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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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J’den Cox repeats as world wrestling champion; Kyle Snyder stunned

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If he wasn’t crowned already, it’s clear U.S. wrestling has a new king.

On a day when Rio Olympic champion Kyle Snyder was upset and London Olympic champ Jordan Burroughs rallied for another bronze medal, J’den Cox repeated as world champion in Kazakhstan.

Cox, the Rio Olympic 86kg bronze medalist, completed a perfect run through the 92kg division — not giving up a point in four matches — by dominating Iranian Alireza Karimi 4-0 in the final. He became the second U.S. man to win an Olympic or world title without surrendering a point in more than 30 years (joining Kyle Dake from last year).

“I don’t know why, but it feels like a ton better [than 2018],” said Cox, whose tattoos include one that reads in Latin, “If I cannot move heaven, I will raise hell.” “I made more sacrifices … I wanted to do it better.”

Earlier Saturday, Snyder was shocked by Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov 5-2 in the 97kg semifinals, denying a third straight world final between Snyder and Russian Tank Abdulrashid Sadulayev. Sharifov, the 2012 Olympic 84kg champ, clinched his first world medal in eight years.

Snyder, who in Rio became the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion at age 20, failed to make an Olympic or world final for the first time in his career. He will wrestle for bronze on Sunday, while Sharifov meets Sadulayev for gold.

Burroughs earned his seventh straight world championships medal and second straight bronze. Burroughs, the 2012 Olympic 74kg champion, rebounded from losing to Russian Zaurbeck Sidakov on Friday with a 10-0 technical fall over Japanese Mao Okui.

Burroughs gave up a lead on Sidakov with 1.3 seconds left in the semifinals, a year after Sidakov overtook him as time expired in the quarterfinals.

“A lot of people in 2016 called me a quitter,” said Burroughs, who tearfully missed the medals in Rio, “and I think that after watching the amount of devastation and heartbreak that I’ve taken over the last two years and still being able to come back and take third place is a testament.”

Burroughs, 31, shares third with Adeline Gray on the U.S. list of career world wrestling championships medals, trailing only Bruce Baumgartner and Kristie Davis, who each earned nine.

Burroughs’ bronze ensured he gets a bye into the 74kg final of the Olympic trials in April. But this will be the first time he goes into an Olympic year as anything other than a reigning world champion.

“At this juncture of my career, I feel I’m running out of time,” said Burroughs, who next year will be older than any previous U.S. Olympic wrestling champion. “That can be really scary.”

Dake marched to Sunday’s final in defense of his 2018 World title at 79kg (a non-Olympic weight) by going 23-4 over three matches. Dake, who at Cornell became the only wrestler to win NCAA titles at four weight classes or without a redshirt, gets Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov in the final, a rematch of the 2018 gold-medal match.

Next year, Dake must move up to 86kg, where Cox will likely reside, or down to 74kg, where Burroughs has won every U.S. Olympic or world trials dating to 2011. There’s also David Taylor to reckon with. Taylor won the 86kg world title last year but missed this season due to injury.

“We’ve got a guy at 79 kilos that’s going to win a world championship tomorrow,” Burroughs said, smiling, of Dake, “I’m hopefully going to be waiting for [Dake at Olympic trials], healthy and prepared.”

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Alexandra Trusova, 15, becomes first woman to land three quadruple jumps

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Alexandra Trusova established herself as the world’s leading female figure skater … in her first senior international competition.

Trusova, the 15-year-old, two-time world junior champion from Russia, became the first woman to land three quadruple jumps in one international competition program, posting the world’s highest free skate and total scores on the early season.

Trusova previously landed three quads in the free skate at the Russian Federation’s test skates in early September.

She opened Saturday’s free skate with a quadruple Lutz, a quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination and another quad toe to run away from Japanese Olympian Kaori Sakamoto by 44.27 points. Video is here.

She won a lower-level event in Slovakia with 238.69 points, which would have beaten Japan’s top skater, Rika Kihira, and Olympic bronze medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva by more than 14 points at an event last week in Canada. However, judging panels can be more or less forgiving from event to event.

Still, Trusova established herself as a force going into next month’s Grand Prix season. She will face Kihira and Medvedeva at Skate Canada the last week of October.

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