Nadia Comăneci , Olympic Champion without equal

Nadia Comăneci , Olympic Champion without equal

The Fall and Rise of Nadia Comăneci

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When it comes to Eastern European countries, it seems as though the men and women who live there have a knack for sports - and gymnastics, in particular. But out of all of Eastern Europe's proud athletic heritage, there isn't a more famous gymnast than the one and only Nadia Comăneci from Romania.

The first gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10/10 score in the Olympics, Nadia boasts 5 separate Olympic Gold Medals - but her rise to fame is almost as exciting as her athletic achievements.

Let's take a look at this unique woman's story.

One Energetic Child in Romania

Nadia was in born in Onesti, a Carpathian town in Romania. As a child, she was highly energetic and hyperactive. Her mother subsequently decided to enroll her into a gymnastic class, so she could channel that energy. She also hoped that the class would help use up some of her energy so she would be more tired, but the opposite happened. Nadia became so enthusiastic about her classes that she would use all her time outside of classes running and jumping around to practice for her sport. Her love for gymnastics seemed to give her even more energy!

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Love at First Sight

It is a rare thing when people discover from a young age what they aspire to be for the rest of their life. For Nadia, after her very first lesson, she knew that she was and always would be, a great gymnast.

While at Kindergarten, Nadia fell in love with summersaults, despite them being one of the most difficult routines and requiring an exhausting amount of practice. Of course, this childhood obsession would later blossom into exceptional and award-winning talent.

Spotted By Bela Károlyi

Nadia crossed paths with Bela Károlyi when she very young. She was playing with her friends and showed off her ability by doing cartwheels and other tricks. Coincidently, the renowned Romanian gymnastic coach, Bela Károlyi, just so happened to be passing by at the time. He and his wife were always on the lookout for young, promising talents and even though she was simply playing with her friends, he recognized her talent instantly. He followed up on his intuition and their paths became intertwined.

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An Encouraging Coach

Nadia would train for 3 hours a day with Bela. Luckily, Bela's school was very close to Nadia's house, so there was no real commute. Bela was a very encouraging coach and nurtured her natural talent even when she was struggling. Nadia fell a lot in her first amateur competitions but Bela did not give up on her. They continued to train together and Nadia continued to improve. Soon, she was able to land with grace and ease every time.

If at First You Don't Succeed...

In 1969, Nadia enrolled in her first competition. Despite being only 7 years old, she participated in the Romanian National Junior Championships. She may have placed 13th but was not discouraged by the results. She instead became motivated to train harder than ever and one small year later, she returned to compete again. She may have only been 8 years old, but she blew away the competition and performed an astounding routine. This year, Nadia came in first place.

A Step Up

When Nadia turned 14, she qualified for the senior competitions. In 1975, she won five medals at the European championships and won the American tandem cup. Although this is impressive enough, Nadia was driven and was inspired to reach higher. She was set on entering the 1976 Montreal Olympics. This is the highest arena of competition in the word and to participate was a huge honor. The world waited in anticipation to see how she would fair against the highest competition.

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Bart Conner

In March 1976, Nadia competed in the inaugural edition of the American Cup at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. She naturally performed incredibly and consequently found herself on the way to the podium to collect a silver medal. A photographer at the event cheekily encouraged a blond American boy beside her to lean in for a kiss. The 18-year-old American gymnast agreed and although the photographer was out of line, it's lucky that he did. Bart Conner and Nadia hit it off immediately and their instant connection grew from then on.

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Montreal Summer Olympics 1976

When July 1976 finally came, Nadia geared herself up for her Olympics premiere. By now, she had gained recognition from the international gymnastics community and expectations of her were high. Nadia strongly believed in herself but she was of course naturally anxious right before the games took place. Of course, with her exceptional talent, she did not need to be. Nonetheless, no one, not even Nadia, could have predicted what would happen next. That year at the Montreal Summer Olympics Nadia Comăneci exceeded all expectations and made gymnastic history.

A Perfect Ten

At the Olympic Games, gymnastics are given a score between 1 and 10 by the judges who are critically watching their routines. In fact, the judges are so critical that never before in the history of the Olympics has a gymnast scored a perfect 10.

