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The world's first perfect gymnast
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 1999
What they caught was perfection.
Nadia Comaneci, the 14-year-old Romanian, arched in midair for an instant on her dismount from the uneven parallel bars, then the feet supporting her 4-foot-11, 86-pound body landed softly on the mat.
The silence was shattered by an explosion of cheering and applause that, after a few seconds, turned to consternation.
Flashing on the electronic scoreboard was 1.00.
It took a moment for the 18,000 spectators at the Forum to realize that Comaneci had, in effect, outperformed modern technology.
What she had achieved at the Montreal Summer Games on July 18, 1976, was a perfect 10, the first in Olympic history. It registered as 1.00 because the scoreboards were limited to three figures, the maximum being 9.99.
"I knew my routine was flawless," Comaneci said later. "I had performed it many times before in practice the same way."
Russian gymnast Olga Korbut never had been, in the eyes of Olympic judges, flawless. She had won three gold medals and one silver four years earlier at the Munich Games. She was the bridge between the women who had competed at previous Olympics and the girls like Comaneci who would follow. She had brought a heretofore unheard-of pizazz to Olympic gymnastics.
Korbut was the first to perform a backflip on the balance beam. She sparked the sudden urge of millions of American mothers to stuff their daughters into tights and send them off to the gym.
But at Montreal, Korbut was little more than a supporting player. Comaneci was the star. And when the judges awarded her performance a perfect score, it was as though they opened the sluice gate.
Before the Montreal Games were over, Comaneci would receive seven perfect 10s and would win three gold medals, one silver and one bronze. She would win two more gold medals at the 1980 Moscow Games.
Her performance in Montreal would make Bela Karolyi, coach of the Romanian women's Olympic team, an international star as well.
Karolyi had established his National Institute of Gymnastics in Romania and had discovered 6-year-old Comaneci when she was a kindergartner. She lived gymnastics from then on, residing at the institute and receiving an education, free meals, training, equipment and coaching, all paid for by the government.
It would pay off for teacher and pupil at Montreal. Karolyi ultimately would defect to the United States and begin working at a private gym in Houston.
And watching the Montreal Olympics on television at home in Fairmont, W.Va., an enthralled 8-year-old Mary Lou Retton would almost immediately begin training in earnest for her gymnastics future.
Retton eventually moved to Houston and placed her future in the hands of the man who had molded Comaneci to perfection.
The move would pay off handsomely.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.