Many of us remember Nadia Comăneci, the former Romanian gymnast, for scoring a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, at the age of 14 and in the process winning millions of hearts. Now 40 years on, at age 54, the recipient of 9 Olympic medals including five gold, lives in Oklahoma with her husband, the American Olympic champion Bart Conner, raising their 9-year-old son, Dylan.
Comăneci is a Laureus Foundation Ambassador and together with her husband travel the world delivering inspirational speeches as well as promoting their charities, gymnastics and fitness lifestyles.
At the Four Seasons hotel, she chats to MiNDFOOD about what her life looks like these days.
Through the course of your career, did you sustain many injuries?
No, actually I survived very well through my training. I started when I was 6-and-a half and I retired in 1984, so I’d been doing gymnastics for many years. I had very few injuries, actually. A sprained ankle and pains here and there, but nothing major. I think it’s because I’d done a lot of conditioning and my body was strong enough to handle low landings and things like that. I think if you do the right progression in sport, that’s how you can avoid injuries.
You have a foundation in your name. Why was it formed?
I raise money to help kids who have potential to play sports but cannot afford it. I’m happy that I can do that.
You’re celebrating your 20th wedding anniversary this year. What do you remember most about the big day?
It was very emotional. It was important for me to get married in Romania because I wanted to share this moment of my life with the entire country. It was declared a non working day so people didn’t go to work. When I was a kid, even though I had emotions, people couldn’t see them because I was busy doing gymnastics. But now, every time I do something that’s connected with what I’ve done, like going back to Romania or doing an event, it’s emotional. Now I’m celebrating the 40th anniversary and it’s hard to believe it was that long ago since the ’76 Games. I’m more emotional these days.
You defected to the US. Why did you settle in Oklahoma?
(Laughs) Everybody asks me that. My husband, Bart, is originally from Chicago, but he moved to Oklahoma because he is a gymnastic coach there. He competed in the ’76 Games and in ’84 he won two gold medals. Then he moved to Norman, Oklahoma, a university town. When he retired he started a gymnastic academy with his coach in Oklahoma. So, that’s why I ended up there.
What does winning mean to you?
I didn’t do things to win even though I was very competitive. When I was 5 years old, my first win was in a kindergarten tricycle competition, so I think I had the drive somehow to want to be better than the person on the right or on the left. I think my motivation came from my family and from my teammates.
Was your mum behind you all the way?
Yes, she took me to gym when I was 6 years old because I jumped on the bed a lot and I was too energetic so she found out a way that I could spend that energy. It wasn’t like she was thinking; ‘I would like you to do this because this will be probably be your life.’ She said, ‘Just go there and jump on a trampoline as long as you want and don’t break my furniture.’ (Laughs). So that’s how I ended up in a gym.
What about your son? With two parents in competitive sports, has he inherited that skill? Does he have that drive?
Yes, and he has the stubbornness that I had. When I was doing gymnastics and my coach would say, ‘I bet you cannot do more than two,’ I would be like, ‘I bet I can do five.’ I was always like that. That was a good thing for me.
You look fantastic. How do you keep in shape?
I work out every day, about thirty minutes. I think that you need to figure out something that works for you. I don’t like big productions because you’re not willing to do it for long. I don’t think thirty minutes is a lot. I run for ten minutes, fifteen minutes. I do a little weights and some stretching and that’s it, and I eat very smart. I know what I like, what’s good, what’s not good. So it’s working for me.
Can you still do all those crazy flips?
Not everything but I like to play in the gym when there’s nobody around, I’m curious to see what I can do. I can do a handstand, a cartwheel and I think I’ll be able to do that for a long time. But more difficult tricks, you have to be doing that every day. But I can probably teach you something after this interview if you like (laughs).
A lot of people get emotional when they meet you. I know that Salma Hayek cried when she met you at the Golden Globes, and other actors were also very excited and emotional when they saw you. How did you feel about that reaction?
I was very surprised because when I was fourteen, fifteen years old I was watching my stars on TV and I’d say, ‘I will never ever be able to meet any of them.’ It looked like they lived in a different world.
When I competed in the Olympics, many years ago, being an Olympian didn’t qualify you as a star. I think now a lot of people understand that you can only get to the Olympics if you work hard. You don’t get there because your mum is an Olympian and you don’t get there because you’ve campaigned to be in the Olympics. So, I think everybody respects that. I was surprised to see that last year with Salma, because she started to cry and I didn’t know why she was crying. She said, ‘I wanted to be you when I grew up!’ (Laughs). That was just so great.
I have to admit; I’m a little emotional meeting you. I’m reminded of my childhood when I would watch you on TV with my family.
Yes, a lot of people cry. When somebody cries, it makes me cry because I put myself in the situation of that person – me watching somebody on TV and wanting to be like them, not ever knowing that opportunity would happen to meet that person. So it’s emotional every time. It’s mostly with parents who are my age who start to cry. They want to do a photo with me but they feel embarrassed, so I say, ‘Come on’ and then they tell me where they were in 1976.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
Well, we have the Bart Conner Gymnastic Academy where we have around fourteen to fifteen hundred kids who do gymnastics, and we have our son so you have to be able to juggle things. Plus we also travel. So, it’s our son first. We wake up in the morning and I prepare him for school, my husband takes him, then we go to the office. Then I work out because I like to do that in the morning to get that out of the way. Otherwise, you get tired and you don’t want to do it later in the day. This year is a little busier because it’s an Olympic year; it’s also a big 40th anniversary (of the ’76 Olympics) so everybody wants to do a little piece of history.
How did you and Bart meet?
Well, we met on Bart’s birthday, March 28, 1976. We competed in Madison Square Garden, at a competition called The American Cup. We both won the competition, I was fourteen years old and he was eighteen years old. I think there’s a famous photo (from the event). When we were on the podium he gave me a kiss on the cheek because a journalist from New York Times asked him to, then I went to the Olympics in July and of course my husband competed in those Olympics too. Many years later when I came to the States, I was doing a television show and the host brought Bart out as a surprise. I was asked when I first met Bart, and I missed by five years because I said it was 1981. Bart looked at me and said, ‘don’t you remember? In 1976 we won the American Cup, I gave you a kiss on the cheek?’ And I said, ‘No. I was fourteen; I didn’t think about boys at that time, it was not my interest.’ But later I said that, ‘Oh, okay, maybe I do.’ It was sweet.