At 14 years old, Nadia Comaneci made history in the 1976 Olympics with 7 perfect 10 scores. However, when her Olympic glory faded, her world crumbled. She was forced to rebuild it, and the course was full of twists and turns, courage and hope.
Born on November 12, 1961, in Onesti, Romania, Nadia Comaneci was the first child of Gheorghe, a car mechanic and Stefania-Alexandrina, a factory worker. Inspired by a female heroine called Nadya in a Russian film, her mother named her Nadia, meaning “hope.”
Nadia joined her first gymnastics club when she was a young child. The team was called Flacara, meaning “flames” in American. Little did she know that both her name and the team name was more than fitting considering how she was about to set the world ablaze.
One day, Nadia was performing cartwheels on the playground when legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, who was scouting young talent showed up. Without any training, Nadia executed perfect cartwheels. Bela knew immediately that he had found his star pupil.
Growing up in a communist country is not easy. To escape the real world, Nadia pushed herself to do even more than the required six to seven hours rigorous training. The young girl found happiness in her gymnastics training, which, for her, was worth the blood, sweat, and tears.
Before the Olympics, Nadia participated in the 1976 inaugural American Cup, where the budding star showcased her talent to the world. Easily and dominantly, Nadia won the gold medal. Standing on the podium, participant Bart Conner kissed her. She didn’t know then how meaningful that kiss would end up being.
For Nadia, the 1976 Olympics was just a routine she had perfected hundreds of times. She gracefully twisted her body, hitting every move with perfection. When she finished, she saw her score was a one, which was the first perfect 10 score ever given to a gymnast.
Nadia was given 7 perfect scores during the course of the Olympics. She revolutionized the level of gymnastics and set the bar for all gymnasts. Don’t forget she was just 14 at the time. In 1981, the Olympic committee changed the minimum age required to compete to 16, making the history she made even more unbelievable.
Nadia was given the title the “Hero of Socialist Labor” and honored with the “Hammer and Sickle” medal by then Romanian President personally. The government put her face on stamps. The song she danced to at the Olympics was renamed Nadia’s Theme. No one in Romania was more loved than Nadia. But did she love herself?
The spotlight was so overwhelming for young Nadia that she was hospitalized for drinking bleach in 1977. The incident caused her to gain weight, as a result, her abilities were limited. Meanwhile, the government separated her from coach Bela Karolyi, who left Romania for good. The loss of Karolyi was devastating for Nadia.
Incredibly, Nadia was reunited with Bela Karolyi at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where Nadia won two gold and two silver medals even after everything she had been through. However, Bela claimed that the Soviet government had paid off the judges to give Nadia lower scores.
In 1981, Romania organized an American tour to show Nadia off to raise money. Led by Karolyi, the tour generated $250,000 in profit. Nadia as the main attraction got only $1,000 of the money. Worse, on the tour’s last day, Karolyi decided to stop working with Romania and defected.
Things got even worse for Nadia after Karolyi left again. Without any warning, she was buried by her government and hidden from the world. In order to make money to support her family, Nadia defected from Romania to New York with the help of Constantin Panait in 1989.
One thing you’d think Nadia would have done when arrived in the US would be to reunite with Bela Karolyi. However, she did nothing with him, saying, “I have no business with my former coach.” Karolyi publicly wished his former pupil luck, and expressed concern about Panait, wondering if his intentions with Nadia were pure.
Nadia previously got into trouble soon because “sources” clamined that she had a lavish and loving relationship with the Romanian President. Things got even worse on that front when Panait, her rescuer, turned out to be unfaithfully married, and that they were more than just friends. But things wouldn’t be bleak forever.
Bart Conner had long waited for a chance to reunite with Nadia since he kissed her at the 1976 American Cup. And the chance came when he learned that Nadia was scheduled to appear on The Pat Sajak Show. Conner appeared as a special guest on the show and surprised his long lost friend with a bouquet of roses.
Her rocky start in the US had finally smoothed out. There was a film about her life being written and she was being asked to shoot commercial photos. Behind the scenes, however, Panati controlled every aspect of her life and took nearly every penny she earned. Nadia sank into depression. Just as all hope seemed lost, a light emerged from the darkness.
Nadia’s former coach, Bela Karolyi sensed something was wrong. He asked the Romanian ex-pat Alexandra Stefu for help. Stefu offered Panait $150,000 to meet him and Nadia in Montreal. The next morning, Panait left Nadia beat up and fled to Canada. Nadia Comaneci was finally free.
Nadia moved in with Stefu and began to rebuild her life. She and Bart Conner became best friends and started touring together on gymnastic all-star teams. On a tour, the horrible news came that Stefu had died in a tragic scuba diving accident. Nadia turned to Conner for support, and Conner offered Nadia a place to live.
In Oklahoma, Nadia moved in with Conner and helped him set up a gym there. After years of living together, Conner proposed to Nadia in 1994. Two years later, they got married in an extravagant wedding in Romania, which was nationally televised. The entire country was given the day off work to celebrate. After all her hardships, Nadia was starting her life over.
After becoming an American citizen, Nadia was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, and now works closely with several charities, including the Special Olympics. She was also honored at Monticello’s 50th Annual Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony, becoming the first athlete in the event’s history to give the keynote speech.
Apart from the Special Olympics, Nadia personally funded the Nadia Comaneci Children’s Clinic in Bucharest, aiming to provide low cost and free medical attention to children. She also co-runs with her husband the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, which is developing into one of the most prominent academies in the country.
Nadia had a close relationship with actress Katie Holmes, who was known primarily for being married to Tom Cruise. Katie Holmes made a 17-minute long film named Eternal Princess that told Nadia’s story from a different perspective.
As a full-time mother now, Nadia hasn’t let herself go physically. She regularly works out in the morning, doing 30 minutes of physical activity including cardio, stretching, and lifting weights. She once said, “idea of a good workout is something that fits easily into my lifestyle.”
Keeping up with the times, Nadia came out with Nadia’s Perfect 10-Gymnastics, a game for Android users that allows the player to act like a gymnast to get a perfect score. The cell phone application made her the first gymnast in history to make her own game.
Known for her clean and innovative technique, Nadia was the first gymnast to successfully perform a variety of different maneuvers. She’s also the only Olympic athlete to receive the Olympic Order twice, which is the highest honor given by the International Olympic Committee.