Gymnastics has become a highly competitive sport for both men and women, that requires competitors to be strong, agile, flexible, and rhythmic. There was one gymnast in particular, from Romania, who dominated gymnastics during her era, and changed the future of the sport. Nadia Comaneci quickly became one of the most famous gymnasts of all time, and for good reason. But her life was not without drama and heartbreak. This is her story.
Nadia Comaneci was born in a small town in the Carpathian Mountains called Onesti, Romania, on November 12, 1961. Her father was Gheorge Comaneci, an auto mechanic who was Romanian born and bred. Her mother was Ştefania Comaneci, and Nadia had a younger brother named Adrian.
The two children were brought up under the Romanian Orthodox Church, as many families were in Romania at that time. Ştefania said that Nadia was a difficult child that was full of energy, so she enrolled her daughter in gymnastics classes from a young age. She probably never realized how much impact that decision would eventually have on the rest of her daughter’s life.
Learning the ropes
Nadia’s first gymnastics classes were in kindergarten, where she was part of a local team named Flacăra (“The Flame” in Romanian) with her coaches being Duncan and Munteanu. By the time she was six years old, Nadia was hooked on the sport of gymnastics.
Even though she was very young – at the age where most of us only begin our way in the world and have little clue where we’ll end up in life – she already knew that this was something she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Little did she know quite how her life would turn out, simply by starting those first few gymnastics lessons.
Meeting Bela Károlyi
At 6-years-old, Nadia Comaneci was turning cartwheels with her friend on the school playground when she was spotted by Bela Károlyi.
The renowned Romanian gymnastic coach and his wife were looking for young potentials who could be trained to eventually compete in events all around the world. Bela certainly saw something special in Nadia, and when recess ended, he searched the classrooms looking for the girl he’d seen turning immaculate cartwheels. Eventually, he tracked down Nadia and her friend, offering to train her.
Just keep practicing
Nadia agreed to train with Bela and by the time she was seven she was practicing 2-3 hours every single day with the coach.
She became one of the first students at the school in Onesti and didn’t need to commute like some of the other gymnasts, as she lived in the town. While Bela was impressed with her hard work and dedication, Nadia remembers that the hard work didn’t always pay off. During her first few amateur competitions, the gymnast fell a lot, but this only motivated her to keep working hard.
The first competition
Nadia Comaneci took part in her first official competition in 1969, when she was 7 years old. The Romanian National Junior Championship didn’t go quite as she had hoped that year, with a finishing place of 13.
However, she wasn’t going to let her disappointing result slow her down. Nadia trained harder than ever to compete in the same competition the next year, when she placed first. Finally, everyone realized the little gymnast was something special. By the time she turned 12, she was living at a state-run gymnastics school and training with Károlyi 6 days a week, 8 hours per day.
Nadia continued to get stronger and win competitions. By 1975, she was finally eligible for senior level competitions and so entered the European championships. Here she won one silver medal and four gold medals.
Wanting to compete in the Montreal Olympics, Nadia decided to enter the American Cup as a warm-up. In March 1976, one male and one female competitor from each country took to the floor. Nadia won the competition, as she was accustomed to doing by now.
As Nadia Comaneci took to the winner’s stand to collect her silver up, a photographer called to her and the 18-year-old American standing next to her.
“Kiss for the cameras, please!” he shouted, thinking that the young, blond American and tiny dark-haired Romanian looked cute together. That American boy was Bart Conner, and he happily obliged by giving Nadia a peck on the cheek. Both Nadia and Bart were heading to the Olympics but never knew how their lives would become entwined from that moment on.
Heading to Montreal
The Montreal Olympic Games were held in 1976, and this would be the first Olympic competition that Nadia would enter. Nadia Comaneci was to compete in several events in Montreal including both team and solo routines.
However, no one at the time knew that this young gymnast from a small town in Romania was about to make history. Nadia was going to do something that no other gymnast had ever managed before.
