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Comaneci, Nadia (1961—)

Rumanian gymnast who was the first woman in the history of international gymnastics to score a perfect 10.0. Pronunciation: Co-ma-NEETCH. Born on November 12, 1961, in Onesti, Rumania; daughter of Gheorghe (an auto mechanic) and Stefania Comaneci; married Bart Conner (an Olympic gymnast), on April 27, 1996, in Rumania.

Became overall European Champion (1975, 1977, 1979); won Olympic gold medals in all-around, uneven bars, and balance beam as well as team silver and bronze in floor exercise in Montreal (1976); won the Chunichi Cup in Japan (1976); won the World Championship (1978); won Olympic gold medals in floor exercises and balance beam, won a silver team medal and silver in the all-around in Moscow (1980); won the all-around, uneven bars, and floor exercise in World University Games (1981).

By age six, Nadia Comaneci was studying gymnastics; at 14, she was the first woman in the history of international gymnastics to score a perfect 10.0; by 19, she had about reached the end of her competitive career and was heading for serious trouble.

Born in 1961 in the factory town of Onesti in Rumania's Carpathian mountains, Comaneci was only in kindergarten when gymnastic coaches, Béla and Marta Károlyi, spotted her as she played with a classmate on the school grounds. "They were running and jumping and pretending to be gymnasts," said Béla. "Then the bell rang. Before I could find out who they were, all the children rushed together for the door to go inside. I lost them in the crowd." Convinced he had

seen something special, he returned to the school and went from class to class but after a time all the little girls began to look alike. A few days later, he returned to each class, this time asking, "Who loves gymnastics here?" In the third room, two girls jumped up and shouted, "We do!" One of the two would go on to become a ballet dancer; the other was Nadia Comaneci.

In those days of the Cold War and government-sponsored sports programs, in order to get financing, eager young gymnasts first had to first pass the beam test. Fear of the beam was a sure way to weed out potentially inferior gymnasts. When Béla placed six-year-old Comaneci on the 4″-wide piece of spruce, she sauntered across, fearless. By 1968, she was gymnast-in-residence at the Károlyis' fledgling sports lycée, the National Institute of Gymnastics, in her hometown. She received lodging, meals, training, equipment, and education—all paid for by the Rumanian government. One year later, in 1969, Béla entered her in the Rumanian national junior championships. The youngest there, the eight-year-old Nadia finished 13th. By 1971, she was junior national all-around champion, a title she successfully defended in 1972, now age 11.

In 1975, Nadia Comaneci moved into international senior competition. Her first win came in April at the Champions All tournament at Wembley, England. Four months later, to every-one's surprise, the 13-year-old took the European championships held at Skein, Norway, coming in well ahead of Russia's five-time European champion Ludmila Tourischeva who finished 4th. For meticulous execution of intricate vaults and her personal version of the difficult Radochla somersault on the uneven bars, Comaneci won a gold medal in the all-around, the vault, the uneven bars, and the balance beam, while also taking second to Russia's Nelli Kim in the floor exercise. With this extraordinary performance, the young Rumanian was voted 1975 Sportswoman of the Year by European sportswriters and the International Gymnastic Federation.

In March 1976, she toured the United States with the Rumanian team. During this first visit to a country she would eventually adopt, Comaneci won every competition, including the American Cup. While performing the difficult Tsukahara vault—a full twist into a back somersault—Comaneci scored a perfect 10.0, the first 10.0 ever scored in a U.S. gymnastics competition; she also scored a 10.0 in the floor exercise. At the end of the tournament, she shared the press podium with another young gymnastics winner, America's Bart Connor, who, when egged on by photographers, gave her a peck on the cheek. Connor was infatuated; Nadia, at 13, was unfazed.

Though Nadia Comaneci entered the 1976 Olympics in Montreal as the top gymnast in the world, expectations were also high for the successful and more experienced Russian team who had sauntered off with the 1972 Olympics, especially the international sweetheart Olga Korbut and the always looming Ludmila Tourischeva.

