Nadia Elena Comăneci is a Romanian gymnast, winner of three Olympic gold medals at the 1976 Summer Olympics, and the first gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastic event. She is also the winner of two gold medals at the 1980 Summer Olympics. She is one of the best-known gymnasts in the world . In 2000 Comăneci was named as one of the athletes of the century by the Laureus World Sports Academy.
Comăneci was born in Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (now Oneşti), Romania, as the daughter of Gheorghe and Ştefania-Alexandrina. Her pregnant mother was watching a Russian film in which the heroine’s name was Nadya, the diminutive version of the Russian name Nadezhda (which means “Hope”). She decided that her daughter would be named Nadia, too. Comăneci also has a younger brother named Adrian.
Early gymnastics career
Nadia began gymnastics in kindergarten with a local team called “Flacăra”, with coaches Duncan and Munteanu.At age 6 she was chosen to attend Béla Károlyi’s experimental gymnastics school after Karolyi spotted her and a friend turning cartwheels in a schoolyard.
Nadia was training with the Károlyis by the time she was 7 years old, in 1968. She was one of the first students at the gymnastics school established in Oneşti by Béla and his wife, Marta, who would later defect to the United States and become coaches of many prominent American gymnasts. Unlike many of the other students at the Károlyi school, Comăneci was able to commute from home for many years because she lived in the area.
Nadia placed 13th in her first Romanian National Championships in 1969. A year later, in 1970, she began competing as a member of her hometown team and became the youngest gymnast ever to win the Romanian Nationals. In 1971, she participated in her first international competition, a dual junior meet between Romania and Yugoslavia, winning her first all-around title and contributing to the team gold. For the next few years, she competed as a junior in numerous national contests in Romania and additional dual meets with nearby countries such as Hungary, Italy and Poland. At the age of 11, in 1973, she won the all-around gold, as well as the vault and uneven bars titles, at the Junior Friendship Tournament (Druzhba), an important meet for junior gymnasts.
Nadia first major international success came at the age of 13, when she nearly swept the 1975 European Championships in Skien, Norway, winning the all-around and gold medals on every event but the floor exercise, in which she placed second. She continued to enjoy success in other meets in 1975, winning the all-around at the “Champions All” competition and placing first in the all-around, vault, beam, and bars at the Romanian National Championships. In the Pre-Olympic test event in Montreal, Comăneci won the all-around and the balance beam golds, as well as silvers in the vault, floor, and bars behind accomplished Soviet gymnast Nellie Kim, who would prove to be one of her greatest rivals over the next five years.
In March 1976, Comăneci competed in the inaugural edition of the American Cup at Madison Square Garden in New York. She received unprecedented scores of 10.0, which signified a perfect routine without any deductions, on vault in both the preliminary and final rounds of competition and won the all-around. Comăneci also received 10s in other meets in 1976, including the prestigious Chunichi Cup competition in Japan, where she posted perfect marks on the vault and uneven bars.
The international community took note of Comăneci: she was named the United Press International’s “Female Athlete of the Year” for 1975.
At the age of 14, Comăneci became one of the stars of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. During the team portion of the competition, her routine on the uneven bars was scored at a 10.0. It was the first time in modern Olympic gymnastics history that the score had ever been awarded. The scoreboards were not even equipped to display scores of 10.0—so Nadia’s perfect marks were reported on the boards as 1.00 instead. Over the course of the Olympics, Comăneci would earn six additional 10s, en route to capturing the all-around, beam, and bars titles and a bronze medal on the floor exercise. The Romanian team also placed second in the team competition.
Comăneci 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; with the revised age-eligibility requirements in the sport (gymnasts must now turn 16 in the calendar year to compete in the Olympics; in 1976 gymnasts had to be 14 by the first day of the competition), it is currently not possible to legally break this record.
Comăneci’s achievements at the Olympics generated a significant amount of media attention. The theme song from the American soap opera The Young and the Restless became associated with her after cinematographer/feature reporter Robert Riger used it against slow-motion montages of Nadia on the television program ABC’s Wide World Of Sports. The song became a top ten single in the fall of 1976, and the composer, Barry De Vorzon, renamed it to “Nadia’s Theme” after her. However, Comăneci never actually performed to “Nadia’s Theme.” Her floor exercise music was a medley of the songs “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Jump in the Line” arranged for piano. Nadia Comăneci’s achievements are also pictured in the entrance area of the Madison Square Garden in New York City presenting her perfect 10.00 beam-exercise.
She was the 1976 BBC Sports Personality of the Year in the overseas athletes category and the Associated Press’s 1976 “Female Athlete of the Year”. She also retained her title as the UPI Female Athlete of the Year. Back home in Romania, Comăneci’s success led her to be named a “Hero of Socialist Labor”; she was the youngest Romanian to receive such recognition during the administration of Nicolae Ceauşescu.
Comăneci successfully defended her European all-around title in 1977, but when questions about the scoring were raised, Ceauşescu ordered the Romanian gymnasts to return home. The team followed orders and controversially walked out of the competition during the event finals.
Following the 1977 Europeans, the Romanian Gymnastics Federation removed Comăneci from her longtime coaches, the Károlyis, and sent her to Bucharest to train at the 23 August sports complex. The change was not positive for Comăneci. Grappling with both the stress of her parents’ divorce and the new training environment, she was extremely unhappy and her gymnastics and overall fitness suffered. Heavier and out-of-shape, Comăneci competed in the 1978 World Championships. A fall from the uneven bars resulted in a 4th place finish in the all-around behind Elena Mukhina, Nellie Kim, and Natalia Shaposhnikova, but Comăneci won the beam title.
After the 1978 Worlds, Comăneci was permitted to return to Deva and to the Károlyis. In 1979, a newly slim and motivated Comăneci won her third consecutive European all-around title, becoming the first gymnast, male or female, to achieve the feat. At the World Championships that December, Comăneci led the field after the compulsory competition but was hospitalized before the optional portion of the team competition for blood poisoning caused by a cut in her wrist from her metal grip buckle. Against doctors’ orders, she left the hospital and competed on the beam, where she scored a 9.95. Her performance helped give the Romanians their first team gold medal. After her performance, Comăneci spent several days recovering in All Saints Hospital and underwent a minor surgical procedure for the infected hand, which had developed an abscess.
Comăneci participated in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, where she placed second, by a small margin, to Yelena Davydova. She defended her Olympic title in the balance beam and tied with Nellie Kim for the gold medal in the floor exercise. The Romanian team finished second overall.
Comăneci retired from competition in 1981. Her official retirement ceremony took place in Bucharest in 1984 and was attended by the International Olympic Committee Chairman.