Romania is this little country somewhere in Europe for a lot of people. If they’d try hard enough, they might be able to find it on the map. But most people, although they don’t know much about Romania, know a little about the people that made it famous. And when you’re a Romanian, traveling across countries and oceans, hearing a familiar name of a popular figure whose image you grew up with, it really makes you feel at home.
In my recent travels, the name that had that effect on me was Nadia Comaneci.
Yes, practically everyone has heard of this wonderful gymnast that turned the whole world into her fans. Everyone is impressed by her performance even if they aren’t gymnastics fans to begin with.
And what’s not to love? The girl whose name was chosen by her mother while watching a movie actually managed to bring down a computerized display system when she was given a 10 for her performance. This happen because no one expected a gymnast to attain momentarily perfection, so the computer was never programmed to display this mark. So it displayed a 1 instead. All this happened in Montreal, at the 1976 Summer Olympics.
But this is only one of her many unique achievements. Nadia Comaneci was the first Romanian gymnast to win the all-around title at the Olympics. She also holds the record as the youngest Olympic gymnastics all-around champion ever. Throughout her career, she won 16 gold medals in international competitions, including the Olympics. No wonder every girl wanted to be just like her as I was growing up!
No matter how much of a star she was, the communist era did not fail to taint her life. As her coaches defected while they were away at a competition in the US, Nadia was closely monitored throughout the rest of her career. Although she never defected while competing, she did manage to get to the US shortly before the Revolution in 1989.
Although she faced enormous difficulties in the US, mostly caused by her fashion-wise attitude and a circle of personae non gratae, she managed to build a new career as a coach at the gym she later opened with her husband, Bart Conner, whom she had met for the first time in 1976 at the American Cup. She keeps visiting Romania, her mother country which she loved enough to be married there.
Apart from a marvelous career and from being an ongoing inspiration for all girls wanting to become gymnasts, she is also involved in many charitable activities, both in the US and in Romania.
In 1999, she became the first athlete to be invited to speak at the United Nations to launch the Year 2000 International Year of Volunteers. She is also the Vice-Chair of the Board Of Directors of the International Special Olympics and Vice President of the Board of Directors of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
In Romania she has funded the construction and operation of the Nadia Comaneci Children’s Clinic, a clinic in Bucharest that provides low-cost and free medical and social support to Romanian children. She is still a vivid role model to us all.