On July 18, 1976, in Montreal's Forum, teams met for the first day of the compulsories for the combined event, which includes the balance beam, the horse vault, floor exercises, and uneven bars. Considered too physically demanding, the uneven bars had not been a woman's event until the Helsinki Olympics in 1952; the contest requires coarsened hands, enormous strength in the arms and shoulders, and fearlessness while executing dangerous moves; it also inflicts a spirited lashing on thighs and groins as gymnasts whip through a crowded program where pauses must not be noticeable.

By the time Comaneci approached the bars, the Russians had scored well. Olga Korbut had executed a spellbinding program and held the highest score with a 9.90; Nelli Kim had earned a 9.80 and Tourischeva a 9.75. Comaneci's fellow Rumanians had also done well: Gabriela Trusca was tied with Tourischeva, Mariana Constantin was ahead of Kim with a 9.85, and Comaneci's friend and constant competitor Teodora Ungureanu had tied Korbut at 9.90. Sporting her trademark ponytail, bangs, and serious demeanor, Comaneci hoisted herself up and worked between the bars for 23 seconds of dazzling loops and twists, which concluded in a flawless dismount. Awarded a 10.0, she was the first gymnast to receive a perfect score in Olympic history. The scoreboard, unequipped to register the moment, could only manage a 9.99. That day Comaneci also scored highest in the beam event with a 9.90, topping Korbut's 9.80, but on the floor exercises Tourischeva held her own. By the end of the first day, Comaneci led the combined competition in points.

On the afternoon of the second day, the gymnasts went through the optional exercises while Comaneci fidgeted on the sidelines. In the vault, she came in third behind Nelli Kim and Maria Filatova of Russia. In the bars, Olga Korbut repeated her performance of the day before, another outstanding 9.90, while Kim (9.85) and Tourischeva (9.80) improved. When it was Comaneci's turn, she approached the bars, her bangs meeting her brows in knitted concentration. Hoisting herself up, she did 23 seconds of handstands, somersaults, twists and turns, released and landed another flawless dismount. Though the scoreboard stubbornly stuck at 9.99, the judges had given her another 10.0. Onlookers were enthralled.

Comaneci then catapulted onto the balance beam. At first, the audience was audibly gasping as she executed dangerous maneuvers with darting moves, but her confidence began to bolster their confidence, and they were soon riveted on the amazing skills of this 86-pound, 4′11″, 14-year-old. Another perfect 10.0. "With no more strain than it would take to raise a hand to a friend, she is airborne," wrote a Time staffer, "a backflip, landing on the sliver of a bar with a thunk so solid it reverberates; up, backward again, a second blind flip, and a landing. No 747 ever set itself down on a two-mile runway with more assurance or aplomb." ABC's commentator, Jim McKay, rhapsodized, she "swims in an ocean of air." The eyes of the world had turned from the ever-smiling, crowd-pleasing Olga Korbut, to the dour, concentrated, ever-serious Nadia Comaneci. Olympic history was being made.

The third and final day of the combined exercises, known as the voluntary leg of the competition, was held in front of 18,000, the largest crowd that had ever assembled for a gymnastics event. Comaneci occasionally walked the arena clutching a large doll, a worn seal-skin Eskimo figure given her years earlier by Béla. On the horse event, Nelli Kim led off with a 10.0, the first perfect vault ever achieved; Tourischeva placed second with a 9.95, and Comaneci came in third with a 9.80. The uneven bars were hotly contested: 9.90s went to Korbut, Ungureanu, Márti Egervári of Hungary, and Nelli Kim. As Comaneci approached the bars, observers knew that the likelihood of her reaping three successive perfect scores was almost nonexistent. She hoisted herself up, did 23 seconds of swinging, turning, circling, and landed another flawless dismount. 10.0. She followed that with her second successive perfect 10.0 on the balance beam. The gold medal in the combined individual exercises was indisputably hers. Nelli Kim placed second and Tourischeva third. (Team medals went to the Soviet Union first, Rumania second, and East Germany third.)

Kim, Nelli (1957—)

Russian gymnast. Born in the central Asian city of Chimkent, Russia, on July 19, 1957; daughter of Korean parents.

