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Nadia Comaneci

Child gymnast was a perfect 10 at 1976 Olympics

SOCIAL CHANGE history

Former Romanian Olympic gold medal gymnast Nadia Comaneci. — Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters/Corbis

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.

See also: Older Olympians still got game.

Comaneci, who spoke on the phone with the AARP Bulletin while working out on a treadmill in her Norman, Okla., home as her 4-year-old son napped, is married to gymnast Bart Conner, also a former Olympic gold medalist. Together, they run the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, International Gymnast magazine, a television production company and a gymnastics supply company.

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.

By the end of the 1976 Olympics, Comaneci had earned seven perfect 10s, three gold medals, one bronze and one silver. In a single week, she was on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. "She's Perfect," Time declared on its cover.

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."

Next: Comaneci on meeting Bart Conner for the first time. »

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