Nadia Comaneci. Child gymnast was a perfect 10 at 1976 Olympics

by Kitty Bennett • 15 Jul 2016

We remember her as a shy, ponytailed, 14-year-old pixie who scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics history 34 years ago. But these days Nadia Comaneci is a multitasking mom who juggles charity work, speaking appearances and product endorsements, Twittering as she goes. 

Her journey began in the small village of Onesti, Romania, where as a 6-year-old she joined her first gymnastics team. "I had a lot of energy, and my mom decided to look for a place where I can spend the energy," she recalled, "because I was jumping on the couch and furniture and I was jumping on the top of the things in the house."

Eight years and many competitions later, she marched into an arena in Montreal with her tiny teammates in white leotards, stepped up to the uneven parallel bars and performed the routine that would earn her a perfect 10.

Because no gymnast had ever scored a 10, the scoreboard wasn't configured to display it properly. Instead, it showed a 1.00. Coach Bela Karolyi gestured angrily to the judges to ask what the score meant. One of them held up 10 fingers.

Nadia Comaneci on the cover of August 2, 1976 number of Sports Illustrated magazine, which  echoed the outstanding success of the great Romanian gymnast during Montreal Olympic Games in which she racked up five medals (three golden ones, a silver one and a further bronze one).

But life in Romania after her triumphant return grew increasingly grim under Nicolae Ceausescu, the country's brutal dictator.

In 1981, after Karolyi defected while leading a tour of Romanian gymnasts, including Comaneci, in the United States, she was no longer permitted to travel outside Romania. She began to chafe under the many restrictions placed on her.

"I was just told no, no, no." And then I said, "Well, I'm going to figure out how am I going to make it yes, yes, yes," she recalled.

She defected with a small group one night in 1989, walking hours in the dark into neighboring Hungary. The next day the group was driven to the Austrian border. That night they climbed seven barbed-wire fences. Comaneci said in her autobiography she was "covered with blood." After presenting herself at the American Embassy and requesting asylum, she was put on a flight to the United States within hours.

"I'd trudged through freezing water and across icy fields and climbed over barbed-wire fences, all the while expecting to be shot," she recalled in her 2003 memoir, Letters to a Young Gymnast."After all that, I stepped into a room packed with journalists shouting questions and flashing cameras. Suffice it to say that I was shell-shocked."

At 48, Comaneci maintains her beauty and health through sleep, exercise and Botox injections. She is a spokeswoman for Allergan, the manufacturer of Botox, and its Expressions of Kindness campaign, which contributes $25 to charity for every act of kindness participants describe on the company's website.

"You're looking for little tweaking things that make you feel better," Comaneci said. "But you still have to do some work for the other parts of your body."

She works on those other parts of the body during a half-hour workout daily: 20 minutes of cardio exercises, followed by light stretching and light weights.

While Conner and Comaneci devote their time to several charities, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, they are especially devoted to the Special Olympics. Both serve on the board. "It's a part of our family right now," said Comaneci.

Comaneci travels the world, Dylan frequently at her side, for commercial appearances and charity work. Last December, they shot a commercial together in Poland. Every few months, they travel to Romania so Dylan can visit his grandparents and she can see how things are going at the new Nadia Comaneci Children's Clinic in Bucharest.

At home in Norman, she is content with the simple routines of her life with her husband and son. "I'm not a dreamer for, you know, I want to go to the moon someday. I accomplished something when I was young which was much more than I expected to," Comaneci said. "My results were much bigger than I ever dreamed about it."



Kitty Bennett

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