The words “surprise heroine” in my title might puzzle the reader. Everyone who has ever heard of Nadia Comăneci knows about her stunning, history-making triumph at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal at age 14, in which she scored a perfect 10—in fact, seven of them—for the first time ever in gymnastics and won three gold medals (plus a bronze and a silver), returning to her native Romania, a country previously insignificant in the eyes of the world, as a national hero and revered and celebrated worldwide.
She mostly fell out of public view after that, however. When I myself thought of her, I assumed, like doubtless many others, that her subsequent life would be a fairytale of fame, glory, wealth, and comfort.
But reading her 2004 autobiography, Letters to a Young Gymnast: The Art of Mentoring, I was astounded to learn that her post-1976 life was far different from anything I would have guessed. In fact, somewhere past the halfway point of the book, there occurs this passage:
Friend, have you ever seen Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream? … Can you comprehend a moment of such total horror, insanity, and dread? I can.
The first time I saw that painting, I knew it. Really knew it. The man is a prisoner, and he will never escape the cell Munch painted him in; he will never be free.
Here Nadia is introducing the story of the defection of her coach Béla Károlyi from Romania, and imagining his state of mind. But it is clear, and soon becomes clearer, that she is speaking also of her own growing feelings. Earlier in the book, she had said:
You wanted to know what life was like after the 1976 Games. … Where are the fairy-tale endings, the mansions, and money? Where is my sweet sixteen birthday party and dinners at Ceausescu’s palace? They are the stuff of fantasies. In truth, after 1976, I began the sometimes troubling and difficult process of growing into a young adult in a Communist country.
Letters actually begins with a description of what is still a recurring dream of hers: Two lovely young girls in nightgowns hover over her with cupped fingers holding some mysterious promise. But as they come closer their mouths open into “cavernous, yawning black holes.” Nadia is terrified, “but the scream catches in my throat.” Sometimes the dream ends in happiness and beauty. But other times she cannot grasp the girls’ hands, and is swallowed in darkness. Then she wakes “drenched with sweat, my heart skipping and racing and grasping. … I see the ghost-like girls fade from my vision and their almond-shaped eyes fill with regret.” The details of these dreams indicate that they signify the terrible choice she faced years after her Olympic victory, and the awful lifetime consequences she had narrowly avoided.
At the time of Nadia’s triumph, even those who knew Romania was a dictatorship might not have realized how bad things were, especially given the 20th-century media’s tendency to treat all big nations as civilized and respectable.
Glory? Sure, there was a bit at the beginning. When Nadia arrived home with her medals, she was greeted by thousands of Romanians, dictator Ceauşescu having ordered a celebration for her arrival. Doubtless much of that jubilation was real on the part of the populace, but “our leaders believed that athletes represented the power of the government and validated our way of life.” Her later treatment by the government illustrated this in spades. “When my gymnastics career was over, there was no longer any need to keep me happy.” Demotion of the Károlyis came more quickly: “[B]y the end of 1977 Ceauşescu had decided to change Nadia’s coaches. ‘I don’t want to share Nadia’s fame with a couple of dirty [Hungarians],’ he said.”
Wealth? “Perhaps you’ve heard rumors, but our country was closed to foreign journalists, and the only information that got out to the world was what my government chose to share. … [M]ore often than not it was self-serving.”
Comfort? Because of Nadia’s status, she was spared some of the horrors such as compulsory appointments with the fertility police, but in most respects she was no different from anyone else. “[T]here simply wasn’t enough food in Romania for its inhabitants. By 1981, things went from bad to horrific.” Aside from the usual privations under communism, their leader was exporting food, giving the people rations that were not enough for one person let alone a family. “People could have stopped having children … but they couldn’t afford to. Plus, failing to reproduce was a crime.” Even Nadia had to pay a large tax because she had no children.
But this was not the worst of it. “You have asked what the exact moment was when I finally decided to defect. I cannot tell you. There were so many factors. … But one day, I realized that where I was in life was where I was going to die. There were no opportunities in my country for advancement unless I wanted to be a savvy political player, and that was not in my nature. … I realized that I could either be like all of those people silently screaming around me or give myself permission to have a voice. … I finally heard myself scream, and I listened.”
Nadia’s account of her gradual awakening and launch of a daring escape is very moving. The terror-filled winter trek in utter darkness over the border, in constant fear of a bullet in the back delivered by some anonymous minion of the system, strongly reminded me of Kira’s attempt to flee communist Russia at the end of Ayn Rand’s We the Living.
In the novel, Kira did get shot, but in her mind “Life had been, if only because she had known it could be. … A moment or an eternity—did it matter? Life, undefeated, existed and could exist. She smiled, her last smile, to so much that had been possible.” That is, for her, the possibility of a future is just as sacred as life itself. And it was the same for Nadia:
So, what gave me the courage to slip out of that house on the border and into the night? Everything I’d done, heard, spoken, experienced, yearned for, suffered through, desired, required, hoped, and dreamed.
I never thought of turning back. … Back to no future? Wasn’t that the same as being dead?
Indeed, those acquainted with philosopher Rand’s ethical system will find much to ponder in this book. Above all, the narrative provides a real-life enactment of that theory’s precept of rational self-interest, of “reason, purpose, self-esteem,” and its earthly power.
In early childhood, Nadia writes,
I was a wild, strange scrap of a girl who was as happy playing alone as I was with friends. I didn’t seem to need anyone. … I remember that period of my life as very happy.
She carried this spirit, in ever-more-mature forms, through each stage of her life:
Some say my eyes do not match my smile and that there is a coldness in them that adults find uncomfortable but to which children are oblivious. … I look back on pictures of myself as a young gymnast and understand that some see blankness. But I see intensity, determination, desire. Always desire.
As long as Nadia’s aspirations happened to match the rulers’ idea of the interests of the national collective, she had felt free. But more and more, there was a conflict, and in time she saw that she’d become a puppet and was ultimately regarded as expendable. Confronting and dealing with this fact called on all her realism, determination, and courage, heroic qualities that went far beyond athleticism.
I don’t give up, ever. I don’t run away from a challenge because I am afraid. Instead, I run toward it because the only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet.
Not only was Nadia’s escape, described in detail in the book, successful, but she eventually found and married the man she describes as “the love of my life,” Bart Conner—also a gymnast, who had in fact, at the urging of a photographer, kissed her anonymously in 1976.
Rand has written, “To hold an unchanging youth is to reach, at the end, the vision with which one started.” Nadia Comăneci, with no real knowledge of philosophy or of Rand, and merely living as the unique creature she felt born to be, provides an inspiring example of this ideal, writing in her final pages: “I feel as if I’ve lived the joy of a thousand lives.”