The perfect 10
On July 18, Nadia Comaneci made Olympic history, by being the first ever gymnast to receive a perfect 10. The perfect score came during a compulsory team section on the uneven bars.
At first, there was some initial confusion: as the scoreboard was not programmed to be able to show a 10, the score came up as a 1.00, and the crowd was unsure. However, the penny soon dropped and the audience, Nadia, and her coaches went wild. She went on to bag herself six more perfect tens during the Montreal Olympics.
Nadia’s theme song
Nadia Comaneci quickly started to garner attention from the press, so much so that she actually had her own theme song!
The piece of music, part of the musical score from the 1971 film Bless the Beasts and Children, was originally entitled Cotton’s Dream. However, it was used on a feature piece for ABC’s Wide World of Sport after the Olympics, showing a montage of slo-mo videos and photos of Nadia. The song was quickly linked to the gymnast and was nicknamed Nadia’s Theme.
After her first Olympic Games, Nadia quickly became the darling of the gymnastics world. She became BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year along with Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year too, both in 1976.
Nadia received plenty of attention from magazines and found herself on the cover or at least featured in many big name publications. Returning to Romania, her family was given a brand new car and a one month vacation from the Romanian government. She was a star!
While it seemed as though Nadia was riding high after the 1976 Olympics, things actually weren’t going so well at home. Firstly, her parents broke up which was extremely difficult for the young gymnast.
However, things were about to get much worse. Romanian sports officials, for reasons unknown, decided that Nadia should train with another coach. She had been working with Bela Károlyi since she was six years old, and the separation was heartbreaking. Especially as it happened around the same time as her parents splitting up. Nadia’s life was falling apart.
With things going so terribly wrong for the young sports star, Nadia felt trapped. In 1977, when she was just 15 years old, the gymnast tried to take her own life by drinking bleach.
She spent two days in hospital after the incident and said she was “glad because I didn’t have to go to the gym.” While she initially denied these rumors, it was confirmed in an interview with Life magazine in 1990. The Romanian sports officials let Bela Károlyi become her coach once again.
The alleged affair
In 1979, things took yet another troublesome turn for Nadia Comaneci. It was alleged that the gymnast was having a relationship with Nicu Ceaușescu, the youngest son of Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Nicu was renowned for being a bit of a playboy, losing huge amounts of money by gambling around the world, and for being a bit of a tyrant in general! While the rumors were never confirmed, it didn’t paint a pretty picture for the once darling of the gymnast world.
After everything going on in her personal life, it’s no surprise that her 1980 Moscow Olympics performance wasn’t up to her own standard. While she may have won two silvers and two golds, there were some serious controversies surrounding the scoring.
Her coach, Károlyi, kicked up a fuss over her scores, saying they were unfair. This was televised, which caused members of the Romanian government to fall out of favor with the coach, believing he had embarrassed them. Károlyi’s life was about to become very difficult from this moment on.
The Nadia tour
The Romanian government quickly realized that Nadia Comaneci could make them a lot of money, with the right kind of events. They hosted the Nadia Tour in 1981, which took place over 11 cities in America.
The government received around $250,000 for the state from this clever marketing ploy; Nadia herself earned just $1,000 from traveling around America. It was at this time, as well, that things were about to fall apart for her coach and his relations with Romania.
Tensions rose between Nadia’s coach, Károlyi, and the Romanian government after his little outburst during the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
He needed to get out of the country – and fast. During the 1981 Nadia Tour, Károlyi, his wife, and the Romanian team choreographer, Géza Pozsár, defected. They sought political asylum in the U.S., but the Károlyis had to temporarily leave their 7-year-old daughter, Andrea, with family members back in Romania until they were granted asylum. Nadia was heartbroken when she found out her beloved coach had defected and left the country.
Stuck in Romania
Romanian officials became worried that Nadia would follow in her coach’s footsteps and defect to the U.S. As she was deemed to be a valuable communist model in sports, Nadia was banned from traveling to any Western country.
