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Nadia Comaneci: gymnast of perfection and defector

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Nadia Comaneci: gymnast of perfection and defector

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She grabbed the world’s attention and affection aged 14. In 1976 this Romanian gymnast scored the first perfect ten in Olympic history and remains a sporting lcon.

However, her life in Romania was troubled and she was once again headline news, this time as she chose to defect risking her life to escape the brutal regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu.

Nadia Comaneci many thanks for being with us on the global conversation.

  • Nadia Comaneci was born in Romania in 1961
  • She shot to fame in 1976 scoring the first perfect 10 in Olympic history
  • In fact, she scored 7 perfect 10s and won 3 gold medals, one silver, one bronze at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal
  • At the Moscow Olympics in 1980 she came home with 2 gold medals and 2 silver
  • She retired from competitive gymnastics in 1984
  • In 1989 she defected to the US and made a new life for herself

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“You were at the pinnacle of your success in 1976 but still your fame endures, why do you think you are such an intriguing character?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I am not sure (laughs) I think it is because I did not disappear. I competed in the Olympics in 1976 and in 1980 and then I was still involved in gymnastics, because I did some gymnastic shows over the years. Then I retired from competition and shows, but I am still a part of gymnastics.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“What would you say was more influential in forming who you are now, was it the gymnastics or the period of history that your life has been inscribed in, in terms of the Communist era and the Fall of Communism- what has been more influential in making you?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I think everything together. Of course it started with the Olympics. People did not know who Nadia is and where Romania is on a map, and there was a big interest about me after that because I was fourteen and a half, and people wanted to know more about me, ‘why is she so good?’. Then I was still around, then the revolution happened in 1989 and I had barely left the country just a little bit before the revolution not knowing that this would happen.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“We are commemorating those revolutions now, do they strike a particular cord with you?”

Nadia Comaneci
“It’s a part of the history, I don’t think about it every day it’s been a lot of years passed since then, it does not feel that long, because I go back to Romania six times a year, I do a lot of projects there.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“Do you feel more Romanian or more American?”

Nadia Comaneci.
I am Romanian definitely and I am adopted by the States.

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“We asked our online audience to send in questions, and obviously many are fascinated by your career, and we received this question from Dinara Urazova who says “Don’t you think that the Cold War between the West and the Communist Bloc had its share in your success.?” Do
you feel a part of that tension?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I didn’t feel any tension when I was competing because I was a kid. The only thing I felt was … Oh I hope I am going to do a good routine here – because I knew I had prepared everything I had done in the gym. I don’t think you feel that when you are a kid. Maybe when you grow up and you look back as an adult you see that, but I was seeing it as a challenge.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“That’s interesting because your trainer Béla Károlyi and his wife Márta have been criticised in the past for having too tough a training regime, did you feel that?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“No I didn’t feel that, I actually did a lot more than they were asking me to do and I think about, you know, when Béla used to say “today we do five routines on beam” and I used to do seven. So I could do more than he was asking. I don’t mind working hard and don’t complain if I work hard. I think that you have to work hard to be up to that level. I think I am not looking for the easy way to do things and I am proud about that.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“You became such a famous figure in Romania and worldwide
did you feel that pressure?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“No I didn’t feel it at all because Romania was closed. If people were interested to come and find out more about me, they couldn’t easily come to the country to do that. So after I competed in games I would celebrate for two days and then went back to the gym. So I had no knowledge about what was happening outside.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“So you were not aware of the massive worldwide impact you had made in 1976?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“No, no not really, not then, but I realised later

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“Do you regret not knowing that or did it help you?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“No I don’t. I don’t regret anything.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“So when you scored the seven perfect tens. We all know the story well, it’s almost mythical that the boards can actually show a ten. What did you think when you saw them?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“ I always say about the fact that I don’t watch the scoreboard because I feel how I did the routine. I thought I did a pretty good routine. The routine was, I say it had a little extra Nadia touch, because I did everything with a little more amplitude even though it was the same routine that everybody was doing. I think the person before got a nine point nine five, but because mine had a little more amplitude in everything I had done, I guess there was no place to go but the ten.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“So as I said, our online audience has sent in a lot of questions and we received this question from Gervé Bosuku who wants to know the secret of your motivation, because you were a driven person then and you are a driven person now.”

