Becoming Nadia Comăneci: A Lesson for the Young

The remarkable story of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci, from childhood to becoming a sports legend.

Despite having produced many renowned athletes, Eastern Europe, has never seen one as famous as Nadia Comăneci. The Romanian gymnast has to her credit a perfect score – 10/10 in the Olympics. Apart from this, Comăneci also has five Olympic gold medals yet; her personal life and eventual rise to fame are just as riveting as her athletic career.

Born in Onesti a town located in the Carpathian Mountains along Eastern Europe, in Romania, Comăneci has been referred to as a hyperactive child, full of energy. It is believed that her mother enrolled her in a gymnastics class to allow her the opportunity to exert some of this energy as she believed it would make little Nadia tired. However, the plan backfired as Comăneci became enchanted with the sport instead. So while she failed in her mission, Comăneci’s mother did enable her to find her life’s calling – gymnastics. Following this, Comăneci could always be seen practicing cartwheels, summersaults, and other cool tricks. This led to her meeting renowned gymnastics coach, Bela Károlyi. One day Károlyi was passing by and he spotted Comăneci in her element. Known for honing promising young talent, he provided Comăneci the opportunity to make history by taking her under his tutelage.

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Since then she would train for up to three hours every day, with constant encouragement from her coach, Comăneci continued to get better despite initial failures as she fell many times in earlier amateur competitions. With time, she managed graceful landings. In 1969, she participated in the Romanian National Junior Championships when she was only seven years old and snagged the 13th position. Not fazed by her low ranking, Comăneci worked harder with more determination to excel. Next year, she participated again and was positioned 1st at just eight years of age.

Then at the age of 14, in 1975, when Nadia Comăneci was able to participate in senior competitions, where she managed to win not one but five gold medals at the European Championships as well as the American tandem cup. From there she set her target for a bigger prize – the 1976 Montreal Olympics. With her talent in check, Comăneci participated in the inaugural edition of the American Cup at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. On her way to the podium to accept her silver, when a photographer asked 18-year-old American gymnast Bart Conner to lean in for a kiss with the fourteen-year-old athlete, Comăneci met her future husband. Instantly they felt a connection that continued to grow stronger with time.

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In July 1976, Comăneci despite new-found international recognition was ready to compete in her first Olympic games. Despite her nerves, Comăneci managed to make history. Before her, no athlete had managed to get a perfect score which is why Comăneci’s achievement was a historical moment leaving people stunned. This was just the beginning of Nadia Comăneci taking the sports world by storm. BBC even named her the “Overseas Sports Personality and the Female Athlete of the Year” in 1976 and Times Magazine featured her on their cover – a big-time honour to this day.

But with sudden fame also comes great responsibility and soon things started spiraling out of control. Despite having been honoured by the Romanian government and receiving praise from the international community, Comăneci’s life behind closed doors was quickly falling apart. Not only were her parents in the midst of getting a divorce, but she was constantly in the public eye, while also looking for a new coach. Such circumstances were tough for the teenager who at the age of fifteen felt trapped and controlled. The overwhelming attention from the media and the tumultuous chaos in her personal life was getting to be too much. All this eventually came to a close when the 15-year-old attempted suicide.

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Although she failed to end her life, the Romanian government understood that there was a need for some semblance of normalcy in her life and reassigned Bela Károlyi to her.

When Comăneci hit puberty, the Romanian government urged her to go on hiatus due to which she stopped her training temporarily during which time she grew taller and in spite of having gained weight, she returned to the world of gymnastics – leading to another remarkable win. Once again she rose in popularity and with it came a new set of challenges such as deflecting media reports of an affair, failing to meet the limits of her previous performances in the 1980 Olympics – even though she snagged two gold and two silver medals, and Károlyi’s televised argument with the judges of that years’ Olympics.

This led to the Romanian government attempting to save face by creating hurdles for Károlyi, Nadia Comăneci’s coach upon his return from the Olympics. Another distraction came in the form of the Russians who had their soldiers stand in position and yell “Fall, Nadia, fall!” to create trouble for the promising gymnast. Yet Comăneci managed to persevere. However, her coach fighting over scores led to the public believing that the Olympics were turning into a power show, although they were supposed to highlight neutrality.  

Then in 1981, when communist Romania was struggling, they manipulated Comăneci’s image to make money. Organizing the “Nadia ’81” tour of the United States, the Romanian government manipulated her image as the wonder-girl of gymnastics. The tour was an instant hit that made the Romanian government a profit of approximately $250,000 of which only $10,000 was given to Comăneci for her hard work.

