The Story of Nadia Comaneci, Gymnastics’ Perfect 10 Icon | Legends Live On

The Story of Nadia Comaneci, Gymnastics’ Perfect 10 Icon | Legends Live On

October 7, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


It’s been 40 years
since the perfect 10. The first time in the history
of the sport, a perfect 10. You’re just in awe, you want to
replicate the exact same thing but it is very difficult
and that’s why she’s the only one
that has gotten it. You have to give Nadia a
tremendous amount of the credit for the boom
of American female gymnastics. It was heroic, what she did, and the risks that she took. By the time when I got
to defect, I think that was the only time
in my adult life when I had no fear. (LEGENDS LIVE ON:
NADIA COMĂNECI) I don’t think that kids
have any fear. I used to climb trees a lot and I was going to the highest
tree and everybody around me was, “You can’t go there
because you may fall,” and I wanted to go there
because I just felt that it was exciting, and when I entered the gym
for the first time in my life, I thought this is the place where I could do things
that makes me feel good. Béla Károlyi and Márta were my
coaches at the Olympics. I’ve worked with them
since I remember, when I was six, seven years old and I always say that
my success happened because Béla and Márta
were coaching at that particular time and it was just a happy
triangle that connected us. I went out in the kindergarten
elementary school to recruit young athletes
for my gymnastic group. “Hey, who can do a cartwheel?” Two little girls from behind,
way behind in the class, “Yeah, we do, like to see it?” These are the ones.
I said, “Tell your mummy “we want to talk to you
about gymnastics, “to being involved
in the gymnastic programme.” “Yes, yes, we are going
to be there, OK, OK.” And that was the first time
I see Nadia. Physically she was very gifted
of strength, agility, endurance and not quite that much
flexibility, which we had to work constant
on that one, to make the skills
with big amplitude. The way she responded,
the way I said, “10 push-ups,” she made 15 push-ups. I said, “Where is this strength
coming from, honey? “I made that 10.” “Yeah, but I want to do
better,” up, up, up. Unbelievable. I said, “Yes,
now that’s the type of kid, “the one I dream to have.” (NORMAN, OKLAHOMA) Hello. Hi, guys. Can we stick our nose in here
and see how you guys are doing? Not a week goes by where some
woman doesn’t corner me somewhere and say, “I need to
tell you something, “your wife was my biggest
inspiration.” I meet people everywhere who
want to say something about where they were
when Nadia got her 10 and what it meant to them. She’s become sport royalty, this icon quality about her
that you can’t deny. She is an icon of the sport, she transformed the sport
in the United States by creating
so much interest in it. And I remember one time I met
First Lady Michelle Obama, and Nadia and I were standing
there talking to her and she said, “Nadia, do you
know what you did for me?” She said, “When I saw
you do what you do, “it made me feel like I could
do anything, too, “if I just worked hard enough.” When I left Romania
at the airport and I was together with the
entire team that competed the Olympics
in 1976, I remember I said
to a journalist that I hope to win a medal and
if it’s possible to be gold. (MONTREAL 1976: WOMEN’S VAULT) (MONTREAL 1976:
WOMEN’S FLOOR EXERCISES) (MONTREAL 1976: UNEVEN BARS) My routine on the uneven bars, the first routine actually that
I got the 10, was a compulsory routine. In the time when I was
competing we had to do compulsory also, which is the same routine
at each event, which is basically sounds kind
of boring. But I think that my routine
was a little bit different, even though they were exactly
the same, I did something
that I call the Nadia Touch, which is every little skill
that I had to do, I add a little more amplitude,
I made it bigger. Usually I don’t watch the
scoreboard because I’m able to
give myself a score on the basis
of how I felt I did. So I landed and I thought
I did a good routine. I didn’t even think about 10. I was hoping that I was going
to get 9.9 or something close to that… ..and just because I heard
the big noise in the arena, I turn around
and I see the scoreboard, 1.00, which is very confusing
to everybody. Prior to that Olympic Games, Omega, which was
the official timer, had said to the International
Gymnastics Federation, “Is there any reason why we
have to be prepared to put a 10 “on our scoreboards?” And the people
at the Federation said, “No, nobody’s ever going to
get a 10 in our sport”. So the only score
they could put up to even approximate that
was 1.00. The reaction of the crowd
was incredible. The announcer was saying, “Ladies and gentlemen,
the first time in the history “of the sport, a perfect 10.” Nobody expected that from us, nobody really wanted to pretend that we are expecting
the perfect 10 – but then, they came out from
seven judges, a perfect 10. I said, “Yes, that’s great.” Next event, on the beam. Balance beam is probably one of
the most difficult events in gymnastics,
because it’s very, very narrow and you cannot hide a
