Laurel Brubaker Calkins
July 15, 1996 12:00 PM

Olga, Nadia, Mary Lou. While still in their teens they were already Golden Girls, known the world over by their first names alone. Tiny but tough, they could leap tall balance beams in a single bound. Fans were entranced as each performed to perfection: Olga Korbut in 1972 in Munich; Nadia Comaneci in 1976 in Montreal; and Mary Lou Retton in 1984 in Los Angeles. Between them, they won nine gold medals. All three are now married and long past their competitive careers. But gymnastics is still very much a part of their lives.

In 1991, Korbut and her husband, Leonid Bortkevich, left Russia to join their son Richard, now 17, who had gone to live with relatives in New Jersey five years earlier. Today they live in suburban Atlanta, where Bortkevich, 46, a former folk-rocker, works in a photo store. Korbut, 41, suffers from thyroid problems she attributes to radiation poisoning following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident 180 miles from her home in Minsk, Byelorussia. She has traveled the world raising consciousness about Chernobyl-related health issues and money for its young victims. Since moving here, she has supported herself by running gymnastics clinics in the U.S. and Europe and hopes eventually to open her own gym in Atlanta. This summer—her English improved by watching and rewatching cable movies—Korbut will be a liaison for the Byelorussian Olympic team.

In April, Comaneci, 34, wed her longtime beau, U.S. gold medalist Bart Conner, 38. The couple run a gymnastics school in their adopted hometown of Norman, Okla. Comaneci’s path to this happy landing has been rocky. After her Montreal triumph—where she was the first gymnast to score seven perfect 10s—she competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics and then spent nearly a decade in obscurity in her native Rumania, unaware of her international celebrity. Her athletic success gave her and her family special privileges within the inner circle of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, but she rarely talks about those years. Her new life began in 1989, shortly before Ceausescu’s overthrow, when she fled to the U.S. with Constantin Panait, a roofer. She has since said Panait was attempting to exploit her fame and kept her a virtual prisoner until Conner, an acquaintance, and other gymnasts helped her launch a new career in the West. Soon her relationship with Conner blossomed into love. They began living together in 1991. In Atlanta, Comaneci will do commentary for French and Rumanian TV.

Of the three, Retton, 28, seems to have made the smoothest transition, working since 1984 as a sportscaster and motivational speaker. She lives in Houston with her husband of five years, financial analyst Shannon Kelley, 30, whom she met when both were students at the University of Texas. Their daughter Shayla Rae was born last year. Retton will be on the Gannett Broadcasting team in Atlanta.

Although they have followed one another’s achievements, the three had never sat down to talk until PEOPLE correspondent Laurel Brubaker Calkins brought them together in Houston this spring for an ebullient chat about their amazing lives and careers. When they met, embracing and kissing, Olga squealed, “You’re so skinny!” Retorted Nadia: “Was I ever big?” Excerpts:

Who were your idols growing up?

Retton: I was originally inspired to get into gymnastics by watching Olga at the Olympics when I was about 4 years old. What I remember most about her was that she was the Russian who showed emotion. Back then, we as Americans thought of Russians as robots. But Olga had emotion: She smiled, she cried. That made a big impact on me.

Yet Nadia was definitely my role model. I remember being just in awe of her and thinking, “I want to be like Nadia.”

Comaneci: That makes me happy and proud.

What was the worst moment of your career?

Retton: It was knee surgery six weeks before the Olympics. My knee had been bothering me that whole year, but I didn’t think much about it. But finally the knee had enough. The cartilage had broken off, and the joint was locked up. They took me to the emergency room, and the doctor nonchalantly said he was going to do surgery.

I’ve always been a positive person, and I tried to remain positive. But the doctors were telling me there was no way I would go to the Olympics. I said, “I’ve made it this far—no one’s going to keep me from trying.” If I’d listened to the doctors and given up, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. [After arthroscopic surgery] I did the rehabilitation work in three weeks that would have normally taken three months.

Comaneci: Mine was at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, on the uneven bars. The officials stopped the competition for 28 minutes to give me my score.

Retton: You see, there was also a Russian girl competing, and the officials wanted the Russian to win. It was a joke. They needed to let the other girl perform in a different event [to see how she scored] before they would give Nadia her score. [Nadia got only the silver.] Nadia should have won the gold, and everybody knows it.

Korbut: I don’t remember my worst moment. I don’t remember because if I didn’t love gymnastics, I wouldn’t stay in it, even now. Sometimes I say, “Enough…all my life I’ve done gymnastics. Let’s do something else.” But I was born in gymnastics, and it is in my heart.

Now that you are no longer in training, what are your secret indulgences?

Retton: I indulge in other sporting activities. When we were competing and we weren’t actually working out, the coaches always wanted us to rest. Now, I can go Rollerblading and skiing and stuff. We were never really allowed to do those things because of the possibility of injury.

And I always have to watch my weight because I’d weigh over 300 pounds if I didn’t. But I guess my guilty food secret is fat-free snacks—like a chocolate chip cookie or two.

Comaneci: I’m still working out almost every day, so I believe moderation in everything is the key. I can’t think of anything I’m dying to do or eat. Well, maybe I indulge in sausage pizzas—and Snickers bars. I like to keep the bars in the freezer so they’re real cold.

Korbut: At first, when I stopped competing, I thought I would eat all the world. But now, I don’t have anything I particularly want. But I do like to stay up late. I like to watch TV and movies at night.

Comaneci: It’s like with little kids. You take away things from them, and that’s what they want to have the most. But we make our living by the way we appear. If you want to be a role model, you have to make your own decisions. Either you can eat this, or you can look like that.

Retton: Actually, having to make my own decisions was one of the hardest things to get used to. We had been coached all our lives. We were told what to eat, what to wear, what to do our whole lives. I was never the one who got to say yes or no. Planning my wedding was a turning point for me, because I was the one making all the decisions.

What advice would you give youngsters hoping to follow in your footsteps?

Retton: At the age of 7 and 8 and 9, all [gymnastics] should be is fun.

Comaneci: That’s what it’s all about. Now, you ask every kid in the gym, “What do you want to do?” and they all say they want to be in the Olympics. Which is okay to dream about, but the coaches and parents have to be realistic. It doesn’t matter how far they get competitively, because they are going to get a lot of things from sports—discipline, how to commit themselves.

Retton: And you have to love it, because there’s no way anyone could have forced us to work the hours that we worked in the gym.

How do you relax?

Comaneci: We travel every two days. So I like to go home, because I can watch my soap operas—my favorite is The Young and the Restless—and I get to lay down in the sun.

Korbut: We have a pool and we play Ping-Pong. And we have a pinball machine like they have at the arcades. And also I like to cook—Russian food mostly because that is the most delicious.

What is the best part of your life today?

Retton: Shayla is, and my family life. Being a celebrity—and I really hate that word—I want to give her the most normal upbringing possible. My husband and I are both Christians, so we plan to bring her up with good morals and good values. She is the shining star of my life right now.

Korbut: The best part of my life is when I am at home with my family. I feel relaxed. I have the chance to just be a normal person.

Comaneci: What is missing now is kids to make the family. But being married makes the circle totally round. We have an unusual life, but we’re very happy.

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