Named After A Heroine
Nadia Elena Comăneci was born on November 12, 1961 in Onesti, Romania (a small town in the Carpathian Mountains). She was born to Gheorghe, an auto mechanic, and Stefania Comăneci. Her younger brother, Adrian, was born 6 years later. Nadia was named after a heroine Nadejda from a Russian film. Little did her parents know that Nadia would actually fill those shoes of a heroine one day.
A Ball Of Disastrous Energy
Nadia did not actually choose to begin gymnastics. But rather, her mother put her into classes. In an interview with Libertatea, her mother said “I took her for the first time to a gym because she was a child full of energy, and you could not stay with her in the house. She was disaster…She fell in love with gymnastics and had the ambition to get to the top.” Luckily her wild temperament led to great successes.
Discovered During Recess
Nadia and her friend Viorica Dumitru were doing cartwheels during recess one day. Although it was just 2 girls playing, this act led to her future success. While playing, she was spotted by Béla Károlyi. Károlyi was searching for girls to train at his new experimental gymnastics school. Nadia was quickly recruited and she was only 7-years-old. She became one of his first students and was luckily able to commute from home as she lived in the same town as the gym.
Placed 13th In Her First Major Competition
Nadia would train 2 to 3 hours per day at Károlyi’s school. From the very beginning, she showed more determination and fearlessness than many girls her age. By the time she was 8-years-old she began entering major national competitions. Her first was the Romanian National Junior Championships. Sadly, she placed 13th. However, she took that loss and turned it into a positive. It was a motivation for her to work even harder.
Returned A Winner
In 1970, Nadia returned to the Romanian National Championships. This time she had practiced and worked harder than she ever had before. Her determination paid off and she won the championship. She would continue to hold the title of Junior Champion for the following few years. With this success came the next step in her gymnastics career.
Entered International Competitions
It was clear that Nadia was ready for the next level of competition. In 1971, she participated in her first international competition – a dual junior meet between Romania and Yugoslavia. She won first in the all-around as well as helped the Romanian team win gold. Over the next few years, she continued to dominate dual meets against countries such as Hungary, Italy and Poland.
Needed To Train Harder
Nadia was already a expert in many levels of gymnastics. However, it was time to increase her abilities and the only way to do so was more training. When she was 12-years-old, she moved to a state-run gymnastics school and began training 8 hours a day. She used this time to improve her technique, add difficulty to her routines and increase her endurance.
Dominated The 1975 European Championships
1975 was a big year for Nadia. When she was 13 (almost 14-years-old), she almost swept the European Championships. She placed first in vault, uneven bars, balance beam and the all-around. She placed second on floor. Later that year she did the same at the Romanian National Championships. In a pre-Olympic event in Montreal, Nadia won the all-around and a gold in beam. She placed second on vault, floor and bars.
Received A Perfect 10 Before Olympics
In March 1976, Nadia participated in the inaugural American Cup in New York City. During this competition, she received a perfect 10 on vault in both the preliminary and final rounds. She won the all-around in that competition. It was during this event that she met American gymnast Bart Conner. Nadia was 14 and Bart was 18. They met very briefly and posed for a few photographs together. Little did they know that their paths would cross again in the future.
1976 Summer Olympics
By the time the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal arrived, Nadia was more than ready for the competition. It was those games that Nadia’s name became synonymous with a perfect score and the sport of gymnastics. On the first night of the competition, she was awarded the first ever perfect score, on the uneven bars. The following night, she earned a perfect score for the uneven bars and balance beam. A few nights later she would receive perfect scores again for the balance beam and uneven bars. Overall, she was given 7 perfect scores and won gold for the all-around as well as the balance beam and uneven bars.
Scoreboard Couldn’t Comprehend A 10
In the 1976 Summer Olympics, Nadia was awarded a perfect 10 for her routine on the uneven bars. The manufacturer of the Olympic score board, Omega SA, created the board with the idea that a perfect 10 was not unattainable. Therefore, the board was unable to display a 10. Therefore, when Nadia was given a perfect 10 her score came up at a “1.00”. Many of the athletes and audience members were confused. But once everyone realized she had been given a perfect 10, the arena went into a frenzy.