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When Nadia performed her first routine, however, everybody was taken aback by her flawless execution. The audience cheered like mad and even the highly critical judges were blown away. For the first time in Olympic gymnast history, a perfect 10 was awarded. Astoundingly, she then went on to receive six more perfect 10s during the competition.

Nadia's Theme

After that, the world stood behind Nadia. Her popularity skyrocketed and everyone was talking about her flawless performance at the Olympics.

Sports reporter Robert Riger presented slow-motion montages of Nadia on ABC's Wide World Of Sports with the theme "Cotton's Dream" from the movie Bless the Beasts and the Children. After that, the piece became strongly associated with the gymnast and became known as "Nadia's Theme." It became a top-10 single in the fall of 1976 and the composers decided to officially rename the piece in her honor.

An International Treasure

Nadia's popularity was immense. In 1976, she was named the BBC's "Overseas Sports Personality and the Female Athlete of the Year" and her photo was featured on the cover of Time magazine. In her home country, she was made a national hero and received many gifts from the Romanian government. Then, Nadia was in charge of her destiny and the world was her playground. Unfortunately, her life would soon take an unexpected turn.

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Troubled Waters

From the outside, it appeared that Nadia was living the dream. From the inside though, things were tough. Nadia's parents were in the midst of a messy divorce and the situation was intensified by the fact the whole world was watching. She was also made to stop training with Bela and find a new coach, which was a difficult transition. Being so young and so famous, it is no surprise that the public attention was becoming too much for her.

Severe Depression

Being a teenager is hard enough but Nadia felt undeniably trapped and controlled by the pressure on her and the international media attention. At 15, the government was involved with her life and she felt completely overwhelmed by it all. She spiraled into a depression and attempted to take her own life. Thankfully, her attempt failed and the shocking event made people understand what they were doing to the teen. Romanian officials reassigned Bela to Nadia for training and this helped restore a sense of normality.

Taking a Break

When puberty hit, with the encouragement from the Romanian government, Nadia decided to take a short break from gymnastics. Gymnasts tend to perform better when they are small and a break seemed necessary regardless. When she stopped training, she filled up on nutrients and grew several inches taller and a stone heavier. Later that year, she went back to competing but her new size did not get in the way of her success. She went back to winning medals and remained unbeatable.

Vicious Rumours

Unfortunately, an inevitable aspect of aim is negative press attention, as well as positive. The press relished in making up rumors about successful athletes and one particularly hurtful story spread about Nadia. They claimed that she was having an affair with Nicu, the son of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. This cruel rumor severely damaged her image and many people began to believe that she was using her success to get closer to power. Of course, there was no truth in the tale at all.

Drama at the Olympics

In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Nadia won two gold and two silver medals, but Bela felt that the scoring was unfair. He was furious with the judges, feeling that the drama surrounding the gymnast had affected their decision making. His argument was captured on live TV and his image was consequently damaged too. The Romanian authorities did not want Bela's reaction to reflect badly on them, which meant that when he returned home, a world of trouble was in store for him.

Unfair Competition

Given her success in the previous Olympics, Nadia was the person to beat that year. The Russians were proud and were determined for their gymnasts to win. Consequently, they brought soldiers to the stands and ordered them to heckle the competition. During her performance, they were yelling at Nadia to fall, but Nadia managed to remain cool-headed and shut out the taunts. She amazingly did not fall and went on to win medals despite the odds being unfairly against her.

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Serious Accusations

The drama surrounding the event, including Bela's argument, lead people to fear the Olympics were becoming a political event rather than the neutral one it is supposed to be. To accuse the judges of political bias was consequently a very serious accusation. Nevertheless, Bela stood by his statements and claimed that he had witnessed the Russian judges fixing results for the Russian gymnasts. These severe accusations did not go down well with the Russians or by the Romanian communist regime.


The Romanian government was aware that they could make a lot of money from Nadia's success. In 1981, they organized a tour for her and she performed around the United States. Thanks to her world fame, people were desperate to watch the gymnast in action and "Nadia '81" was a huge success.

The government earned $250,000 from Nadia's efforts, who only received $1,000 in comparison. This was still a lot of money in Romania at the time, but she understandably felt exploited.