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Prior to his return to Romania, Comăneci’s coach was in danger for having made waves at the 1980 Moscow Olympics which led to his decision to defect to the United States instead of returning to his homeland. He tried to convince Comăneci to defect with him but she refused and made her journey back to Romania at the end of the tour. However, the Romanian government ceased to trust her any longer and tried to ensure that she stay within the country so they prohibited her from participating in international competitions. Moreover, they tapped her phone, intercepted her emails, and even had her followed by government agents. In short, Comăneci was trapped in Romania with her life getting more difficult with the government’s increased interference.

Eventually, she made the difficult decision to leave Romania and defect to the US. So she sought out Constantin Panait, a Romanian national in Florida, who promised that he would help smuggle Comăneci out. Even though she had doubts about him, her younger brother convinced her that Constantin was genuine and encouraged her to take the opportunity for an out. So she orchestrated her escape and reached the Hungarian border during the winter. Although she was recognized by the Hungarian police, she was allowed to make safe passage to the Austrian embassy, as the officials instead of arresting her made arrangements for her transport. From there she made her way to Vienna where she met with Panait and continued en route to New York City.

Upon her arrival in the US, Comăneci met with a cold welcome as people viewed her as a woman in a relationship with a married man (Panait), a situation that only got worse because she didn’t deny the rumors because of a lack of fluency in the English language. Nonetheless, she tried settling into her new life with Panait by her side. It was later discovered that although many of her US associates wanted to reach out to her, Panait was keeping her isolated even cutting off contact with Bela Károlyi her former coach, and the US gymnast Bart Conner. They had heard of her arrival through the press but had been unable to establish contact as Panait was not relaying messages to Comăneci.

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This led to Connor finding out that something was amiss as Comăneci had not reached out to any of her associates in the States. When he heard that she would be appearing for an interview on Pat Sajak’s show, he spoke with the producer and made a deal to appear as a surprise guest so he could get a chance to speak with Comăneci in person. It was then that Panait’s control was discovered. He played off the part of Comăneci’s “manager” handling her affairs which she felt was a fair price for his help in her escape from Romania. Gymnastics coach Alexandru Stefu, who was a good friend to Comăneci decided to help her, so he lured Nadia Comăneci and Constantin Panait in under the guise of a meeting where after enough prompting, Comăneci admitted to mistreatment from Panait. Realizing that he was in trouble, Panait made his escape with her car and money.

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Finding herself in a sticky position once again, Comăneci had to find a place to stay when Paul Ziert, Bart Connor’s coach, offered his help. She moved in with Ziert and his family eventually hiring him as her personal manager while also getting closer to Connor. Alongside rekindling their friendship, the two also worked on starting a gymnastics school. What started out with a kiss on the cheek turned into friendship and then into a love relationship with Connor proposing to Comăneci in 1994, in Amsterdam. After the fall of the Romanian dictatorship, the couple got married in Comăneci’s hometown of Bucharest at the House of Parliament. The new government viewed her as a national hero and hoped that she would return. Their wedding, a televised event, was attended by approximately 10,000 people. To this day, Nadia Comăneci is regarded as one of Romania’s most loved and honoured athletes.

Together the couple founded the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy training thousands from all over the world. On the side, they tour the world and give talks, lectures, and training seminars. Then in 2015, Katie Holmes and Nadia Comăneci developed a bond when Holmes approached her with the intent to direct a short film about the gymnast’s success at the 1976 Olympics. Holmes expressed her admiration for the athlete adding that she wanted the world to understand and relate to the journey, calling it the “Eternal Princess” Holmes made her directorial debut.

In 1995, Comăneci found herself amidst another controversy when an 11-year-old gymnast was reportedly beaten to death by her coach, who alleged that Comăneci was also beaten by her former coach Bela Károlyi but both denied the reports. However, western media later exposed the Romanian government’s involvement. It was reported that the government is trying to regain its lost status and had urged coaches to use violence in order to achieve remarkable results.

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Then in 2006, Nadia Comăneci and her husband, Bart Conner, welcomed their son Dylan Conner into the world. Currently, they are living in Los Angeles where she met with Arnold Schwarzenegger who approached her for personal training.

The remarkable gymnast has even started the Perfect 10 Productions company. She also works with ESPN and other major broadcasters to publicize gymnastics events and provide opportunities for the athletes to shine in the spotlight. She is estimated to have a net worth of $10 million.

Comăneci returned to Montreal in 2017 for that year’s gymnastics world championships, as a spokesperson.

Nadia Comăneci has used her experience and perseverance to overcome many difficult experiences. Her life is the perfect motivation for the youth to understand that one should never give up. It is the perfect blend of courage and perseverance that has led to her current-day success. Considering everything she has been through, she deserves it.

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