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.
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."
Her first memory of meeting Conner was when they were on a bus together during the 1981 tour. After her defection, they were reunited on a talk show, and he reminded her that their first meeting had actually been at a 1976 meet in Madison Square Garden. At the suggestion of a photographer, he had given her a kiss on the cheek, and the photo ran in the New York Times. He showed her the picture to refresh her memory. Comaneci remembers saying: "It was a little blond guy, but not necessarily him. But the entire American team was a bunch of little blond guys."
Their 1996 wedding was a lavish, two-day affair in Bucharest with 1,500 guests, televised live.
"Over the course of 30 years, the people and culture had been virtually destroyed, and my wedding was a chance for everyone to fall in love with Romania again," Comaneci said.
Their son, Dylan, was born 10 years later. Not surprisingly, he loves the gym, said Comaneci, who frequently admonishes her son to be careful. "I'm super-protective," she said with a laugh, adding that she now understands how worried her mother used to be about her.
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 is a news researcher and writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.
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