MANILA, JUNE 27, 2007
(STAR) By Joaquin Henson - Five-time Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci said the other day life would be boring without challenges and never considered her darkest moments as ordeals but lessons in experience.

Comaneci was only 14 when she scored seven perfect 10s in gymnastics at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and retired five years later – before she even turned 20. Although the Romanian could’ve competed longer, she said she never regretted to quit early.

“It’s important to pick the right time to retire,” said Comaneci who flew in last Sunday as guest of Procter and Gamble to kick off the global program for the World Special Olympics in Shanghai in October and speak at a corporate function to inspire employees to achieve excellence.

“You retire when the fans will miss you, not when you overstay and they say, is she still around?” she said. “I still loved to flip when I quit but I felt it was time to go. After competing in 1976 and 1980, I returned to the Olympics in 1984 as a guest.”

Comaneci said she was introduced to Special Olympics by her husband Bart Conner, an Olympic gold medalist himself, in 1991 and her heart fell for disabled athletes. “They want to be no different from others,” she said. “They dare to be the best they can be.”

Virtually imprisoned in Romania by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu after her Olympic triumphs, Comaneci survived a life of misery and defected to the US in 1989. It was her victory in the fight for freedom that made Comaneci a symbol of hope in the world. Appropriately, her name Nadia is a short version of the Russian name Nadyezhda which means hope.

“I don’t call my hardships ordeals,” she continued in a STAR interview. “That’s part of life, things of the past. I never complained. Others complained for me. But I always try to be a strong person. I wouldn’t be what I am today if things didn’t happen the way they did so I have no regrets in life. I love challenges because without them, life would be boring. I travel all over the world to motivate and inspire people to be the best they can be.”

Comaneci’s recipe for success in life is simple. “The first thing is you must love what you’re doing,” she explained. “You must have discipline, dedication. You try to balance your life. Get good people around you because they can get you to high places. Don’t be with people who are negative because they will bring you down.”

Comaneci gave birth to her first child, Dylan, last year and said motherhood is a 24-hour job. But a 40-minute daily regimen in the gym keeps her fit and curvaceous. She could easily pass for a movie star but her manager Paul Ziert, who was Conner’s gymnastics coach, said that will be for another chapter in her life.

“Maybe, when I’m sitting around doing little, I could try movies,” she chuckled.

Comaneci, 45, said to be recognized one of the world’s greatest athletes ever is a big thrill. “I always thought Muhammad Ali was the greatest but it’s nice to be considered one of the greatest as a female and in my sport,” she said. “I’m proud of what I did and it feels good that people still remember me for what I did 30 years ago. I’ve always loved what I did. I worked hard and I did more than what I was ever asked to do.”

When Comaneci scored her first 10, she admitted not realizing her feat. “I was too young to know what was going on,” she recalled. “I had no idea. I never looked at the scoreboard when I competed. It was no big deal. When I got home from the Olympics, I figured I had done something because of all the media attention and interviews.”

Comaneci said fear is natural but in her first Olympics, she was afraid of nothing.

“When you’re young, you don’t feel scared, you don’t feel pressure,” she said. “When you get older, you feel the pressure of people expecting a lot from you. I probably got my mental toughness from my father (Georghe, an auto mechanic). I grew up working hard.”

Comaneci debunked the theory that Eastern European gymnasts were deprived of their childhood and cloistered to train like robots.

“There were only few countries that excelled in gymnastics during my time,” she said. “The US only got better in 1984. In Romania, we were about 15 gymnasts from about 50 who tried out. We took a lot of exams. They chose the ones who ran faster, who were stronger, more flexible. It wasn’t like we were ordered to train. I also played with dolls. I could’ve quit anytime. But I loved what I was doing. My parents couldn’t afford to send me abroad so this was my chance to travel.”

Comaneci said she loves her hectic life but always makes time for her family. She will be involved in pitching for Chicago as host of the 2016 Olympics.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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