Nadia Comaneci: 'I didn't think winning the Olympics would be such a big deal'
With a single routine, Nadia Comaneci turned the sport of gymnastics on its head.
Her uneven bars performance at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal received the first perfect 10 in modern Olympic history, a score so unexpected that the scoreboard, not designed for the possibility of a perfect 10, flashed a 1.00 instead. That -- and the six other 10s Comaneci collected over the next several days -- made the 14-year-old from Onesti, Romania, the face of the Games.
Forty years after Montreal, Comaneci is the subject of espnW's new short film, "Eternal Princess," directed by Katie Holmes (watch it above).
Now celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary to fellow Olympic gymnast Bart Conner, the couple has a son, Dylan, age 9. We caught up with Comaneci to chat about her life, the state of the sport today, and three-time world all-around champion Simone Biles, who is poised for her own big Olympic moment in Rio this August. Here's what she had to say.
The first perfect 10 stands out most to me. I was the last one from my team to go up on uneven bars on the first day of competition in Montreal. It was the compulsory round, where everyone does the same routines on every event. I thought I did the bar routine pretty well, but that was all. As I landed the dismount I was already thinking about the next event. The music was already playing for us to march on to beam, so I didn't even look at the scoreboard.
All of a sudden there was a big commotion, so I turned to see what was happening. The scoreboard swung around, and under my number, 73, there was a score of 1.00. We were all confused for a moment. We thought maybe something was wrong with the scoreboard, that they had meant to give the routine a 9.9 and it had gotten stuck!
It wasn't my goal to score a 10. Yes, gymnasts aim for perfection, but I never thought about the score. If that's what's in your mind, it will probably mess you up. I just remember trying to stay focused. It takes very little to break your concentration, and then you make mistakes. In Montreal I kept thinking, "Pay attention, this is the Olympics! It only happens once every four years!" Before the Olympics I had felt like I was prepared for any situation, but I wasn't prepared for this. All the same, I think I handled it pretty well!
To be honest, I didn't think winning the Olympics would be such a big deal. When we got back to Bucharest, there were thousands of people waiting at the airport. When I stepped out and saw so many people, I actually went back inside the airplane for a bit! Everyone wanted to touch me, touch the ribbon in my hair, touch the doll I was holding -- a present from someone in Montreal. I didn't understand all the attention. I thought, "I've competed with the same routines before and won, and there were never thousands of people waiting to welcome me home. "
Coming to America wasn't a culture shock. The shock was that people remembered me after so many years. I thought I was ancient history. I thought I'd be remembered in gymnastics books, but not by the whole country. I felt very welcomed. It had been 13 years since Montreal and people remembered my name. Most people don't remember what happened at the last world championships.
My son knows me as a mom, not a gymnast. Dylan knows Bart and I were in the Olympics. We never told him, but he figured it out by himself. He likes gymnastics -- he comes into the gym and just plays, or asks his dad to teach him a particular skill -- but mostly he wants to do his own thing. His soccer team just won a championship last week. So he has his medal, and he's happy with that. I think he wants to stay away from doing organized gymnastics the way we did. And that's just fine.
It would be wonderful to re-establish the perfect 10 in gymnastics. In theory you can still get a perfect 10 for execution, but the execution score in gymnastics is now added to the difficulty score, which gives you a total score, and that makes it hard to understand. It's hard to associate the numbers today with perfection. Fans see a score of 15, and they want to know: 15 out of what? 15 out of 20?
Romanian gymnastics is going through a hard time. They didn't qualify to compete as a team at the Olympics this year, which was a big shock for a lot of people. It started at the world championships last year. One of the girls got hurt landing a vault the day before the competition, and they all just panicked. It was like Murphy's law -- whatever could go wrong, did. Much the same thing happened at the Olympic test event in April, which was their last chance to qualify a full team to the Games. The competition won't be the same without them, though they will get to send one individual gymnast.
Romania doesn't have a big tradition of gymnastics as a fun activity. We were a little behind in this aspect. About 4 million kids are doing gymnastics in the USA, and 300 or 400 kids total are doing gymnastics in Romania. So it's not the same thing. There's also an initiative in Romania called "Country, country, we want champions" that encourages kids to do gymnastics. We'll hopefully see this generation in Tokyo in 2020.
Simone Biles is going to be everywhere this summer. She's such a talent, and an amazing athlete -- she can do things even some of the men can't do, and she makes it all look so easy that people honestly believe her skills are easy to do. Gymnastics people understand that those things are not easy. I'm like, do you know how hard it is to flip like that? To do that many flips and twists? How fast you can hit the ground if you don't have the talent and haven't put in the work to do that?
Gymnastics needs to find a balance between difficulty and artistry. Now you have to do a large variety of difficult skills to be competitive. I like seeing advanced acrobatics, but I also like to see more than tumbling. It's important to combine the artistry of gymnastics with the tough skills. It's called artistic gymnastics. We should stand by the name.