Nadia Comaneci walks the hallway to her office, its walls adorned by framed photos documenting her fairytale-like achievements at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, modelling shoots, and the artwork of painters inspired by her gymnastics.
She is in the throes of a busy travel schedule of appearances, she says, and is coming off a late-night delay at the Houston airport. But her dark hair looks picture-perfect, her pink nails manicured, and her T-shirt and gym pants show off a trim figure she says is maintained with a daily 30-minute express workout.
Comaneci is now 50, and people still recount what she did as a ponytailed 14-year-old from Romania, scoring the first perfect 10 in the history of Olympic gymnastics. The Montreal Forum scoreboard, unable to display that many digits, simply read 1.00. She would go on to tally a jaw-dropping seven 10s in Montreal and earn three gold medals, a silver and a bronze. As a new generation of gymnasts prepares to chase Olympic glory in London, Comaneci still gets invitations for appearances and sponsorships from all over the globe.
This week, she became the first athlete and Olympian – and just the third woman in history – to deliver the Fourth of July address at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., during the naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens. She has appeared over the years with legends such as Michael Jordan, Pele and Muhammad Ali.
Upon meeting the Rolling Stones, even they recalled cheering her perfect 10s.
Her schedule at the London Games is jammed: broadcast work for Mexican, Romanian and Japanese TV networks, numerous daily corporate appearances, and an invitation to run the torch. Big sponsors such as Adidas still call on her, while her magic in Montreal is the focus of a new VISA commercial. And people worldwide still tell her where they were when they watched her 1976 performance.
“ ‘You were my idol,’ ‘I grew up watching you,’ ‘I had a crush on you when you were competing’ – I still get all of those things,” Comaneci marvels. “It’s hard to believe people still remember it. It’s been 36 years.”
It was July 18, 1976, the opening day of events at the Montreal Games, and the Soviet women’s gymnastics team was all the talk, winners of every team competition since 1952, featuring Olympic stars such as Olga Korbut and Ludmilla Tourischeva.
Early on, 4-foot-11 Comaneci stepped up to the uneven bars and put the crowd into shock with crisp, stunning moves. Even Comaneci looked confused by the 1.00 on the scoreboard, and it took the announcer to notify the crowd that those digits actually meant a perfect 10, and it was the first recorded by a gymnast at an Olympics. The crowd erupted.
Throughout the competition, Comaneci showed it was no fluke. She would record six more perfect scores en route to gold medals on the balance beam and uneven bars and a bronze medal in the floor exercise. She became the new Olympic all-round champion. The Romanian team also placed second in the team competition.
Comaneci, though, still sees small flaws when she watches.
“I never felt they were perfect,” says Comaneci, reasoning that the difference between her and the 9.95s in the competition may have just been a little “Nadia’s touch.” “They were very good, but I still could have been better.”
She recalls people reaching toward her during the Games, hoping to touch her ponytail, “just to see if I was real,” as she remembers it. She began to see herself on magazines and television, and it was the first time the child began to understand the meaning of celebrity.
“I didn’t realize that winning the Olympics at age 14 automatically put me in the category of being a celebrity,” Comaneci says. “I thought celebrity meant Hollywood, that’s it. I began to see that does include Olympians. People have so much respect for Olympians.”
Today, Comaneci is married to U.S. gymnast Bart Conner, a three-time Olympian who won two gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Together with business partner Paul Ziert, they are part of a big gymnastics outfit in Norman, Okla., which includes many businesses, namely the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, International Gymnast Magazine and a host of equipment and clothing manufacturers. But the couple’s global travel for speeches, charities, broadcasting and gymnastics events packs the schedule.
They had a son, Dylan, six years ago, and he has been tumbling around the gymnastics academy since he was a toddler. She hustles around the office picking up his toys and points out a Thomas the Tank Engine bed in the corner, where he sometimes rests while she works. The once fearless young Olympian says she nervously watches him do gymnastics, worried he’ll get hurt.
“My mother never watched me train in Romania. She wasn’t allowed, it just wasn’t done back then. My training was paid for by the government. My parents were not at the Olympics with me either. I never expected them to be,” says Comaneci, strolling past parents watching kids at the academy. “Things are so different from when I grew up.”
Comaneci says she has no regrets about a spending so much of her childhood in long training sessions with legendary coach Bela Karolyi and his wife, Marta. While some of his later gymnasts have publicly criticized Karolyi’s methods, Comaneci remembers him fondly as “family” and “a big man who would always catch me, no matter what.”
“If I was a boy,” Comaneci says, “nobody would care that I worked out six, seven hours a day when I was 9 years old, no? Why were people always saying ‘poor little girl?’ I liked to work out and always did more than I was asked to. Bela always said he never knew my limit, because every time he asked me to do something 12 times, I did it 14.”
She earned four more medals at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, including two gold, before retiring in 1984 and then coaching in Romania. A then Communist government watched her and began to cut off her international travel.
“I thought it was an injustice,” Comaneci says. “I was never planning to leave or tell any secrets. I didn’t have any secrets, I wasn’t interested in politics. Because I was so well known, they were afraid someone would ask me something, and I would say something that wasn’t supposed to come out, but I never knew what that was. So I left.”
She followed some Romanians being smuggled to Hungary in 1989 on a winter night. She told only her brother of her plan, afraid her mother would be fearful and tell someone.
“I thought perhaps I was going into a desert and may never come out,” Comaneci says. “In my head, the destination was the United States, but I had no idea how I was going to get there. I was very scared, but I was more scared to go back.”
When she first settled in the West, she did so in Montreal, where she had Romanian-born friends and could speak French, which she spoke better than English. Conner, a mere acquaintance then, reached out from the United States. “I realized she was lost and could use some help,” he recalls.
A romance grew and they married in 1996. They have called Norman home. Trained in journalism and public relations, Conner is the speechwriter in the duo, as they often speak and do broadcasts together.
“We complement each other,” Conner says. “Around the U.S., I get invited to do a lot of things, but on a global scale, I have no problem knowing that often I am just the guy with Nadia. In Mexico, they have a name for her which in Spanish means ‘there’s no one like Nadia.’ All these years later, people still want to connect with her.”
Comaneci returns to Romania often, where she visits family, young gymnasts and charities, including her children’s medical clinic in Bucharest.
During the London Olympics, the popular King’s Cross tube station will be named after her. A lifetime of recognition has sprung from her 1976 performance.
“I was so young,” Comaneci recalls. “I didn’t realize I was doing something no one had ever done, because I was doing the same routines I had always done, just in a bigger arena. People around me would say ‘that kid is so good,’ but I thought adults just told kids they were good at something and patted them a little bit to make them feel good about themselves. I didn’t know how good I was until I did what I did in Montreal.”