She was kept out of sight of the Western press, she had her mail read and her phones tapped by the Romanian government, and she was constantly watched wherever she would go. Nadia was trapped in her home country, with no way out.
At a party in 1987, Nadia met Constantin Panait who had escaped Romania some time ago – apparently swimming the Danube river and going on to become a roofer in Florida.
He told her that he could help her escape as well if she wanted. Nadia didn’t really know Panait, but he was offering her an escape route. This was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave Romania for good, and start a new life in the United States. Or so she thought.
Telling the family
Nadia was worried her mother would have a heart attack when she told her what she was going to do. At first, she told her younger brother who she calls her best friend, to which he replied, “You go and find a life.”
Nadia admits that she was fearful, as she knew there was a chance she might never see her family again. On the night she was due to leave, Nadia’s brother and sister-in-law came with her as close to the Hungarian border as they could get.
Along with fiver other Romanian defectors, Nadia made an almost deadly walk in the ice-cold conditions and harsh weather, all the way to the Hungarian border.
Allegedly, she was stopped at the border by the Hungarian police who instantly recognized the famous gymnast. However, they took pity on her and let her pass. They continued on to the Austrian border, where Panait met her, before going to the U.S. embassy and being provided with a flight to New York City.
When Nadia made it to America, not everyone was pleased to see her. Long gone was the gymnastic darling of the world. In her place was a woman tottering on high heels, with a heavily made up face, who was a defector.
People had also heard the rumors of her relationship with the Romanian dictator’s son and that she’d left her home country. She certainly wasn’t forgotten, but she didn’t receive the warm welcome she was hoping for.
It was not as if Nadia Comaneci had no friends when she moved to the United States.
In fact, there were plenty of Romanians who had defected to the U.S. who were friends of hers, including her former gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi. Karolyi had tried to get in touch with her multiple times after she landed in the United States, but it turns out that Constantin Panait was filtering out calls to her. Comaneci had no clue.
There were other people who tried to get in contact with Comaneci as well, including Bart Conner. He was especially surprised when he saw that Comaneci was scheduled to appear on the Pat Sajak Show.
Conner knew Sajack’s producer and asked to be a surprise guest on the show. He also told the producer that Comaneci had not been in touch with any of her friends in the United States, and told him that he believed that “something fishy” was going on.
Things weren’t helped by what seemed like a relationship with the married Panait.
The pair were known to be staying in motels and hotels around the country together, and when asked what was happening between the pair in an interview Nadia simply stuck out her tongue and said, “It’s a secret.” Little did the world know, Panait was allegedly keeping the gymnast hostage – she told a close friend that Panait had actually held her captive for 3 months.
Free at last
When she told her friend, Alexandru Stefu, that things weren’t quite as they seemed between her and Panait, and that he was controlling her life, he decided to intervene.
He lured Nadia and Constantin to a meeting where she admitted he was mistreating her, in front of her captor. The next day, Constantin Panait fled the country with $150,000 of Nadia’s cash and her car. He stole from her, but she was finally free from his grip.
Thankfully, the gymnastic community is a close-knit one, and Stefu offered Nadia to stay with him and his family.
However, not long after, Stefu died in a tragic snorkeling accident, and it was time for Nadia to move once again. This time, she was offered a place to stay in Norman, Oklahoma, by Paul Ziert. Paul was a friend of Bela Károlyi and also happened to be Bart Conner’s gymnastics coach.
After meeting on the Pat Sajak show, Conner gave Comaneci his phone number. Comaneci was at first suspicious of Conner’s intentions, but decided that Conner was just being a nice guy.
The two would speak on the phone every once in awhile over the course of the next year and a half. And then, Conner invited Comaneci to come to Oklahoma to help him open up a gymnastics school.
Years after their first innocent kiss, Bart and Nadia hit it off once again. Bart says he remembers that very first kiss on the winner’s podium with Nadia, and now, years later they started dating.
They performed together in several gymnastics competitions and seemed inseparable. It had all started with a kiss, and now it had ended up as so much more… In 1994, just a few years after reconnecting, Bart Conner proposed to Nadia Comaneci in Amsterdam.
