Nadia Comaneci
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Nadia Comăneci returns to Montreal, linked by more than 1976 Olympics

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MONTREAL — Nadia Comăneci visited this city last year, celebrating the 40th anniversary of her transcendent Olympics.

“I did the zipline,” she said. “I almost lost my head. I lost a shoe.”

Back on solid footing, the Romanian great is again in Montreal for this week’s world gymnastics championships as an ambassador.

“It’s part of the triangle of my life,” Comăneci said in an extended interview while promoting the film “Winning.” “Romania, Montreal and gymnastics.”

Not only that magical week in 1976, when a 14-year-old from a factory town stole hearts and won five medals, including three golds, and scored seven perfect 10s.

But also that year and a half Comăneci spent here after defecting from Romania.

In November 1989, she and six others trudged overnight through the woods of the Communist nation into Hungary and, two nights later, into Austria.

She fell through a frozen-over lake and navigated knee-deep, bone-chilling water. She climbed seven barbed-wire fences. She feared of land mines and being shot in the back.

Once safe, Comăneci was rewarded in Vienna with a one-way ticket to New York City. She spent her first two months in the U.S. with Constantin Panait, the controversial, controlling figure who led the escape from Romania and resided in South Florida.

In February 1990, she took up an invitation from Alexandru Stefu, an old Romanian friend, to visit him in Montreal. Comăneci wanted to stay there. Stefu, who had a wife and son, offered to house her.

“They did not have a lot of money, but Alexandru gave me a credit card and told me that I should use it to buy food and new clothes,” Comăneci wrote in her memoir. “Instead of dreaming about the United States, I began to dream of Canada.”

MORE: World Champs TV schedule | Men to watch | Women to watch

She made friends at the corner grocery store where she bought lottery tickets, speaking the French she learned in Romanian school. She met the director of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, who offered her work doing exhibitions and appearances.

“It wouldn’t be much money, but it would be a start,” wrote Comăneci, who left just about everything in Romania, including her nine Olympic medals.

She stood on stage with Celine Dion.

“I thought to myself that if I worked really hard I just might get to be a somebody in my new homeland,” Comăneci wrote. “My biggest goal was to earn some income so that I could take care of my family [back in Romania], and I thought I could do that best in Montreal.”

Comăneci went fishing with Stefu’s family every Sunday.

It brought back memories of her peaceful childhood in Romania.

That adolescence turned upside-down after the Montreal Olympics, when thousands greeted the team plane’s arrival in Bucharest. Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu ordered a celebration.

Comăneci was monitored closely by the Romanian government from then on. She didn’t have control of her life until she returned to Montreal in 1990.

“Montreal felt like home because what Montreal represented to me when I was 14 and 15,” Comăneci said.

On Labor Day 1991, Stefu died in a scuba diving accident.

Comăneci, after living with Stefu’s family for 18 months, didn’t know where to turn.

Except to call U.S. Olympic champion gymnast Bart Conner, who had become a close friend. Conner and his manager, Paul Ziert, offered her a place with them in Oklahoma.

She accepted. She and Conner later developed a romantic relationship and wed in 1996. They live in Norman with their 11-year-old son.

Whenever Comăneci has flown into Montreal the last 26 years, the first thing she usually notices is the Olympic Stadium standing out from the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district.

“It doesn’t feel like such a long time when I go back there,” she said. “If you count 40 years, that’s a long time, but, sometimes, it feels very compressed.”

Comăneci has two versions of Montreal.

The first from 1976. Her favorite memory isn’t of any of her gold medals in the all-around, uneven bars or balance beam. It isn’t of her first of seven perfect 10s, when the scoreboard famously flashed “1.00” because it wasn’t programmed to display a 10.

It’s of the Olympic Village.

“I was wandering around, and I met Teófilo Stevenson,” she said, recognizing Cuba’s iconic heavyweight boxer. “I knew he was a big athlete [6 feet, 5 inches, to Comăneci’s 4-foot-11]. Think about it. Romania was a Communist country at the time, so I was very familiar with that part of the world. So I knew about him. I had a chance to meet him. That was a big deal.”

Until 1976, Comăneci believed the European Championships were the world’s biggest competition. She had never seen gymnastics, or the Olympics, on TV.

She saw in Montreal for the first time in her life pizza, cottage cheese and breakfast cereal.

Despite making the cover of Sports Illustrated, Comăneci did not feel like a national heroine. Coach Bela Karolyi had the team leave once their competition was over and before the Closing Ceremony.

“I came, performed, made my country proud and left the arena via a bus, not a limousine,” she wrote.

When Comăneci came to Montreal last year to promote these world championships, she brought son Dylan. She visited what’s left of the Forum, the Olympic gymnastics venue and home of the Montreal Canadiens from 1926 to 1996, demolished in 1998.

