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19 June 2019 | in FISU Athletes, Summer World University Games

'Perfect 10' Nadia Comaneci calls Universiade a career highlight

The name Nadia Comaneci will forever be associated with a ‘Perfect 10’. At the young age of fourteen, the Romanian stunned the world during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal by becoming the first gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect score of 10.0. The legendary athlete went onto receive six more perfect 10s en route to winning three gold medals in Montreal. Four years later, at the 1980 Moscow Games, she won two more gold medals and attained two more perfect 10s.


Perhaps lesser known is the fact that soon after the Moscow Olympics, Comaneci also led the Romanian women’s team to the all-round team gold medal at the Bucharest 1981 Summer Universiade. She was already a superstar, and fittingly the torch lighter of the Universiade cauldron, on home soil.


Nearly 40 years later, now living in Oklahoma with gymnast husband Bart Conner and son Dylan, Comaneci spoke to FISU ahead of the Napoli 2019 Summer Universiade and reminisced about her time as a Universiade athlete. Excerpts from the conversation.


FISU: When you think back to the Bucharest 1981 Summer Universiade, what is the first feeling or image that comes to mind? 


Comaneci: When I think back to the 1981 Universiade, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that the competition was held in Bucharest, Romania, my home country then. And I will never forget that. 


I was 20 years old and I was a university student. In fact, that was the important thing that actually allowed me to compete at the Universiade – because you have to be a student in order to compete. I was happy I could put the Universiade on my resume besides the Olympics, the World Championships and the European Championships.  I was very happy to have the World University Games (Universiade) in my career.


Nadia Comaneci with first coach Béla KárolyiMost athletes compete at a Universiade before the Olympic Games, but you were already a record-breaking Olympic medallist when you went to the Universiade. How was that experience? How different was it for you, as compared to other athletes, your compatriots?


In women’s gymnastics, you have usually finished competing at the Olympics and World Championships by the time you are old enough to be a university student. Basically, to compete at the Universiade you have to be at least 19 or 20 years old – and at that age, many women gymnasts are almost at the end of their careers, mostly done with the Olympics and the World Championships.  


How did competing at the Universiade feel different from competing at the Olympic Games? Were there any similarities? 


Actually, I don’t think it is very different competing at the Universiade or the Olympics. You always try to do your best, put up your best routines. In every competition, be it Nationals or Europeans or Worlds, you always want to perform your best.  Probably the real difference is when you compete at home, as it was the case for me at the 1981 Universiade. You know, you feel more anxiety and more excitement because you want to do your best in front of your entire country that is watching.


What were you studying at the Politechnica University of Bucharest, alongside your sport career? What was the greatest thing about being a student-athlete?


I was at the university for four years and studied physical education. I took it very seriously. I was going day-to-day to the university. I was taking all lessons from my college and I had to go there every day to take exams, even though I was still training and competing.


Nadia Comaneci at Bucharest 1981 Summer UniversiadeYou were already a world-renowned star, but you still chose to enrol in university. What made you decide to do that? How did you manage your time between studies and gymnastics?


Being a student and finishing university was extremely important to me and to my family.  Also, while I was competing at the university, I was basically considering myself old! I knew that the Universiade would probably be the last major gymnastics competition of my life.  


So, the Universiade was the last, but do you remember the first? Or in fact, the first time you ever tried gymnastics?


I do remember that I started when I was 6-and-a-half years old.  I did it because I had a lot of energy and I was also lucky that we had gymnastics as an option at a time when there weren’t too many women’s sports back in Romania.  


For a family that had a child with a lot of energy, it was great that there was a gymnastics club near home. So, my mother was very happy to sign me up.  


Tell us about that first perfect 10 moment. How did you react after your first perfect 10?


I remember I was 14 years old and very happy to score the 10. But maybe I was too young to understand the fact that I had made history.  


Comaneci had not only made history but in fact taken the world of gymnastics so much by surprise that Swiss Timing had not programmed their scoreboard to take into consideration a perfect 10. They had only prepared for up to 9.99. When the diminutive teenager turned around to look at her score, she saw 1.00. The perfect score was unheard of – it had never been done before. The importance of that moment is apparent to Comaneci now.


Nadia Comaneci & husband Bart ConnerIt has been over 40 years since your historic Olympic performance – does it surprise you how well-known and admired you are even today, even among the younger generation?


Yes, I am surprised that people still remember me after 43 years.  That means the impact that I had in 1976 was bigger than I had imagined then.  Hopefully, I can continue giving to the younger generations everything that I have learned through my experience with gymnastics.  


Comaneci and husband Bart Conner, a fellow Olympian, run one of the best gymnastics facilities in America, in their hometown of Oklahoma. Both continue to give back to the sport and are true philanthropists and leaders of society.


Comaneci is involved in a number of fundraising activities including the founding and operation of the Nadia Comăneci Children's Clinic in Bucharest, a non-profit socio-medical clinic that provides low-cost and free medical and social support to Romanian children. In this sense, she embodies the FISU vision of student-athletes going on to become leaders of society.


What advice can you give to future generations wanting to pursue a sporting career alongside academics?


I think sport is unbelievable. I’ve learned so much through practicing it, had so many varied experiences. I think being involved in sport is very helpful in life, to make friends and of course for health. Plus, it opens a lot of doors for your future.


Speaking of the future and future stars, have you been following UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi and her recent perfect 10 performances?


Yes, I watched Katelyn Ohashi. I love her routine. I think this is the excitement about gymnastics that is so important.  It brings me back to the time when we were competing, and the score could be a perfect 10.0.  Now the (FIG) rules have changed a little bit.  Now, you can’t get a 10.0 as a total score, but thankfully you can still get a 10.0 as an execution score (B score) so we have a little bit of the 10 left.  


Looking ahead to Napoli 2019, do you think the Universiade could be a good platform for testing rule changes? If so, what would you like to see implemented or tested in gymnastics, for example?


Not necessarily. I don’t think that the Universiade specifically could be a platform for testing rules. I think every competition is a platform where we can look at the facts, the results and we can look at what changes are best for the athletes and the sport of gymnastics.


Finally, in the year of FISU’s 70th Anniversary, what are your personal feelings about the University Sports Movement?


I wish FISU a very happy 70th anniversary and I am very thankful that I had the experience to be a competitor at the Universiade.  


All pictures courtesy: bartandnadia.com

Contributing: Sameer Janmohamed