Growing up, I had such an intense crush on 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci. For those who don’t know her, as a Romanian gymnast she won three gold medals in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, and two golds in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.
Let me tell you something about those wins in Montreal.
She had just finished her routine on the uneven bars and the crowd waited for her score. The judges didn’t know how to rate her performance, so the board lit up with the number 1.00. Back then, the judges could score a routine between 0.00 and 10.00. The crowd’s natural reaction was shock. A flawless performance and she only gets a 1.00? That is, until a great outburst of applause rushed through the venue. The judges did not score her a 1.00 but a perfect 10.00!
Omega SA, the official scoreboard manufacturer for the Games, had only supplied scoreboards capable of displaying 9.99 and nothing more because they’d understood no one could achieve a perfect score.
Nadia went on to score six additional perfect tens at those Games. I remember seeing her perform and she captured my heart. How could such a diminutive girl twirl so much, jump so far and fly so high?
I followed her career throughout the late Seventies, early Eighties. Between 1975-1981, she went on to win twenty-one gold, seven silver and two bronze medals in two Olympic Games, two World Championships, three European Championships, and the 1981 Summer University Games.
What an incredible feat for a girl at such a young age!
Once she retired, I found my love for the sport had not diminished. I followed all the up-and-coming gymnasts—this time as a true fan of the sport. I tuned into all the meets, got to know which countries had the strongest gymnasts and followed them. I familiarized myself with all the terms: Hand guard, apparatus, deduction, high bar, mat, junior, senior, element group requirements, chalk, balance, all-around, elite, clubs, somersault, roll, straddle, vault, kip, pike, layout, front tuck, dismount, cartwheel, etc. All of it.
I’ll never forget watching Mary Lou Retton score her perfect tens in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. That night, my parents had gone out leaving me home alone to watch TV. All I could do was sit at the edge of my seat. Retton had to beat Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo, who led the all-around by fifteen-hundredths of a point. With two events to go, she hit the mat. She twirled, somersaulted, smiled and danced her way into the hearts of Americans. The judges were sure: A perfect ten. Next, came the vault. She nailed it, grabbing another perfect ten. Retton won against her rival by 0.05 points.
Another incredible feat for a girl at such a young age!
As the years pass, gymnasts come and go. I make it a point to watch the Olympics every time. Although my first love may have faded some for the sport, I’ve kept the tradition alive. Not an Olympics has passed that I do not know who the gymnasts are. And every four years there’s a surprise. A twisted ankle. A daunting fall. And every four years there’s a gymnast who overcomes every obstacle to become a new hero to the ordinary folk.
I love gymnastics. It’s my favorite sport.
Have you seen gymnasts rise to the occasion and win a gold at the Olympics? Are there heroes in gymnastics you admire for their sheer willpower of never giving in to defeat?