The Perfect 10 Girl – The Extraordinary Story Of Nadia Comăneci

In the dark days of the Cold War, there weren’t many opportunities for the truly talented sitting on the other side of the Iron Curtain to gain international recognition. However, one way for citizens of the Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe to reach a wider audience was through the medium of sport.

Despite the hostile stand-off between East and West, the two opposing sides came together regularly to compete against one another at an international level.

One of the stars of this era was Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci. She would go on to astonish the world at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games by scoring a perfect 10. What happened to her next is equally astounding. Here is her story.

A Star Is Born

Born in the small Carpathian Mountains town of Onesti on November 12th, 1961, Nadia Comăneci would grow up to be one of the most famous sportswomen of her era. One of two children, Nadia and her brother Adrian were brought up by parents Gheorge and Ştefania in the Romanian Orthodox faith, as most children were in that remote part of Romania. As a child, Nadia’s mother described her daughter as a difficult child because she was so full of energy and wouldn’t sit still for a minute. Looking for something that would channel the girl’s energy, Ştefania enrolled the child in gymnastics classes. It would prove to be a very important decision.

Early Promise

Nadia took to gymnastics like a duck to water. By the age of six, she was hooked on the sport and showing immense amounts of talent for one so young. Her coaches, Duncan and Munteanu from the Flacăra local gymnastics team were incredibly impressed with this precocious young lady, and could see she had a bright future ahead of her.

Bela Károlyi – Mentor And Lifelong Friend

One day, as Nadia and a classmate were turning cartwheels in the school playground, she was spotted by the world-renowned Romanian gymnastics coach, Bela Károlyi. Károlyi and his wife were scouring the country looking for new, as yet undiscovered talent, and they both realized that this little girl had something special. He waited for school to be over and then tracked Nadia down and offered to become her coach.

Her First International Competition

Under Károlyi’s tutelage, Nadia was soon practicing for two to three hours per day on top of attending school. This grueling schedule quickly led to her first entry into an official gymnastics competition at the tender age of just seven years old. She entered the Romanian National Junior Championships in 1969, coming thirteenth over all. This early disappointment only spurred her on, however. By the age of twelve she was living full-time in a state-run gymnastics school and training for eight hours a day, six days a week.

Victory At The American Cup

By 1975, Nadia was eligible to enter senior competitions. That year, she entered the European Championships, winning one silver and four gold medals. With her eyes set on the forthcoming Montreal Olympic Games, the young Romanian entered the 1976 American Cup as a warm-up. She won the competition. This was becoming a habit!

Meeting Bart Conner For The First Time

The winner of the male competition at the American Cup was a young man from Chicago called Bart Conner. The pair collected their prizes together at the end of the competition. As they posed for photos, a photographer called out from the crowd, ‘Kiss for the camera, please!’ Conner duly obliged, pecking the young Romanian on the cheek. Little did the two know at the time that this was not the end of their story.

The 1976 Montreal Olympic Games

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Nadia was chosen to represent Romania in gymnastics at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. She competed in both team and solo competitions, and was one of the sport’s toughest competitors. However, nobody could have guessed what would happen on July 18th during a team section on the uneven bars. After what was later described as a flawless routine, Nadia’s score flashed up as 1.0 on the board. Confusion reigned around the hall where the event was taking place. Then it began to dawn on the audience and fellow athletes alike that the board was not set up to register her actual score of 10 as it was not considered possible to get a perfect 10. It was only set to go as high as 9.9. As the crowd realized they had just seen this young athlete achieve the perfect score, they went wild and a star was born.

International Recognition

Nadia would go on to score a further six perfect tens during the games, and became a worldwide sensation for her troubles. The darling of the Games soon became the cover star of choice for magazines and newspapers. She would go on to win both the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year award and be crowned the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year. When she returned in triumph to her native Romania, she was given a hero’s welcome. A grateful government even gave her family a brand new car and a week’s vacation paid for by the state as a sign of their appreciation.

Cracks Begin To Appear

Just as everything seemed on the up and up, Nadia’s world would start crashing around her ears after the 1976 Olympic Games. First of all, her parents told her they were splitting up. This affected her deeply. And then, just as she thought things couldn’t get any worse, Romania’s state-controlled sports officials abruptly told her that she was no longer going to be coached by Bela Károlyi, but by somebody else. She was devastated by this announcement as she had been under Károlyi’s wing since she was six. In desperation, she tried to take her own life in 1977 by drinking bleach. After a two week spell in hospital, the authorities reversed their decision and Károlyi was restored to his position.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics

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Following a string of rumors that she was romantically involved with the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s son Nicu which she strenuously denied, Nadia didn’t exactly enter the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the best frame of mind. Despite winning two silvers and two golds, there was very public criticism of her scores which her coach, Bela Károlyi, denounced as deliberately too low. This kind of display of public disagreement was not acceptable to the Soviet authorities, and Károlyi’s behavior was noted by the Romanian government, who were at the time beholden to the communist regime of the Soviet Union. Life was about to get very uncomfortable for Bela Károlyi.

A Heartbreaking Revelation

It became obvious to Károlyi that his outburst at the Moscow Olympics had put him in very real danger. During the 1981 promotional ‘Nadia Tour’ of the United States, the coach took the decision to defect along with his wife and the Romanian gymnastics team choreographer, Géza Pozsár. Nadia was heartbroken when she learned the news that her beloved coach and friend had defected.

The State Closes In On Her World

Following Bela Károlyi’s defection, the Romanian authorities became increasingly concerned that their star gymnast might be tempted to follow suit. To make sure she didn’t give in to temptation, the authorities banned her from traveling to or competing in western countries. A tap was placed on her phone and all her mail was read before she received it. Secret police kept up constant surveillance on her, and she was kept away from the curious eyes of the western press. The bird was caged. Nadia had become a prisoner in her own country.