Won World Championship in horse vault (1978) and floor exercises (1978); won four Olympic medals: two gold in horse vault and floor exercises, one team gold, and one silver (1976).

Nelli Kim was Nadia Comaneci's chief competition at the 1976 Games in Montreal. Awarded two perfect 10s, Kim won four Olympic medals: two gold in horse vault and floor exercises, one team gold, and one silver, attacking the bars and beams with singular determination.

Trusca, Gabriela (1957—)

Rumanian gymnast. Born on July 28, 1957.

In 1976, Gabriela Trusca won the silver medal in the team all-around in the Montreal Olympics.

Constantin, Mariana (1960—)

Rumanian gymnast. Born on August 3, 1960.

Mariana Constantin won the silver medal in the team all-around in the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

Ungureanu, Teodora (1960—)

Rumanian gymnast. Born on November 13, 1960.

In 1976, in the Montreal Olympics, Teodora Ungureanu won a bronze medal for the balance beam, a silver in the uneven parallel bars, and a silver in the team all-around.

Filatova, Maria (1961—)

Soviet gymnast. Born on July 19, 1961.

In 1976, Maria Filatova won the gold medal in the team all-around in the Montreal Olympics. Four years later in the Moscow Olympics, she won the bronze medal in the uneven parallel bars and another gold medal in the team all-around.

Egervári, Márti (1956—)

Hungarian gymnast. Name variations: Marta or Marti Egervari. Born in August 1956.

In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Márti Egervári won the bronze medal in the uneven parallel bars.

The individual events were held that afternoon. The only entrants allowed in each specialty are the six gymnasts with the highest scores in the two rounds (compulsory and voluntary) of the team competition. Comaneci continued domination of the uneven bars with another 10.0, winning the gold; her teammate Ungureanu took the silver and Egervári the bronze. On the beam, Comaneci achieved her 7th 10.0, finishing with a 19.95 total out of a possible 20; she took the gold in this event while Korbut took the silver, and Ungureanu the bronze. In the floor exercises, Nelli Kim received her second 10.0 for the gold, while Tourischeva took the silver and Comaneci the bronze. Kim also took the vault, with Carola Dombeck of East Germany placing second and Tourischeva third.

Over the three-day competition, Comaneci was awarded seven perfect 10.0s and had won five medals, three of them gold. "The tiny point spreads she won by don't begin to indicate how much better she is than her nearest rivals," said Frank Bare, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. "There has never been anyone like her, never been anyone who approaches her." Said the eclipsed Olga Korbut, "I gave all I had."

But at Comaneci's press conferences, audiences were disappointed that Nadia was not like the beloved Olga. Unlike Korbut, Comaneci was expressionless and still; she did not celebrate her victories. Continually prodded to smile, or questioned about her lack of a smile, Nadia responded: "I don't come here to smile, I come here to do a job." Embarrassed by all the attention, she just wanted to go home.

Though thousands of Rumanians were standing at the Bucharest airport to welcome her back and she was awarded the Hero of Socialist Labor (her country's highest honor), things were not all that perfect at home. The Rumanian officials and press went out of their way to extol the entire team and not single out the extraordinary performance of Comaneci, while internationally, expectation for her perfect scores continued. The following year, her parents separated (1977). Worse yet, to the consternation of enthusiasts, she did what all little girls do, she began to grow up; at 16, she added 20 pounds to her frame and 4″ to her height. Rumors circulated that she was tired of practice, quitting the school, had fallen in love.

Through the 1970s, Comaneci continued to compete, but Cold War politics prohibited her from traveling to the West, where she was wildly popular, for fear she might defect. She won the Chunichi Cup and the World Cup in Tokyo in 1978; that same year, she was also beaten badly by her 14-year-old teammate Emilia Eberle during a meet in West Germany.

In the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Comaneci performed well, winning gold medals in the balance beam and floor exercise. Controversially low scores from two judges in the balance beam, however, cost her the all-around, which went to Soviet Yelena Davydova . But the games had been boycotted by the United States and other nations, limiting the competition and exposure.