A lavish wedding
In April 1996, Nadia and Bart got married in Bucharest, Romania. As the communist government had been overthrown, the pair were now treated like royalty; her defection no longer bothered the new Romanian government.
They were given the use of the Parliament House for their wedding reception, which was an extremely elaborate affair. According to Sports Illustrated, it was “the gymnastics world’s version of a royal wedding.” The pair have now been married for 21 years, and have a son named Dylan together.
Comaneci’s wedding itself was something of a national holiday in Romania. There were over 10,000 people who came out in support of the couple, and people all across the country took off work in order to watch the ceremony which was broadcasted live on national television.
Comaneci says that this was an extremely emotional event for her. She felt that she had turned her back on her home country and felt horrible about it. But seeing all of the support made her feel loved and forgiven by her people.
Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy
Bart and Nadia have worked together since reconnecting, at the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy which was set up by Bart and Paul Ziert.
Thanks to the two famous names by the Academy in Norman, Oklahoma, it sees thousands of students applying each year. Bart and Nadia also spend a lot of time traveling the world together, working on product endorsements, making commercial appearances, and just generally going back to being the sweethearts of the gymnastics world.
An unlikely friendship
In 2015, Nadia Comaneci walked the red carpet at the TriBeCa Film Festival with a new friend by her side – Katie Holmes. The pair stood side-by-side as they answered questions on Katie’s first short as a director; Eternal Princess.
The short documents Nadia’s groundbreaking 1976 Olympic journey and getting that first ever Perfect 10. While many were confused as to their friendship, if you look hard enough, you’ll realize these two have always had more in common than meets the eye.
While Eternal Princess may not have been a huge success, it certainly put some things in perspective for both Nadia and Katie.
The controlling relationships, the rise to fame at such a young age, having your public perception go from positive to negative in a short amount of time. Perhaps both of these young women are Eternal Princesses… And now, Nadia finally feels as though she can tell her story to the world, however difficult that may be.
During the Montreal Olympics back in 1976, all eyes were on the young Comaneci. She had bested her main competitor, the Belarusian Olga Korbut, and was standing on the winner’s podium.
When asked about how she felt getting gold and perfect 10s, Comaneci replied that it was ok, as she had gotten 19 of them in other competitions. There were one billion people watching her performance on TV, meaning that at that moment, she commanded the attention of a quarter of humanity.
Just one son
Nadia Comaneci has one main man in her life (besides her husband that is) – her son Dylan. Dylan was born in 2006 and is Comaneci’s biggest love.
She loves spending time with him, and has hundreds of pictures with him on her phone. According to many reporters, she loves showing the pictures off any chance that she gets. It appears that Dylan is destined to be an only child due to the fact that Comaneci had him at such a late age.
Puberty hit hard
After the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the Romanian government decided that Comaneci should take a bit of a break from the sport. It was then that she started going through puberty and growing like a weed.
And since she wasn’t training, she was able to eat anything and everything she wanted. When her coach came to visit her he said that she had turned into an “enormous monster.” This “monster” ended up winning gold medals later that year though. Just saying.
When the Olympics were held in Moscow in 1980 (and United States President Jimmy Carter refused to have the Americans attend), Nadia was right there in the competition.
However, in order to try and have every advantage possible, the Russians decided to have their rough and rowdy soldiers in the crowd to harass the competition. When Comaneci was on the double bars, the soldiers were yelling at her “Fall Nadia Fall!” Comaneci, for her part, was too concentrated on the routine to pay them any mind.
Politicizing the Olympics
The Russians pulled out all of the stops for their athletes in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and it was extremely obvious what they were doing.
At one point, the Russians would not give the signal for Comaneci to start her routine until all of the Russian athletes had gone. And, inexplicably, all of the Russian athletes were scored above a 9.5, with some of the scores going up less than a second after the landings were stuck.
