Letters to a Young Gymnast


By Nadia Comaneci

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If there were such a thing as an “elder” stateswoman in women’s gymnastics today, Nadia Comaneci would win that title as readily as she once won gold medals. Olga Korbut came before her, and many other medalists would follow, but none has ever been as dominant in winning the hearts of millions around the world. With grit and determination, Nadia Comaneci ushered in a new era for women’s sports, one where young girls could vault into the arena of superstardom. Even today, almost thirty years after her greatest triumphs, you need only mention the name “Nadia” and gymnastics fans know instantly whom you are talking about. In Letters to a Young Gymnast, Nadia shows what it takes to achieve athletic perfection and become the best. With inspiring and dramatic stories from her own experience, she tells us how the young girl that Bela Karolyi discovered in a Romanian elementary school found the inner strength to become a world-class athlete at such a young age. This collection of Nadia’s memories, anecdotes, and advice grants unique insights into the mind of a top competitor. From how to live after you’ve realized your dream, to the necessity of “a spirit forged with mettle,” Nadia’s thoughts on athleticism and sacrifice are eye-opening and surprisingly challenging.


Praise for Letters to a Young Gymnast:
"A story told simply and elegantly of a young gymnast's progress to Olympic triumph, how it happened, and what happened after."
The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
"Comaneci comes across as a very thoughtful, determined person who combined her extraordinary skills with lots of work."
Library Journal
"Besides dispensing advice through letters . . . the former Olympian shares the ups and downs of her life as an athlete.... She makes it clear that what happened to her as a child and teenager led inevitably to the next period of her life, when she had to find a life outside gymnastics."
The Vancouver Sun
"[A] riveting autobiography."
School Library Journal
"Comaneci, as few will forget, scored seven perfect 10s at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. In [Letters to a Young Gymnast, she] reveals how a Romanian school girl went from climbing trees to the medal podium and the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated."
Ottowa Citizen

This book is dedicated to my best friend and husband Bart Conner. We have come a long way since our first kiss in 1976 and I cannot imagine anyone else to make this journey with or whom I am more proud to call my partner.

Dear Nadia,
Tell me everything . . .
Dear Friend,
I don't know everything. You have asked me to begin a correspondence in the hope of learning about my life. I am reticent. I've never written about myself before because there is not enough time in the world to spend it looking back.
You believe that there are answers in my past to the questions of dedication, strength, courage, pressure, goals, dreams, triumphs, challenges, and love. I look at those words and they slide from the page into chapters that I rarely visit. But you tempt me to recall forgotten stories and relive moments of happiness and hell.
I will try to answer your letters with the hope that my experiences may help you in some small way. Remember that they are mine and you must build your own story with both care and wild abandon.
Nadia Comaneci

