For Agnes Keleti, the oldest living Olympic champion, the fondest memory of her remarkable 100 years is simply that she has lived through it all.
The Holocaust survivor and winner of 10 Olympic medals in gymnastics — including five golds — celebrates her 100th birthday on Saturday in her native Budapest, punctuating a life of achievement, adventure, tragedy and perseverance which, she says, passed by in a flash.
“These 100 years felt to me like 60,” she said at a celebration in Budapest on the eve of her birthday.
Leafing through a copy of a new book about her life — “The Queen of Gymnastics: 100 Years of Agnes Keleti” — her trademark modesty was on full display.
“‘The queen of gymnastics,’” she said, switching to English. And in Hungarian: “That’s an exaggeration.”
Keleti, who was born Agnes Klein in 1921, had her illustrious career interrupted by World War II and the subsequent cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics. Forced off her gymnastics team in 1941 because of her Jewish ancestry, Keleti went into hiding in the Hungarian countryside where she survived the Holocaust by assuming a false identity and working as a maid.
Her mother and sister survived the war with the help of famed Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, but her father and other relatives perished at Auschwitz, among the more than half a million Hungarian Jews killed in Nazi death camps and by Hungarian Nazi collaborators.
Resuming her career after the war, Keleti was set to compete at the 1948 London Olympics but a last-minute ankle injury dashed her hopes. Four years later, she made her Olympic debut at the 1952 Helsinki Games at the age of 31, winning a gold medal in the floor exercise as well as a silver and two bronzes.
Despite her achievements — with six medals she was the most successful athlete at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and she is recognized as one of the most successful Jewish Olympic athletes of all time — the still-vivacious Keleti said she most values her health and the simple fact that she has lived.
“I love life,” she said. “Health is the essence. Without it, there is nothing.”
In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Keleti said the experiences she gained while traveling the world were more precious to her than her 10 Olympic medals.
“I loved gymnastics because it was possible to travel for free,” she said.