Nadia Comaneci
Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Olympic Channel to air Gymnastics Gold Week

3×3 basketball players juggle jobs, schoolwork in lead-up to Tokyo

FIBA
Leave a comment

Craig Moore might be the definition of a weekend warrior.

Moore has a full-time job in finance in New York City. But on weekends, he swaps out suits for a basketball uniform, traveling to 3×3 tournaments with his teammates in the hopes of ultimately representing the U.S. at the 2020 Tokyo Games. The International Olympic Committee announced that 3×3 would be added to the Olympic program in June 2017.

The addition of the event means athletes – who might not make a star-studded five-on-five roster packed with NBA or WNBA talent – have another shot at the Olympics in a dynamic, fast-paced game entirely its own.

Three-on-three games last 10 minutes, or until one team reaches 21 points. Games are played on a half-court with a 12-second shot clock, and offense immediately turns to defense after a team scores.

Moore played traditional five-on-five basketball in college for Northwestern University, then moved to Europe to compete in domestic leagues in the Netherlands and Romania. But the job uncertainty made Moore start to consider changing careers. “When you play in Europe, especially not at [the] Euroleague level, you’re kind of always just fishing,” he said. “You get discouraged sometimes…So I decided I should probably get a job.”

He worked in finance for a year, spent a season at Princeton as the director of operations for men’s basketball, then returned to the corporate world. On weekends, he started playing pick-up basketball.

At first, he said, the weekend tournaments were purely recreational. Then in 2014, Moore’s team won U.S. Nationals and played at the World Cup in Russia, where they finished 14th. In 2017, after winning Nationals again, Moore’s team finished seventh at the World Cup, knocked out in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Serbia. Once Moore and his teammates learned 3×3 would be part of the Olympics, “we’ve run with it ever since,” he said. “We’ve fallen in love with the travel, the games, the quick pace. We’ve gotten used to the rougher play.”

Olympic qualification is no simple feat, particularly for players not based in Europe, where many of the major tournaments are located. Eight teams per gender will play in Tokyo, and FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, has specific qualification requirements for both nations and individual athletes.

Players can earn points for themselves and their countries by partaking in FIBA-endorsed 3×3 competitions, and a ranking list of points in November 2019 will determine the first four countries to qualify for the Games. The rest will have to earn spots through two qualifying tournaments. The U.S. men are currently ranked seventh in the world, while the American women are 29th, with most of 2019 to improve their positions. USA Basketball is prioritizing increased participation in international tournaments this year so players can earn more points.

The qualification requirements mean athletes must devote a significant amount of time to 3×3-specific tournament play, making it unlikely that prominent NBA and WNBA stars will feature in 3×3 at the Games. Should the Americans qualify, a men’s team will likely be made up of athletes like Moore, who have played in college or professionally, or athletes finishing their G-league careers. A U.S. women’s team would likely include collegiate athletes.

Moore’s current team is made up of six players (though only four of those six go to each tournament, with three on court at once). Three live in New York, with one in Chicago, one in Seattle, and one in Los Angeles. Moore said they stay in touch through a group chat and hold each other accountable for squeezing in workouts so they’re ready to play. All have full-time jobs. Moore said some of his co-workers have taken an active interest in 3×3. “I get a lot of text messages after games, like, ‘great job,’” he said. Or sometimes, “you should’ve made that shot!”

Accumulating points through various tournaments means a hectic travel schedule: Moore said he spent 17 weekends on the road in 2018, sometimes taking a day off from work, other times getting off a red-eye flight and going straight to the office.

His love for the game – and the prospect of representing the U.S. at the Olympics – makes the time put in seem less daunting.

“Once you play it, you end up falling in love with it,” he said. “For former competitors who kind of lost the game a little bit, to get it back in any way, shape or form, is a really cool experience.”

Four athletes from the University of Oregon represented the U.S. women at last year’s World Cup, finishing fifth. Sabrina Ionescu, now a junior, was one of those players.

Ionescu is an All-America guard at Oregon. In December, she broke an NCAA record (for both men and women) with her 13th career triple-double, and now has 16. Her on-court statistics caught the attention of Stephen Curry, who met Ionescu after the Warriors played the Trail Blazers in December and called her “the walking triple dub” on social media.

Last year, the coaching staff at Oregon chose Ionescu and three teammates to enter the 3×3 U.S. Nationals in Colorado Springs. The group went into the tournament with no expectations, but ended up winning and earning a spot to represent the U.S. at the 2018 World Cup in the Philippines.

Their performance at the World Cup was admittedly imperfect, not unexpected for their first international tournament. “[I had] never done anything like it,” Ionescu said. “At one point we’d gone into overtime, and we didn’t know what the overtime rules were…so we just played not knowing how long we would be playing for.”

Ionescu said what she’s learned in 3×3 “definitely helps translate to five-on-five games. Just having to make reads on the fly…[trusting] the teammates you’re with…You really have to do that in the flow of the game. You’re not looking at your coach to make all your moves for you.”

Ionescu hasn’t played in a major 3×3 tournament since the World Cup. While men’s 3×3 players have a multi-stop World Tour, no official series of tournaments has been offered to women. FIBA plans to launch a professional circuit for women in 2019, though the competition format is still being finalized.

While Ionescu is currently focused the collegiate season she’s in the midst of, an Olympic opportunity in 3×3 hasn’t left her mind: “it would definitely be a dream come true to represent my country on the highest stage, something that I dreamed about when I was younger.”

Yuzuru Hanyu wishes training partner Javier Fernandez luck at European Championships

AP
Leave a comment

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu wished his training partner Javier Fernandez luck ahead of his attempt to win his seventh consecutive European Championship title.

In a video from the Olympic Channel, Hanyu said to Fernandez in part:

When the Olympic Games [were] over, and this season began, I realized how special it was to practice with you… I will never forget your performance. Thank you for allowing me to come to Toronto. I respect you forever. 

Fernandez shared the PyeongChang Olympic podium with Hanyu, winning bronze. Fernandez is a two-time world champion and has plans to retire following the European Championships. They trained together under Brian Orser in Toronto.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream every program from Minsk, Belarus starting Wednesday with the ladies’ short program.

MORE: How to watch the European Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!