were still training so hard. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: For the first generation of post-Mary Lou Karolyi Girls, this was the end of the line. None of them had become the New Mary Lou. And not many gymnasts got a second chance at the Olympics.

But it was different for the Karolyis. They could set their sights on the future. They were just getting started here in America.

Judge: And that I take this obligation…]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: On May 1, 1989 they were sworn in as U.S. citizens.


[ABC 13
Bela Karolyi: It’s a great feeling for me. I know I’m gonna step on that floor from now as an American, not as an immigrant who are residing in the States, but an American.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And nothing was a better representation of Bela’s American dream, than his Ranch.



[ABC News

Anchor: When he heads for his ranch on a rural highway north of Houston in his four wheel drive with Merle Haggard on the dashboard cassette deck and a day’s collection of bugs on the windshield, well you’d swear you were riding with a born Texan. When Bela Karolyi defected to the West, he defected to the West. 

Bela Karolyi: Wee-hoo!]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: In 1985, the Karolyis had purchased a 50-acre tract of land within the Sam Houston National Forest, a two-hour drive north of Houston. 


[ABC News
Anchor: Now, on the property he bought with his earnings as a private coach in the U.S., he plays his newly acquired role as a part time redneck to the hilt, including the name he gave his prized bull.
Bela Karolyi: That sucker is Gorbachev (laughs) look at that dumb face.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: It was what Bela wanted after emerging from the claustrophobic lifestyle of Communist Romania.


CHELLE STACK: Bela wanted to be John Wayne. He wanted a ranch and he wanted to have animals. So he created a place that he, he loved.


[NBC Sports
Bela Karolyi: My all time hero, John Wayne. That is the man of the law, And of course, you know, my dream was one of these days I can see those places where John Wayne, the great sheriff, the great Western hero, was actually acting and living.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: When Phoebe Mills and Chelle Stack attended one of Bela’s earliest weekend training camps there, most of the property was undeveloped.

PHOEBE MILLS: We got down there and it was pretty rudimentary, like he had a house and he had a couple of cabins that were built and then that was sort of it. 


Bela Karolyi: It’s a free environment. There’s a natural environment where they can feel without the stress and the disturbance of the big cities of the everyday life, where is no any disturbance, no phone calls, no radio, no television, no anything but a good straight sturdy focus over the most important thing: a good preparation.]

PHOEBE MILLS: So we got up in the morning and it’s like alright, we’re gonna go in that field and jog. I said wait a second, there’s cows in that field and bulls. And what? We started jogging and he’s on his four wheeler behind us. Just sort of like showing us the path. 

CHELLE STACK: We were allowed to ride four wheelers, to go back and forth to our cabins. Who gives teenagers a four wheeler and say “Here, make it to the gym tomorrow morning.”

PHOEBE MILLS: And I hurt my back because we did like V-ups on a deck. V-ups where you’re on your back and you come up and touch your toes. And I just remember this is really painful. This is not soft. It’s too hard.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: After that first 50-acre parcel, the Karolyis kept buying up more and more adjacent land, until they had hundreds of acres and eventually more than 2,000. The Ranch was always a work in progress. 


CHELLE STACK: He built a house for us so that we could, we didn’t have to stay in the cabins anymore that didn’t have a bathroom in it ‘cause we used to have to go in the middle of the night and walk to the outhouse when the cabins were first built. 


ALYSSA ROENIGK: He also had to make his rustic paradise more comfortable for his wife. 


CHELLE STACK: One of the stipulations was that he built her a perfect fancy bathroom, then she would move out there.


ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Ranch was Bela’s pride and joy. During those early camps, he was like the reckless Dad who let the girls shoot rifles and ride horses, while Martha was their caretaker.

CHELLE STACK: She was our moms, so she cooked for us. And she would always come out with strawberries and whipped cream. That was, that was her way, I think of showing, here’s your, you can have your little sugar. That was your dessert. Strawberries and whipped cream.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And after the Seoul Olympics, Bela began bringing his elite-level athletes to the Ranch more frequently. He converted an old barn into a gym. He and Martha started running summer camps for young gymnasts. The Ranch became the cornerstone of their gymnastics empire.     


[ABC News

Anchor: These days, walking with Bela Karolyi on his ranch, you can almost feel him putting down roots in this piece of his American dream. But for Karolyi, the coach and his girls, it’s paradise with a purpose.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: It was an unconventional place to train young athletes in a sport where injuries are common — so isolated, so far from the nearest hospital, and the rule from day one: no parents allowed inside the gym. But Bela Karolyi was unconventional. And most importantly, he was seen as the coach who knew what it took to make champions.  


[NBC Sports

Announcer: Bela Karolyi has his critics. He has his success and he is living his dream out on the range. Not bad for a guy who used to sweep floors for a living. You get the feeling that if Karolyi had met John Wayne, the two would have had a lot to talk about. Bela is indeed the Romanian cowboy. 


Bela Karolyi [00:06:43] Yee-haw!!!]




Heavy Medals

Alyssa Roenigk, Host and Reporter
Bonnie Ford, Reporter
Andrew Mambo and Meradith Hoddinott, Producers
Julia Lowrie Henderson, Senior Editorial Producer
Erin Leyden and Libby Geist, Executive Producers
Mitra Kaboli,  Mix Engineering and Sound Design
Reilly Bloom, Gus Navarro, Samantha Dowd, and Trevor Gill, Production Assistants
Louise Argianas, Cath Sankey, and Jennifer Thorpe, Production Management and Licensing
Ian Coss, Original Composition
Connor Schell, Rob King, & Alison Overholt, Executive Producers for ESPN
This podcast was developed by Jenna Anthony and Adam Neuhaus, with help from Jody Avirgan
Julianna Brannum, Archival Producer
John Mastroberardino provided fact checking
Terri Langford did legal research
Additional Production support from: Amy Van Deusen and Eve Wulf
This season of 30 for 30 Podcasts was produced in association with espnW.

ESPN Audio
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, Vice President, Audio Digital Strategy & Marketing
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Additional Production Support
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Special Thanks
Pat Alexander, Bill Archer, Cora Bagoli, John Barr, David Barron, Dr. Dan Benardot, Cosmin Bogdan, Aimee Boorman,
Jen Brown, Mike Canales, Don Carlson, Ray Deenihan, Tom Forster, Ashley Fox, Wendy Hilliard, Barbara Kievit-Mason, Sarah Klein, Sandy Knapp, Cecile Landi, Laurent Landi, Mike Lynch, Kevin Mazeika, Phil Moseley, Dan Murphy,
Ryan Nantell, Jessica O’Beirne, Angie Povilaitis, Gary Rafaloski, Tony Retrosi, Keith Romer, RJ Santillo,
Susan Polakoff Shaw, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, Jolene Van Vugt, Paul Ziert , ESPN LA, and ESPN NY


Archival Material
Audio provided courtesy of:
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With Permission from The Estate of Clerow “Flip” Wilson
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“Gymnastics Fun with Bela Karolyi” courtesy of Lions Gate Films Inc. 
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