25 years later, memories of Montreal still vivid

Saturday, August 11th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Nadia Comaneci heard the crowd at the Montreal Olympics roar and turned around, no idea why they were cheering.

Then she saw it. There on the three-digit scoreboard was a 1.00.

``One of my teammates said, `I think it's a 10, but they don't know how to make a 10,''' Comaneci said. ``So I went up on the floor and waved.''

Only 14, she'd just made history with the first perfect 10 in the Olympics. She went on to duplicate the feat six times, and the world became utterly enchanted by the solemn, dark-haired Romanian who was still so young she carried a doll with her everywhere she went.

Now, 25 years later, her memories of Montreal are as vivid as if they happened yesterday.

``It seems and it doesn't seem'' that it's been 25 years, she said. ``I remember totally _ every routine, the gym, my teammate's routines. At the same time, a lot of things have happened in my life.''

Comaneci was hardly an unknown when she went to Montreal, having won the European championships the year before. But 10s were practically unheard of, meant to symbolize nothing less than total perfection.

The scoreboards at the time weren't even equipped to display a 10, allowing for only three digits in a sport defined by tenths and hundredths of a point.

``I was not prepared whatsoever that this big mark would ever be given,'' said Bela Karolyi, the Romanian coach at the time. ``And the Olympic Games were sacred for us.''

Comaneci's first event in Montreal was July 18, the compulsory uneven bars. Every gymnast had to do the same routine, but Comaneci found a way to make hers stand out, adding extra little flourishes that made the other routines look simple and boring.

She could hear the oohs and aahs as she twirled, flying from bar to bar. And though she took a small hop on her landing, she figured it wouldn't cost her much.

But perfection?

``I thought the judges were good to me,'' she said, laughing. ``But then, when you watch the tapes, you have a different feeling.''

Karolyi was livid when he saw the 1.00, thinking it symbolized a deduction or penalty. He stalked toward the referees, ready to do battle, when the announcer told the crowd it had just seen the first perfect 10 awarded in Olympic history.

``The whole crowd exploded and I was jumping up and down like a crazy rooster,'' Karolyi said. ``Those are moments you never forget. Even though time goes by and certain events fade out, this is one of the moments I'll never forget.''

She earned six more perfect 10s, three more on bars and three on the balance beam. By the end of the games she'd won three gold medals _ including the all-around title _ one silver and one bronze.

Though she was the darling of Montreal, gracing the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated all in the same week, neither she nor Karolyi realized the impact she'd have not only on the sport of gymnastics but the rest of the world.

``I was so young,'' Comaneci said. ``I didn't have time to digest it. Maybe it was good.''

Young girls begged their parents to give them gymnastics lessons. Mothers named their daughters after her. The music for ``The Young and the Restless'' was renamed ``Nadia's Theme'' because she'd used it for her floor exercise.

When thousands turned out at the airport to welcome her back to Romania after the Olympics, she was stunned.

``It was shock for me,'' she said. ``It was like, `Wait a minute, I've done these routines before and people didn't come out.'''

Comaneci won two more European titles, and two gold medals at the Moscow Olympics before retiring in 1981. Though she led a life of privilege in Romania, Comaneci defected in 1989, going first to Montreal and then the United States.

She reconnected with U.S. gold medalist Bart Conner, and the two married in 1996. On June 29, she became an American citizen.

``It's great to be able to be an American,'' she said. ``It's a good feeling.''

She kept her Romanian citizenship, too. She has strong ties to the country, and goes back about six times a year to visit her parents and brother who still live there.

Comaneci and Conner run a gym in Norman, Okla., and they travel extensively to promote the sport. She was named one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century two years ago, as well as one of the century's greatest summer Olympians.

And even though it's been 25 years since Montreal, she remains one of the most popular people in gymnastics. At the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, little girls lined up to get her autograph.

So did their parents.

``It's been 25 years and it's hard to believe that not only do people remember, but they remember where they were,'' Comaneci said. ``It's a great feeling when people associate the (Montreal) Olympic games with me.''