Nadia Comăneci and the phrase ‘Perfect 10’ are synonymous. This year marks 40 years since a 14 year old Romania schoolgirl left an indelible mark on the gymnastic world and in an instance became an artistic icon who transcended not only her sport but possibly even the Games themselves.

Early this year Nadia returned to Montreal for a commemorative celebration of the anniversary of the Games. She recalls the events surrounding that first perfect score and on how hearing the crowd roar, she gave a quick glance towards the scoreboard, which registered 1.00. Thinking it possibly reflected a deduction, she turned her attention back to the competition and her next event. The fact that the scoreboard couldn’t show the 10 possibly made the impact of the story even bigger and since the 2006 scoring system change a perfect 10 is no longer attainable, which undoubtedly plays its part in Comaneci’s enduring mystique.

But what of Nadia Comăneci in the intervening years?

A previously little known gymnast outside her native Romania she was catapulted into world superstar status overnight and a crowd of over 5,000 were waiting to cheer her as she arrived at Bucharest airport. However, once back home her life hardly changed, the harsh regime under which dictator Nicolas Ceausescu ruled Romania, preventing anyone from leaving the country, meant that she was under constant surveillance from guards. Four years later she competed at the Moscow Olympics, winning two golds and two silvers. Her international profile now meant that she was perpetually and oppressively under observation, feeling so trapped that she once threatened to drink bleach in order to commit suicide.

In 1981, on the last day of an official trip to the USA, her coaches the Béla and Márta Károlyi, along with team chorographer Géza Pozsár, defeated to the West. This transformed Nadia’s life drastically as she was placed under even more suspicion, strictly monitored and immediately banned from ever travelling outside her homeland again, even though she had stayed faithful by taking the decision not to defect and forced to work for the Gymnastics Federation. It was in 1989 that, as the winds of change were sweeping across the Eastern Bloc, Nadia made the painful decision to leave her parents, brother and precious medals and defect. Together with a group of fellow countrymen she was smuggled to Hungary, fleeing in the dead of night, and enduring freezing conditions on her trek to freedom. She eventually arrived in Austria from where she was flown to the safety and liberty that America offered.

For a while Nadia was under the care of Constantin Panait, who had organised her defection, but there was some misunderstanding in the press about their relationship, possibility more to do with Nadia’s poor grasp of the language than anything else. It was in 1990 that she rekindled her friendship with Bart Connor, the American gymnast, whom she had first met in March 1976 at the inaugural American Cup at Madison Square Gardens. As a footnote here it is interesting to note that she received rare perfect 10s for her vault at this competition. Both Bart and Nadia won a silver cup and were photographed together when Bart was persuaded by a journalist to kiss Nadia on the cheek.

Comăneci spent some time living in Montreal from where she and Bart embarked on a long distance friendship for a few years. Eventually Bart invited Nadia to Oklahoma to assist him in the running of a gymnastics school. Their relationship developed and on April 27th 1996 they were married in a ceremony in Bucharest that was televised across the whole of Romania. Their wedding reception, in amazing twist from her childhood days, was held in the former presidential palace, with many people taking the day off work and over 10,000 people lining the streets. On 29th June 2001 Nadia Comăneci became a naturalised US citizen, while still retaining her Romanian status.

Nowadays, Comăneci and Conner, essentially the royal couple of the gymnastics world, run and coach at the Bart Connor Gymnastics Academy in Oklahoma. They split their time between their work, their son Dylan and their many charitable causes, as well as public appearances, commercial endorsements and speaking engagements. Nadia is the vice-chairperson of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics International, vice-president of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and a member of the board for the Laureus Sports for Good Foundation. She also 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 personally financed the construction and operation of the Nadia Comăneci Children’s Clinic, a clinic in Bucharest that provides low-cost and free medical and social support to Romanian children.

Still involved with the Olympic Games, providing television commentary, alongside Bart, for the 2008 Beijing Games and in July 2012 with former basketball star John Amaechi, she carried the Olympic torch to the roof of the O2 Arena as part of the 2012 Torch Relay. Her many honours include being inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1993, voted “Athlete of the Century” in 1999 at a gala in Vienna and the Olympic Order in 2004 She was the featured speaker at the 50th annual Independence Day Naturalization Ceremony on July 4, 2012, at Monticello, Virginia, the first athlete to speak in the history of the ceremony.

Asked recently if she there was anything she would have done differently she replied:-

“When I look back at everything that has happened in my life. I don’t think that there would be one thing that I would have done differently because every little thing that I have done connected the dots to what I am today

The resonance of that day in 1976 still rings four decades later, where in a more social-media savvy world, the once diminutive 14-year-old basks under the twitter name of @nadiacomaneci10.


Article © Margaret Roberts