mistake… ..but it was also my favourite
event for some reason, I’m not sure why. (MONTREAL 1976: BALANCE BEAM) Beautiful performance,
back and forth, back and forth,
back and forth on the beam. Solid like a rock and with her
superior attitude, you know. She was already displaying
this proud attitude. When I saw the score of the
balance beam, I knew there was a 10. All my 10s were uneven bars,
balance beam, uneven bars, balance beam,
so I felt like going back and forth during four days
of competition. Later on when six more times
came out the perfect 10, we started to get used to it. “Yeah, there it is again,
that’s only 10.” A perfect 10 became absolute
perfection. I don’t remember prior to Nadia anybody saying perfection
was a 10. In our execution
you can get a 10 but I don’t think the
judges want to give it out. As close as you get,
they’re just like, “No, maybe this was wrong,” so it is very difficult – but she did impact the whole
entire sport of gymnastics, so everyone still strives
to do that. Actually I didn’t know there
was no 10, I didn’t know I was
the first one to do that. I knew I was good, but I didn’t
know I was that good. If you are able to put your
best routine at the right time, I think that’s the definition
of a champion. After so many, many, many hours
of training, you kind of know what has to go
through your mind when you’re up there and you
know this is the competition that everybody
wants to be at, and you know that you have this
chance only every four years, there is no redo. It was just like everything
was lining up for me at that particular time. I think that I was in a great
shape at the right time. When we landed in Bucharest,
when I saw so many people, I think there were 10,000
people at the airport, I went back in the plane
because I didn’t understand why are so many people
at the airport. So I didn’t understand
the magnitude of the Olympics. I mean, I knew
what the Olympics were, but I didn’t understand that… Did everybody have time
to watch it? Thousands and thousands of
people were at the airport waiting for us
and I could not believe it. I absolutely could not
believe it – and I seen that there was,
like, one of the major speeches or Ceausescu
did not have that many people. Gymnast, Nadia Comăneci. I met Ceausescu
one time after my Olympics because we did a big
celebration of the Olympics and they awarded us. I mean, it’s an honour, I am too young to understand
what’s going on. For everybody it is an honour to be honoured by the president
of the country. These are some of the photos
with the presidents, Bill Clinton, George Bush. We went to a few functions and also at the White House
for special Olympics. This is a golden disc
that I received after the Olympics in ’76. This music was used in Romania
after the Olympics when a television crew
came to do a piece on me, and they were looking
for a music that would fit the slow motion
of my balance beam routine, and they picked this music which had a different
name before. Now it’s called Nadia’s Theme – and because that show
became very popular, Barry De Vorzon, who wrote
this, has changed the name from the original
to Nadia’s Theme. (OLYMPIC GAMES MOSCOW 1980) Pressure? No, I had no pressure
when I was 14 and a half, but I did have some when I was
18 and I competed in Moscow. I wanted to be the best, because I knew
I can be the best. When I was 14 and a half
and I competed in ’76, I was just a child that nobody
knew pretty much what I’m coming from
or where Romania is on the map. They learned that
after the Olympics in ’76. Going to the Olympics in 1980
I was a grown-up, I was an 18-year-old and I made a mistake at the
preliminary on the uneven bars, which was my best event. I already knew that I was going
to go down because I rushed it, I had to wait a little more
and I didn’t and then that’s what happened. It was a learning experience
for me, the 1980 Olympics. I ended up with two gold
and two silver, I mean, that’s pretty good. Yeah, I could have done better
but it was still pretty good. So I put it in a bag
of experiences. Actually I knew that the 1980
would be basically my last
Olympic Games, I didn’t see myself being
around for 1984. I think that I accomplished
what I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t even know what I was
going to do when I was done
with gymnastics. I think my idea
was to become a doctor. Well, this is something
that’s very interesting, is the entire
gymnastic archive. Starting from 1956, everything that’s happened
in gymnastics all the way to today is here. I believe that this
is the biggest in the world, nobody has anything
close to this. This is the one from when I was
still performing in the ’90s. It’s good to have them, I mean, you can see that some
of them have a yellowish colour because it goes back
to the ’50s and it’s awesome. I think as the time goes,
I value more my accomplishments because I didn’t realise
when I was that young that this was such a big deal. We have a gymnastic school, actually the gymnastic school
has been here before I even arrived. It’s about almost 1,500 kids
who do gymnastics and probably 30 coaches
or more. Look at that, pretty darn good.
