Simona Halep, Nadia Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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How did Nadia Comaneci and Simona Halep, two generational Romanian sports icons, come to be so friendly that Comaneci flies from Oklahoma to Europe to attend her matches?

Simple, Comaneci says. Halep is part of the family.

Has been ever since Halep was welcomed into it by Comaneci and the nation’s other retired athletic legends, soccer player Gheorghe Hagi and tennis player Ilie Nastase at an ATP event in Bucharest in April 2014.

“I had never seen her before,” said Comaneci, who knew some about tennis given the success of Nastase, a seven-time major champion, and Virginia Ruzici, the 1978 French Open winner and only Romanian woman to win a major until Halep. “But I knew from Ilie that he said she’s going to be a big star. This is our next champion.”

A month later, Halep made her first Slam final at the French Open. It took four more years before Halep claimed her first major title, also at Roland Garros, then another at Wimbledon in July.

The most memorable interaction between Comaneci and Halep came immediately after that breakthrough 2018 French Open final. As Halep climbed toward her player box in victory, the first person she embraced was the gymnastics great.

“It was the easiest way to climb,” Comaneci joked while at the U.S. Open last week. “It was very nice and emotional — for me.”

She has attended a Broadway show with Halep, wearing matching coats they bought together, and watched her play live at three of the four Grand Slams, plus at Indian Wells, Calif., Madrid and Bucharest.

Comaneci followed the 2018 French Open semifinals on TV from Oklahoma, where she lives with husband and fellow Olympic champion gymnast Bart Conner and 13-year-old son Dylan.

“It was 5 in the morning, finished at 7, and by 11 o’clock I was on the phone with United Airlines,” said Comaneci, who attended the previous year’s French Open, where Halep was upset by 47th-ranked Latvian Jelena Ostapenko in the final.

Two days later, Comaneci’s flight was late landing in Paris. She deplaned around 11 a.m. and arrived on the grounds just as Halep and Sloane Stephens began the final.

Though Halep didn’t follow gymnastics as a kid, Comaneci was still an inspiration. A symbol that an athlete from Romania could become best in the world, although it came under far different circumstances in the 1970s.

“To have a great champion in your box, it gives you power, that she appreciates what I’m doing,” Halep said at the 2015 U.S. Open, which Comaneci also attended.

For Comaneci, to see Halep be feted in Bucharest for her 2018 French Open title reminded her of coming back from the 1976 Montreal Olympics with five medals, including three golds, and seven perfect 10s.

More than 20,000 Halep admirers filled Bucharest’s Arena Națională. She cried.

For Comaneci, her reaction as a 14-year-old returning to Romania in 1976 was a bit different. She cried, too. She lost a doll she had been carrying.

“I got out of the plane, and I heard there were 10,000 people,” she said. “I got back in because I didn’t understand why people came this time and never came before. I did the same routines. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what I had done.”

Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu ordered a celebration, the likes of which had never been seen in Romania.

“It was scary,” Comaneci wrote in her book. “All those years when nobody cared and now, suddenly, everyone was pushing, pulling, and trying to touch me.”

Thirteen years later, Comaneci defected. She and six others trudged overnight through the woods and into Hungary and, two nights later, 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.

Halep hasn’t dealt with anything like that. But she was scrutinized for those four years between making her first Slam final and, after three runners-up, lifting that first major trophy. She is Romania’s biggest sports star at the moment, said Adrian Toca, a journalist for the website Treizecizero.

Romania’s main sports newspaper, Gazeta Sporturilor, has put her on the front page for several straight days during Grand Slams. Before the 2018 Australian Open final, it photoshopped Halep into a Wonder Woman outfit.

“It kind of is a lot of pressure,” Toca said. “The public and the media [in Romania] can be very demanding of athletes, sometimes beyond reasonable.

“Nadia helped Simona a lot just by being next to her in important, good or difficult moments. And she wasn’t there just at the big wins. She also supported Simona at tournaments other than Slams.”

Comaneci said she and Halep do not discuss tennis or even what it’s like to be in the spotlight.

“Just giggle about … girls stuff, let’s put it this way,” Comaneci said.

Something else they have in common is the Olympic Games.

Halep said after winning the 2018 French Open that her next goal was an Olympic medal, which is rare for a tennis player. It is one of the few Olympic sports where an Olympic medal is not the pinnacle of achievement. Many would rather take any Grand Slam title, even if they already have one.

When Halep arrived in Bucharest for another celebration after her Wimbledon title in July, a main story out of the press conference was a confirmation that she would be Romania’s flag bearer in Tokyo.

That honor is not decided for most countries until the weeks or days before the Games. Technically, Halep hasn’t even qualified for the Olympics yet (though she is all but mathematically assured).

“Simona loves her country very much, and she is not just saying it, but showing it,” Toca said, noting that Halep played one of her best matches while representing her country at the Fed Cup in April, but Romania still fell to France in the semifinals. “She was affected by that loss.

“For the Romanian fans, especially at this point in her career, I think they will be grateful for any medal. Especially considering that we’re not amongst favorites for too many medals, and the current state of Romanian sports, it’s not that awesome.”

True, the men’s soccer team hasn’t qualified for a World Cup in this millennium. Its lone match win at a European Championship came in 2000. The women’s gymnastics team failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics after earning a medal at every Games since Comaneci’s debut in Montreal.

Overall, Romania earned one gold in Rio and four total medals, its lowest output in either category since 1952. Consider that Romania finished second in gold medals to the U.S. at the 1984 Los Angeles Games boycotted by Soviet nations.

