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.
About 10 miles of open countryside separated them from the border and freedom.
They trudged through mud and water and ice. Most of the time, they walked, but sometimes, they crawled.
Six hour later, they reached a barbed-wire fence and passed through an opening into Hungary. There were no border guards in sight, but they heard guard dogs in the distance.
Two weeks later, she was in the United States.
Two weeks after that, the Ceausescu regime fell. He was captured, hastily tried, then publicly executed on Christmas Day 1989. It ushered in democracy and freedom and a new era in Romania.
When Comaneci decided to defect from Romania, she had no way of knowing that revolution was right around the corner.
“Probably if I would have known, I would have thought deeper about doing that,” she admitted.
But at the same time, she doesn't allow herself to dwell in what-ifs.
“I cannot change anything,” she said, “so I don't want to think about what I would have done.”
And besides, her life has turned out just fine.
A few months after leaving Romania, Comaneci joined a tour of former Olympic gymnasts and met Bart Conner. They eventually started dating.
A little over two years later, she moved part-time to Norman, where he had a gymnastics academy.
Then in 1996, they married.
Now, she travels the world making appearances, attending charity events and doing speaking engagements. She is on the board of Special Olympics International, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Laureus Sports For Good Foundation among others.
But no matter where she goes, Comaneci always returns to Oklahoma.
“It feels good when you come to a place like Oklahoma to charge up the batteries,” she said. “I need that.”
As she talked, she was only a few hours from getting on a plane and jetting off to Los Angeles for a few days of work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association
“I don't think I would be able to connect to so many things without touching a base where it's gotta be just me in my warm-ups and my flip-flops.”
This is where she's comfortable.
This is home.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.