It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of this meme, but it appears to come from Desirée Rincón, where it has over 38,000 shares. During the Rio Olympics, America has been captivated by the women’s gymnastic team, as they’ve displayed tremendous talent, crushing the rest of the field in the all-around competition. Clearly, they had tremendous coaching along the way, but are any of them a “former illegal immigrant” as this meme claims?
Team USA Coaches
The current head coaches for Team USA gymnastics are Aimee Boorman, who is an American born in Chicago, and Mihai Brestyan, a Romanian-born man who came to the US legally and eventually obtained citizenship. According to the International Gymnast Magazine, all other US coaches are either American born, or immigrated legally.
However, since few people know these coaches, this meme is likely referring to Bela and Martha Karolyi, a Romanian couple who have been extremely influential in the development of Team USA into a gymnastics powerhouse the last few decades. While neither are official Team USA coaches currently, that point could be forgiven, as they own and run the “Karolyi Ranch“, which is the national training center for the United States women’s gymnastics team. What can’t be forgiven, is to label them illegal immigrants. In fact, their extraordinary story deserves special mention.
Bela and Martha Karolyi
Bela Karolyi was formerly a legendary coach for the Romanian gymnastics team. In 1976, during the Olympic games in Montreal, he coached Nadia Comăneci, who was the first gymnast to ever receive a perfect score. She became a sensation, but at the time Romania was a communist nation, ruled by the brutal dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Bela and Ceaușescu became at odds, as he objected to how Romania’s rulers would exploit their star gymnasts. For example, they would trot them out for both cash and propaganda reasons. As Bela said, “sheiks, visiting politicians, you name it”.
In 1981, Bela was on tour with Comăneci in the US. During their last stop in New York, he heard rumors that they might be detained once they returned to Romania. Detainment in Ceaușescu’s Romania, of course, meant potentially unimaginable horrors. This was a totalitarian government notorious for crimes like genocide and secret police raids. Given this reality, Bela, Martha and a team choreographer decided to walk out of their Manhattan hotel with only $350 and a single gym bag, and sought political assylum in the United States.
Political asylum is a legal form of immigration provided the immigrant meets 3 basic criteria:
- Must establish they fear persecution in their home country
- Must prove that persecution is from 5 protected areas (race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group)
- Must establish their government is involved with the persecution, or that it’s unable to control other private actors in the country
The Karolyis clearly met this requirement, as did most people from communist nations at the time.
Back to the Karolyis
It should be noted this action to seek asylum in the US wasn’t taken lightly by the Karolyis. At the time, this meant not only leaving their protégé Comaneci, but also their daughter, Andrea! Life in America did not have an easy beginning for them. As Bela recounted:
We had no plans, no money, nothing. I spoke five languages — Russian, French, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian — but, back then, not a word of English. It was very hard here at the start. Very hard. Very, very many frustrations.
Initially, they found themselves in Los Angeles, living in a $7/night motel, while Bela worked menial service jobs. Given his gymnastics reputation, eventually he landed some coaching jobs in Oklahoma, and later they moved to Houston. There, he found some land in the country, which at the time had no electricity, running water, or buildings. He convinced the owner to let him clear some land, set up fences, and erect a simple cabin and barn. The Karolyis used these primitive facilities to begin training young gymnasts, including the young Mary Lou Retton. In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Retton became a sensation, as she received two perfect scores, the gold medal and much of America’s heart. The Karolyis were now high atop the US coaching map, and their Houston property eventually grew into the “Karolyi Ranch”, training some of America’s most legendary gymnasts. During the 1996 Olympics, Bela became widely known for carrying Kerri Strug to the medals podium after she injured her ankle.
In 1989, the Karolyis became US citizens, even getting help from Congress to speed the process along. With the help of Representative Bill Archer (R) of Houston, they were finally reunited with their daughter, and became an American family.
There is no one coaching Team US gymnastics today that could be considered an illegal immigrant, past or present. Everyone involved was either born in America or immigrated legally.