“The young generation knows who we are because of their parents and because of, thank goodness, YouTube,” Comaneci said, according to an as-told-to story for ESPN.com last year. “Her win is great for Romanian kids to understand they don’t have to be born somewhere else to be the best.”

Those children now have an athlete to emulate whose recognition rivals that of Comaneci. Perhaps surpasses it.

“If Nadia walks down a street in Bucharest, she would be greeted, congratulated or people would just smile at her,” Toca said. “As for Simona, I don’t think she can afford to walk down a street right now, as she would probably have a hard time actually walking. Everyone would probably want a selfie or an autograph or just congratulate her.”

MORE: Roger Federer undecided on Tokyo Olympics

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier win U.S. figure skating pairs’ title in possible final nationals

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier haven’t decided if they’ll compete beyond this season, so Saturday may have been their farewell to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

If so, they went out as dominant winners, the first pair in their 30s to win nationals in more than 50 years.

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, took their second U.S. title together, totaling 227.97 points to prevail by 31.11 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe. They led by a gaping 15.1 points after Thursday’s short.

Knierim and Frazier were solid after errors on their opening jumping combination in Saturday’s free skate. They broke their own pairs’ margin of victory record from the 2021 U.S. Championships under a scoring system implemented in 2006. Knierim appeared to wipe away tears backstage.

“As I get older, the longer I’m in this sport, the more gratitude I have for it,” Knierim, the oldest woman to win a U.S. figure skating title since 1995 (Renée Roca), said on USA Network. “After that music ended, I’m just thankful that Brandon’s by my side and I’m able to do what I love.”

Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea bagged bronze to likely round out the three-pair team for March’s world championships.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Knierim and Frazier considered retiring after last season, after they missed nationals due to Frazier’s COVID-19, petitioned onto the Olympic team and posted the best Olympic finish for a U.S. pair (sixth) in 20 years.

They then became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, beating a field that didn’t include any of the top five from the Olympics.

They returned in part to compete as world champions and rank second in the world this season (during which the top Olympic pairs also haven’t competed). They will likely go into March’s worlds in Japan as underdogs to Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who won their lone head-to-head this past fall at the Grand Prix Final.

Back in October, Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“This U.S. Championships for us was extra special because you’re just reflecting on the journey, and you know that there’s a good chance that this will be your last one,” Frazier said.

Knierim won her fifth U.S. title, tying the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka InaTai BabiloniaRandy GardnerKarol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Silver medalists Chan and Howe continued their recent surge. After placing fourth at last season’s nationals, they rank sixth in the world this season. That’s despite summer injuries that left them unable to practice lifts (his shoulder) and throws (her foot) for a while.

Kam, 18, and O’Shea, 31, made the podium four months after becoming a pair and less than two months after a car Kim was riding in was hit by a drunk driver while crossing an intersection. The car was totaled, but Kim and O’Shea still competed days later in Croatia.

O’Shea won the 2016 U.S. title with Tarah Kayne, retired after they split in late 2020, then came back in 2021 with Chelsea Liu. They ranked sixth in the U.S. going into 2022 Nationals, but withdrew beforehand due to concussions both suffered in a November competition fall, according to Figure Skaters Online.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Women
Gold: Isabeau Levito — 223.33
Silver: Bradie Tennell — 213.12
Bronze: Amber Glenn — 207.44
4. Starr Andrews — 188.24
5. Josephine Lee — 187.68
6. Lindsay Thorngren — 187.19
7. Clare Seo — 175.60
8. Gracie Gold — 173.98
9. Ava Ziegler — 167.70
10. Sonja Hilmer — 166.49
11. Gabriella Izzo — 166.40
12. Ting Cui — 161.27
13. Audrey Shin — 161.12
14. Lindsay Wang — 154.91
15. Michelle Lee — 145.28
16. Elsa Cheng — 138.13
17. Alexa Gasparotto — 129.41
WD. Hanna Harrell

Men’s Short Program
1. Ilia Malinin — 110.36
2. Jason Brown — 100.25
3. Tomoki Hiwatashi — 85.43
4. Liam Kapeikis — 82.27
5. Andrew Torgashev — 78.78
6. Maxim Naumov — 77.71
7. Jimmy Ma — 73.88
8. Goku Endo — 73.45
9. Samuel Mindra — 71.36
10. Yaroslav Paniot — 70.87
11. Camden Pulkinen — 69.47
12. Matthew Nielsen — 67.98
13. Joonsoo Kim — 67.45
14. Daniel Martynov — 64.04
15. Will Annis — 63.46
16. Dinh Tran — 60.63
17. Mitchell Friess — 59.14
18. Joseph Klein — 58.38

Pairs
Gold: Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 227.97
Silver: Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 196.86

Bronze: Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea — 184.01
4. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 179.08
5. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 176.34
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 172.74
7. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 148.84
8. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 137.98
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 135.30
10. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 132.07
11. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 129.80

Ice Dance
Gold: Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 229.75
Silver: Caroline Green/Michael Parsons — 207.46
Bronze: Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko — 198.45
4. Emilea Zingas/Vadym Kolesnik — 198.13
5. Emily Bratti/Ian Somerville — 189.84
6. Lorraine McNamara/Anton Spiridonov — 189.15
7. Katarina Wolfkostin/Jeffrey Chen — 183.05
8. Eva Pate/Logan Bye — 182.61
9. Oona Brown/Gage Brown — 181.89
10. Isabella Flores/Ivan Desyatov — 177.31
11. Angela Ling/Caleb Wein — 167.87
12. Leah Krauskopf/YuanShi Jin — 133.93
13. Cara Murphy/Joshua Levitt — 129.85
14. Caroline Depietri/TJ Carey — 123.40
WD. Raffaella Koncius/Alexey Shchepetov

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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