Bela Karoly, the Romanian gymnastics trainer who coached Nadia Comaneci to three gold medals at the 1976 Olympics, says the United States "has the potential for great achievements in gymnastics.

"There is a huge human potential in America, and there has been great progress since 1976," said Karoly, 38.

He defected to the United States two weeks ago with his wife, Marta, 38, and head gymnastic choreographer Geza Pozsar, 31, at the conclusion of a four-week American tour by the Romanian national women's gymnastics team.

The three say they hope to continue their careers by becoming involved in American gymnastics. "I am not here to take over gymnastics in America," said Karoly. "But I would like to take part and help in any way I can."

Other than participating in some way in gymnastics, their plans are indefinite. They said they would like to begin working as soon as possible.

Karoly initially expressed some concern at finding adequate facilities and enough money to coach full-time, but this past week he received coaching offers from three American gymnastics clubs.

"Selection is the most important ingredient in gymnastic success," said Karoly, who in Romania began the process of selecting internationally competitive gymnasts of the future while they were still in kindergarten. He said he knows participation in American gymnastics is on a voluntary basis, but that it is nevertheless important for coaches to recruit talented gymnasts at an early age.

"The coach must reach out and get to the children," he said.

How does a coach like Karoly, from a small provincial town in Romania, consistently produce world-class gymnasts?

"We have our secrets, but they become obvious once you get started in the system," said Karoly. "It is all an integration of organization, tactics and techniques."

Although widely reputed to be a stern disciplinarian, Karoly took issue with that image. He does not impose rigid curfews, he said, but he does like his gymnasts to get to bed by a reasonable hour.

Gymnasts should train no more than five hours a day, he said, but they should train every day, building their level of performance through methodical, consistent practice.There is, however, a difference in the level of intensity in training when a gymnast is preparing for a meet and when one is training just to keep in condition.

"A gymnast must be capable of a quick, explosive burst of energy. She must be prepared to give her peak performance in sudden bursts of energy," Karoly said.

The mission of a gymnastics coach, said Karoly, must be two-fold. "He must separately develop the gymnasts and prepare them to be stars, and he must prepare the team as a team. Morale is terribly important."

The former youth hammer-toss champion of Romania, Karoly graduated from the Institute for Physical Education in Cluj in Transylvania, where he met his wife, a former gymnast.

They reached their decision to defect early on the morning of March 30 -- the last day of Romanian tour of America -- after an all-night, soul-searching conversation with Pozsar.

They stayed at the house of a friend in the New York area while the rest of the Romanian team boarded a plane home at Kennedy Airport. Their decision to defect was announced to Romanian officials at the State Department.

The Karolys left their 7-year-old daughter behind in Romania, and Pozsra left a wife and infant daughter. They have asked that their families be permitted to join them in America.

Their reason for leaving, they said, was repeated interference with their gymnastics program by the Romanian State Central Federation of Athletics. After the Montreal Olympics, when Commaneci won international fame with an unprecedented seven perfect scores of 10, she was removed from their program for periods up to a year, causing serious morale problems, they said.