Media Takes Notice
Soon after Nadia was awarded her perfect score, media outlets around the world began knocking on her door. Everyone wanted to know more about the girl who received the perfect 10. Sports Illustrated wrote an article about her and her talents “At Montreal [Comăneci] received four of her seven 10s on the uneven bars. The apparatus demands such a spectacular burst of energy in such a short time—only 23 seconds—that it attracts the most fanfare.” the 1976 article said. “But it is on the beam that her work seems more representative of her unbelievable skill. She scored three of her seven 10s on the beam. Her hands speak there as much as her body. Her pace magnifies her balance. Her command and distance hush the crowd.”
Holds A Record That Can Never Be Broken
Nadia became the first Romanian gymnast to win the Olympic all-around title as well as became the youngest Olympic all-around champion ever. She will forever hold the title of being the youngest. At the time gymnasts had to be 14-years-old by the first day of the competition in order to compete in the Olympics. That rule has now been changed and a gymnast must be 16-years-old in order to compete. Therefore, her record of being the youngest gymnast ever to win the all-around can never be broken.
Hit Hard Times After The Olympics
In 1977, the Romanian Gymnastics Federation removed Nadia from her longtime coaches, the Károlyis, and sent her to Bucharest to train at the country’s sport complex. This was not a good change for Nadia. She was not happy and it showed in her gymnastics. She competed in the 1978 World Championships games and she fell off the uneven bars. She placed 4th in the all-around. However, she did win gold on beam and silver on vault. After this “incident” she was permitted to return to her previous coaches.
Disobeyed The Doctors Orders
In 1979, she won her 3rd consecutive European all-around title making her the first gymnast to ever do so. While at the world championships of that year, she was hospitalized for blood poisoning which was caused by a cut in her wrist from her metal grip buckle. Despite the doctor orders to stay in the hospital, she left to finish the competition and perform her routine on beam. She scored a 9.95 and the Romanians won their first team gold. She had to return back to the hospital after the competition and underwent a minor surgery.
1980 Summer Olympics
Nadia was once again given the opportunity to participate in the Olympics games in summer 1980. The games took place in Moscow which at the time was still the Soviet Union. She won 2 gold medals, one for the balance beam and one for floor as well as 2 silver medals, one for the team-all around and one for the individual all around. However, Nadia’s coaches were not happy with the individual all-around competition and made their voice heard.
A Scoring Discrepancy Cause Disruption
There was a lot of controversy that surrounded the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Many countries, including the United States, decided to boycott the games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, it also made its way to the competition floor. Only 3 girls were in the running to win the individual all-around in gymnastics, including Nadia. Nadia gave a stellar performance on the balance beam but was only given a 9.85 which led to her placing second. Her coaches believed she was scored unfairly in order to allow a Soviet gymnast to win. Coach Karolyi ended up yelling at the judges which was broadcasted on TV.
The “Nadia ’81” Tour
In 1981, the Gymnastic Federation reached out to Nadia and informed her she would be part of the official tour of the United States, that would be named “Nadia ’81”. Her coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi would lead the group of gymnasts from around the world. Nadia and her team shared a bus with the U.S. gymnastics team, where she was able to reconnect with American Gymnast Bart Conner. Nadia later said about Bart, “Conner was cute. He bounced around the bus talking to everyone – he was incredibly friendly and fun.” The tour went well except for the last day something had happened.
Her Coaches Defected
When a person defect’s from his or her country, he or she is disowning their allegiance to one’s country in order to take up residence in another. On the last day of the “Nadia ’81” tour, Nadia’s coaches, Béla and Márta Károlyi along with the Romanian team choreographer Géza Pozsár (pictured below with Nadia) defected. Looking back, Nadia now sees that Károlyi may have hinted at his plan to see if she would also like to do so. However, at the time Nadia had no interest in defecting. Unfortunately, that soon changed.