The Dream
There are two gymnastic moves on the uneven bars named after me. The first is called the "Comaneci Salto." Salto is a general term for a somersault. To perform a Comaneci Salto, the gymnast begins in a support position on the high bar. She casts away from the bar and performs a straddled front somersault and regrasps the same bar.
Gymnastics skills are rated from the easiest move to the most difficult. An A move is the easiest, then there are B, C, D, E, and Super E moves. The Super E is the most difficult, and usually, only a few gymnasts in the world can perform one. The Comaneci Salto is rated an E move. Even now, many years after the 1976 Olympics, very few gymnasts attempt the Comaneci Salto because it is so difficult.
I have a recurring dream. In it, there are two young girls with long brown hair floating over my bed. They wear gauzy, white nightgowns that fall loosely around pale legs and delicately pointed bare feet. I lie on my back beneath the covers watching them hover. They are lovely creatures, and I am not afraid; I am mesmerized, and I long to join them because they are cloaked by soft light, graceful and pure. Their lips, pale rosebuds, curve into smiles; their brown eyes are wise; their delicate fingers cup together, holding a hidden promise.
And then the dream changes. The girls hover closer, and their mouths open into cavernous, yawning black holes. Suddenly, all I can see is darkness. All I can hear is the roar of a vast ocean. I am cold; I am afraid; I am alone. I know that the blackness will swallow me whole, but my bones are leaden and I cannot move from my bed. I try to call out for help, but the scream catches in my throat. The terror tastes like salt and blood.
And then the dream shifts. I see tiny bursts of color flutter out of the darkness. The girls drift overhead; I am still shrouded by the void, but sapphire, ruby, and amber-colored butterflies with transparent wings dart at the edge of vision . . . first one, then two, then many more. They look like stained glass—delicate, fragile, and breathtaking. The black begins to recede.
I peer into the girls' cupped hands. They are empty, and yet, they hold everything . . . promises, opportunities, desperation, love, angry words, delight, Romania, deception, rag dolls, fairy dust, clarity, applause, my grandmother's smile, tears, fear, red ribbons, barbed wire, practices, curses, surprises, my mother's touch, elation, America, music, the scent of vanilla, refusal, a first kiss, dances, whispers, apple trees, my brother's laugh, the scrape of chalk against my palms, airplanes, sunsets, disappointment, skin and wind and waves, rivals, survival, upheaval, broken words, magic, the feel of my father's hugs, chocolate, passports, fishing trips, funerals, birthdays, proposals.
Sometimes in my dream, fear paralyzes me, and I cannot reach for the girls' hands. The darkness grows again, and I am swallowed and wake gasping for air, my hair drenched with sweat, my heart skipping and racing and grasping. I feel lost then and lonely in my failure. I feel like a child, a teenager, a young woman who never had the opportunity to control her destiny and learned nothing from the years of frustration, confusion, and desolation. I see the ghostlike girls fade from my vision and their almond-shaped eyes fill with regret.
Sometimes, though, I take the girls' hands and gently open them; I let life slide through their fingers because there are moments when I have the courage to risk letting go of everything even though I understand the danger of doing so. Then my bedroom fills with butterflies and bursts of electric color, and the darkness recedes. I am wrapped in the knowledge that I cannot always choose dreams but that I can be lost and found, afraid yet brave, and make each moment my own.
Dear friend, in your letter you asked about my dreams, childhood, and early life as a gymnast. Perhaps you expected short and simple answers. Maybe you wanted to hear about my first perfect score of 10, gold medals, defection . . . I promise all that will come. But my life, like your own, is much more complex than a simple list of failures and accomplishments, and I will not cheat you of your answers despite some discomfort on my part in the telling.
I have come to realize that these letters are not only for you. There is a catharsis that comes from recalling the memories I had carefully packed away in the attic of my mind so that I could go on with my life unburdened by the remembering. You have asked me to shine a light into that dusty place, and I am finally ready to do so. Bear with me. Write me again, and take my hand when I falter because I cannot make this journey alone. I do not know you, but you will know me.
Do you know what they say about stories? That there are always three versions—yours, mine, and the truth. This is mine, and I hope that what I have seen and understood and what I choose to share during our correspondence is valuable for you. Everyone has a few secrets. I will tell you some of mine, but I will keep a few as well because they are either personal treasures or too painful to recall and because I worry about distressing the living or the relatives of the dead with tales that cannot be altered to protect friends and families.
You ask who I am. I was born in Romania on November 12, 1961, and named Nadia Elena Comaneci by my father, Gheorghe, and mother, Stefania. My name literally means "hope," but my grandparents always believed it should have meant "luck." When I made my loud entrance into the world, I had a rare and large birth defect—a sac of liquid on the top of my head that looked like an enormous blister. The Romanian doctors were stymied and told my mother that they weren't certain I would survive and that if I did, I'd have mental handicaps. The doctors stuck me with countless needles, but the problem remained.
Finally, my grandmother instructed my mother to take me to church on Sunday; before the priest entered, she was to carry me over the threshold three times. She did, and when she woke the next morning and took me from my cradle, the birth defect had disappeared. It was probably a coincidence, but that's her story and the first lucky thing that happened in my life.
The second lucky incident occurred a week after I left the hospital. My mother was staying at my grandparents' home so that they could help her take care of me. There was a big storm the first night, and the roof was covered with giant slabs of ice. The next day, while I slept in a tiny bed in the kitchen because it was warmest in there, my parents and grandparents repaired windows and leaks. Passing through the kitchen, my grandfather decided to pick me up. A second later, the roof collapsed onto the bed. I would have died if he hadn't been holding me at that moment. It was probably another coincidence, but I grew up Romanian and in the Orthodox Church—and we have a tradition of weaving stories into gifts from God.
