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Nadia and Neverland

Posted by John Powers, Globe Staff  August 13, 2008 08:59 AM

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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.

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9 comments so far...
  1. Excellent indeed! Thank you, John Powers!

    Madalina Stan - Romania

    Posted by Misi August 14, 08 06:56 AM
  1. excelent .... a amazing performance for a amazing woman

    Posted by Doina August 14, 08 04:44 PM
  1. Acest articol este pe departe extraordinar. Nu eram nascuta in 1976, dar am crescut auzind povesti si vizionand clipuri difuzate de televiziunea romana comunista. Nadia ne-a invatat ca nimic nu e imposibil!

    Felicitari Nadia, multumim si succes in continuare!

    Posted by Daniela Pavel August 15, 08 08:44 PM
  1. I want to know the name of your movie I loved it and I have been looking for it and I cant find it

    Posted by Veronica August 15, 08 10:39 PM
  1. just had a pretty smile imagining those time he had watching nadia, its so ironic that even i didnt hAve the chance to watch her at montreal because am only at my parents plan to have me as their kid, it still amazes me everytime i watch her video clips at youtube...

    so nice to read this article

    aeron atienza - valenzuela, philippines

    Posted by aaron joseph atienza August 16, 08 06:10 AM
  1. I'm 17 so I never had the chance to watch her while she was still competing, but my mother always told me how great she was,they greatest on her opinion. A week ago, after watching gymnastics on the Olympics, I felt courious for the first time. I searched for some videos of her on youtube, and I realised my mom wasn't exaggerating at all; Nadia was perfect. I love her style, and it's really hard to actually believe that she has grown up. It's like she'll always be that little charming girl everybody loved after her beautiful performance at Montreal.

    Posted by Liliana Michelena August 17, 08 08:48 PM
  1. I love Nadia she was the best gymast in the world and she won the gold in the 1976 olympics I love her and I will always love her

    Posted by Gabriella Marcoccia August 22, 08 09:24 PM
  1. She might have reached perfect tens, but she has a head as big as as the United States. Don't judge the olympic judges, or get angry with them. You're not perfect by the way.

    Posted by Jo August 23, 08 05:19 AM
  1. I think Nadia is by far the gymnast that has given the most beauty to the sport. I don't know for sure that she was perfect in Montreal, but her routines sure did come off as flawless. Definitely ahead of her time.

    Posted by Susan August 26, 08 01:13 AM

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