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Nadia Comaneci: How a record-breaking Romanian gymnast found a new life through coaching in the US

Olympic gymnast and record-breaker Nadia Comăneci began traveling for athletics as a child, and later forced to leave Romania due to economic instability. Today she uses her past skills and experiences to support future generations of athletes achieve their dreams.

Comăneci was born in Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Romania. According to Sports Receiver, gymnastics coach Bela Károlyi discovered Comăneci while doing cartwheels in the school yard at the age of 6. By 1968 Comăneci was 7 years old and began training with Károlyi. She began competing on her hometown team and at the age of 9 became the youngest ever to win the Romanian Nationals. 

Becoming an Olympic Gymnast 

At the age of 10 Comăneci attended her first international competition against Yugoslavia where she won her first all-round title. She then competed in many small competitions in Romania. Then in 1976, she went on to compete in the Montreal Olympic Games in Canada. During this competition, Comăneci made world history by earning a perfect 10 score.

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Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympics. “Nadia Comăneci Montreal1976c” by Unknown is licensed under Public Domain

Four years later she traveled to Russia to compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia where she earned two silver medals and two gold medals. According to her biography, the travel did not stop there and Comăneci started The Nadia Tour which took place over 11 cities in America. 

She spent all of her developmental years traveling from country to country to compete in gymnastics. This amount of traveling for children immerses them into multiple different cultures. According to i-studentglobal, it can be incredibly beneficial because culturally diverse children tend to understand and respect different lifestyles and perspectives.  

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Comăneci receiving an award at the 1977 European Championships. “Nadia Comăneci Prague1977” by Unknown is under Public Domain

Travel Athletics and Hyper-Competitive Youth Sports

Comăneci’s athletics travels took her all over Europe before her Olympic success at 14. Similarly to TCKs, youth athletes involved in travel sports may experience social challenges as a result of their frequent travel. Comăneci started her athletic career at the age of 6 with coach Károlyi. 

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Nadia Comăneci practicing in 1977. “Nadia Comăneci 1977” by David Gilbert is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

While travel athletics and intensive youth sports were not nearly as common in Comăneci’s career as they are today, the social and physical impacts of them likely impacted her just as much. In an interview with Doug Most of the Boston Globe, United States National Football League (NFL) player Tom Brady says that he feels as if intense youth sports cause a child to burn out quickly. 

Even with concerns of burnout, some youth find genuine happiness and community within their sport. Eddie Matz, ESPN’s senior writer found that many youth players see benefits competing at this level. Due to Comăneci’s continued work in gymnastics, her passion within her sport is clear, which correlates with her lifelong intense focus on athletics. 

Political Repression in Romania

After Comaneci retired from competing in 1984, she became a coach for the Romanian gymnastic team. But, even after retiring, her life wasn’t simple or easy. According to an article from sports.jrank.org, 1980s Romania was a totalitarian country that was politically repressive and struggling economically.

Amos Chapple discusses in RadioFree Europe/RadioLiberty how Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu led with absolute power and corruption during the 1980s. He became obsessed with paying off the country’s debt by selling the nation’s raw materials to outside buyers. This created shortages in heat, food and electricity and hundreds died during the winters.

The Romanian Revolution of 1989 that overthrew Ceausescu. “Rumanian Revolution.jpg” by [sic!]ut.at is licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

“Reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev described Romania at the time as resembling ‘a horse being whipped and driven by a cruel rider,’”

Amos Chapple in RadioFree Europe/RadioLiberty

Because of the condition of Romania, Comaneci’s coach and his wife defected to the United States in 1981. The Romanian government feared that Comaneci would try and do the same. So, according to the sports.jrank.org article, the government restricted her international travels and kept her tightly guarded when she did travel. Comaneci’s lack of personal freedom, despite her celebrity status, made her unhappy during her last few years in Romania. 

Comaneci’s Escape to the United States

In 1989, Comaneci defected to the U.S. with the help of her manager, Kanstantin Panit. Panit himself is a Romanian expatriate who worked as a roofer in Florida during this time.

An article by the Los Angeles Times cites that the two crossed the border into Hungary around midnight Nov. 25, 1989, being briefly detained by the Hungarian police before being released. Then, they arrived in New York on Nov. 28. 

“I didn’t know nobody. I was like a stranger and didn’t know my rights,” Comaneci said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “(Panit) told me all the time that if I don’t say what he said, he would send me back to Romania.”

Nadia Comăneci — the Los Angelos Times

She also claims that Panit tried to exploit her fame and use it for his own financial gain. Eventually, some of her friends and Karolyi stepped in and helped her fully gain her freedom in the U.S. Even though she no longer competes, she still shows passion for her sports through community engagement.

Where Comăneci is Now

With Comăneci’s passion for her sport, she still contributes to those who are on a similar path that she took. Comăneci travels the world, sharing her experience and stories about becoming an Olympic champion. Some of her inspirational topics include; Finding your F.O.C.U.S, Keeping your B.A.L.A.N.C.E in Life, Paying Attention to Details and How to Overcome Adversity.

Currently, she speaks about her experiences in the hopes of inspiring upcoming Olympians and she travels the world supporting the mission of Special Olympics. She enforces giving opportunities through sports training and competition for those with intellectual disabilities. 

Comăneci acts a member of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics. She believes she has seen firsthand the transformative powers of this movement in changing people’s perceptions about the potential for those with these intellectual challenges.

Comăneci uses sports as a tool for social change while celebrating sporting excellence. She demonstrated this by becoming a founding member of the Laureus Academy. This academy is constructed of 46 global living legends from the sports community. 

Youth Athlete Empowerment and Breaking Barriers

Comăneci’s goal for this academy is creating social change by creating communities in which young people can embrace their differences. She believes that sports is one of many unique abilities that brings people together. As a result, sports break downs existing barriers such as discrimination, which many women athletes are currently fighting against. 

According to Laureus World Sports Awards, in the year 2019 alone a direct result of Laureus Sport for Good funding consists of 67,354 participants in inclusive Society programs, 45,969 individuals from diverse groups are more physically active, and a reported “27,501 have increased sense of belonging in their communities.”

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