7.21.76 PRACTICE MADE HER PERFECT

July 24, 1996

She was, as TIME magazine described her, "an infinitely solemn
wisp of a girl," only 14 years old, not quite 5-feet and a mere
86 pounds. But Nadia Comaneci was the brightest star of all at
the Montreal Games, for she achieved in her sport what no
Olympian, male or female, ever had before: perfection. On the
first day of the gymnastics competition, the tiny Romanian, her
elfin face as serene as a summer breeze in the Carpathians,
delivered such a dazzling performance on the uneven bars that
the astonished judges awarded her a perfect score of 10. But it
was only the beginning.

By the time Comaneci had finished soaring through the various
events with the apparent ease of a bird in flight, she would
score six more 10s and win gold medals in the uneven bars, the
balance beam and the all-around competition--the most
spectacular display of women's gymnastics ever.

Overnight she became an international celebrity. Four years
earlier at the Munich Games, another teenage gymnast, Olga
Korbut of the Soviet Union, captivated a worldwide television
audience with her grace and girlish charm. Comaneci attracted an
even larger and more adoring audience through sheer skill.
Whereas Olga had worn her emotions on the sleeve of her leotard,
Comaneci kept hers tightly locked inside. She was far too
dedicated to her sport to worry about charming anyone. She had
been practicing day and night for the Olympics since she was
first discovered, at 6, on a playground in Onesti by the famous
Romanian coach Bela Karolyi.

Comaneci scored four of her 10s on the uneven bars, two on the
balance beam and one in the floor exercise. Even though three of
those 10s came in the team competition, the Romanians were edged
out of the gold medal by the Soviets. She had 10s on the uneven
bars and the beam en route to the all-around gold medal, a
competition that will be held today at the Georgia Dome.

Comaneci returned for the 1980 Moscow Games. At age 18 she was
nearly four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier but as
unflappable as ever. She won two more golds but lost the
all-around competition to a Soviet, Yelena Davydova, in a
controversial and angrily disputed hometown judging decision.
Comaneci retired from competition after that. And then her life
became darkly mysterious over the next several years.

Rumor had it that she was part of the inner circle of fiendish
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and had been, in fact, the
mistress of Ceausescu's no less fiendish son, Nicu. Then, in
'89, only a few weeks before Ceausescu was deposed and summarily
executed, Comaneci defected to the U.S. in the company of a
married Romanian exile, Constantin Panait. "Naughty Nadia" now,
she traveled across the country with Panait for three months. A
year later, claiming Panait had been holding her captive and
stealing from her, she was "rescued" by another Romanian,
Alexandru Stefu. When Stefu died in a snorkeling accident in
Montreal in '91, Comaneci moved to Norman, Okla., to work for
gymnastics coach Paul Ziert.

Her once glittering reputation was now in shambles, but with the
same dedication she had shown in training, she set about
repairing the damage. In Norman she became reacquainted with
U.S. gymnast Bart Conner, a two-time gold medal winner at the
1984 Games. She first joined Conner as a partner in his Norman
gymnastics academy and then married him in her native Romania
last April.

Far from being the emotionless poker face of Olympic legend,
Comaneci is "unpredictable," says her husband. "The Romanians
are a lot like Italians--very passionate, very proud, very
strong people," he says. "Everyone wants to remember her as this
14-year-old, ponytailed little girl. She's not that anymore."

But for those who saw her in '76, she always will be.

COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER Comaneci scored 10 on the balance beam and the uneven bars as a matter of routine. [Nadia Comaneci]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)