The Ups and Downs of Gymnastics Darling Nadia Comaneci

Photo: Wikipedia

Anyone who grew up in the 1970s probably remembers Nadia Comaneci, a diminutive Romanian gymnast who wowed the world at the Montreal summer Olympics in 1976 when she became the first gymnast to ever be awarded a perfect score of 10.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

She was, after the fame and popularity of that proud moment, credited for starting the coaching career of Bela Karolyi and popularizing the sport around the world.

The rest of the story is not so happy, however. More of us may remember (if vaguely) a terrible and sad series of scandals, tabloid headlines, and lawsuits.

Not all of us know how her story has turned out. After all the highs and lows and ups and downs, where is Nadia now? How is she doing? Read on to find out!

The Glory Years of the Olympics

Nadia’s mother enrolled her in gymnastics as a child because she was full of energy. She was noticed early by two up and coming coaches: Marta and Bela Karolyi, who were starting an experimental gymnastics school in the Soviet-controlled Romanian state and began attending in 1968. By 1971 she was the youngest gymnast to ever win the Romanian National competition.

Photo: Wikipedia

As we all know, in 1976, she wowed the world in Montreal with the first perfect 10 in gymnastics: a feat she repeated six more times over the course of the games. She was a phenom, and the world loved her graceful gymnastics, youthful energy and bright smile. Her world, however, was about to change.

Return to Romania and the Repressive Regime of Ceausescu

Back in Romania, Comaneci became a pawn of the dictatorial regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, who removed her from the Karolyis, her family, and her friends and sent her to train elsewhere. She was unhappy and put on weight. She fell from the uneven bars and was injured.

Photo: Wikipedia

Eventually, she was allowed to return to working with the Karolyis and was informed that she would tour the U.S. on a propaganda tour called “Nadia ’81.” She would tour the country on a bus with U.S. gymnasts, including U.S. gymnast Bart Conner, and the group would perform exhibitions.

On this tour, however, her coaches defected from Romania to the U.S. on the last day. This meant that when Comaneci returned home, her life was more strictly controlled than ever.

Constantin Panait and Nadia’s Defection

In 1989, Comaneci had enough of a miserable life in Romania and decided to escape. She had met a man, Constantin Panait, at a party, who said he could help. One night in November, he did, leading her and six other Romanians on foot to escape out of Romania.

Photo: Twitter/ @jamesjonesesq

When Comaneci arrived in the U.S., she thought she was going to live with Panait’s wife and children. The U.S. press thought he was her boyfriend. So when the press asked if she knew he had a wife, she famously said, “Yes, so what?” and a scandal ensued. This scandal made it very hard for her to leverage her fame to find work. Her limited English didn’t help either.

What didn’t help was that Panait took advantage of her limited English to control her business contacts and keep old friends and people who wanted to help from contacting her. Both gymnast Bart Conner and her old coach Bela Karolyi wanted to contact her and help, but Panait kept them away.

The Pat Sajak Show

Bart Conner was very worried about the bubbly, attractive young gymnast he had known but could not now contact. So when he heard that she was scheduled to make a television appearance, he wrangled an invite to the show as well. He did speak to Nadia and gave her his phone number in case she ever needed help, which turned out to be an important moment.

Help From Another Old Friend

The next part of the story is a bit murky. Comaneci’s friends are very clear that they believe that Panait, in the role of Comaneci’s “business manager,” hurt her financially, and they believe, physically and perhaps even sexually. The relationship, most all believe, was abusive.

Photo: Twitter/ @CDCHistory

What does seem clear is that in 1990, under the pretense of a job for Comaneci in Montreal, Bela Karolyi and another Romanian friend, Alexandru Stefu, invited Comaneci and Panait to Montreal to stay. When Comaneci left Stefu’s house to meet with the director of the Olympic stadium, Stefu had a talk with Panait. When Comaneci returned, he was gone, and she never saw him again. In her memoir, she says that he didn’t explain and she never heard from him again, after all those years under his control.

What did Stefu say? We don’t know. But Nadia was free.

A Wedding in Bucharest and Happily Ever After

Comaneci lived and worked happily in Montreal for about a year. During that time, Stefu threw her a surprise birthday party and invited Bart Conner. They started talking and renewed their friendship. They remained friends for several years, and after Stefu died in an accident, Comaneci moved to Oklahoma to work at Conner’s gymnastics school. Somewhere along the way, they became more than friends.

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Conner and Comaneci were married in 1996 in Bucharest, Romania. It was televised live nationally throughout the country, and their reception was held at the presidential palace. They now have a son named Dylan.

Today, Comaneci and Conner are still married and both work happily and successfully in the world of gymnastics. They own the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, the Perfect 10 Production Company and several sports equipment shops. They also are the editors of International Gymnast Magazine.