Miss Comaneci, 19, Makes Fresh Start

By Ira Berkow

New York Times, March 6, 1981   Suddenly the music stopped.  Nadia Comaneci turned, her body frozen still as a park statue, arms extended, balletic toe dipped, and looked over her shoulder to see what was the matter.

"Oom," explained Geza Pojar [sic], choreographer for the Rumanian gymnastics team.  "Yuh."  He thrust his arms back and his bearded chin up.

"It must be like a bird, soaring, like wings," Pojar said, in Rumanian.  "Not like a scared woodpecker."

He stood at the edge of the blue gymnastics carpet in the Felt Forum yesterday while his star pupil practiced her floor exercise routine.  She was preparing for "Nadia '81," an exhibition at Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon that included the Rumanian women's Olympic team and selected members of the United States men's national team, the start of a six-city tour.

As Pojar spoke, a little smile appeared on Miss Comaneci's small, pouty mouth -- a surprise to those observers who remembered her as the intense 14-year-old with brooding eyes who rushed into fame at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, scoring the first 10 in Olympic history, then went on to achieve six more 10's and three gold medals.

She grew serious again when the tape of "Ciocirlia," a popular Rumanian symphonic work, again filled the relatively empty auditorium.

In a simple, black warm-up uniform, her ponytail tied in a shimmering blue ribbon, wearing eye shadow and with red polish on the fingers of her calloused hands, Miss Comaneci elegantly, buoyantly, wingedly whirled through a series of flips, spins and leaps.

"Bravo," Pojar said. "Perfect."

Perfect.  The word was hers well before it was Bo's.

It was her glory -- she gained instant international celebrity -- and it was her despair.  A year after the 1976 Olympics she had gained 25 pounds, going from 85 to 110, and had grown from 4-11 to 5-3 1/2 (she is now 5-4).  Changes in body size were inevitable in a girl, but the added weight seemed excessive.  And shocking.

She had received great attention -- from the covers of magazines to the Hero of Socialist Labor medal, the highest reward granted in Rumania -- and she was obviously buckling.  Rumanian officials, often tight-lipped about such things, admitted to intimates that Miss Comaneci might be suffering an emotional breakdown.

And she discovered that she could no longer do things in gymnastics that, since age 6, had seemed to come to her as naturally as waking up.

"I couldn't look at myself in the mirror," she recalled yesterday, sitting in a chair in the Forum.  Her once exquisitely muscled legs and arms had grown beefy.  She had cried to her coach, Bela Karolyi, who discovered her in a first-grade recess class, "I cannot do anything right anymore."  Gently, he had assured her she would.

"I had to go to the seashore for a rest," she said.  She also cancelled several performances and lost in meets she was expected to win.

Gradually, she regained her form.  She went on a strict diet of milk products, even abjuring her beloved Mars chocolate bars, and dropped to her present weight of 90 pounds.

"But her enthusiasm for the sport and her concentration -- that is the key -- was still there," Karolyi had said.

Miss Comaneci won a gold medal in the 1977 European championship and won the all-round title in 1979.  In the world gymnastics championships in Fort Worth in December 1979, she suffered an infected left wrist.  Despite doctor's orders not to compete, she dramatically entered the stadium, and, with one hand, scored a 9.95 on the balance beam to provide the margin of victory for her team.

In the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, she won three gold medals and again scored 10's, but her experience was tainted by a long argument among the judges that tilted the decision for the all-round gold medal to the hometown Soviet entry, Yelena Davydova.

"I don't want to remember Moscow," she said.

At 19, there is no reason for her to look back.  She expects to compete in three world-class tournaments this year, and possibly, the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but she maintains a wait-and-see posture on that.

As a first-year student at the University of Physical Education in Bucharest, she is working hard in her studies, which include English, French, Geography and Mathematics, and she plans to be a trainer of gymnasts.

She is a young woman now, and not the child of Montreal.  Her lithe body, still slender, is endowed with graceful feminine curves.  She is no longer the narrow all-consumed gymnast.  She jokes with teammates, clowning through routines in casual moments, and is involved in a social life that she never had before.

"No special boyfriend," she said.  "I have many friends -- boyfriends and girlfriends."

Boys, though intrigued her even in Montreal.  At the Time, she was asked who her hero was.

"Alain Delon," she said, without hesitation.

At the Forum yesterday, she was asked if the French actor was still her hero.  She scrunched her nose, apparently suggesting such things were for starry-eyed little girls.

"No," she said.  "It's Robert Redford."


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