Sports Illustrated Daily, July 25, 1996

Sports Illustrated Olympic Daily Flashback

Practice made her perfect

by Ron Fimrite

She was, as Time magazine described her, "an infinitely solemn wisp of a girl," only 14 years old, not quite 5-feet and a mere 86 pounds. But Nadia Comaneci was the brightest star of all at the Montreal Games, for she achieved in her sport what no Olympian, male or female, ever had before: perfection. On the first day of the gymnastics competition, the tiny Romanian, her elfin face as serene as a summer breeze in the Carpathians, delivered such a dazzling performance on the uneven bars that the astonished judges awarded her a perfect score of 10. But it was only the beginning.

Nadia Comaneci

Comaneci scored 10 on the balance beam and the uneven bars as a matter of routine.

photograph by
Neil Leifer

By the time Comaneci had finished soaring through the various events with the apparent ease of a bird in flight, she would score six more 10s and win gold medals in the uneven bars, the balance beam and the all-around competition—the most spectacular display of women's gymnastics ever.

Overnight she became an international celebrity. Four years earlier at the Munich Games, another teenage gymnast, Olga Korbut of the Soviet Union, captivated a worldwide television audience with her grace and girlish charm. Comaneci attracted an even larger and more adoring audience through sheer skill. Whereas Olga had worn her emotions on the sleeve of her leotard, Comaneci kept hers tightly locked inside. She was far too dedicated to her sport to worry about charming anyone. She had been practicing day and night for the Olympics since she was first discovered, at 6, on a playground in Onesti by the famous Romanian coach Bela Karolyi.

Comaneci scored four of her 10s on the uneven bars, two on the balance beam and one in the floor exercise. Even though three of those 10s came in the team competition, the Romanians were edged out of the gold medal by the Soviets. She had 10s on the uneven bars and the beam en route to the all-around gold medal, a competition that will be held today at the Georgia Dome.

Comaneci returned for the 1980 Moscow Games. At age 18 she was nearly four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier but as unflappable as ever. She won two more golds but lost the all-around competition to a Soviet, Yelena Davydova, in a controversial and angrily disputed hometown judging decision. Comaneci retired from competition after that. And then her life became darkly mysterious over the next several years.

Rumor had it that she was part of the inner circle of fiendish Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and had been, in fact, the mistress of Ceausescu's no less fiendish son, Nicu. Then, in '89, only a few weeks before Ceausescu was deposed and summarily executed, Comaneci defected to the U.S. in the company of a married Romanian exile, Constantin Panait. "Naughty Nadia" now, she traveled across the country with Panait for three months. A year later, claiming Panait had been holding her captive and stealing from her, she was "rescued" by another Romanian, Alexandru Stefu. When Stefu died in a snorkeling accident in Montreal in '91, Comaneci moved to Norman, Okla., to work for gymnastics coach Paul Ziert.

Her once glittering reputation was now in shambles, but with the same dedication she had shown in training, she set about repairing the damage. In Norman she became reacquainted with U.S. gymnast Bart Conner, a two-time gold medal winner at the 1984 Games. She first joined Conner as a partner in his Norman gymnastics academy and then married him in her native Romania last April.

Far from being the emotionless poker face of Olympic legend, Comaneci is "unpredictable," says her husband. "The Romanians are a lot like Italians—very passionate, very proud, very strong people," he says. "Everyone wants to remember her as this 14-year-old, ponytailed little girl. She's not that anymore."

But for those who saw her in '76, she always will be.

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