Nadia Comaneci:
“The secret, do you have a secret of your motivation?”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“No, but I am not an Olympic gymnast:

Nadia Comaneci:
“So I think I had the motivation, because when I was five and a half, even before I started gymnastics, I was in kindergarden any there was a tricycle race and I just wanted to win that and I won that. So I have that going, I think the hard work and the hours in the gym, add to the success. I think when I look back sport is amazing, any sport is amazing for kids.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“Why?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“Because it gives you a structure and organises you, it gives you the sense of setting goals.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“Were you ever approached and encouraged to take any performance enhancing drugs.”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I didn’t know anything about that. No I heard about that in different sports much later in my life. Gymnastics is a delicate sport, you don’t have to carry the beam on your back.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“Your fame, especially after 76, brought you to the attention of the
Ceaucescus, the dictator who was ruling your country. How did that make you feel? Were you aware of what was going on in Romania at that time?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“No, not really. I retired officially in 1984 and I was still involved in gymnastics. I did some coaching and I worked in the federation for a couple of years. I wasn’t aware of what was going on.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“But, I guess you were a treasure representing a troubled country, a treasure to a dictator. If you didn’t realise it at the time does it make you feel uncomfortable now?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I don’t know if I was treasure, I was somebody who was very well known because of my sporting accomplishments. You know when you live in a country that is a Communist country you try to make your life the best you can. I thought that maybe it wasn’t quite right not to be able to travel outside of Romania because I was invited I was in the Athletes Commission of the IOC for a couple of years and I was invited to go to meetings and events that they had and I wasn’t allowed. I had no one to ask, “why am I not allowed?” and then I thought in time I would probably like to leave.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“Like your trainer Béla Károlyi and his wife did back in 1981, they defected when you were on a tour of the US. How did that make you feel when he left? Because he invited you to go with him did he not?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I was very sad when he decided
not to go back, but I found out about that right on the last day and I just couldn’t imagine doing that. I wasn’t ready to do anything like that because I couldn’t see myself anywhere else but Romania and with my family, he was outside in the States and it was easy to make a decision, you just stay there. I think that after that my situation about going out of the country became very difficult.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“And within the country itself. did you feel a sense of freedom within Romania or were you watched?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“There were some rumors that a lot of people are watched, I think I probably was. I mean this is what it is and if it is how it is I’m just going to live with it.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“People imagine that after your Olympic success, being a figurehead of your country, you lived in the lap of luxury, was that the case?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“No, that wasn’t the case no. I had a house, but I had to pay all the way until I was turning sixty, to make my payments. I didn’t make public my fortune or lack of fortune, I didn’t think money mattered because I did gymnastics because I wanted to do it.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“So then you, years later in 1989, made a fundamental decision to defect . What were the circumstances that led to that?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I made a very bold decision at that time because I knew it was very dangerous and scary, but you know like in gymnastics I liked to try new skills, I wanted to do something you know, If I don’t do it nobody else is going to do it for me.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“The winds of change were sweeping across the Eastern Bloc countries. The Berlin Wall was probably falling about that time. Were you getting that information? were you aware that there was change taking place?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“Not too much, no.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“And so then when you defected you risked your life, your trainers defection had obviously been a lot easier you said.”