My mother once told me that the first piece of meat I ever ate was part of a bird. She believes that is why I loved to be outside, climb trees, and jump from heights without getting hurt and why I was able to soar as a gymnast. She also believes that's why I did not break my neck or drown when I fell off a 5-meter-high bridge as a toddler. By that point, my brother, Adrian, had been born, and he was seated in a stroller while I walked by my mother's side over the bridge. Somehow, my foot got stuck in the wooden slats, and I flipped and fell over the edge and into thigh-deep water.
My mother panicked. She couldn't leave my brother on the top of the bridge and jump after me. First, my brother might have crawled out of the stroller and fallen, too. Second, my mother probably would have killed herself landing in the water, and that wouldn't have done either of us any good. So she raced over the bridge, and by the time she'd reached land, I was already out of the water and waiting for her. All I had were a few bruises. I did not cry. I rarely do.
Everything I feel remains inside, with rare exceptions. I internalize it all, but that's my personality—I don't like to play theater. My face is an impenetrable wall to the outside world. I am like a pond and can be a mirror for your emotions, dear friend, but I rarely allow my own to surface and form ripples on the water. Beneath my calm facade, there are sometimes storms, but I experience them alone and share what I've seen and learned later, in my own way.
As a child, I used to clench my teeth when I felt upset, angry, or frustrated, but I refused to give people the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I've heard my old coach, Bela Karolyi, say that I was the only young gymnast he could never break. Perhaps it has always been an ego thing with me. But it is not an act I put on like a piece of clothing; it is quite simply the way I am.
I have always been a quick learner. At a young age, I figured out that the best way to get what I wanted wasn't by crying. I paid a lot of attention to my parents when they talked and especially when they whispered. If I wanted to go to the zoo, I'd listen to exactly what they thought I needed to do to deserve that treat, and then I'd do it. Manipulative? Yes—but far less annoying to everyone than throwing a fit and bursting into tears. I did the same as a gymnast and channeled frustration or anger into my performance instead of wasting it on less productive feelings. Friend, no one ever accomplishes your dreams for you, regardless of tears, fits, or any other means of manipulation. They can give you ideas and direction, but in the end, you have to do it alone. You must figure out your own destination and the best route to get there because no one else knows the way.
When I was young, life was generally so simple and fun that it was hard to be upset and difficult to find a reason to cry. I spent my days playing outside and visiting my grandmother's farm, where I could dig carrots out of the ground and eat ripe, red tomatoes off the vine, the juice trickling down my chin. There were fruit trees laden with purple, red, yellow, and orange delights, their thick branches stretching toward the sky in thanks. I'd climb as high as possible and then drop, swinging down from branch to branch. There was so much freedom in the feeling of my body slicing through the air, my feet almost touching the clouds, the rough bark beneath my palms, and the scent of fresh grass when I landed in the backyard of my grandmother's house. No wonder that when I was introduced to gymnastics, I took to it like a duck to water—it gave me endless opportunities to soar through the air in ways I'd never before imagined.
I recall that I loved to play soccer, and I used to practice every day so that the boys would allow me to play on their teams. If I wasn't playing soccer or climbing trees, then I was doing cartwheels. The freedom of movement was intoxicating, and I could never stand still. My father was always filled with a sense of joy in life, and I believe I inherited that from him in the joy I get from movement, just as I know that I inherited my mother's intense, catlike brown eyes.
Fishing—that's another thing I loved to do. My grandmother on my father's side lived beside a little river where the water played soft melodies as it flowed over timeworn rocks. Grandmother and I would take a small, hollow ball and put tiny pieces of cornmeal inside it. Knee-deep in cool water, we'd wait for the fish to dive for the bait, and then we'd cover the hole with our hands and pull our dinner out of the river. We'd fry the tiny fish and eat them whole. I've never tasted anything sweeter than what I've caught with my own hands.
As I said, life was simple back then. My mother smelled like the kitchen because she was always cooking. She was a very energetic woman and did five things at one time very well. My father smelled of oil; he was an auto mechanic who walked 12 miles a day to and from work. He never owned his own car and had no desire to—cars, he used to say, always break down. We lived in the small village of Onesti, cradled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. There were forests, a few streets, a handful of stores, and tiny European-style homes that made Onesti appear more like a hamlet than a town.
Do you know anything about my homeland? You cannot truly understand a person unless you know where they have come from. I am who my people are and were; what they have gained and lost; the product of their wars, humiliations, revolutions, upheavals, and triumphs. If you want to know me, know Romanians because my spirit was created by their experiences, passed down and given as an offering to our collective future.
Ukraine, the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Moldova, and Hungary all border Romania. Moldavia and Transylvania compose the northern half of the country, which is divided down the middle by the Carpathian Mountains. The flat Danube plain of Walachia, with the capital Bucharest, lies south of the east-west line of the Carpathians. In my country, there are sandy beaches, densely forested mountains, and beautiful valleys. There are castles and famous waters known for their miraculous healing powers and places to ride horses and ski. As gymnasts, my teammates and I were taken every year for a relaxation period to some of the most incredible places in Romania—places the average citizen would never have the opportunity to experience. They still exist, despite the ravages that have passed through my country. If you can, try to see them some day.
