By Pritha Sarkar
LONDON (Reuters) – She was once the ponytailed Romanian teenager excited at the thought of owning colored socks and eating bubble gum yet Nadia Comaneci went on to captivate the world by performing an Olympic feat that continues to stir the emotions four decades later.
The ponytail is long gone, the childhood cravings have been replaced by more sophisticated tastes, but no matter where she goes Comaneci cannot escape the memories of what happened on July 18 1976 in Montreal.
The day she became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympic Games.
“Every time there is a zero in the anniversary, it’s kind of bigger. There was 10, then 20, then 30 and now 40, it seems like a lot of numbers. It’s like half of your life is gone,” Comaneci told Reuters in a telephone interview while on a short holiday in California with her family.
“But to realise that it’s 40 years since it happened, it’s like ‘oh my gosh, really?’
“Because it’s the 40th year, I feel like I’ve been celebrating the anniversary the entire year. Everyone I meet this year wants to talk about it.”
Those celebrations are set to continue for the next few weeks as Comaneci heads to Montreal on July 21 where her 10-year-old son Dylan will get his first chance to see the Olympic Stadium “where his mom’s name is engraved”.
Then it will be on to Rio for the Aug. 5-21 Games.
The anniversary will be spent together as a family with Dylan and her husband — fellow Olympic champion Bart Conner — and Comaneci’s memory of the occasion remains razor sharp despite the passage of 14,610 days.
“I remember when I started to do the compulsory (routine on the uneven bars), I thought I did a pretty good routine but I didn’t think I did my perfect routine,” said the 54-year-old, who now resides in Oklahoma.
“I know I didn’t watch the scoreboard as I was already thinking about the balance beam after I finished.
“Then I heard the big noise in the arena, I look around, I turned my head and saw the scoreboard. I first saw the 073 which was my competition number and 1.00 score which was under.
“I looked at one of my team mates and she shrugged her shoulders, indicating that something was wrong with the scoreboard. It all happened so fast.”
With officials not expecting any gymnast to attain perfection, the electronic scoreboard installed in Montreal lacked the space needed to accommodate all four figures to illustrate the perfect mark.
That epic fail by technology did little to tarnish Comaneci’s memory of the feat.
“The fact that the scoreboard could not show the 10 added to the drama, it made it bigger,” she said breaking down in laughter.
“Scoring the first 10 in history was a big deal but the fact that even an electronic scoreboard could not figure out how to put out a score, it made the story more historic.”
Scoring that first 10 became such a traffic-stopping moment people seem to forget that Comaneci went on to collect three gold medals in Montreal, including the all around title, and two more top prizes in Moscow four years later.
Born in 1961 in the factory town of Onesti to a car mechanic named Gheorghe and his wife Stefania, Comaneci still has to pinch herself when she thinks how her life is now dictated by something she did “as a 14-year-old child”.
“Nellie (Kim) got a 10 a little after me but nobody talks about it. If fate had wanted it, it would have been someone else making history. I was just a little bit quicker!” she quipped.
“At that time I didn’t understand the impact it made as I wasn’t competing to make history, I was competing to win medals.
“It’s very special that it will be there for eternity.”
There is so much focus on what happened in 1976 and the years that followed, Comaneci admitted memories of pre-Montreal can be a little blurry at times.
While she needs to “go and Google to see where I went” on her first trip outside Romania, what she does remember is the things that used to light up her eyes.
“The fascinating thing for us to bring home to Romania was bubble gum, coloured socks and coloured hair clips. These were things we didn’t have in Romania at the time,” said Comaneci.
“We only had white socks in Romania. But when I used to come back from the States, I used to bring back pink and yellow socks with all kind of designs, and hair clips and elastic bands for the ponytail that had colourful designs.
“We used to exchange leotards with gymnasts from other countries. I don’t remember who I got my most prized leotard from but it was one with a lot of stars on it.”
Chances are whoever got Comaneci’s leotard has not forgotten its original owner.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)