Escape to America

After the drama and accusations of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Bela's life was under threat. He was being monitored and followed by the Romanian government, which was a very serious thing. As a result, he decided to defect to the US along with two other members of the "Nadia '81" tour. Bela asked Nadia is she would like to stay in the US too, but she wished to return home to Romania. The pair was subsequently divided against their will once more.

Prisoner of Her Own Country

Even though Nadia decided to stay in Romania, the government stopped trusting her following Bela's defection. To stop her from defecting herself, they banned Nadia from visiting Western countries at all. They also tracked her closely. Government agents followed her around and her phone was tapped and her messages were always checked. If Nadia had felt trapped before, now it was literal. Her life became even more difficult now that the government were keeping an extra close eye on her.

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Nadia's Great Escape

With all the increased government attention, she realized that even though she had wanted to stay in Romania, it was becoming potentially unsafe for her to do so. She consequently got in touch with a man called Constantin Panait, a Romanian national who had managed to escape his country by swimming across the Danube, and eventually ended up in Florida. Panait gave Nadia his word that he would help her escape the country and get her to America safely. Nadia decided that this was her best option.

Secret Plans

Nadia was forced to keep her contact with Constantin a secret. If she told her parents, they would have been against her defecting and tried to prevent ir from happening. The only people she told of her plans were her younger brother and his wife. They agreed that the right thing to do was for Nadia to fight for herself and her right to a better life. Consequently, Nadia and Constain began orchestrating a plan for her escape. Her brother did some research on the escaped Romanian and confirmed that he was legitimate.

Free at Last

In the middle of a particularly cold European winter, Nadia discreetly made her way to the Hungarian border. When she reached it, the border police recognized her instantly. Instead of arresting her though, they brought her a blanket and organized transport which would take her to the Austrian embassy. Then, she made her way to Vienna where she was able to meet with Panait. The two got hold of a pair of one-way flights to New York City.

A Cold Welcome

Although she made it to America safely, she did not receive a warm welcome. Although the world was crazy about her when she was an adorable 15-year-old gymnast sensation, now things were different. She was an adult woman in high heels with a damaged reputation. People were quick to assume that she was having an affair with Constantin, who had a wife. Nadia did not speak English well and when people questioned her about it, she would simply respond with "so what".


Although Nadia was undeniably grateful to Constantin for his crucial part in her escape, she did not realize that he was preventing those trying to reach out to her from succeeding. Nadia's friends in the US, including her former coach Bela Karolyi and her first kiss, Bart Conner, were trying to contact her after they discovered she had escaped. They reached out to Constantine with the expectation that he would pass their message on to Nadia, but he did not.

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A Determined Friend

Luckily, Bart Connor was on her side. He did some research and realized that Nadia had not been in contact with anyone she knew in the States since she arrived there. He found this a little suspicious and decided to contact her directly. He heard through the grapevine that she was doing an interview on the Pat Sajak show and got in touch with the producer. He took a helicopter directly to the studio and planned to meet her on air as a surprised guest, in case he wouldn't have the chance to speak to her in person.

Trapped Again

As it turned out, Nadia was still trapped when she got to America but by a different man. Panait was staying in motels and hotels with Nadia and leeching off her success. She thought that it seemed fair to let Panait manage her after he helped her get away, but he was just another person trying to exploit her. Even though he had acted like a friend, he was actually the person preventing her from having a normal and happy life.

No More Constantin

Thankfully, Nadia had powerful friends. Alexandru Stefu, a gymnastics coach and good friend of the star, arranged a meeting with Nadia and Constantin. With a little promoting, he managed to get the truth out of Nadia, who admitted that Constantin had been mistreating her. Panait ran for the hills after this but stole Nadia's car and money in order to escape from the country.

Still, at last Nadia was properly free. She even confessed that she did not have hard feelings towards the man as it was thanks to him that she was able to escape Romania.

Rescued By Paul Ziert

Although she was free, Nadia was also out of money and in need of shelter. Alexandru Stefu tragically passed away in a snorkeling accident and she was struggling to make ends meet without him. It was Bart Conner's gymnastic coach, Paul Ziert, who took her under his wing. She moved to Normal, Oklahoma, where she was welcomed by Ziert and his family. She hired him as her personal manager and this was also the time that Bart became part of her life again.