When I think of Romania, I see the beauty. But its history, like that of all countries, is shaded by killing—for land, people, ideas, and freedom. Romanians are descendants of the Dacian tribe that inhabited the Balkan Peninsula. We were part of the Roman Empire and later were occupied by the Goths. The next to overrun our country were the Huns, then came the Bulgars, Slavs, and Russians. The invaders changed, but the violence remained, and in more recent times, Romanians suffered through the German occupation during World War II. In 1947, the Communists took control of our government, and our country was renamed the Romanian People's Republic.
My memory of the history of my country begins in 1967 when I was six years old and Nicolae Ceausescu was named the first secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. Later, Ceausescu became president. My earliest recollection of our government involved knowing that Ceausescu was my country's leader. I would only learn the extent of his crimes against my people later, after the bloody Christmas Revolution of 1989 when the Romanians finally rose up against his cruel and tyrannical rule.
As a child, all I knew were the tall trees, the mountain breezes, and my family. I was five years old when my brother was born, and I loved him from the moment the stork dropped him down our chimney. Originally, I thought that the stork used the front door, but to explain to me why my brother's skin was a shade darker than my own, my parents devised the chimney story, complete with soot. Despite Adrian's arrival, I was still daddy's little girl—wily, stubborn, and at times indulged. I am not proud of some of the things I did, but I must admit certain of those episodes do reflect my personality, so I will share a few stories with you.
I remember desperately wanting a pair of roller skates and my mother saying we didn't have money to buy them. I refused to accept her answer and convinced my father to go with me to the store, just to try the skates on—the old divide-and-conquer scheme. Once the skates were on my feet and I could feel the speed and power as I sped through the store, I couldn't bear to give them back. I raced onto the street wearing them so that my father was forced to purchase them. I have never been able to take no for an answer.
Another time, I was given a bicycle for my birthday. My father had put it together, but he warned me not to take it outside until he'd tightened all the screws. As soon as he left for work, I rode away, losing both pedals and eventually having the bicycle fall apart beneath me into a pile of pieces. My disappointment and the fact that my father made me wait a week before rebuilding the bike was punishment enough.
My father only spanked me one time in my life. I was seven years old. That morning, the sunshine poured through my window, pried my eyes open, and beckoned me outside with a gleaming finger. I was out of the house before I'd swallowed my breakfast, running down the road to find other children who wanted to spend the day losing themselves in the forests, wading through streams, racing in fields, and scrambling up trees. I didn't return home until after dark that night.
Friend, back then we didn't have telephones in our homes, so I couldn't check in with my parents or ask when I had to be home for dinner. It was both a blessing—because I didn't have to interrupt my fun—and a curse—because my parents had trouble keeping track of me. My father was frightened on the night I came home after dark, for he thought I'd been hurt. There had been a rumor that a dead child had recently been discovered in the basement of a home in a neighboring town. When I came into our yard—whistling, little twigs in my wild and long hair, my backside covered with leaves and dirt—my father was waiting for me by the window. He spanked me once with his belt on my behind and then made me kneel for three hours on cracked walnut shells. He wanted me to be as uncomfortable as he was while waiting for me to return home. I never did anything like that again.
I was a true tomboy, with uncontrollable energy that at times pushed my parents to the limits. They'd come into the house and find me pinned to the ground beneath our Christmas tree because I'd tried to climb it to reach the sweets hung on the top boughs. I wasn't crying under the pine needles—I was eating the handfuls of candy I'd swiped before the tree fell. They couldn't keep sap off my fingers or my clothes pressed and clean, and it was a rare day that I'd stay inside and do what most little girls did, such as play with dolls or help my mother around the house. I was a wild, strange scrap of a girl who was as happy playing alone as I was with friends. I didn't seem to need anyone—at times to my parents' chagrin.
I remember that period of my life as very happy. Although my family had the necessities—food, clothing, and shelter—there were not a lot of extras. There was no gourmet anything and no name brands. Jeans, shirts, and underwear were just clothing, and everyone wore the same thing. Everyone also went to the government doctors for health care; they injected you with medicine or gave you a pill—no choices, no alternatives. For many people, life was drab and colorless because they focused on what they did not have. But as a child, all you see are the endless possibilities.
You have grown up in the United States, and I wonder about your childhood. Do you live in a home with central air-conditioning and unlimited heat? I know that not everyone in America is wealthy or has access to what I would have considered luxuries, but what about you? Do you have many modern conveniences? Do you work by computer? Have you ever washed a plate or glass by hand? Do you take long, hot showers; order clothing from catalogs or off the Internet; eat fast food or dine on takeout from Thai restaurants; and chat on a cordless phone in your bedroom? I do not begrudge you any of these things, and I know that the United States is an incredibly diverse country with great riches and poverty. I just want to understand where you come from so that I can help you comprehend how different my life probably was from yours.


On Sale
Apr 28, 2009
Page Count
192 pages
Basic Books

Nadia Comaneci

About the Author

Born in 1961 in Onesti, Romania, Nadia Comaneci made sports history during the 1976 Olympic Games by scoring the first perfect “10.00” in a gymnastics competition. Since defecting to the United States in 1989, she is an international spokesman for her sport as well as numerous charities. She lives in Norman, Oklahoma, with her husband, American gymnast Bart Conner.

Learn more about this author