Friday, April 2, 2010

Nadia Comaneci

The sport of gymnastics has gained more attention and over the decades, as each new Olympic games has introduced plenty of new talent. There are a few memorable moments throughout the games. One of those moments is when Nadia Comaneci, a 14 year old Russian athlete scored a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics,on her first even, the uneven bars. She went on to earn 7 perfect scores and a total of 3 gold medals. Not only did she win the all around title at the even, but she also won the hearts of spectators.

Nadia's fearless and bold attitude had helped her earn many medals prior to the Olympics. She began her training at age 6, under Bela Karolyi, at the Onesti, Romania sports school, where she lived with her parents, Gheorge and Stefania-Alexandria Comaneci and younger brother Andrea in a small apartment. It is rumored that she loved to jump so much she wore out the springs in several couches. Nadia gained entrance into the school in Onesti,by walking across the balance beam like it was pavement. Nadia trained 6 days a week for 4 hours and always looked forward to her time in the gym. Her first year at the Romanian National Junior Championships she earned a disappointing 13th place, but when on to take first in the same event the following year. She was 8 years old by then.

Her first competition is also when Nadia began her beloved doll collection. Bela had given her one after the first Championship games, as an incentive to perform better the next time. As she began to travel to other countries for competitions, she managed to bring home dolls from each of those places. Nadia continued to perfect her talent. She went on to win the 1975 European Championship, taking first in all around, vault, bars and beam, with a second in floor. The next year she won two more cups, before moving on to the Montreal Olympics.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Nadia, to the spectators, was the sheer power and determination of someone so small. At Montreal, Nadia weighed roughly 85 pounds and was 4ft 11 inches tall, at age 14. Not only did Nadia come home with four medals, three gold and one silver, she had amassed a collection of around 200 dolls by this time. There was quite a bit of confusion at the 1976 Olympics, as there was no room for a perfect score on the boards, so the 1.0 was at first perplexing to the crowds. She also was awarded the Hero of Socialist Labor by her country, the highest honor a citizen could earn.

Nadia returned to the Olympics in 1980 to earn another two gold and one silver medal. By this time, Bela and his wife had considered defecting to the United States and eventually did. Nadia remained in Romania, as the government kept close watch on her and feared she might defect. She went on to coach the Romanian Women's team in the 1984 Olympics. She eventually defected in the middle of the night in 1989, leaving behind her medals and her family. She made a six mile journey in the cold with five other Romanians, to reach the Hungarian border, then the American Embassy in Austria, where she then took a flight to New York. Nadia was tired of being treated like a commodity, having phones tapped and always having her every movement recorded. It was time for her to leave the oppression behind.

Nadia's luck did not initially change upon entering the U.S. The man who had helped her gain her freedom was controlling her money and abusing her. There were rumors of her having an affair with a family man. However, other Olympic athletes learned of her plight and came to her aid. Bart Conner and former Romanian rugby coach Alexandru Stefu came to her rescue and she lived with Stefu and his family for a while. When Stefu died, she moved to Norman, Oklahoma, where she lived with Conner's coach and strengthened her relationship with Bart. Nadia had earned the Olympic Order by the International Olympic Committee, both in 1984 and 2004. She was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1993 and began coaching the sport in the United States. She also began supporting her school in Romania.  

 Nadia continued her worked at the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy and married Conner in 1986. They married in Bucharest with all Nadia's family present. Her parents had divorced after the 1980 Olympics and her mother had visited her in the U.S. Nadia and Bart have a son, Dylan Paul Conner, born in 2006. Along with her work at the Academy, Nadia and Bart performed at exhibitions and she went on to write a book, Letters to a Young Gymnast, which was published in 2003. Nadia has been and remains involved in quite a bit of charitable work. She is involved with the International Special Olympics and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. She also funded a medical clinic in Bucharest, for free and low cost health care for children. Comaneci and Conner continue to work in their Academy, own several sporting good shops and edit an international Gymnastics magazine. They have serves as commentators in events as recent as the 2008 Bejing Olympics.

Though Nadia is considered one of the world's great athletes, by fans and other athletes alike, it is her determination and fighting spirit that make her special. Though she has had plenty of fame and earned respect and notariety, she has also faced quite a bit of adversity. After her success in her first Olympics, Nadia was ordered to train with a new coach. She put on weight and lost quite a bit of strength, until ordered to return to Karolyi for training. The time in Romania after Bela Karolyi and his wife defected was extremely sad for Nadia. She was constantly watched and was not allowed to leave the country, except for the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles.

When she finally got the courage to defect, she was taken advantage of by a former Romanian she thought she could trust. She then lost a beloved friend who had helped her out of a bad situation. The press in the United States was initially very cruel to Nadia, focusing on her heavy makeup and the way she dresses, as well as with the relationship with the man who brought her to the U.S. She had managed to push all the adversity aside and become not just a star athlete, but someone who makes a great contribution to society.