The Perfect 10 that Made Me an Olympic Fan Forever
Nadia Comaneci was only about 8 years older than me when she won her first three Olympic Gold Medals. Talk about inspiration.
I was just 6 years old, but I vividly remember sitting in front of the TV—I had begged my mom to let me stay up late enough to watch the gymnastics competition. I only know it was the Montreal Olympics because I Googled it recently. And I only know I was 6 because that same web search told me those Olympic Games were held in 1976. But I don’t need Google or a magazine report to recall every single detail of how I felt when Nadia Comaneci scored her perfect 10.
I sat on my knees as close to the television screen as my mother would allow, with bated breath and heart beating fast. I could not believe that this tiny girl—from communist Romania, a place I knew nothing about—was performing with such…well, I wouldn’t have words for it then, but now I would say verve, composure, talent, guts. Perfection.
I related to Nadia by mere virtue of our youth, even though she was more than twice my age (she looked younger than her 14 years, to be sure). She was a mystery to me, mostly, though. I’d never ventured further than down the coast to Florida from our NY home, while she’d traveled the world. I couldn’t fathom training or competing or doing anything with the intensity with which she approached her sport.
And yet…I was awestruck. As I watched her swing and stretch and release on the uneven bars, my heart was in my throat. I was too innocent to think about “rooting for the home team,” so to speak; flags and country colors meant little to me beyond our first-grade recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, or the red-white-and-blue streamers at my dad’s July 4th birthday celebrations.
I was as proud of Nadia when her perfect score was flashed as if she had been my sister. I felt like I had gotten the most gold stars in my first grade class. I wanted to feel that immense pride in something I did—someday. Her routine that night stirred early ambition in me. She helped me imagine myself in a future as I wanted to see it…to begin dreaming.
ABC’s Wide World of Sports introduced me to the girl who was Nadia—her stories, her relationship with her coaches. Nadia (no last name necessary) was the first person not from my immediate world who I wanted to know more about, my first celebrity crush. I wanted to take up gymnastics, cartwheeling around our front lawn and getting revved up for the first time in gym class when the balance beam was pulled out. I asked my parents to buy me magazines at the grocery store with her pictures on the cover (nevermind I couldn’t yet read the likes of Time). And I couldn’t wait for another four years to pass so I could see her in another Olympics Games.
From that point on, I was hooked. The Olympics seemed a bigger deal back then to me—the anticipation, the mixture of world stage and personal stories. I have so many outstanding memories of specific moments and athletes over the years (a steely, spirited Mary Lou Retton sticking two perfect vaults to win the Gold medal in 1984 another huge favorite), but in the last two decades they didn’t take center stage for me. Perhaps life was just too busy. Perhaps the world had simply gotten smaller.
But for me now, they’re back. Maybe it’s the growing anticipation on social media, including Twitter. (Oh how technology has changed! When Nadia scored her first perfect 10, I remember the initial confusion and mumbling when the scoreboard—not equipped to display a 10—read 1.0!) Maybe it’s just that I’m again in touch with that youthful sense of discovery now that I have a son of my own.
Whatever the case, I can’t wait for the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics tonight. I hope there’s a Nadia moment for some other young girl watching this year. And I hope I “meet” some new heroes whose stories are revealed amidst the action.
• Browse cool Olympics Stuff We Like curated by our editor Kaitlin Ahern.
• Visit “The Games: The Science of Olympic Sort” at the Bruce Museum for a great interactive exhibition featuring SuperBodies, a cutting-edge 3D animation and original video production presented in both a big screen video and mobile app game formats, as well as hands-on exploratory stations and athletic gear including boxing gloves, javelins, and timing and other devices that record participants’ strength and reaction times. Also on view will be pins and collector memorabilia from past Olympic Games. Now through Aug. 12.
• I love the stories behind the athletes as much as I do the competition. Read a great piece on Salon: “Television presents the Summer Games as a series of exciting stories and rivalries. You need not understand archery.
• Sports movies rank high on my Netflix queue. One of my all-time faves is the inspiring Olympic-set film Miracle, which stars Kurt Russell as coach Herb Brooks, who led the U.S. hockey team to an unlikely victory in one of America’s greatest sports moments ever, the defeat of the Soviet Union in hockey during the 1980 winter Olympics. Read a great roundup of Olympic-themed movies here.