BEIJING -- I'd just plugged in the computer at my seat in the press tribune inside the gymnasium today for the women's team final when Nadia Comaneci came by to say hello with Bart Conner, her husband and fellow Olympic champion. Suddenly, the Wayback Machine zipped me back to 1976 and Montreal, where I covered my first Olympics. Nadia was 14 then and in one night she captured the world's imagination.
Bela Karolyi had brought his Romanian kiddie corps to take on the Soviets that summer and Comaneci was his precocious star, the first gymnast ever to score a perfect 10. All it took was one night on TV and every sports editor in the country had phoned his columnist at the Games and ordered him to write about Nadia, the Olympian who needed no last name, the kid who'd broken the scoreboard, which wasn't programmed to go past 9. It was the first time that I saw dozens of grown men running around on the verge of tears. "What do you ask a gymnast?", they were wailing. Especially a gymnast who didn't speak English. (Her French, though, was quite passable.)
Nadia is 46 now, an American citizen with a two-year-old son, and her English has been excellent for years. She frequently turns up with Bart at the big meets and it's intriguing to watch the spectators' delayed reaction as she passes by. She's dark and leggy with an Eastern European glamour and she's always stylishly dressed, so heads turn. Who IS that woman? And then, a few seconds later, the heads turn again. Oh my God, it's Nadia.
For all of us who first glimpsed her 32 years ago, Nadia always will be the self-possessed little girl at play on the balance beam, unaware (or not caring) that the world was watching her. It did not seem possible that she would flip her way into adulthood, that she would outlive both the perfect 10 which she created and the socialist government which exploited her. We figured that she'd remain forever in Neverland, suspended in mid-air like Peter Pan, in a place where she'd never have to grow up.