After her coaches defected, the Romanian government became very suspicious of Nadia’s future plans. They suspected that she too may also try to defect. Very tight restrictions were placed on Nadia. She was constantly being watched and she was not allowed to leave Romania. Nadia said “If Bela hadn’t defected, I would still have been watched, but his defection brought a spotlight on my life, and it was blinding. I started to feel like a prisoner.”
Travel Exception For The Olympics
Nadia was rarely allowed to leave the country. However, she was given the chance to leave to attend the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. However, she did not attend as a participant but rather just an observer. She watched Bela Károlyi’s new protégé, American gymnast Mary Lou Retton (pictured), dominate. However, she was not allowed to speak to him and she was closely watched throughout the games.
Nadia had begun thinking about retiring from gymnastics in the early 1980’s. Her official retirement ceremony took place in 1984 in Bucharest. It was attended by many prominent people, including the chairman of the International Olympic Committee. The New York Times reported that Nadia said “I regret that from now on I will never know the excitement of competition.”
In 1989, after being watched for so many years, Nadia decided it was time to defect from Romania. She, and 6 other gymnasts, left in the middle of the night on foot and walked to the Hungarian and then Austrian border. From there she went to the U.S. Embassy where she was given a ticket to New York. She only told her brother and her sister-in-law. However, she never told her mother as she was afraid she would have a heart attack.
Nadia Recounts The Night
“When I think back to that moment it’s hard because I thought I was never going to see my family again. My brother supported me. He said, ‘You go and find a life.'” she said in an interview with the Daily Mail. “When I go back to that night I feel it again. It was difficult because I had to turn my back. It was hard to go, but my instinct was telling me I had to do something right then. But then I thought, ‘I made it.’ It was difficult, but then the world changed in Romania so I was allowed back.”
Romanian Revolution Happened Weeks After Her Defection
Just weeks after Nadia defected to the United States the Romanian Revolution occurred and the totalitarian government collapsed. Nadia said in an interview with the Daily Mail, “I didn’t know the revolution was going to happen. If I had, would I have stayed? Yes, probably.” However, she was happy to find out she could now return to her home country when she was ready.
Life After Defection Was Hard
A man named Constants Panait, a 36-year-old man and defector from Romania, was the mastermind behind Nadia’s escape. Upon her arrival in the United States, he insisted she stay with him. On the outside it seemed as though Nadia and Panait were having an affair and she enjoyed his company. However, that was the exact opposite of what was happening. Nadia was being held hostage.
Her Life With Panait
In an interview with People, Nadia described the pain she went through with Panait, “I was not in love with this man. He helped me to escape, but beyond that I wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted to find somebody and explain the situation, but I couldn’t. I was closed in the hotel room. I couldn’t answer the phone. I couldn’t speak with nobody. He would not let me. All the time I thought somebody was watching me and I was not safe. I was afraid.”
His Greed Led To Her Escape
After she defected, close friends, like Karolyi, were confused as to why they still could not speak to Nadia. Therefore, he set up a plan with his friend, Alexandru Stefu. Stefu tempted Panait to come to Canada with Nadia to make an endorsement deal. Panait had been stealing Nadia’s money since she moved to the United States, so this was an offer he could not refuse. Upon arrival, Stefu was able to get Nadia alone, where she told him the horrors of her new life. Panait walked in on this discussion and quickly fled with $150,000 of Nadia’s money.
Reconnection To Conner
Nadia finally had the freedom she had hoped for. On her 29th birthday, she had a big celebration. Sefu secretly invited Bart Connor. After the party, the 2 grew to be close friends. In 1991, she moved to Oklahoma to help Conner run his gymnastics school. Their friendship soon became romantic and they were together for 4 years before the officially decided to get married. Their 1996 wedding took place in Bucharest and their reception was in the former presidential palace. Their wedding was televised live.
Where Is She Today?
Comăneci has moved on from the horrors of her past and now holds a dual citizenship to the United States and Romania. She currently serves as the honorary president of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation, the honorary president of the Romanian Olympic Committee, the sports ambassador of Romania, and as a member of the International Gymnastics Federation Foundation. She and Conner also own the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, the Perfect 10 Production Company, and several sports equipment shops.