A New-Look Miss Comaneci at the Garden

By Robin Herman

New York Times, Oct. 10, 1977   Offering a decidedly mundane and brief exhibition, Nadia Comaneci, the Rumanian gymnastics prodigy, drew near-sellout crowds yesterday to two performances at Madison Square Garden.

Joining six other Rumanian girls and the American boys and girls junior teams, Miss Comaneci is making a five-city tour of the United States, her first visit here since winning three gold medals at the Montreal Olympics with a series of perfect routines.

This was not the Nadia of 15 months ago.  Her shiny pony tail had been cropped in favor of a shaggy haircut in need of a shampoo, and her formerly slim muscular form had turned almost hefty.  She is slightly taller now, with added weight in the hips and the chest.  She will be 16 years old in November.

It was almost an hour into the program before Miss Comaneci had the floor to herself, running through a comfortable balance beam routine that featured only a forward somersault as the most daring move.  Bela Karolyi, Rumanian coach , left the more difficult routines to Miss Comanesi's aspiring teammates.

Teodora Ungureanu, another formidable Rumanian gymnast, had stayed home, reportedly with a case of hepatitis.  But a youngster with a flying black pony tail drew applause from the crowd -- 12-year-old Gabi Gheorghiu, whose poised and acrobatic moves on the beam and the uneven bars surpassed Miss Comaneci's unambitious routines.

The performances were unjudged and frequently accompanied by piano patter.  Without the tension of competition, there was a severe lack of drama in the presentation, and the show concluded weakly with some Rumanian folk-dancing routines that seemed beneath Miss Comaneci's talents.  And so once Miss Comaneci had been introduced to the screams of the youngsters who idolize here there was little more for which to cheer.

Perhaps the most captivating performance was the modern rhythmic gymnastics of an American, 17-year-old Sue Soffe of Agoura, Calif., who in neon-bright leotards, danced elegantly around her props of rope, ball, hoop and ribbon.  Miss Soffe won all five gold medals at the recent national championships in her innovative sport and stopped in Madison Square Garden on her way to the world championships in Basel, Switzerland.  The Soviet Union's gymnasts are the most accomplished at this hybrid of ballet and floor exercise, and Miss Soffe is hoping the event will be added to the 1980 Olympics.

The Americans had the chance to meet Miss Comaneci and the other Rumanian girls when the teams shared hotel quarters in Washington the other night and then took a bus up to New York.

"She signed lots of autographs for us," said Linda Kardos.

Percy Price, one of the American boys, said the Rumanian girls had told them about all the rules for the visit to America.

"Like they can't have chocolates, no soda, no sweet rolls," said Percy.

The rules, he said, seem more strict for Miss Comaneci.

"It's different for her," he said.  "Her coach is always with her -- all the time.  I couldn't believe that one time we were getting on the bus and he was yelling at her.  She was crying.  We felt we got her in trouble because the American girls gave them chocolates as gifts.  But that wasn't it.  The next night they asked us again -- for five sodas and more chocolates.  Maybe it was that she fell off the balance beam in one of our exhibitions.  I don't know."

And it was a stern group of Rumanian federation officials that attended yesterday's performances at the Garden and that forbid any interviews of Miss Comaneci or the rest of the young Rumanians by American journalists.

Still, Miss Comaneci seemed in a happy mood yesterday, laughing and joking with her teammates and with the supervising members of the Rumanian gymnastics federation.  But once in front of the crowd she assumed her mask of diffidence.

Although the tour is wanting artistically, which its show-business quality and lack of competition, certainly financially it will be a great boon to the development of funds of both the American and Rumanian federations, thanks to Miss Comaneci's reputation.  Pat Canessa, a vendor selling the Nadia souvenir book at $4.25 each yesterday, said he sold 43 books in 15 minutes during one particularly productive stretch.

The next stop is New Orleans, followed by two days of fun in Disney World, exhibitions in Chicago and Hartford, and a closing shopping spree in New York.

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