Nadia Comaneci (ROM)
Tribute by Barbara Fisher and Jennifer Isbister

Photo courtesy of Nadia Comaneci

Nadia Comaneci, a living legend....

Nadia was born on November 12, 1961 in Onesti. She started gymnastics at her local school. Training under Duncan then Munteanu, she developed the basics from which her next coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, built upon. Nadia started training with the Karolyis in 1968. Some three years later, Nadia was regularly competing in Romanian junior meets, edging ahead of older, more experienced competitors. One of her early wins can at the Druzhba Cup, or Junior Friendship Cup, a tournament for Eastern bloc countries.

Nadia's first competition in Western Europe was quite extraordinary. She and teammate/best friend Teodora Ungureanu were sent to Paris to compete against the big stars, including Soviet great Ludmilla Tourischeva. Arriving at the arena, the organizers dismissed the fact that these two little girls were the champions they'd been awaiting, and sent them to a lesser competition. But, Bela was adamant that his girls would compete....

Eluding the meet officials, Bela ushered the girls behind some mats. Turischeva was the last vaulter up, and once she had completed her vault Bela pushed Nadia to vault. Without a warm up, or even adjusting the setting of the springboard, she ran down the runway and performed a Tsukhara, a vault that few women were capable of performing at the time. She then promptly ran behind the mats. This continued for the next two events, bars and beam. The audience was stunned, the organizers angry. Who was this 13-year-old? Finally, the organizers relented and let Nadia and Teodora perform a joint floor display.

Now known to the European gymnastics community, Nadia was sent to London to compete in the 1975 Champions All. She again stunned both the audience and judges with her daring feats. Her moves on the bars were, for their time, especially dangerous and, despite missing her dismount, she amazed all. Reporting on this competition, International Gymnast magazine alerted readers to watch out for her genius, which was sure to blossom in about 4 years time, at the 1980 Moscow Games. Little did they know what she would accomplish one Olympiad before....

After her win at the 1975 Champions All, Nadia went to Skien, Norway for the European Championships. Despite her win a few weeks earlier, few thought she would be a factor at this meet. Nadia proceeded to sweep nearly all of the golds; the AA and 3 of 4 event finals (Nellie Kim won floor). The gymnastics world now knew her name, but not the world over.

In 1976, Nadia traveled to New York city for the inaugural American Cup competition. Not only did she win the event, but she scored two perfect 10s in the process, foreshadowing things to come.... The men's winner was an 18-year-old named Bart Conner, who gave Nadia a kiss as they stood side-by-side on the podium.

Comaneci receives a perfect 10
at the 1976 Montreal Olympics

The biggest sporting event of that year was the Montreal Olympics. Nadia and her teammates traveled to the Games and put on quite the show, finishing second to the Soviets. This was the best ever showing by the Romanian women, and in the process, Nadia made history by scoring the first perfect 10 in Olympic history. She did it on compulsory bars. The scoring boards were only equipped to handle three digits, so judges flashed a 1.00. Nadia since stated that she thought she'd been awarded a score of one, until her teammate said, "I think that's a ten." 

Nadia went on to score seven 10s in all, three on the beam and four on bars. In all, she collected three golds, a silver, bronze, as well as celebrity status. Like many stars before her, she was known the World over simply by her first name, "Nadia." 

To the Romanians, she was "Our Nadia." She returned to Romania a National hero, and was awarded The Gold Medal of the Hero of Socialist Labour by then-president Nicolai Ceaucescu. The pressure of stardom soon interfered with Nadia's rigorous training. Her presence at State banquets, to visit dignitaries and the like, took precious time away from training. 

At the 1977 European Championships, Nadia won the AA. Scoring controversies arose, however, and in protest, Ceaucescu ordered the team to abandon the competition and return home. He sent his personal plane the bring the team home, and they were given a hero's welcome on their return to Bucharest. Karolyi was furious, and eventually the team was taken away from his tutelage. The girls moved to Bucharest, and Bela refocused his efforts on setting up a new gym in Deva.

The environment in Bucharest was not conducive to the stringent training required to stay atop of the sport. Nadia became quite overweight and actually gave gymnastics up during this time. Reports surfaced that she had drank bleach in a suicide attempt. Years later she admitted to drinking shampoo, but only as a cry for help (not suicide attempt). She was undergoing too much upheaval, between the move to Bucharest, her parents' divorce, and separation from her father. The government, realizing that without Bela she would not win medals, agreed to let Nadia return to Bela.

Nadia and Bela had little time to prepare her for the upcoming 1978 Worlds. An unusually overweight and sluggish Nadia appeared at the competition. People were shocked at the change, no longer was she the little girl from 76. Many considered her career over. Nevertheless, she contributed to her team's silver and won a gold on beam and silver on vault.

