PUHI — “You can do it!”
Those words by gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi are etched in the mind of Jack Leonard, owner of and trainer at the Kauai Gymnastics Academy in Puhi.
“I have to say the most indelible memory I have is this athletically-persistent coach yelling from the sidelines to Kerri Strug, encouraging her as she ran to her second, and most-historic vault, helping the United States team win the first Olympic team gold medal,” Leonard said as he introduced the internationally-renowned gymnastic coach to his gymnasts and their parents.
Karolyi, the star attraction, was surrounded by gymnasts garbed in blue outfits, each wielding cameras as they crowded around their visitor: gymnast coach Bela Karolyi.
“They don’t know how big this guy is,” Lenny Rapozo, one of the gymnast parents, said as he smiled over the fuss the gymnasts were creating around the celebrity.
“They know of Dominique Moceanu, and they think he’s just her coach.”
“We’re real lucky to have him,” said Leonard. “He’s had a full day of appearances on O‘ahu, and came over to spend just an hour and 20 minutes with us. He’s the most famous person that’s been in our gym.
“Most of us remember some of these celebrational moments in sports history,” Leonard told the audience of excited gymnasts and their parents.
These included the Olympics of Montreal and the first perfect-10 scores in Olympic history by Nadia Comaneci.
Comaneci was one of the first students at Karolyi’s school when she was 6 years old. Karolyi pioneered the Romanian centralized gymnastics training system.
Following Comaneci’s success in Montreal, Karolyi was named head coach of the Romanian team at the 1980 Olympics.
However, following the Olympics, Karolyi clashed with Romanian Federation officials, and, during a 1981 gymnastics tour, Karolyi, along with his wife Marta, and Romanian team choreographer Geza Pozar, defected, and sought political asylum in the United States.
Karolyi’s status as “Nadia’s coach” attracted gymnasts to his club that he acquired after a gymnastics business venture ran into financial problems, and Karolyi ended up buying it.
Three years following his defection, Karolyi was back at the Olympics in 1984 as the individual coach of all-around champion Mary Lou Retton and uneven bars gold medalist Julianne McNamara.
This led to Karolyi’s clout, and he was made head coach of the women’s team for the 1988 Olympics. He was also the personal coach of three athletes on the United States team: balance beam bronze medalist Phoebe Mills, the only female United States gymnast to medal in Seoul, Chelle Stack, and Brandy Johnson.
At the 1991 World Championships, four of the six athletes on the U.S. Women’s team were trained by Karolyi, and at the 1992 Olympics, five of the seven athletes were either trained by him or one of his protégés.
Karolyi acted as a personal coach for Dominique Moceanu and Strug at the 1996 Olympics, and still managed to draw the spotlight as he carried her to the podium to accept her gold medal after she was injured during the U.S. team’s final rotation on vault.
That moment was photographed and widely distributed, becoming one of the most enduring memories of the Olympics.
Karolyi retired following the 1996 Olympics.
“Even though he has retired from coaching, we still benefit from his coaching techniques, guidance, and contributions to the sport we love,” Leonard told the appreciative audience.
Kaua‘i Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste welcomed the visiting celebrity, and encouraged the young gymnasts, noting that “people from small places can still accomplish great things if they work hard.”
Karolyi told the audience members that he was pleased with the appearance and words from Baptiste, telling the audience members that by the mayor’s appearance, it shows how much support the group has.
“Little guys,” Karolyi’s voice boomed through the gym located in the industrial center. “You know how lucky you are? Not everyone has the opportunity to be a gymnast in such a lovely environment.
“You are already winners every time you step into this gym,” Karolyi told the aspiring gymnasts. “And, parents, you are to be congratulated.”
Karolyi explained that, every time a gymnast makes it to practice, they learn self-confidence, and they learn to stay on their feet.
He encouraged people to take in the upcoming Pacific Alliance Premier International Gymnastics Event that will be taking place at the Neal Blaisdell Center April 13 to 15 on O‘ahu.
In addition to Hawai‘i and American gymnasts, Karolyi said there will be athletes from countries such as Japan, China, Canada, and Australia.
Leonard explained that it was his members’ participation in selling tickets to this event hosted by USA Gymnastics that enabled them to earn a visit by the renown coach.
Justin Hirnisey, director of event marketing for USA Gymnastics, said that the O‘ahu event will be televised by NBC for those who are not able to make it in person. That TV broadcast is scheduled for some time on Easter Sunday, he said.
Karolyi said, “These are the best from around the world competing in the most beautiful sport in the world.”
- Dennis Fujimoto, staff writer and photographer, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) or firstname.lastname@example.org.