By Cnaan Liphshiz
BUDAPEST (JTA) – When journalists ask Agnes Keleti about her health, she gently smiles and slowly extends her right hand in apparent gratitude for the question. Keleti yanks anyone who is foolish enough to grasp her hand with enough force to throw them off their balance. Then she replies: “I’m fine, thanks. Yourself?”
Such agility, defiance and humor are traits that helped Keleti, 98, survive the Holocaust in hiding and become Hungary’s most successful living athlete. She has no fewer than 10 Olympic medals as a gymnast – most of them won after she reached the relatively ripe age of 30. She is also the most decorated female Jewish Olympian of all time.
Keleti, who left Hungary in 1957 and lived in Israel, is now celebrated as a national hero here, where she returned three years ago to be with one of her two sons.
In Budapest, Keleti leads a comfortable life in a central apartment that she shares with a female caretaker.
“I have a good life here, I feel at home,” Keleti told JTA last month after lighting the Olympic flame at the European Maccabi Games. Held in Budapest, the quadrennial Jewish sporting ended August 7.
She is interviewed regularly on national television here and invited to official events. A giant portrait of Keleti adorns the side of a building in Budapest alongside those of other living Olympic champions.
She didn’t always feel this secure.
Keleti has dementia that impacts her short-term memory, but has not changed her positive and cheerful outlook and disposition. Nonetheless, she still recalls leaving Hungary in 1957 because “there was a lot of antisemitism.”
“It wasn’t a good atmosphere to be Jewish, even for a star athlete,” she said.
Growing up in a well-to-do family, Keleti delighted her parents with her musical talent, which emerged as early as age three and led her to become a gifted cello player. Her athletic capabilities emerged at four, when her father taught her to swim during a vacation near Lake Balaton.
“My father had two girls, and he raised me like a boy,” she said.
The outbreak of World War II, when Keleti was 18, halted her athletic development. She survived the Holocaust thanks to falsified identity papers. She worked as a maid at an estate and later at a munitions factory. Keleti’s mother and sister were saved by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Her father and uncles were murdered at Auschwitz.
Keleti resumed her training as a gymnast in 1946, but was prevented from competing at the London Olympics in 1948 owing to an injury. Four years later – at the age of 31 – she won her first Olympic gold medal, in the floor exercise, at the 1952 Helsinki Games. She also won a silver medal and two bronze medals in other events.
This would have been a respectable pinnacle for the career of any professional athlete. But for Keleti, it was merely the warm-up to her spectacular performance at the ’56 Olympics in Melbourne. At 35, competing against gymnasts half her age, she collected four gold medals and two silver.
A video about Keleti’s Olympic career created by JTA’s sister site Kveller has been viewed more than 29 million times on Facebook.
“I drove myself hard,” Keleti said in reply to a question about the secret to her success. “I drove the girls I taught hard, too,” she added, referencing her years as the head coach of Israel’s national gymnastics team. “It’s the only way to get performance. Being nice and motherly doesn’t do it.”
Sergiusz Lipczyc, an Israeli former professional boxer who attended the Maccabi Games, recalls watching Keleti motivate her trainees at the Wingate Institute near Netanya in the 1960s. “She was a tough cookie,” he said. “I remember her correcting one girl’s exercise by saying in front of everybody, ‘Don’t open your legs like that, it’s not nighttime just yet.’”
Two years shy of a century, Keleti still has a sharp tongue that makes it challenging to find suitable caretakers, her younger son, Raphael, said during the interview. “It took a while to find someone who was emotionally unshakable,” he said.
In retrospect, Keleti said the girls she trained were too young and that the teenagers competing internationally today are a crucial two years younger than they ought to be for their own physical and mental health.
“The girls begin too early in life and the exercises they do are too straining,” she said. “It’s become a circus. Training needs to begin at 16 and the earliest competing needs to happen is at 18.”
Keleti is credited with essentially founding the national gymnastics team in Israel. She said her arrival there was largely circumstantial. While competing in Melbourne, the Red Army quelled an anti-communist uprising in Budapest. Keleti filed for asylum and stayed in Australia, where a former teacher from the Jewish Gymnasium in Budapest, Zoltan Dikstein, looked her up and persuaded her to attend the 1957 Maccabi Games in Israel. The country was so poor and Keleti’s sport so undeveloped that she had to bring her own bar and rings.
Her arrival was a rare feather in the cap of Maccabi organizers and the Israeli media couldn’t get enough of Keleti. Her stardom helped secure her teaching position at the Wingate Institute, where she trained several generations of gymnasts.
It was in Israel that she met her late husband, Reuven Shofet, with whom she had two boys.
“I grew up knowing my mother was Wonder Woman,” Raphael said. “She ran the household, she taught us music, helped with our homework, cooked meals so tasty that all the neighbors’ kids wanted to stay for dinner. Oh, and in her spare time she was an international and local celebrity who traveled to coach athletes at the Olympic Games. No biggie.”
In 2017, she won the Israel Prize, the Israeli government’s highest civilian distinction, in the sports category.
Keleti was still able to perform a leg lift and a split that year, but she said her skin has since become too thin to safely attempt such feats now. The problem is keeping her from exercising for the first time in her life.
“But who cares,” she said. “There’s more to life than sport.”
Main Photo: Agnes Keleti performs a split in front of Hungarian young gymnasts Budapest on January 16, 2016. (Peter Kohalmi/AFP/Getty Images)