A Chance Meeting

Trapped in Romania, Nadia languished away until 1987 when she had a chance encounter with a man called Constantin Panait. Panait told Nadia that he could help her escape from Romania. The offer proved too tempting, and so Nadia took the decision to escape. She informed her family, her mother telling her to ‘go find a life’. Panait had supplied her with an escape route to the border, so along with five others, she headed off into the freezing cold Romanian winter, determined to be free.

Escape To The West

The walk to freedom was terrifying. Nadia was stopped at the Romanian border, but was allowed to continue on her way after the guards took pity on her. After making it to Austria and reuniting with Panait, she went straight to the American Embassy. They granted her and Panait asylum and the two were flown to the United States and freedom … or so she thought.

Not What She Expected

On arrival to the States, Nadia was troubled by the fact that she did not receive the welcome from fellow Romanians that she had been expecting. Indeed, the one person she had expected to be in touch was her old coach, Bela Károlyi. However, she received no phone calls or letters from him despite the fact he, too, was living in the United States. Why was she being shunned by the Romanian community?

Friends Try To Make Contact

Without her knowledge, Panait had been deliberately screening her calls and keeping letters from her. At the time, the pair were alleged to be having an affair despite the fact Panait was a married man. Bela Károlyi had in fact been trying to contact the gymnast since she had first arrived in the States, as indeed had Bart Conner, the young man Nadia had shared a kiss with back in 1977. But why was he doing this? The answer came as a complete shock to everybody.

The Truth Is Revealed

Nadia finally confessed to her friend Alexandru Stefu that things were not all they seemed in her relationship with Panait. Concerned for her well-being, Stefu lured Nadia and Panait to a meeting where the gymnast admitted that she had in fact been kept a virtual prisoner of Panait’s for months, with him carefully controlling every aspect of her life. Now exposed as a violent control freak, Panait fled the States, taking $150,000 of Nadia’s money with him in the trunk of his car. She was finally free at last to reunite with her beloved coach and mentor.

A Tragedy Leads To A Surprise Reunion

Nadia moved in with her friend Stefu and all seemed good for a time. Tragically, Stefu died in a freak snorkeling accident in 1991. Bereft, Nadia knew it was time to move on. She was offered a place to stay in Oklahoma by Károlyi’s friend Paul Ziert. Ziert just so happened to be the coach of gymnast Bart Conner. The two had met occasionally on The Pat Sajak Show, and, with the help of Ziert, were soon in regular communication with each other. Eventually this led to Conner inviting Nadia to help him open and run a gymnastics school in Oklahoma.

Falling In Love

While running the school, the two former gymnastics stars started to hit it off. It wasn’t long before this blossomed into a full-on love affair. The two who had first shared a stage and a kiss at the American Cup all those years ago were madly in love, and it was only a matter of time before Bart proposed. He did exactly that in 1994 during a trip to Amsterdam.

The Wedding Of The Year

Nadia and Bart’s wedding in April 1996 was something of a national holiday in her native Romania. By this stage, the communist dictatorship had been overthrown and a democratic republic established. The Romanian government was only too happy to lend the couple the use of Parliament House in the Romanian capital of Bucharest for their reception, and the wedding itself was broadcast live on national television. Over 100,000 people came out to support the happy couple, and the event was seen by many as the closest the country had come to a royal wedding.

A Model Business

The two settled into happily married life. They continued to run the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy in Norman, Oklahoma. The school was hugely successful, with hundreds and hundreds of young gymnasts eager to learn at the feet of two of the most legendary figures in gymnastics history.

A Surprise New Arrival

In 2006, ten years after their fairy-tale wedding in Romania, Nadia and Bart were again blessed when they welcomed into the world their one and only son, Dylan. Dylan is Nadia’s pride and joy. She has hundreds and hundreds of photos of him in her phone, and will not hesitate to proudly show them to anyone. Sadly, it’s doubtful that Dylan will have any brothers and sisters as Nadia had him at such a late age.

Breaking Into TV

As well as running the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, the pair also have many other business interests that have made them one of the most successful sporting couples in the world. One of their most successful  companies is Nadia’s Perfect 10, which works with major broadcasters such as ESPN and Fox Sports to cover gymnastics events both in the United States and around the world. If you’ve watched a gymnastics competition on television over the last twenty years, there’s a good chance Nadia’s Perfect 10 has been involved with its production.

She Has Lots Of Famous Friends

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As well as being a highly-successful athlete and businesswoman, Nadia has a wealth of famous people she calls friends. As well as being friends with Katie Holmes who directed the film version of Nadia’s early life, Eternal Princess, the Romanian Olympic gold medalist is also friends with the Terminator himself – Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two met at the the gym in Los Angeles where the former gymnast still trains, and posed for photos together which became a big hit on social media.

A Strong Independent Woman

As well as owning and running one of the most successful gymnastics academies in the United States and a successful television production company, Nadia and Bart also run a company selling gymnastics equipment. Her high public profile and her commitment to health and fitness has netted the former Olympic medalist a personal fortune estimated to be worth in excess of $10 million. Not bad for a woman who once walked through the freezing cold countryside of communist Romania in search of a better life!

Perfect Ten Forever

To many, Nadia Comăneci will always be that young girl who stunned the world at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games when she scored a perfect ten that skyrocketed her to international fame. She’s had many trials and tribulations along the way, but she’s now happy, healthy and wealthy with a loving husband and beautiful son. And because of rule changes in her sport, it’s unlikely anyone will ever score a perfect ten again. She will remain for all time the perfect ten woman. You go, Nadia!

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