At her last major tournament, the 1981 World University Games in Bucharest, Comaneci won the all-around, uneven bars, and floor exercise. By then, her longtime coach Béla Károlyi had defected to the U.S., opened a school in Houston, and was training gymnasts of the future like Mary Lou Retton . It was said Comaneci was having an affair with the son of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, an assertion she denies. Retiring in 1984, at age 23, she signed on as an international gymnastics judge and was a coach of the Rumanian team when it competed in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She then took a job coaching for the government until 1989. But Comaneci longed for escape from the obscurity she was facing in her own country; she'd "rather die in a free country than die in a Communist one," she would later tell reporters.

In 1989, under cover of darkness, she walked six hours to the Hungarian border. There, she met Rumanian émigré Constantin Panait, a 38-year-old Florida roofer, married with four children, who had agreed to help her defect to his new country. Traveling by way of Vienna, she entered the United States.

Dombeck, Carola (1960—)

East German gymnast. Born on June 25, 1960.

In the Montreal Olympics, 1976, Carola Dombeck won a silver medal in the horse vault and a bronze in the team all-around.

Eberle, Emilia (1964—)

Rumanian gymnast. Born on March 4, 1964.

In the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Emilia Eberle took the silver medal in the uneven parallel bars and the team silver in the all-around.

Davydova, Yelena (1961—)

Soviet gymnast. Name variations: Elena Davidova. Born on August 7, 1961.

In the Moscow Olympics, in 1980, Yelena Davydova won gold medals in both the individual and team all-around. She also won bronze medals for the floor exercise and balance beam.

The defection was costly. With Panait, she toured the United States but the news media began to notice the weight gain, the heavy makeup, the married man at her side. Americans, too, were finding it hard to forgive her for not remaining that harmless 14-year-old. Though it was quickly assumed Comaneci was involved with Panait, she maintains this was not true.

But fellow gymnasts saw more than the media, and some knew she was in trouble. Panait was keeping Comaneci a virtual prisoner, misrepresenting the relationship, threatening the withdrawal of his sponsorship and deportation, if she told anyone of his actions. He was also pocketing all her performance fees. Under the pretense of a lucrative job offer, Alexandru Stefu, a former Rumanian rugby coach living in Montreal, called Panait and Comaneci to a meeting. In the safety of his presence, Nadia told Stefu that Panait was mistreating her. Panait fled. For the next 18 months, Comaneci lived with Stefu and his wife while working out and getting back in shape.

After Stefu's death in a snorkeling accident, Comaneci turned to gymnastic coach Paul Ziert, who arranged her appearances and let her stay in a room in his home. At the time, Ziert was also coaching Bart Conner, with whom Comaneci fell in love. Comaneci and Conner were together for four years, living in Norman, Oklahoma, where Conner ran a gymnastics school and the two coached, before they married in Rumania in 1996.

In the 1970s and '80s, gymnasts like Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, and Mary Lou Retton effectively transformed the sport of gymnastics from one of grace to one of power, from one dominated by ballerinas to one dominated by athletes. Many of Comaneci's moves were dangerous, including the Salto Comaneci, a twisting back-somersault dismount off the uneven bars. She was the first gymnast in the world to perform the Radochla somersault on the higher of the uneven bars, a feat which, upon seeing, said one reporter, is not necessarily believing. She was also responsible for the now almost obligatory three back handsprings in a row on the balance beam. Comaneci's career was a cornerstone of gymnastic history, and her influence is still apparent as athletes continue to enhance and rein-vent one of the most popular disciplines of the sports world.

sources:

Gutman, Bill. Modern Women Superstars (juvenile). NY: Dodd, Mead, 1977.

"Head over Heels," in People Weekly. March 27, 1995, pp. 105–106.

Time. August 2, 1976, p. 44.

Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1992.

related media:

ABC's "Wide World of Sports" (March 18, 1995) presented a 90-minute documentary of Comaneci's first return to Rumania (with commentators Bart Conner and Donna de Varona ).

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Comaneci, Nadia (1961—)

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