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.”

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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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Marvel superheroes inspire Bradie Tennell, Starr Andrews

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Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews have something in common beyond their obvious figure skating talents: both skaters look to Marvel superheroes for inspiration.

The 20-year-old Tennell, who opened her 2018-19 international season with a big win over two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia at the Autumn International Classic in Oakville, Ontario, counts Iron Man and Spider-Man as her favorites.

Believe it or not, Iron Man – also known as Tony Stark – figures into Tennell’s free skate to “Romeo and Juliet.”

“After I land the triple salchow toward the end of my program, I go down on one knee and do what I call my Iron Man pose, because that’s what Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) does in the first Avengers movie,” she said.

Summoning superhuman strength worked. Tennell had a personal-best free skate in Oakville. But in other ways, she’s the opposite of her hero: Iron Man survives his adventures largely be wearing a special suit of armor, while Tennell is all about dropping her guard this season and being more expressive on the ice.

“I believe in myself a lot more,” she said. “I don’t think I’m as timid. I’m really working on not being as shy, just kind of letting my personality come through in everything.”

Andrews, 17, is inspired by the noble and determined Black Panther, depicted in the 2018 film by Chadwick Boseman.

“There is always a challenge and you always have to fight to get what you want,” she said.

“I wanted something different this year, I definitely wanted no lyrics, and an African theme,” she added. “When I watched Black Panther, I said, ‘Yeah, I want something like (the music in) this’ and Derrick (Delmore) pulled up some music.”

Delmore, who coaches Andrews in Los Angeles, wracked his brain to find the right material. Ultimately, he choreographed her free to a medley he calls “African Tribal Xotica.”

“The music is from five different things,” he said. “She saw the movie, loved it, and sent me some music from that movie she cut herself that I didn’t love. She was inspired to do something in that genre. I finally thought of music I used a few years back for another skater, and I played it for her, and as soon as it came on she said, ‘Oh, this is what I want.’”

What Andrews wants now is a triple axel. She attempted the three-and-a-half revolution jump in her free skate in Oakville, but it was downgraded (judged short of rotation) by the technical panel. Still, she placed a respectable seventh in a tough international field.

“I’m excited for the day I get it,” Andrews said. “I just have to keep working on it. One day I will land it and will be super-confident and happy.  It’s not new to me, I’ve been working on it for a while. That little extra effort, and then I’ll land it.”

Only two other senior U.S. ladies – Tonya Harding, back in the early 1990s, and Mirai Nagasu at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February – have landed the jump in international competition, but Andrews believes it is becoming almost commonplace.  While Tennell and Andrews were competing in Oakville, Japanese teenager Rika Kihira landed two triple axels, including one in combination with a triple toe, at Ondrej Nepela Trophy.

“There are so many more people doing it know. I feel like it’s not surprising for women to do it,” Andrews said. “They are doing it in junior and even in advanced novice, like Alysa Liu (at the Asian Open), which was amazing.”

Delmore supports his student’s ambition, with a few caveats.

“Right now, I want her to get used to doing the axel,” he said. “I want it to be a regular part of her competitive experience, so she knows how to keep going when it doesn’t go well, and hopefully when she gets it, she knows what it’s like to have that amazing moment and to keep going.”

MORE: 12-year-old is third U.S. woman to land triple Axel internationally

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Autumn Classic despite shaky performance

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Yuzuru Hanyu won his third Autumn Classic International crown in Oakville, Ontario on Saturday, but it was a bumpy ride.

The two-time Olympic champion’s debut of his “Origin” free skate, inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s famous “Tribute to Njinsky” program, had many fine elements: opening quadruple loop and toe loop jumps, plus two triple axels in the program’s second half; a pair of superb closing spins with fittingly baroque positions; and promising step and choreography sequences that preserved Plushenko’s flair, while adding a touch more refinement and control.

But a face-forward fall on a quad salchow, followed by a popped quad toe, meant Hanyu’s 165.91 points put him second in the free skate to his 16-year-old training partner, Junhwan Cha of South Korea. His total score, including Friday’s short program, was 263.65 points, just under four points higher than Cha’s second-place total.

At this point in the season, many other skaters – not including Plushenko – would have shrugged  off the imperfections in the challenging program and been happy to put a few miles on the choreography. But the 23-year-old Hanyu’s perfectionism runs year-round.

“My first competition of the season is always this level, unfortunately,” he said, as translated from Japanese. “I wanted to skate my short and free without any regrets here, and I was not able to do that.”

Hanyu likely remembers this event last season, when a mistake-riddled free skate put him second to longtime rival Javier Fernandez of Spain. This time around, the Japanese superstar, who trains at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, was especially disappointed that his jump glitches meant he could not attempt a quad-triple axel sequence, a combination that might have been worth some 20 points.

“I was not strong enough to skate this program yet,” he said. “I feel fine, I am not injured. Another program, maybe (last season’s) ‘Seimei,’ I might have been able to do well, but not this program. I am just not ready.”

Just as he did after Friday’s short program, where a botched spin cost him several points, Hanyu vowed to work harder.

“This is where I am right now, and I need to practice more,” he said.

Hanyu has plenty of time: his first Grand Prix event is in Finland on November 2.

The skating world may best remember this event as the week Cha came into his own. The Korean teen, who landed a quad salchow in his short on Friday, hit a quad toe to start his free to “Romeo and Juliet” – just the second time he has landed the jump in competition. While his quad salchow was judge under rotated, he went on to land two triple-triple combinations and two triple axels, all done with style and maturity beyond his years. The program earned 169.22 points to win the day.

“Last season, I didn’t skate so well. I had some hip and back (injuries) and boot problems,” Cha, who also said he had recently had a growth spurt, said. “Now I feel much stronger, and I have been working hard.”

Asked if he had a skating idol – perhaps his training partner, Hanyu – Cha demurred.

“I don’t have just one idol,” he said. “I like many different skaters, for different reasons. I will like one skater for his jumps; another skater for his spins.”

MORE: Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic

Canada’s Roman Sadovsky, fourth after the short program, stepped up to win the bronze medal with 233.86 points after landing two quads, a salchow and toe, in his free skate.

Jason Brown may be disappointed in his fourth-place finish here, but it cannot have come as a big surprise: the 2015 U.S. champion has said that since moving to Toronto this spring to train under Orser and Wilson, he has been re-learning his jump technique. He called the move “a four-year project.”

“I cannot speak more highly of Brian, Tracy, Lee (Barkell) and Karen (Preston), the whole team at Cricket Club,” Brown, 23, said. “They have been really been patient with me and worked with me methodically. … We’re starting from the ground up. Each day I’m learning something new, each day they are helping me work through something, whether that me a mental thing, physically getting a jump,  or the pacing of a program.”

The debut of Brown’s free to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Hazy Days of Winter” was bittersweet: his blades sung during spins, step sequences and transitions, but the jumps weren’t there. An opening quad salchow was doubled; a triple axel, popped into a single. He earned 144.33 points to place fifth in the free and fourth overall with 233.23.

Wilson, though, said they are just getting started.

“Let’s face it, he is a brilliant skater and he’s gotten close to the top of the world,” Wilson said of Brown, who was fourth in the world in 2015. “It’s a fine line trying to find room for improvement, and so that’s what we are trying to do. We are throwing a lot at him. We’re going to pull back a little.”

“What he brings, though, cannot be ignored,” she added. “My husband can be in the rink and know nothing about skating, and be mesmerized by what Jason does. He could teach clinics for every step sequence and position details. He is integral to what the sport needs.”

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