- The Washington Times - Monday, July 29, 2002

The way it was

The Romanian girl was tall for a gymnast, 5-foot-4, and seemed surly. She had none of the cute and captivating charm displayed by predecessor Olga Korbut and successor Mary Lou Retton at the Olympics. All she could do was beat everybody else in the world.
At 14, Nadia Comaneci should have been giggling in a junior high school somewhere. Instead, at the Summer Games at Montreal in July 1976, the 86-pound Romanian was practically perfect as in a perfect 10.
In other ways, though, she was sadly lacking. "Before Montreal, I knew little," she told the New York Times in an interview last year. "What can you know about life at 14? I have learned a lot since, but you learn slowly. You get hit by many things and try to make sense of it."
Twenty-six years after her golden moment, Comaneci bears little resemblance to the child she was during her golden moment in Montreal. At 40, she is a slick, bubbly blonde living in Norman, Okla., with her husband, former Olympic gymnast Bart Conner, 13 years after defecting to the United States. And she is happy, more so now than then.
"I am a relaxed person," she said. "I am very happy. When you go out of your country and meet people, you get a wider perspective. Near the end of my career, I saw things that didn't make too much sense to me when I was a kid."
Despite the vast changes, Comaneci is not totally open, even to her spouse. Said Conner: "She's complex. She's always been mysterious to me, and I think that was part of the attraction. People were fascinated by the mysterious girl from Romania. In Montreal, she was an amazing athlete, but she didn't say much, and we were curious."
Comaneci was a protege of famed coach Bela Karolyi, who had seen her doing gymnastic exercises as a little girl in her village. In her first meet, at 6, she finished 13th. Said Karolyi: "I gave her a doll for good luck and told her, 'You must never finish 13th again.'"
The girl certainly followed orders: Over the next seven years, she never finished anywhere but first. By 1976, both her doll collection and skills had grown immensely. Competing in the American Cup in March, Nadia astounded the gymnastics community by scoring the first 10 in international competition. Four months later, she arrived in Montreal, telling interviewers grimly, "I don't come here to smile I come here to do a job. I leave the smiling to Olga."
For Nadia, obviously, the Games weren't fun and games.
On the first night of competition, July 20, she received a score of 10 on the uneven bars, the first perfecto ever awarded in the Olympics. The following night, she turned in two more flawless performances on the balance beam and the uneven bars. Before the Games ended, she had been given an incredible seven scores of 10. Nadia collected gold in the all-around, balance beam and uneven events, plus a bronze in floor exercises. ABC commentator Jim McKay likened her to "a woman swimming in air."
Presumably, Olga had stopped smiling by then.
In the process, Nadia even defeated technology. When her score in the unevens was flashed on the first night, the scoreboard flashed only "1.0" as the anticipatory audience roared its disappointment. A P.A. announcer hastened to explain that the board had not been programmed to register "10.0."
Asked by an idiotic reporter afterward if she intended to retire, Nadia replied, "I'm only 14." Four years later in Moscow, she won the balance beam and floor exercises, giving her a total of five Olympic golds. Over her 12-year career, she recorded 31 scores of 10 before retiring in 1981.
After her career ended, Comaneci continued to live a dramatic existence. She escaped from Romania by moonlight in 1989 and moved to Montreal, living with a Romanian family. She called Conner, an old friend, and the two started a courtship. They began living together in 1991 and were married in 1996.
Of her departure from Romania, Comaneci recalled, "That night was the most terrifying of my life. I knew the authorities would try to stop me, so I left late at night with just a backpack and my dreams. I had to go. Even for me, a national heroine, there was a terrifying communist dictatorship. I could not stay."
Comaneci and Conner run a gymnastics academy in Norman with more than 1,000 students and publish International Gymnast magazine. The couple also make motivational speeches together, act as commentators on European competitions for Fox TV and manufacture gymnastics equipment through their Perfect 10 production company a perfect name, you'll agree.
She and Bart have a home with a swimming pool and spectacular scenery, Nadia said. They also have a beach vacation home in California, where famed guitarist Eric Clapton is a neighbor. Life is good and it grew a bit better for Nadia in June 2001, when she became a U.S. citizen.
Last year, too, she was named Sportswoman of the Century at the World Sports Awards, taking her place on stage alongside the likes of Muhammad Ali, Carl Lewis and Pele.
"When I went up there to collect the award, it was amazing," Comaneci said. "I looked at the fabulous outfit I was wearing, and at the people drinking champagne, and I realized I had really made something of my life. Gymnastics had taken me to a place I never knew existed. It was a moment when I realized that everything had turned out OK."
And then some.

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