One of the world’s most decorated Olympic medalists is currently living in the country whose capital is known as “the City of Gold.” Agnes Keleti, 91, won a total of ten medals for gymnastics during the 1950s – including five gold – when she competed for Hungary after escaping the Nazis during WWII. She currently resides in Herzliya and although still very nimble for her age, the legendary athlete faces difficulty remembering the Olympic games in which she participated.
“Staying alive is more important than the medals,” the Jewish athlete half-jokingly told the AP after she couldn’t locate her precious medallions. “The medals have no meaning.”
Although Keleti, who was born in Budapest, grew up to excel in sports, her childhood dream was to become a musician, particularly a cellist. During the Nazi invasion of Hungary, her plans fell through, as she was forced to go into hiding posing as a Christian maid while her family was scattered across Europe. Her mother and her sister survived as beneficiaries of the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg while her father and other relatives were murdered in Auschwitz.
Keleti credited her father for her athletic aspirations. “He was a fantastic athlete,” explained Keleti. “He’s the one who got me into sports.”
After the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, then 35-year-old Keleti had more medals than any other woman in the world and was the oldest gymnast ever to win gold. She won three of the four individual events — floor, bars and balance beam — and placed second in the all-around. Together with her four medals from the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Finland, she became the top female Olympic medalist ever.
She emigrated to Israel the following year to compete in the Jewish Maccabiah Games and then retired in 1958. Keleti married Reuben Shofet, a physical education teacher, and raised two sons. She worked for the University of Tel Aviv as well as the Wingate Institute for Sport in Netanya teaching physical education, and she coached Israel’s national gymnastics team well into the 1990s.
She was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2002, and the Hungarian Sports Hall of Fame in 1991 as well as the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1981. As the greatest Jewish female medalist of all time, she trails only swimmer Mark Spitz.
Still active, Keleti swims and runs for at least one hour a day – and is even flexible enough to do splits. “For me, sports was really just a way to see the world,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I never got nervous. People said they got scared before competitions. That never happened to me. Gymnastics was just a part of my life.”
Her 10 medals surpass the seven that Israeli athletes have achieved in over 60 years of competing at the Olympics. “It’s a shame that Israel didn’t get a medal,” she told AP, before adding with a smile, “but I’m Israeli, too.”