- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - As his wife Martha Karolyi prepares to step down as USA Gymnastics national women’s team coordinator, Bela Karolyi is taking steps to ensure the future of the gymnastics oasis he established in the Sam Houston National Forest - and, also, to contemplate his own mortality.

USA Gymnastics has reached an agreement with the Karolyis to purchase the training complex included on a 70-acre portion of the 2,000-acre ranch the couple owns in Huntsville. Financial terms were not disclosed but a closing date of Aug. 24 has been set, just three days after the closing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro and five days before Martha Karolyi’s 74th birthday.

Accordingly, he said this probably will be the final year for the summer camps for young gymnasts that the Karolyi family has sponsored at the ranch since the late 1990s.

“I was able to do much with my own efforts, but at this time the demand is very high for more quality, for improvements for the gymnasts - saunas and whirlpools - all these are definitely needed, but in my own effort, I cannot do it,” he told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/29fPzRo).

Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics, said the federation has plans in the works as the Karolyis step back from day-to-day involvement. The federation has a long-term agreement to use the ranch as its women’s national training center.

That’s important to Karolyi, who at 74 is of a mind to assess his role in the sport since the 1960s in his native Romania and in the United States as coach of such trendsetting gymnasts as Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal and others.

“All the great champions and coaches, but the ones you remember are the ones who came first - Nadia with her perfect 10s, Mary Lou winning the gold medal, Kerri Strug completing the (1996 Olympics while injured) and creating such a big impact and appreciation for the sport,” he said.

Karolyi has seen untold changes in the 40 years from Comaneci to Simone Biles, the three-time world champion from Spring, and said it is difficult to compare eras.

“Nadia was the first young gymnast going into the Russian domination of mature, well-appreciated Soviet gymnasts. It’s hard to compare her with anybody before or after,” he said. “Mary Lou created an instant fire around the sport that I don’t believe anybody will be able to do.

“Simone has a great opportunity to put her name very proudly at the top of the gymnastics world, but I’m not sure that overall appreciation, the surprise factor, will be as much. She is a done deal.”

At the top of the list, however, is the ranch itself, which was recently featured in an NBC Sports documentary, and the semi-centralized training system for the women’s team that he established, amid some controversy, in 2000 that has flourished under Martha Karolyi’s leadership.

“The system has to stay alive,” he said. “If it is broken, it will be very difficult to put it back in another way. People are succeeding and producing now because of the system.”

The Karolyis received frequent criticism over the years for their stringent training regimen when they were coaching individual athletes. But Karolyi said one of the most important things about coaching was to understand what made each young woman tick.

“Mary Lou was open. Nadia was inside,” he said. “She could have great pain inside and outside with injuries, and you would never see it on her face. She was so much inside. It was hard to figure things out. You could feel a tremble, but to figure out what was wrong, it was difficult.”

While Martha Karolyi works with one more Olympic team, Bela will be in Rio de Janeiro to work for NBC, providing prime-time commentary alongside host Bob Costas. Afterward, the couple, who have been married for 54 years, will take a well-deserved break.

“We’ve been working 54 years nonstop,” he said. “We are both 74 years old. After this, she deserves to have a joyous and smooth and lovely rest of her life.”

While Martha Karolyi plans to travel, Bela said he will spend his time at the ranch, which he “created from nothing, from scratch,” he said. “This is my place. This is the place I’m going to stay.”

It is a plan, he said, he intends to pursue on every level.

“I am going to start building my resting place. I want to be buried here,” he said. “I’ll work on that and on enlarging the lodge, because people will always want bigger entertainment opportunities to have a place to stay and a place to enjoy.”

Even as he contemplates his own memorial, Bela Karolyi remains a consummate showman.

“Very close to the road,” he said. “I’m envisioning everyone will come by and tip their hat and throw a can of beer over the fence. That would make me happy.”


Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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