There are athletes who are great. And then there are those who redefine a sport as we know it.
In the summer of 1976, scoreboard manufacturers Omega were told that four digits would not be necessary at artistic gymnastics because a score of 10.00 was impossible. Then came Nadia Comăneci. On 18 July that year, at the Montreal Olympics, the 14-year-old Romanian schoolgirl turned the course of the sport with one routine on the uneven bars, which delightfully combined athletic explosion, fluidity and technique. So mesmerizingly flawless was her performance that the judges were forced to give her a 10.00. The ill-equipped scoreboard flashed a meek 1.00 before the announcer explained to the world what had just happened: the first perfect 10 in gymnastics.
The small, lithe, pony-tailed Comăneci bouncing off the uneven bars is an image immortalized in history.
Comăneci, now 55, is still fit, and admittedly still competitive, as she sits across me in the conference room of a luxury hotel in Mumbai, on the sidelines of the Times of India Sports Award. She is wearing a white business suit and the unmistakeable aura of a champion. Friendly, engaging, and with the same passion that took her to the top of her sport.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s been so long...41 years,” she says in a lingering East European accent. She defected to the US in 1989 and is married to fellow American gymnast Bart Conner, with whom she runs a gymnastics school in Norman, Oklahoma.
“But I can remember it, I don’t have to go back and watch the videos.”
“I didn’t compete to obtain perfection,” says Comăneci. “It was not my goal to make history because I didn’t know; nobody told me that no one had scored a 10 before me. I am glad I was young and didn’t understand many things at the time. I had no bags of pressure. I was 14, I was a child but, at the time I didn’t realize it, in my mind I thought I was an adult.”
She certainly performed with poise much beyond her years. Comăneci, then standing 4ft, 11 inches tall and weighing a mere 40kg, went on to claim six more perfect 10s and three gold medals (as well as a silver and a bronze) at the Montreal Olympics. But Comăneci came from Communist Romania, still obscure behind the Iron Curtain, and Western media frowned at her seemingly mechanical precision. In July 1984, while recapping her incredible show at Montreal, The New York Times described her thus: “Here was an example of a dour, cheerless child driven to icy perfection by a totalitarian state.”
“I don’t know why that became a thing,” says Comăneci. “Every person is different. I consider that my game is not like that (she flashes a big, fake smile and frames her face in jazz hands). I think about concentrating (on the routine) and enjoy after. Some people jump when they are winning. I am on my bench, taking care of my stuff. You cannot change anyone’s personality.”
Comăneci was born in Onesti, Romania, when the country was under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. “But as a child that’s all you know,” says Comăneci, of growing up in a repressive regime.
“You are with your parents, with your friends. You go to school, to the gym. I go to the movies, I go to the park. It was fine. My gymnastics was my ticket to go outside, travel abroad. As a kid you look for different things, like pink socks and yellow socks as opposed to only white socks that we had. Bubble gum! That’s what a 10- or 12-year-old wants. I was not interested in how other people lived, compared to how we were. As an adult, I realized that being in a Communist country, you don’t have that much freedom. I went to the US (in 1989), because back then I think life got very difficult for every Romanian at some point.”
Gymnastics gave her the freedom to be herself. A restless child, Comăneci was sent for gymnastics by her frustrated mother, who was tired of her “breaking furniture in the house”.
“I loved to go to the gym every day because I could do things that my mother wouldn’t let me do in the house. I liked it because I learnt things. I used to go in my front yard and do cartwheels and back flips and kids were like, ‘Cool! Can you teach me that?’ So you feel special because you can do something that not too many kids can.”
Coach Béla Károlyi, who was also the national head coach in 1976, was quick to spot the spark in Comăneci. And the uneven bars was where she shone.
“It was always my favourite apparatus,” says Comăneci, who contributed two moves on the bars, “Comăneci Salto” and “Comăneci Dismount”, to the sport. “It was like what the vault is for Dipa (Karmakar, the Indian gymnast who finished fourth at the Rio Olympics). That was my place to try something, to be courageous and gutsy.”
She created her pièce de résistance in 1976. But what happens when you achieve the peak of your working life at the age of 14?
“You can go down very easily,” she smiles. “It takes a lot of work to be able to stay there. A lot more work to be able to improve, even to maintain it takes a lot of dedication. You try to do little improvements and try to be a little better every day. At the time everybody expects you to be perfect. So in everybody’s head, you can’t make mistakes, you can’t fall. Anything that’s less than first is not good.”
For all her superhuman skills, Comăneci had to undergo the mandatory process of re-adjusting her routines after a growth spurt—kryptonite for most gymnasts—in 1978. She put in extra effort on the training mat and claimed two gold and two silver medals at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
“It changes a lot and you have to re-adapt because your body is longer. A little slower. When I went for my second Olympics, I was 18, and I was an Olympic champion. There was a different kind of pressure competing as an adult,” she recalls.
It took hundreds and thousands of repetitions to master the dangerous flying moves on the bar. She didn’t shy away from hard work. “Do you know any other way to be successful?” she asks. “I don’t.”
“I don’t complain about working hard. This satisfaction of, let’s say, learning a back-hand spring was so great that it didn’t matter that I was staying the night in the gym to learn that. I wanted to compete and challenge myself and I was mad when I wasn’t doing it right. So I was always there for the right reasons: I wanted to do something that made me feel better.”
She has carried that code of discipline, instilled in her by her sport, through life. She is now a wife, a mother, a teacher, a businesswoman, a philanthropist, an icon of the sport, and strives to play each role with... “not perfection”. She smiles: “I am still a competitive person and like to be ahead of the curve. But I don’t go for a perfect 10 in everything I do; I have already done it in one.”