Nadia Comaneci:
“Yeah, a little bit easier.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“How long did it take for you to leave Romania? And what were you feeling as you were crossing the border leaving Romania into Hungary?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“Everything happened pretty fast actually, because the entire thing took about two days total. You just go, you just go. You have somebody, a guide, who tells you “I think you should go there, I think you should go here.” I think people were aware that I had left, but nobody knew where I was actually. I contacted the US embassy in Vienna, I think, you see its been a long time, and they helped me go to the States. It happened very fast. After that the revolution happened in Romania, very shortly after that.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“You don’t seem at all traumatised by the experience, although it must have been terrifying because you had put your life at risk.”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I am not traumatised now, now I think back and I’m happy it had a happy ending. But I am the kind of person when I make a decision I don’t doubt it, I go all the way hoping that it is going to be good.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“So when the Ceaucescu regime fell as you said you were in the States, can you remember where you were how you heard about it?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I think I heard it, I was with, I was preparing some gymnastic shows, I think at the time and we were worrying about what was happening because I was thinking about my family and all my friends and it was a big, big, big move.for the country.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“Were you able to contact your family at the time?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“No, no. I didn’t contact my family for about a month or two.

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“And how did you feel personally about this regime falling, did it fill you with joy or confusion?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I didn’t know how to feel about it. I was thinking this is what people want, this is what the country wants, I hope it’s going to be good to the end of time and I think everybody wanted freedom, I guess, like me.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“So I would like to bring in again some of the questions we have received from our online community. We received this question from Mauro Iannelli who asks “When you passed from Romania to the US, you went from oppression to freedom, its a difficult question, how did your existence change? How did you deal with that?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“ I think that the good people around you, that want the best for you is the most important thing, and I was lucky to have that and the fact that I was able to go back to Romania because Romania was a free country it was very fulfilling for me. I had been to the States and I had been outside Romania when I was competing and it wasn’t something shockingly new for me. I knew the free world and how it was working. I just had to figure out what I wanted to do, where and how I could help.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“We received this question from Adrian Rusu, who says going back through your career and your move to the US. “What is the one major thing you would have done differently?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“When I look back at everything that has happened in my life. I don’t think that there would be one thing that I would have done differently because every little thing that I have done connected the dots to what I am today.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“That is absolutely true , because there is a photo of you, its incredible, in 1976 with your now husband kissing you on the cheek in Madison Square Garden. Your life almost seems to have a fairytale quality to it. Is that something you think do you think you have had a charmed existence?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“Fairytale, yeah, you know it is a fairytale, but its like I don’t want my life to be scripted because it becomes too cheesy if its a fairytale story. I think what I brought to my generation and the generation after me is that motivation that you started with, that you should never give up when it gets harder.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“You are always on the road now, you support a lot of charities, as I was saying earlier you feel a need to give back. What is it in you that feels you have to give back to such a degree?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“I see how difficult it is for a lot of kids to be able to pursue what they want to do and I think that’s the part where I can help. It is either through my foundation in Romania, it’s either through special Olympics that I was opened to by my husband when I arrived to the States or to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and I learn a lot from that.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“And that brings me to a question by Elizabeth Booth, who asks, very precisely “Do you ever envisage being involved in the training of the Romanian national team?”

Nadia Comaneci:
“Yeah, I go all the time back to Romania and I am in contact with the girls, I send them texts all the time when they are competing at the World Gymnastic Championship I try to encourage them and say “come on you’ll be good, just think of your best routine.” So I cannot not be connected because that’s my family.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“And your son, you have opened up a very beautiful chapter in your life, you have a young child and I would like to end with this question from Anda Gheorghi, who says “What does your son feel about the great achievements in gymnastics?” This isn’t only about you your husband Bart Conner is also an Olympian.”

Nadia Comaneci:
“Well I’ll tell you something very funny because my little one, who is eight and a half now, he was going to kindergarden when he was four and a half, we didn’t tell him anything about us, but you know when the time comes when he asks we are just going to say what we have done, he comes back from kindergarden and says “mum, dad do you know you are famous?” I said “yes” so there was his own thinking and then I found an album of some pictures with me from the Olympics in 76 so I tried to show him, and I said “do you know who that is?” so I’m 14 and he said “it’s you” so he knew. I said “how do you know?” and he said “I just know.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:
“Nadia Comaneci many thanks.”

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