Nadia continued to prove them wrong; in 1979 a fit and strong Nada won the Champions All. Now a young lady, critics praised her maturity. She proved this was no fluke, winning the 1979 European Championships and picking up three medals in the event finals (golds on vault and floor and a bronze on beam). In her autobiography, Nadia reflected on her win, "I was delighted to win the overall title in Copenhagen for the third time in succession...[the win] made fools of most of the press who had said I was losing my form after Strasbourg." In winning her third consecutive AA title at this meet, organizers presented her with the European trophy to keep for good (as opposed to a replica, which is normally what is given to winners). No other gymnast has achieved this honour.

Much was expected of Nadia at the 1979 Worlds, but a bout of the flu had left her weak and thin. During compulsories she scratched her wrist and it became infected. Badly swollen, Nadia sat out apparatus after apparatus during team optionals. But when teammate Emilia Eberle fell from beam, the team needed a good performance from her to secure team gold. Nadia rose to the occasion, performing almost flawlessly. She earned a 9.95, helping her team win their first ever team gold. Obviously she was happy for the win, but in her autobiography, Nadia later stated that she would never expect one of her girls to jeopardize their health for a win.

Nadia left Bela to train in Bucharest in preparation for the 1980 Olympics. These Olympics were, to say the least, controversial, with scoring taking center stage. Judges turned a blind eye to obvious errors in Soviet routines, prompting the Romanians to feel part of an uphill battle. Nadia fell from bars during team optionals, but the Romanians rallied to win silver.

It was during the all around where the biggest controversy arose. Nadia was doing well, battling Soviet Elena Davydova for the Olympic title. Nadia suffered two wobbles on beam, her last event. A judging dispute ensued, and 28 minutes (!) later her score was finally posted. Critics allege that this delay was no accident, allowing the judges to see how Davydova would perform so that they could score Nadia's beam accordingly, i.e., giving Davydova the gold. Others argue that this supposed set-up is simply a myth; Davydova performed her bars routine and received her score in advance of Nadia mounting the beam. Rather, the 28 minute delay was born from Romanian beam judge Mili Simonescu's refusal to post her score for Nadia, arguing with her fellow judges. 

Nadia would tie for second with East Germany's Maxi Gnauck. She came back in the event finals to win beam and tie with Soviet Nellie Kim on floor. Controversy yet again surrounded the latter. To this day, people debate the outcomes of these Olympics.

Nadia's last major event was the 1981 World University Games, and again controversy erupted. Held in Bucharest, the games have basically been called joke. Nadia was Romania's only competitor age eligible for University, yet their team won gold. Liberal scoring for Nadia, and stringent scoring for the others, resulted in a near sweep for Nadia: AA, vault, bars, and floor. One journalist, who had seen Nadia at her true best, said that it was disheartening to see her receive these scores when she was obviously below her best.

Little was heard of Nadia for the next few years. She coached junior competitors, and from all reports her gymnasts liked and respected her. In 1984, she formally announced her retirement. Countries from all over the world sent reporters and gymnastic dignitaries to attend a special event held in Romania, a Farewell to Nadia.

Nadia traveled to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as a guest, the last time she would be allowed to travel outside of Eastern Europe. The restraints and conditions in her homeland proved too much, and in late 1989 - a mere two weeks before the Romanian Revolution against Ceausescu, she defected with the help of Constantine Panait. Again she was surrounded by controversy; Nadia came off looking like a home wrecker, accepting help from Panait, a married man with four children.  Nadia later said that she was virtually Panait's prisoner and admitted to his not treating her well. 

With the help of a fellow Romanian living in Montreal, Alexander Stefu, Nadia managed to get away from Panait. Nadia was happy with the Stefu family, and started to turn her life around. For example, she started modeling for Jockey. Tragically, Stefu died in a car accident. Around this time, former American gymnast Bart Connor managed to get in touch with her, inviting her to stay with him in Oklahoma.

Comaneci at the 2001
U.S. National Championships.
Photo used with the expressed permission of Heather Maynez.

With Bart's and Paul Ziert's help, Nadia changed her image and got back into gymnastics. She began touring with shows, promoting the sport that made her famous. In 1994, five years after having fled Romania, TV showed her dramatic return visit to Romania. She would return again in April 1996, where, in a lavish State ceremony in Bucharest, she and Bart were married. Twenty years before, the two met as teenagers at the American Cup.

Nadia is still active in the sport, running a gym with Bart in Oklahoma and providing commentary her and Bart's Perfect Ten Productions TV productions. She is an ardent supporter of Romania's Gymnastics program, contributing financial aid, personal support, and inviting Romanians to spend time training in the USA. The school where she first trained, in Onesti, has been renamed the Nadia Comaneci school.

She also holds key posts in several international organizations, for example the Vice-Chair for International Special Olympics, committee member of the International Gymnastics Federation Foundation, and Vice President of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. She is starting the Nadia Comaneci Children's Clinic in Bucharest.

A new book by Nadia Comaneci is due out December 2003. 

For more, visit NadiaComaneci.com.

. This page was created on May 13, 2001 and last updated November 15, 2003.

 

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