“They still have a couple of seats,” she said.

Comăneci also returned to the community where she lived for those 18 months in 1990 and 1991.

“It feels like a few days ago,” she said.

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USA Gymnastics closes Karolyi Ranch

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USA Gymnastics said it will no longer use the Karolyi Ranch in Texas as its training center, where athletes said Larry Nassar sexually abused gymnasts.

“USA Gymnastics has terminated its agreement with the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas,” USA Gymnastics CEO and president Kerry Perry said in a press release Thursday. “It will no longer serve as the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center.

“It has been my intent to terminate this agreement since I began as president and CEO in December. Our most important priority is our athletes, and their training environment must reflect this. We are committed to a culture that empowers and supports our athletes.

“We have cancelled next week’s training camp for the U.S. Women’s National Team. We are exploring alternative sites to host training activities and camps until a permanent location is determined. We thank all those in the gymnastics community assisting in these efforts.”

MORE: Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

World champions Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols said that Nassar sexually abused gymnasts at the ranch.

“When I was 15 I started to have back problems while at a National Team Camp at the Karolyi Ranch,” Nichols wrote in a victim impact statement read at one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings on Wednesday and published last week. “This is when the changes in his medical treatments occurred.

“I trusted what he was doing at first, but then he started touching me in places I really didn’t think he should. He didn’t have gloves on and he didn’t tell me what he was doing. There was no one else in the room and I accepted what he was doing because I was told by adults that he was the best doctor and he could help relieve my pain.

“He did this ‘treatment’ on me, on numerous occasions.”

Raisman, a three-time Olympic champion, urged USA Gymnastics to close the ranch in a Tuesday interview on ESPN.

“I hope USA Gymnastics listens because they haven’t listened to us so far,” she said. “I hope they listen, and I hope they don’t make any of the girls go back to the ranch. No one should have to go back there after, you know, so many of us were abused there.”

Simone Biles did not specifically name the Karolyi Ranch in her Monday statement, but Raisman said Tuesday that Biles was referring to that site.

“It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing at Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused,” was posted on Biles’ social media.

Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian, said Nassar was alone with her in her bed at the ranch.

“There was no one else sent with him,” she said on CBS last year. “The treatment was in the bed, in my bed that I slept on at the ranch.”

USA Gymnastics said in July 2016 that it reached an agreement with former national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi to purchase the training facility the couple owned.

The national governing body backed out of the purchase in May “for a variety of reasons” but continued under its current lease agreement while exploring alternative locations for camps. It held national team camps there in September and November.

The Karolyis established the ranch in 1983 after defecting from Romania. It had been a national team training center since 2001.

Larry Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A statement from McKayla Maroney read Thursday repeated that sexual assault by Larry Nassar “left scars” in her mind that may never fade as a judge heard a third day of testimony from victims.

Nassar could be sentenced Friday in Lansing. Since Tuesday, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has been listening to dozens of young women who were molested after seeking his help for injuries.

Aquilina started the hearing Thursday by saying Nassar had written a letter fearing that his mental health wasn’t strong enough to sit and listen to a parade of victims. He called the hearing “a media circus.”

The judge dismissed it as “mumbo jumbo.”

“Spending four or five days listening to them is minor, considering the hours of pleasure you’ve had at their expense, ruining their lives,” Aquilina said.

Nassar, 54, faces a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years in prison for molesting girls as a doctor for Michigan State University and at his home.

He also was a team doctor at USA Gymnastics for nearly two decades. He’s already been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child pornography crimes.

“Dr. Nassar was not a doctor,” Maroney said in a statement read by a prosecutor (Maroney’s statement was previously posted in the fall). “He left scars on my psyche that may never go away.”

USA Gymnastics in 2016 reached a financial settlement with Maroney that barred her from making disparaging remarks. But the organization this week said it would not seek any money for her “brave statements.”

A 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher, looked at Nassar and said, “How dare you ask any of us for forgiveness.”

“Your days of manipulation are over,” she said. “We have a voice. We have the power now.”

Nassar wasn’t the only target. Victims also criticized Michigan State and USA Gymnastics.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon attended part of the session Wednesday. The school is being sued by dozens of women, who say campus officials wrote off complaints about the popular doctor.

“Guess what? You’re a coward, too,” current student and former gymnast Lindsey Lemke said Thursday, referring to Simon.

The judge has been praising each speaker and criticizing Nassar.

It’s “about their control over other human beings and feeling like God and they can do anything,” Aquilina said of sex offenders.

On Jan. 31, Nassar will get another sentence for sexual assaults at a Lansing-area gymnastics club in a different county.