Straighten your legs. It’s kind of funny because
Nadia’s so much more famous globally than I am
that people just assume why isn’t it the Nadia Comăneci
Gymnastic School? And maybe we’d be better off
if it was but, you know, we already had
a thriving business as it was the Bart Conner
Academy, so. We’ve already had at least
40 athletes from our programme here get full scholarships at
major universities, from Stanford to Syracuse
and a lot of places in between. Hi, Karen. These are the grips that we
make in the back that I told you about, for little, tiny little kids
all the way to bigger ones. And here are some of the
costumes for the show and over there are all the
fabrics for all the leotards that Karen is making for us now because gymnasts
need new leotards and colourful leotards
and something like that. That’s a new pattern
I’m working on. I see, yeah, I like it. Yeah, that’s nice,
the combination. I can see it over there, yeah. So all the fabrics
and all the sewing and… Cool stuff. I don’t know what people think
about communism. I found out that I’m watched. Everybody carried the burden
of the communist system. With the difficulty of making
progress, to step forward, to be recognised and to be
compensated for your effort. People at that time did not
even talk about uprising, asking for their rights,
asking for their recognition. They just make you disappear
like you’ve never been around. We were in a gymnastic tour
in 1981 and my coach and his wife
decided not to come back and they stayed
in the United States. What I didn’t like was what
happened after Béla left. I’ve heard that I’ve got
a lot of invitations to go, to travel to places
and I was not allowed to. So I understood that this will
probably be the end of my travelling,
you know, life. I didn’t think that was fair,
so I thought this is enough. I have an opportunity
to do something and I’m going to do it. She had very little access
to information about what was going on
in the world outside. It was a tremendous leap of
faith that she took when she left Romania. By the time when I got
to defect, I think that was the
only time in my adult life when I had no fear, and I think
I had to be a little crazy and a little bit insane to do something
that’s basically dangerous. Go, you know, in the middle
of the night and maybe risking your life. It was like doing something
in a movie, not thinking
about what can happen. I think that we were lucky
that we made it, that we didn’t get shot
and everything else. I don’t think about that right
now because it’s just, we made it all the way but sometimes I’m like,
wow, you know, yeah, it was a big deal. She thought she was going
to stay in Hungary for a while but they wanted her out of the
old Soviet Bloc completely and so she went to Austria and then asked for asylum
in the United States. I had known Nadia and we
had become acquaintances, but nothing
really more than that – and she’s an important symbol
for our sport, and then we saw
that she left Romania and then she was in Hungary
and I thought, well, maybe
she’s going to stay there. Then the next day I see
that she left Hungary and went to Austria and asked for political refugee
status in the United States, because she showed up
at the US embassy in Vienna and said,
“I want to go to America” – and within hours they
had her on a plane to the United States. So now she calls Bart,
who was one of the few people she really knows in the United
States, and Bart said, “Well, come on to Oklahoma
and we’ll sort this all out.” I was like a lot of gymnastic
friends and fans of hers who wanted to offer
a helping hand. Well, I knew Bart from the time
when I was competing. I knew him as a gymnast… ..but I reconnected with Bart
and his coach at the time, and our manager now,
Paul Ziert, and they were involved
with gymnastics. They had all these facilities, they were still doing
gymnastic shows and that’s how I reconnected. I was doing gymnastics
exhibitions for years after I finished competing. When Nadia came to the US, along with my business partner,
Paul Ziert, he said, “Hey, give her a call, “see if she wants to do some
gymnastic shows.” So I called her up and she
said, “No, I don’t think so, “I haven’t done gymnastics in
years, I don’t want to do it,” and I kind of finally talked
her into it and we did one or two shows
together and she started enjoying it and we started building
our friendship from there. When I first met Nadia,
it was kind of a funny story. We actually met in Madison
Square Garden in March of 1976 and I remember it distinctly because it happened to be
