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.
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