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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Three questions with Jason Brown before U.S. Championships

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Jason Brown, a sensation at the 2014 U.S. Championships who vaulted himself onto the Sochi Olympic team, had a much different experience at the 2018 nationals. He placed sixth and missed the PyeongChang Olympic team.

In the time since, Brown moved from his longtime (and only) coach Kori Ade to Brian Orser in Toronto, Canada, where he now trains alongside world champions Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and Javier Fernandez of Spain.

Brown opened this season with a fourth place finish at Autumn Classic. On the Grand Prix series, he was sixth at Skate Canada but rebounded for a silver at Grand Prix France (he actually won the short program ahead of Nathan Chen). Then, he won Golden Spin in December.

At his media teleconference ahead of nationals, he noted that his focus is on the big, four-year picture and that his progress has been slow and steady.

Here’s what we learned:

1. The changes he expected in his skating really started clicking after his second Grand Prix assignment.

“The biggest thing when I came to Toronto, they sat me down and talked to me about this 18-month process. Just to feel comfortable, it will take 18 months. I was very open about that and willing for the process of – that understanding that change takes time. I was definitely up for it, up for the challenge and up for whatever the progress looked like. At the beginning it was extremely difficult. I think I did find myself a little frustrated with how slow the progress was coming on or how long it really took me to get comfortable with what I was learning.”

“That being said, I always had that perspective. They were always there to guide me and understood. They’ve done it with skaters in the past and it does take time. I was able to keep a level head through the whole thing and remain confident and really believing in the process. I think that’s what I’m still going through.”

“We work on quality every single day. All my elements and all my skating skills and all the programs. It’s constantly adapting. I’m making these tiny, tiny steps along the way. The thing that we’re most focused on right now is building a very strong base heading into the next four years. That’s really all that I can ask for and all that I’m focused on. That’s where my mentality is wrapped around.”

“I really do think that I hit this turning point in France and things started clicking. I really started to understand their technique. I think it’s just continued to get better from there.”

2. He had a small injury while skating at Golden Spin in early December, but still won the event.

“I sprained my ankle in Croatia. It was a little upsetting but it was what it was. It was small and it was nothing to make a big deal out of. We adjusted my program a little bit and I taped it up. I really didn’t bring any light to it because there’s really no light to be brought to it because it isn’t affecting me and I’m continuing to train the best that I can.”

3. Brown sees momentum building between himself and his new coaching staff, while also building on results from competition to competition.

“I’ve learned and I’ve gotten closer with my coaching team. And understanding the way they’re at in competition, the way that we do the six-minute warmups, our communication has gotten stronger and better. We’ve gotten to know each other a lot better in those situations. That’s a big momentum builder for me. There’s a bit of calmness, like, ‘Okay I’ve done this before’ with them. We have a routine. Early in the season, I was like, ‘I don’t really know what’s gonna happen! How’s it gonna go?’”

“That’s a huge momentum builder because there’s a lot more confidence that I have going in, knowing what to expect. There’s not as many surprises or unknown. That’s really helpful going into big events, being sure the way it’s gonna play out as far as our team as coach and athlete, and the expectations both ways.”

MORE: 3 questions with Bradie Tennell before the U.S. Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. 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.

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‘Snow Queen’ Lindsey Vonn returns to World Cup in Italy

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The wait was finally over for the U.S.’ Lindsey Vonn, who returned to World Cup competition today in Italy after being out of commission with a knee injury since November. Vonn crashed in training runs ahead of the third World Cup stop this season in Lake Louise, but lucky for the four-time Olympian, the injury did not require surgery.

Friday’s downhill race in Cortina d’Ampezzo replaced the cancelled St. Anton event from one week ago, when a snowstorm put Vonn’s World Cup season debut on hold. Vonn had her last taste of competition back in March 2018. Needless to say, the “Snow Queen” was amped to be back.

Wearing lucky bib #13, and now strapped with matching knee braces, Vonn charged out of the start gate. Despite being clocked at a screaming 75 mph as she attacked the gates, Vonn crossed the finish in seventh place, .79 hundredths of a second behind then-current leader, Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec, who jumped out to take the early lead in the one-run race.

After seeing the scoreboard at the bottom of the hill, Vonn gave a shrug as she caught her breath, then waved to the crowd.

Vonn ultimately slipped into a tie for 15th, with a time that was 1.15 seconds off the lead.

The seventeenth skier out of the gate, Austria’s 27-year-old Ramona Siebenhofer laid down the winning run of the day, stealing the lead away from Stuhec by .40 hundredths of a second. Finishing in third was Austria’s Stephanie Venier. Full results are here.

Vonn is chasing the all-time World Cup wins record — for a man or woman — held by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark. Vonn currently has 82 to Stenmark’s 86, but has said she intends to retire at the end of this season. Vonn told the Associated Press last week she’ll be fine if she doesn’t get the record.

“The record won’t define me, whether I get it or not,” Vonn said according to the Associated Press. “I don’t need 87 wins to be able to continue the work of my foundation, to help kids, inspire people to be healthy and active and be positive and strive to reach their dreams and goals. I don’t need that record to accomplish those things. Once I retire, 87 won’t really matter anymore.

Vonn has appeared on a World Cup downhill podium in Cortina d’Ampezzo nine times in her career — five times as the winner. The last time Vonn won a downhill at the venue was in 2016. Last season Vonn won four downhill races and one Super-G. Two of those victories came in Germany at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, next week’s World Cup stop.

Vonn will be back tomorrow racing in the second downhill of the weekend. Watch the race live on Olympic Channel or stream it on NBC Sports Gold.

The men’s World Cup resumed in Wengen, Switzerland on Friday with the Alpine combined. After the opening slalom run, U.S. skier Ted Ligety was sitting in fourth position, 1.20 seconds behind the leader at the break, Austria’s Marco Schwarz. Ligety ended up crossing the line in 11th after finishing his downhill run, eventually getting bumped back to 14th.  

Finishing in 15th behind Ligety was the U.S.’ Bryce Bennett.

Schwarz held on to take the top podium spot, getting his first career World Cup Alpine combined victory. A pair of Frenchmen joined Schwarz on the podium, Victor Muffat-Jeandet and Alexis Pinturault. Full results are here.

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MORE: How to watch Lindsey Vonn in her season debut