There are precious few who think of Nadia Comaneci with fondness these days. And she knows it.
In the headline-filled year since the gold-medal gymnast defected from Romania last November, America’s romance with her has turned sour. The fresh-faced child of our memories was supplanted by harsher images: Her once delicate features were garishly repainted in loud makeup; her once graceful frame now tottered heavily on stiletto heels. At her side was Constants Panait, the gruff 36-year-old Romanian émigré who had masterminded her escape. In the months after her defection, the two journeyed across the U.S., driving first a $20,000 black Camaro convertible and later a $60,000 Mercedes. She stayed with him in motel after motel. That he was married and had four children seemed immaterial both to him and to her. When asked at a press conference about their relationship, Comaneci stuck out her tongue and said, “It’s a secret.”
“I do not feel good about all that,” says Nadia, stretching out on a large blue mat in a Montreal gymnasium, preparing for her performance in a traveling Olympic all-star show. But what the public saw, insists the 29-year-old gymnast, was not the truth of the matter. Now she is ready to explain. “I want to clarify this nightmare that happened to me,” she says. “This was not me.” Behind locked doors, as Nadia tells it, she was not Panait’s heartthrob but his hostage—mistreated and misunderstood. “I was not in love with this man,” she begins, declaring that they were not lovers. “He helped me to escape, but beyond that I wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted to find somebody and explain the situation, but I couldn’t. I was closed in the hotel room. I couldn’t answer the phone. I couldn’t speak with nobody. He would not let me. All the time I thought somebody was watching me and I was not safe. I was afraid.” (Panait’s precise whereabouts are now unknown. He could not be reached for comment.)
Her ordeal began, says Nadia, when she met Panait at a party in Bucharest three years ago. He had escaped Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship by swimming the Danube river, he told her. He could help her get out too. So she left behind her mother, Stefania, her brother, Adrian, her home and her 21 gold medals and walked for six hours, braving harsh weather and the fear of apprehension, to the Hungarian border. There, Panait met her and escorted her, via Vienna, to the United States. The story, says Nadia, should have ended there.
Panait didn’t see it that way. Five others he had led to freedom along with Nadia paid him $5,000 in advance, says Nadia. But Panait, anticipating a bigger profit from her, insisted she pay—and pay and pay—later. “He made lots of money, and it was something I didn’t like to do,” says Nadia, “but he would say, ‘Pay me! I have to make some money on this.’ ” Their supposed romance, she contends, was a story concocted by Panait and his wife, Maria, to titillate the media. “They were together all of the time,” says Nadia. “They talked every night. They put me in the middle of the scandal, and they loved this because they could get even more money.” Maria denies any involvement.
By all accounts it was Panait who demanded, negotiated—and, when possible, banked—the fees Nadia received for her interviews. Says John Florescu, co-executive producer of a Disney TV movie (to air in the fall of 1991) on Nadia’s life: “Constantin insisted the checks be made out to him, not her.” Florescu refused, he says, “but a lot of people didn’t, and that allowed him to walk away with her money.”
What kept Nadia from leaving, she says, was fear. “[Constantin] would say, ‘If you don’t do what I want, I will put you in a suitcase, wrap you in aluminum foil and send you back to Romania.’ ” Though such threats sound inane, Florescu believes that Panait’s psychological hold on Nadia was iron-curtain clad. “Nadia had always been property of the state,” he explains. In her mind, Panait may have seemed just the latest in a succession of domineering men. First there was Bela Karolyi, her coach and friend, who worked her body to painful perfection. Then there were President Nicolae Ceausescu’s Securitate guards, who watched Nadia’s every move. Then Nicu Ceausescu, the dictator’s brutal younger son, who was said to have taken Nadia as his mistress. (“I was forced to do the things I did,” says Nadia of her involvement with Nicu. “If you said no, you could be dead.”) And finally Panait.
“She honestly believed that Panait could send her back to Romania with a snap of the fingers,” says Florescu. “She was never allowed to pick up the phone or be with anyone alone.” Though Nadia now says that Panait hit her, when Florescu asked her about bruises on her legs, he remembers her saying, ” ‘It’s nothing. I hit my leg. Nothing.’ As if to say, ‘Don’t ask anymore.’ ” When the producer invited them to a party at his home, he says,” Constantin took her to the sofa, sat her down in the corner, took the opposite end and never left her. When I asked her a question, she would look at him and he would flick his eyes to her as if to say, ‘Remember what I said to say about that.’ You could sense she was getting her cues from him.”
It was Nadia’s strange behavior that eventually tipped off those who knew her. Her old mentor, Karolyi, called his friend Alexandru Stefu, a Romanian rugby coach living in Montreal. “Something is very wrong here,” he told Stefu. At Karolyi’s request, Stefu, dangling the prospect of a lucrative endorsement contract, lured Panait into taking Nadia to Montreal. Once there, Stefu managed to gel Nadia alone. “Alex, I have a problem,” she told him. “This is a bad guy. Please help me.”
Stefu’s presence, it turned out, was enough to rescue Nadia. “Panait came downstairs and found us talking,” she recalls. “He understood that something was not good. The next day he ran away.” With some $150,000 he had negotiated for Nadia (he left her $1,000) as well as the Mercedes, Constantin went back to his home in Hallandale, Fla., picked up his wife and children and returned to Romania. (Maria and the kids are now in Cleveland; she says that she and Panait “are still together,” but he remains in Europe.) Nadia now lives with Stefu, his wife and his mother in their modest brick home in a blue-collar suburb of Montreal.
In her baggy sweat clothes, her body 14 lbs. leaner than when she arrived, a touch of lipstick the only makeup on her face, Nadia seems, finally, at ease. She cooks her favorite Romanian recipes—salmon with lemon and chicken soup—for the family, watches Arsenio Hall on her new big-screen TV and works out on her stair machine and with Stefu at the gym. She has even grown sweet on fellow Olympic gold-medal gymnast Bart Conner, who has performed with her on all-star teams. “He’s my best friend,” she giggles. To Nadia, these people are like family. They are fond of her. And forgiving. “She’s made some mistakes,” says Conner, “and she’s willing to talk about them. She’s not what people think. She’s delightful and charming.”
On a balance beam in the gym, Nadia stands motionless, much as the slight, serious child stood 14 years ago before diving into the magical leaps and twists that electrified the world and won her the first perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastic history. Today it is an older, wearier Nadia who raises her arms. She leans into a back walkover, but she falters and falls. “I am not a perfect 10 anymore,” Nadia says. “I can only try my best.”
—Karen S. Schneider, Sue Carswell in Montreal, Stanley Young in Los Angeles