my birthday and it was a meet
called the American Cup. It was a very important
international invitational, top athletes
from all around the world, and she and I won the final
competition on the final day together and we stood side by side
on the awards podium and we held up these big silver
American cup trophies that we won –
and I’ll never forget it because a photographer saw us
together and he said, “Get a little closer together,
maybe give her a little kiss “on the cheek, it will make
a nice picture”, whatever. So I gave her a little kiss
on the cheek. We were laughing at that time because both of them were so
lovely, so cute. We were always joking, “You guys, you would make
a great couple”. “Oh, no, no,
what are you talking about?” Youth is innocence,
it was so lovely seeing them. Bart Conner is one of the
nicest people on earth, so she could not have wound up
with a nicer person. Well, I think the fact that we
are gymnasts connected us. We think alike and different which makes our connection
much more interesting. Well, this is the office
that I’m not supposed to go in, but Dylan, this is the office
of our son, Dylan. He is 10 years old
and he is a toy collector. Everything is in here. Every little thing from roller
blades, roller skates to candy machines to Pac-Man to anything you name, guns, Star Wars stuff, oh, and a photo of me. The important thing that we do
right now is parenting. All our work that we do to be
sure that our 10-year-old has a great education
and nice environment and he’s happy. One time he came
from kindergarten, he was four and a half. “Mom, Dad,
do you know you’re famous?” We didn’t tell, you know,
we went to the Olympics, we did this and this
and this and this. He goes right. I like the feeling of
connecting with kids because I know how bad
they want to do something and I know how difficult it is
to do a lot of things still. I like to see a happy face. I love to go back to Romania, actually I go back
six times a year. We created a clinic for
underserved kids, a hospital… ..where parents who can’t
afford to treat their kids when they are sick,
they come there. It’s not only kids,
it’s also elderly. I am happy that I could help. Every sport says you should
compete like Nadia, you should be the best. Nadia’s name is coming up
everywhere, on every corner, on every mouth and everyone who loves
the sport first of all thinks about Nadia because she’s representing
the best among the very best. You have to give Nadia, just
who Nadia is and what she did and what she represented, a tremendous amount
of the indirect credit for the boom
of American female gymnastics. Growing up you always heard
about the perfect 10 from Nadia, so you see the
video and you’re just in awe. You want to replicate this
exact same thing that she did and hopefully one day get a 10,
but it is very difficult and that’s why she’s the only
one that has gotten it. The United States has been the
dominant country in the world in women’s gymnastics
since 1984 and who would have ever
thought that? We have pretty much dominated
over the years. We look up to her so much
because of what she did and she strived us
to be the best that we can be. Gymnastics was a way for me
to live a different life. It defined my life in a way
that I couldn’t even think what I would have done
if I didn’t do gymnastics. When I started,
I went in to play in a gym just because it was cool
to do flips and just because I could do
things that my mom wouldn’t let me do at home. So out of just finding a place
to spend my energy, I ended up going to
two Olympic Games and scoring the first
perfect 10. That was not
in the script for me. I don’t know
what I would have said if somebody would say to me, “You know that if you go to the
gym and start to do this sport, “you know, maybe you will be
able to make history.” I’m like, what does he mean? So it just, it just happened. I just enjoy what I do
right now and be happy that my family
is OK and be happy that I am able
to travel and represent gymnastics. Because every time
I go somewhere and I meet with people
and we talk about things, I think my name
connects with the sport, you know, Nadia,
gymnastics and Romania. (AFTER THE ROMANIAN REVOLUTION
AND FALL OF CEAUSESCU, NADIA WAS ABLE TO RETURN TO ROMANIA
AND REUNITE WITH HER FAMILY) (NADIA COMANECI WAS THE FIRST EVER
GYMNASTS IN OLYMPIC HISTORY TO RECEIVE A PERFECT 10) (NADIA TIRELESSLY CONTINUES TO
WORK WITH YOUNG PEOPLE TO ENSURE ACCESS TO HEALTH CARE
AND SPORTS COACHING IN ROMANIA AND THE USA)