I was seven years old in the summer of 1976, when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect 10 (a first in modern Olympic gymnastics), and won the gold at the Montreal Olympics.
Thirty-six years later, I still remember the day I sat in front of a TV in Bucharest, screaming Haide Nadia (Go Nadia).
In a country where gymnastics and soccer are the national sports, it was a moment of thrill and pride, and the beginning of every mother’s dream for her little girl to one day be like Nadia.
I grew up too tall and not gymnastically inclined. Even though I did my tumbling and twirling, my gymnastics phase ended faster than it began. But that didn’t matter. What counted was that we all got behind our Nadia, and loved her with every bit of our hearts.
That might sound silly — this veneration of a star athlete. Not from our perspective. National pride was huge in the Romania I grew up in. We lived under a repressive system, a government that censored everything and dictated our lives while telling the world how happy we were.
What the government couldn’t take away was our sense of fellowship — a net of family and friends, insisting on enjoying and embracing one another.
When one of the twenty-three million family members tumbled her way into perfect Olympic glory, she made us all happy.
Years later, we got news of Nadia leaving the country. We listened to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, anxiously awaiting word — did she get there okay? How was she doing?
Nadia went through her trials and tribulations, but eventually she was not only okay, she flourished. Married gymnast Bart Conner, had a child, and after the Revolution returned to teach gymnastic. A different person, but much the same.
Life changed for many of us, including myself. I no longer live in Romania, but I will forever claim Nadia as one of my own. My distant family member. My Olympic hero.
I would love to hear from you. Do you have a favorite Olympic athlete or sport? One time you remember the most? What made it into a favorite moment?
Photo credits: Nadia Comaneci, turner.com/si/multimedia/photo_gallery, olympic.summer.moments/images; Nadia Comaneci, daylife.com/imageserve.