Reconnecting With Bart

Ziert helped Nadia reconnect with her old friends. He gave her Bart Conner's phone number and the two began talking over the phone more and more as time went on. Their friendship continued to grow and after a year or so, Conner invited Nadia to help him open and run a school of gymnastics. Nadia was touched by the offer and happily agreed. The pair grew closer and at last, Nadia seemed to have found her small slither of peace.

The Proposal

Back when she was 14, Bart had given Nadia a kiss on the cheek on live television. This time round though, things would get more serious.

In 1994, while in Amsterdam, Bart admitted to Nadia that she was the love of his life and got down on one knee. Obviously, Nadia said yes and the two became engaged. After the fall of the Romanian dictatorship, it was safe to return to Romania and they consequently decided to marry in her home town of Bucharest.


Now that Romania was not a communist country, people hoped that Nadia would return. The new government was far more liberal and they viewed the gymnast as a national hero. In fact, they let her and Bart marry at the House of Parliament. People from all over Romania came to the event to honor Nadia at the televised wedding, which was attended by 10,000 people. People even took the day off so they could make it to the event and once again, Nadia felt at home in her country.

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Making Amends

During the live television broadcast of her wedding, Nadia opened up about her guilt of leaving her country. She declared her love for the Romanian people and clarified that her problems were with the communist government and not with them. The Romanian people returned her love and reminded her that they had not forgotten her accomplishments and patriotism. To this day, Nadia remains one of Romania's most beloved and honored people of the country. The people of Romania loved and respected her as if she were royalty.

Dream Team

Nadia and Bart did open the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, just as they had planned. Thousands of prospective students apply to join every year, all willing to head to Oklahoma for the opportunity to be trained by world class athletes.

The couple do not run the academy themselves, but they tour the world giving talks and training seminars to athletes in the making. Their tour is heavily sponsored and the gymnastic community are all fighting to endorse and commercially represent the duo.

Katie Holmes

Nadia developed a strong friendship with actress Katie Holmes. In 2015, the two were seen laughing and chatting together as if they had known each other a lifetime. Katie directed a short film about Nadia's success in the 1976 Olympics and the pair got on like a house on fire. Katie admired Nadia and wanted to tell her life story to the world so that they could finally understand what she had been though. Nadia was happy to be on board.

The Life of Nadia

Katie Holmes' titled her movie about Nadia Eternal Princess. The movie was not a legendary hit, but it did help Katie to get to know Nadia in a way that few ever have. The two formed a strong professional relationship, and a personal one too. The experience of working together enabled Nadia to open up and share her difficult experiences. Above all, her story is one of the importance of never giving up. Holmes told the story beautifully and many could easily find motivation and inspiration from the film.

Cruel Training

When you are a serious athlete, training can be especially tough. This is even more the case for athletes who start out from a young age. In 1995, Nadia admitted that it was not just the high pressure which was tough. Her coach had beaten her when she was only 11 years old. The world was shocked and Nadia's coach tried to defend himself by claiming that Bela had beaten her too. Both Bela and Nadia denied this to be true.

No Evidence

The case was unsettling and Western journalists dug deeper in order to reveal the truth of what had happened. Unsurprisingly, the Romanian government had confiscated photos of the young Nadia to cover up their tracks. People theorized over what had really happened and concluded that the Romanian government had probably encouraged Nadia's coach to use violence as a means of taking her gymnastics to the next level. They were desperate to regain lost status and were willing to go to great lengths to reclaim it.

Changed But the Same

Bela regretfully admitted that it was not uncommon for things like this to happen in Romania. Even though the dictatorship was dismantled, the secret police were at large and had the power to make you disappear without a trace. As a country, Romania had an enormous desire to succeed in sports and the consequence was that children continued to be heavily pressured. Some of the problems that lead Bela and Nadia to defect still remained unchanged, making their return difficult for them.

Baby Dylan

In 2006, Dylan was born to loving parents, Nadia and Bart. The baby was immensely adored from the start and as a child, he happily spends lots of time with his mum and dad. Nadia describes him as the center of her world and the couple love showing pictures of him to everyone. Many people wonder whether Dylan will shape up to be a superstar athlete too, but he will have the support of his parents whatever path he chooses.


