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Nadia Comaneci feels at home in Oklahoma

COMMENTARY — The Olympic gymnast will be inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame on Monday night.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: August 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm •  Published: July 31, 2013

Nadia Comaneci says she's going home whenever she heads to Romania.

She says the same when she returns to Oklahoma.

“I don't think many people consider in their heart that they have two places that are home,” she said.

But after living in Norman for more than two decades, the international gymnastics star feels as at home in Oklahoma as she does in her homeland of Romania. She jokes that she's lived here so long that maybe she's earned some sort of honorary status as an Oklahoman.

Safe to say, she has.

Comaneci will be inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame on Monday night. She won't be the first member born outside the state, but never before has the hall welcomed someone whose athletic success came as a representative of another country. But frankly, no one else in the hall is as big a star as Nadia.

She is known by more people than any other hall of famer. When the 14-year-old with the bouncy brunette ponytail became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics, she became an international darling.

Thirty-seven years later, she's still loved worldwide.

One of the YouTube videos of her historic routine has been viewed 2 million times in the past year alone.

But for as much as Nadia is linked to Romania, she feels every bit as tied to Oklahoma. This is where she and husband, Bart Conner, have made their home. This is where they are raising their son, Dylan. This is where she feels the most at peace.

The story of how she came to the United States is a remarkable one. While it's been told before, it's still an amazing but harrowing tale.

She retired from competitive gymnastics in 1981 after winning nine Olympic medals, including three golds at the 1976 Games in Montreal and two golds at the 1980 Games in Moscow. As the most famous Romanian ever, she lived a pampered life. She lived in a villa, had servants and wore expensive jewelry.

But she was in a country governed by a Communist dictator — and a brutal one at that.

Nicolae Ceausescu was said to have combined the brute oppression of Stalin's Soviet Union with the maniacal terrorism of Papa Doc Duvalier's Haiti.

Even with her favored status, Comaneci dreamed of escaping Romania for years, but she was so well-known that defecting would be no easy task.

Comaneci reached a breaking point, however, in late 1989.

On the night of Nov. 27, she and six others were driven in a rented Audi to a deserted road near the Romanian border with Hungary. Around midnight, they began walking.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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