Nadia Comăneci was born in Onești, Romania, as the daughter of Gheorghe and Ștefania-Alexandrina Comăneci.
Her mother was inspired to call her Nadia by a Russian film she watched while pregnant, whose heroine was called Nadya, the diminutive version of the Russian name Nadezhda, which means “hope”.
At age 6 she was chosen to attend Béla Károlyi’s experimental gymnastics school after Karolyi spotted her and a friend turning cartwheels in a schoolyard.
Karolyi was looking for gymnasts he could train from a young age and saw the two girls during recess.
When recess ended the girls ran inside.
Karolyi went around the classrooms trying to find the girls, eventually spotting Nadia in a classroom. (The other one, Viorica Dumitro went on to be one of Romania’s top ballerinas.) She was training with Károlyi by the time she was 7 years old, in 1968.
She was one of the first students at the gymnastics school established in Onești by Béla and his wife, Marta.
Comăneci’s first major international success came at the age of 13, when she nearly swept the 1975 European Championships in Skien, Norway, winning the all-around and gold medals on every event but the floor exercise, in which she placed second.
She continued to enjoy success in other meets in 1975, winning the all-around at the “Champions All” competition and placing first in the all-around, vault, beam, and bars at the Romanian National Championships.
In the pre-Olympic test event in Montreal, Comăneci won the all-around and the balance beam golds, as well as silvers in the vault, floor, and bars behind accomplished Soviet gymnast Nellie Kim, who would prove to be one of her greatest rivals over the next five years.
At the age of 14, Comăneci became one of the stars of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
During the team compulsory portion of the competition on July 18, her routine on the uneven bars was awarded a perfect ten.
It was the first time in modern Olympic gymnastics history that the score had ever been awarded.
When Omega SA, the traditional Olympics scoreboard manufacturer, asked before the 1976 games whether four digits would be necessary for gymnastics, it was told that a perfect 10.00 was not possible.
Nadia’s perfect marks were thus displayed as 1.00 instead.
The crowd was at first confused, but soon understood and gave her a rousing ovation.
She finished a disappointing fourth in the world championships in 1978, however, and was out of competition during most of 1979 with an infected hand.
At the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, she won gold medals for the beam and the floor exercises (tying for first in the latter event with Nelli Kim of the U.S.S.R.).
She won a silver medal as a member of her team and tied with Maxi Gnauck of East Germany for second place in the all-around individual competition.
She retired from competition in 1984.
Over the course of the Olympics, Comăneci would earn six additional tens, en route to capturing the all-around, beam, and bars titles, and a bronze medal on the floor exercise.
Comăneci defected to the United States in 1989; she became a U.S. citizen in 2001.
In 1996 she married American gymnast Bart Conner, with whom she thereafter worked to promote gymnastics.
She published an autobiography, Nadia (1981), and a book on mentoring, Letters to a Young Gymnast (2003).