Romania's legendary gymnast Comaneci opens up on her 1989 decision to defect to US; reveals she escaped through Hungary and Austria
New Jersey: Legendary gymnast Nadia Comaneci has revealed her decision to leave Romania for United States to pursue her career in 1989.
Comaneci had stunned judges when she landed a perfect score of 10 on the asymmetric bars at the 1976 Montreal Olympics when she was only 14.
Comaneci (52), who was raised in Communist Romania during the repressive years of Nicolae Ceausescu's brutal regime, opened up about her life-changing decision in an interview to Daily Mail.
Comaneci will be appearing as a judge on BBC1's new celebrity gymnastics competition Tumble.
No going back
"At that time, just before the revolution, leaving meant you were gone. You couldn't go back. I didn't tell my mum. I thought she'd have a heart attack. I told my brother Adrian, who was my best friend and still is. I took him and my sister-in-law close to the Hungarian border with me.
Comaneci on the 2/8/1976 Sports Illustrated cover
Then me and the six other gymnasts walked over the border into Hungary and from there to Austria. I went to the United States embassy and they provided me with a flight to New York.
I've never talked about it before. When I think back to that moment it's hard because I thought I was never going to see my family again. My brother supported me. He said, 'You go and find a life'," she says as tears come when she speaks openly for the first time about leaving Romania to defect to America.
Her life in Romania was insecure. She was prevented from leaving the country and couldn't roam anywhere without being followed. So she made her escape through Hungary and Austria and finally to the US.
"When I go back to that night I feel it again. It was difficult because I had to turn my back. It was hard to go, but my instinct was telling me I had to do something right then.
"But then I thought, 'I made it.' It was difficult, but then the world changed in Romania so I was allowed back."
Today, Comaneci is married to former American gymnast Bart Conner, and has a son Dylan. "Piece by piece you build something," she says before signing off, "It was very emotional, not just seeing my mother but seeing an entire country I'd left.
When I got married in Bucharest there were 10,000 people on the street. People didn't go to work that day. It was emotional to see how people care about you. I didn't expect that."