In July 1976 I was a six-year-old boy and I already liked sport. The broadcasts then of the Montreal Olympics had a big impact on my life and I think it was even the spark that later ignited the fire for this profession.
For Cuba, beyond the triumphs in boxing and judo, it was alberto Juantorena’s Games. Those two gold medals in 400 and 800 meters became one of the greatest feats not only of Cuban sport in its entire history, but also of world athletics.
However, another athlete also caught my attention, and was not from Cuba. It was Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci. At that point I had no idea what the sport was, but I was aware that I had done a feat. His name was repeated by commentators, his picture was in the newspapers and especially they talked about perfect executions, and his age: he practically just doubled mine.
Then came the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and I was able to enjoy, more consciously, their selections in the various devices. Then Nadia Comaneci lost track and today, on the turn of the years, I try to tell at least on the remaining lines, part of what has been her story.
Nadia arrived in Montreal at the age of fourteen and was not unknown. A year earlier she had become Champion of Europe, surpassing even the Soviet Lyudmila Turishcheva, then regarded as the world’s great star. Even before the Games she participated in the New York-based America’s Cup and there she became the first woman to perform the very difficult double-deadly back at the exit of her exercise on the asymmetric bars.
The Romanian participated in two Olympic Games: Montreal 76 and Moscow 80. In that period he won five gold medals, three silver and one bronze medals, as well as winning the title at the World Championships.
However, the “turning point” in its history took place on July 18, 1976. It was the beginning of the Olympic tournament of what was then called gymnastics, today artistic gymnastics. He competed in the team classification and during his execution on the asymmetric bars the judges gave him the perfect rating: 10.00! That had never happened in the history of Olympics.
It was so unheard of that OMEGA measuring devices had no record. The International Federation had told manufacturers not to worry about four digits in gymnastic qualification because the maximum was 9.95. So what appeared on the board was 1.00. The gymnast hemast hem years later recalled the moment:
“I thought I had done a very good exercise, but not perfect. I didn’t even look at the scoreboard because I was already thinking about the balance bar. Then I heard a big rumble in the stadium, turned to the scoreboard and the first thing I saw was the 73rd, which was my bib number, and then the 1.00 below. Then I told myself what a horror! I looked at my teammates and they gestured with my shoulders not to understand. Then, by local audio they announced that the note was actually a 10.00. It was all very fast. The fact that the score couldn’t show the 10 added more drama to the situation made it bigger.”
But on the date that wasn’t the only “10.00,” then six more came. The young girl in her early fourteen was by far the best gymnast in the world.
At that time her country was under the power of the infamous Nicolae Ceausescu and was received with very high honors. The ruler himself appointed her Hero of Socialist Labour and gave him the Gold Medal of the Hoz and the Hammer, also an eight-room house, a chariot, some jewels and even servants, but without anyone explaining that becoming Romania’s top star would also mean being persecuted, pressured and monitored all the time.
It was impossible for a fourteen-year-old girl to live with all that and even her parents’ marriage suffered the rupture by not being able, psychologically, to endure so much tension.
At the Moscow 80 Games Nadia Comaneci won two gold medals and two silver medals, but no score of 10.00 and that was considered by the Romanian authorities as a failure, which increased the level of criticism about the athlete and her coaches Bela and Marta Karoloyi, who in 1981, taking advantage of a tour, “stayed” in Canada. Nadia was part of that team and returned to Bucharest, however, surveillance on her increased greatly, to the point that all her correspondence, phone calls and even being banned from leaving the country were reviewed.
In this way, and at the age of twenty-eight, on 29 November 1989, Nadia Comaneci walked all night through a wild and icy field and, apparently with some help from border troops, crossed into Hungary territory where they were already waiting for her to move her to Austria and from there to the United States. Years later asked about the reasons that made her make the decision, the athlete said: “I wanted to be part of this sport, to be involved in the Olympic movement. I wanted to help and make my own decisions, that’s why I left. I wanted to be free.”
What was written in a nut words was a real torment for the exceptional gymnast. Behind his “getaway” was Mr. Constantin Panait, a Romanian resident in Florida, who controlled all his steps and squeezed out his economy, posing as his manager. Nadia’s fitness caught the attention of some friends and he was eventually freed from Panait, who definitely escaped, albeit with the athlete’s money.
And life spins and the dots are touched again. In 1976, prior to the Montreal Games at the aforementioned America’s Cup in New York, she won American Bart Conner in the women’s and men’s branch at the time at the age of eighteen. According to some biographers, one of the photoreporters covering the contest believed that the handsome blond gymnast and the little Romanian girl would take a good picture and make it. Neither athlete then thought that twenty years later, on April 27, 1996, they married, after dating for four years, after he invited her to Norman, Oklahoma to help him run a Gymnastics School.
The wedding was held at the former Presidential Palace in Bucharest and was broadcast live by national television and witnesses claim that outside, on the street, there were more than 10,000 people enjoying the event.
Today the Conner-Comaneci couple also live proud of their son Dylan Paul Conner, born in June 2006, when the mother had already turned forty-four and father forty-eight.
Currently, Nadia Comaneci and her husband own the Conner Academy, “The Company to Produce the Perfect 10.00,” as well as sporting goods stores and many of her writings are published in International Gymnast Magazine.
Nadia, who has also worked as a commentator on major televisions, is also vice-president of the Special Olympics Steering Council and the Association for the Treatment of Muscular Dystrophy. He is a member of the Foundation of the International Gymnastics Federation, has twice received the Olympic Order and very recently founded in Bucharest a Mercy Clinic to help orphaned children.
Author of two books, the protagonist of a film and a documentary about her life, Nadia Comaneci claims that so many things have happened to her and in such a short time that a ninety-minute film is not enough, “it would take at least two,” she said at the time.
Constant fighter and example for new generations of men and women, gymnasts or not, Comaneci is much read in the international arena and many collect phrases of hers so they have meant also to them. Here’s just one sample:
“I don’t run away from a challenge because I’m afraid. On the contrary, I run into the challenge because the only way to escape fear is to run it with your feet.”
“If I work on a certain movement constantly, in the end it won’t seem risky to me. The idea is that the movement seems dangerous to my opponents, but not to me. Hard work has made it easy.”
“My marriage to my husband, Bart Conner, in 1996 is the most proud personal moment.”
“Medals are very important in an athlete’s career; the most he aspires to. As a woman, being a mother is something much more important and incomparable.”
“Sport opens a lot of doors for you and gives you great opportunities.”
This is Nadia Comaneci, the teenager who astonished the world in 1976, whose story is worthy of being told. Ω