Nadia Comaneci

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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.”

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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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Simone Biles, more Olympians attend Golden Globe Awards (photos)

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A bevy of Olympic champions, headlined by Simone Biles, attended the Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Sunday night.

The list of Olympians on hand covered three sports and three countries:

Simone Biles, Gymnastics
Aly Raisman, Gymnastics
Madison Kocian, Gymnastics
Danell Leyva, Gymnastics
Nadia Comaneci, Gymnastics
Bart Conner, Gymnastics
Conor Dwyer, Swimming
Haley Anderson, Swimming
Ashton Eaton, Track and Field
Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Track and Field

Images via Getty and AP:

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BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 08: (L-R) Gymnast Danell J. Leyva, Bart Conner, Nadia Comaneci, gymnast Aly Raisman, Ashton Eaton, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Simone Biles, swimmer Conor Dwyer, gymnast Madison Kocian, a guest and football player Colton Underwood attend HBO's Official Golden Globe Awards After Party at Circa 55 Restaurant on January 8, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images)

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 08: (L-R) Gymnast Danell J. Leyva, football player Colton Underwood, gymnast Simone Biles and gymnast Aly Raisman attend HBO's Official Golden Globe Awards After Party at Circa 55 Restaurant on January 8, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images)

Aly Raisman, from left, Simone Biles and Madison Kocian arrive at the 74th annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 08: (L-R) Swimmer Conor Dwyer and gymnast Simone Biles attend the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 8, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)