Nowadays, Nadia and Bart are focused on their business, which has expanded greatly since its early days. On top of their gymnastics school, they also sell gymnastics equipment and merchandise. From crash pads to bars, whatever you need when it comes to gymnastics equipment, the couple sell. The products are top quality and are certainly on the higher end of the niche. Professionals are all scrambling to get their hands on the equipment which comes from the astounding athletes turned entrepreneurs.

Training With Arnold

Nadia and Katie Holmes might have been great friends, but Katie was not her only friend in Hollywood. Nadia and Bart currently live in LA among the stars and she even shares a gym with legendary actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator star was actually the one who approached her and confessed that he was a big fan. He then asked her if she would be his personal trainer for the day and gave her glowing praise on his social media channels.

Perfect 10 Productions

Given that she embarked on her gymnastic journey at a young age, it is unsurprising that Nadia eventually decided that she wanted to help other young gymnasts to follow their own dreams. She created the Perfect 10 Productions company and takes on the responsibility of bringing the major gymnastic events to the public. She regularly works with big names like ESPN and Fox to make sure that gymnastic events are broadcasted and that gymnasts are given their own chance to shine.

A Cool $$10 Million

Nadia has had a long and prosperous career and she is now worth around $10 million dollars. Alongside Bart, she worked hard to build a successful business spanning from an academy and equipment sales to her own production company. Nadia's life has not been simple and now she is finally able to live in peace and enjoy what she has earned for herself. She certainly deserves her success and where she is now reinforces the message once more that you must never give up, no matter how bleak things seem.

Winning Attitude

When it comes to Nadia and her enormous success, people relate this success to her talent. Nadia is quick to deny this notion and instead credits her strong mentality which enabled her to keep pushing for the top. It was her desire to win and hatred of losing which motivated her to train as hard as she could. Although this attitude is admirable, there is no doubt that an element of talent is required to receive a series of perfect 10s in the Olympics.

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When Nadia received her first perfect ten, she was declared unbeatable. Now, people still expect that someone will overtake her. Combined with Nadia's incomparable talent, some rule changes in scoring makes it practically impossible for anyone to ever receive a perfect 10. It could consequently be the case that Nadia's series of perfect scores will remain the high point of Olympics history forever. Still, if we had to put money on someone to beat her, we'd have to go with her own son, Dylan.

Nadia's Influence

Nadia is praised for her ability to create new elements (another word for "moves" in gymnastics). In fact, experts continue to study videos of her routines in the hope that new competitors will be able to imitate some of her innovative moves. Nadia's influence in the sport is consequently incomparably vast. She has shaped the sport itself for young gymnastics to follow in her footsteps. Still, young athletes might be influenced by her, but they will probably never beat her.

Gymnast Lifestyle

Nadia is not an athlete who looked forward to retirement so she could finally let herself go. Nadia's love of the sport is so extreme that it has become a lifestyle rather than a career. She follows a strict diet and avoids all processed foods. Her health takes top priority and she once said in an interview that she hasn't touched French fries in over 25 years. Sure, scoring a perfect 10 at the Olympics is impressive, but never eating French fries? Now that is dedication.

High Intensity

Even now, Nadia works out every day, at least once. She claims that exercise helps her to focus on tasks and keeps her mind active. She prefers high-intensity workouts which tend to last around 30 minutes, as opposed to her previous 8 hours a day. These workouts must be intense because at the age of 56, she is in better shape than many people in their 20s. It is this high intensity attitude that helped her on her way to becoming a successful business woman as well.

A Dish From Home

You might be wondering what Nadia eats to maintain such enviable good health. Her favorite dish is called Salta de Vinete, which is a special, healthy dish that originates from her home country, Romania. The dish is a mix of roasted eggplants and onions with a healthy dose of spices. The salad gives her all the nutrients she needs and also gives her a taste of the country she once called home. Nadia prepares it for Bart and Dylan occasionally too.

Returning to Where it All Began

In 2017, Montreal hosted the gymnastics world championships and Nadia was asked to be a spokesperson for the event. Nadia accepted the invitation and returned to the city where she had made history with her run of perfect 10s over forty years earlier. The gesture was certainly symbolic and the fact that Nadia returned to the place she had become a superstar when she was young is quite touching. There is no doubt that if that same little girl that performed then, could see where she would be now, she would be immensely proud.


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