Facing the terminator
Nadia is no stranger to many famous actors and talents that attend her regular gym in Los Angeles. However, the famous athlete was in awe when she discovered that Arnold Schwarzenegger is training in that same gym.
Schwarzenegger, who prior to his successful career was a famous bodybuilder, asked her to be a personal trainer for that day. The former governor and actor then published their joint photo on social media, saying: “It is fantastic to get to the gym early and have an Olympic champion as your trainer – thanks Nadia Comaneci! 10 reps to honor the first perfect 10 score in the Olympics.”
Perfect 10 Productions
Set up back in 1998, Nadia Comaneci and her husband started a production company run out of their gymnasium.
The company works with major sports broadcasters such as ESPN and Fox Sports in order to broadcast various gymnastics events around the United States as well as the world. So, if you’re watching a gymnastics event on a major sports channel, there is a good chance that you are watching it through Comaneci’s company.
Net worth, $10 million
Nadia Comaneci is worth approximately $10 million dollars. No, she did not melt down all of her gold medals and sell them the moment she got to the United States.
She earned a lot of her money by partnering with her husband Bart Conner to open up one of the largest gymnastics centers in the United States. The couple also owns a production company as well as a company which sells gymnastics equipment.
One of the reasons for Comaneci’s continued success is the fact that she never really disappeared after the olympics.
Much like Michael Phelps, Comaneci has made sure to remain both in the sport as well as in the public spotlight ever since she won her olympic golds in Montreal back in 1976. This continued exposure has made her stick in people’s’ minds, enabling her business ventures to expand and succeed.
Driven to win
Many people want to know what it is that drove Comaneci to become the best of the best in gymnastics. It turns out that she is just a very competitive person and always wants to win.
She describes a bicycle race when she was young and said that all she wanted to do was win. Comaneci’s mentality never changed, and through great perseverance she was able to push herself to greatness.
One of the main issues with current gymnastics scoring, at least according to Comaneci, is that there is now no way for anyone to be able to score a perfect 10.
Due to the various rule changes to scoring that affected the sport of gymnastics, it is almost impossible for a gymnast to replicate Comaneci’s score and get a perfect 10. It looks like Comaneci will be remembered in the history books as the only person to get a 10.
No fries with that
Nadia Comaneci still has the diet of an athlete and still manage to have a healthy European diet despite living in the middle of Oklahoma.
She eats a breakfast of toast with cheese and a bit of turkey on it, drinks one coffee a day, have a wrap of some sort for lunch, and will eat a light dinner of fish with a large salad. She barely eats red meat and hasn’t eaten french fries in nearly 25 years. No wonder she looks so fit!
Comănaci is still not lazy when it comes to working out. She tries to do some form of physical exercise every single day.
And given the fact that she is on the road more than she is at home, it is even more impressive that she is able to maintain a healthy workout routine. She says that she likes to do quick, high intensity workouts that never last more than a half an hour. You’re an inspiration to us all, Nadia.
It’s no wonder that Nadia’s favorite food is a dish created in her homeland of Romania. The dish, called Salata de Vinete, is an eggplant dish that is super easy to make.
All you need are two eggplants, some onions, salt and pepper, olive oil, dill, and garlic. All you really need to do is roast and then puree the eggplant, take all of its contents out of the skin, and stir in the rest of the ingredients. The Food Network has the complete recipe on its website.
The FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championship is the world championship competition in gymnastics. The competition was held in Montreal in 2017, a little more than four decades after the city hosted the 1976 Olympic Games.
So who better to tap for official spokesperson for the gymnastics world championships than the woman who scored the world’s first ever perfect 10 in the same city? That’s right, Comănaci went back in Montreal!
Creating new moves
When someone does a move in gymnastics it is called an element. One of the things that made Comaneci a legend is the fact that she created and invented so many new elements, several of which have since been named after her.
When asked about how a new element is created, Comaneci is quick to say that no one goes into training and one day thinks “I’m going to create something new.” They usually end up making a new element by mistake.