Escaped From Communism
The 1980s were a difficult time for Comaneci. She was living in a totalitarian country that was not only politically repressive, but also struggling economically. Coach Karolyi and his wife defected to the United States in 1981. The Romanian government feared that she might do the same so her international travels were restricted and tightly guarded. In many other ways, however, Comaneci was treated as a celebrity. She and her family lived in a large home, she owned a car, and she had many privileges that her fellow countrymen did not enjoy. After retirement she finished college at the University of Physical Education and she worked as a state coach.
Despite her celebrity status Comaneci was unhappy because of the difficult living conditions in her country and because of her lack of personal freedom. In 1989 she decided to defect to the United States with the help of her manager Konstantin Panit, a Romanian expatriate who worked as a roofer in Florida. When she arrived in the United States Comaneci told Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, "I am very happy because I am here in America. I wanted for a long time to come here, but I didn't have anyone to help me."
However, the American media did not exactly welcome Comaneci. Stories circulated that she and Panit were a couple, even though Panit had a wife and children in Florida. Comaneci maintained that she was held hostage by Panit who was trying to exploit Comaneci's fame for his own financial gain. He threatened to send her back to Romania if she did not cooperate. Eventually her gymnast friends and former coach Karolyi intervened on her behalf. Panit fled with Comaneci's money, but she finally had her freedom.
Comaneci spent the following year in Montreal with the family of Alexandru Stefu, a fellow Romanian. She then moved to Norman, Oklahoma to work with coach Paul Ziert. She also developed a strong friendship with American gymnast Bart Conner. The two gymnasts performed in exhibitions together an eventually began dating. They married in Romania in 1996. They both work as coaches at the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy in Norman and they also have several other business ventures together. In 2001 Comaneci became a United States citizen.
For over 40 years Comaneci has managed to captivate the world both as an athlete and in her personal life. She is one of the most memorable Olympic athletes who has dedicated her career to promoting the sport of gymnastics. According to Frank Litsky of the New York Times, Comaneci gives the following advice to the young gymnasts that she trains: "If you go for a little gold every day instead of saving that energy for a big championship, that's the best way."
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