Nadia Comaneci Finds Balance off the Beam

With another corporately sponsored promotional session winding up, gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci is about to exit the jammed aisles of Filene's downtown Boston department store. Her exit is interrupted, however, when a man who identifies himself as a Romanian requests one last autograph.

Nadia knows she can't refuse a fellow Romanian and grants the request. Later, however, in the store's back offices, she acknowledges being more American than anything else.

"My life is here," she says, adding amusedly that she's a green-card American who sometimes is mistakenly introduced as a member of the United States Olympic team, which will be selected during next week's US trials in Boston.

Formally she's not a citizen, but she seems certain to become one now that she and Bart Conner, a member of the 1984 US gold medal-winning men's Olympic gymnastics team, have wed. Her marriage to Conner, she says, is more special than scoring perfect 10s and collecting four gold medals at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics.

The two first met briefly in '76 at an Olympic tuneup meet in New York's Madison Square Garden, where photographers posed them together after victories. It wasn't until seven years ago, however, that they began a more serious relationship, one that grew out of a crisis in Comaneci's life. She sought to distance herself from the menacing individual who helped her flee communist Romania. Conner came to the rescue, and from there the romantic embers eventually began to glow.

Their marriage, Conner has said, unites "Joe Midwest and the mysterious beauty from Transylvania." The clean-cut, energetic Oklahoman exchanged vows with Comaneci this spring at a state wedding in Bucharest attended by more than 1,000 guests.

They honeymooned in Greece before returning to Norman, Okla., where they run a gymnastics academy. The couple considers Norman one of two homes bases, the other being Venice, Calif., but they seldom get to either during this hectic Olympic year.

"I consider myself an ambassador for the sport all over the world," says Nadia, who will join Conner and gold medalists from Atlanta on an ambitious post-Olympic tour. The roving exhibition will visit 22 cities in France alone, allowing Comaneci to brush up her French, which she speaks along with English, Romanian, Spanish, and Italian.

She and Conner sometimes go days without seeing each other, pursuing various commitments as sports celebrities. Bart, a TV commentator, and Nadia team up occasionally as the spokespersons for the first official Olympic fan club. She describes having the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta as a "huge opportunity" to promote their sport, which she believes has the same audience potential as figure skating.

Comaneci helped turn on global viewers to gymnastics in 1976. Upon leaving home for the Olympics, she wasn't sure whether her family would be able to watch her on TV. Many relatives did, staying up until 4 a.m., but her mother did not. "She was afraid I was going to fall," Nadia says.

Mama Comaneci's worries were groundless, as 14-year-old Nadia set a new standard for the sport with her 10s on the balance beam and uneven parallel bars. Such perfection was so startling that the scoreboard flashed 1.00 instead of 10.0.

Nadia's performances may have looked flawless, but she says the first "perfect" routine didn't feel absolutely right. "I thought I'd get a 9.9," she says, "I always underappreciated what I did."

Comaneci was the first star pupil of coach Bela Karolyi, who has since schooled Americans Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal, and current prodigy Dominique Moceanu.

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