Here’s another reposted book review, this time about women’s gymnastics. It was originally posted August 22, 2016, and appears here as/is.
I was only four years old in 1976, when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci became the first female gymnast to earn perfect 10s on her Olympic routines. I grew up loving horses, not gymnastics. I have absolutely no talent for gymnastics. I’m not very coordinated and could never so much as turn a cartwheel. I didn’t start watching the sport until 1988, when I was 16 years old and started noticing American athletes like Phoebe Mills and Kristie Phillips, both of whom are my age.
Nevertheless, I heard a lot about Nadia Comaneci when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. I grew up during a time when a number of European countries were Communist and closed off from the rest of the world. I was always fascinated by what was behind the Iron Curtain. I even lived in the former Soviet Union for a couple of years right after it fell apart. As I started to become interested in watching gymnastics, I also became interested in Romania, which has been a source of so many great gymnasts since Nadia’s day. Thanks to YouTube, I have been able to watch Nadia as a gymnast in her prime. Even today, forty years after her victory in Montreal, I still think she is one of the most beautiful athletes I’ve ever seen.
Maybe it was the Rio Olympics that made me finally decide to read Nadia’s 2003 book, Letters to a Young Gymnast. I’ve had it downloaded for awhile, though. I finished it last night and I have to say, Nadia’s story is really fascinating. The book is written as if she’s corresponding with a young person who has written her letters. She refers to her unknown correspondent as “Friend” and makes it sound like they have been corresponding for awhile. She writes about what it was like to train with Bela and Marta Karolyi when they were young coaches in Romania. She explains things that a lot of young people of today would not understand because they are not growing up in a time when so much of Europe was cut off from the Western world.
For me, reading about Nadia’s experiences living in Romania under Ceausescu are fascinating. I have done quite a lot of reading about Romania in the 1980s. I’ve even seen some Romanian films; there are some surprisingly interesting movies coming from Romania, a country I haven’t yet visited but have always found intriguing. Like a lot of Americans, I had seen the dramatized 1984 movie about Nadia’s life called Nadia. Based on Nadia’s book, the movie did get a lot of the basic stories right, though some of what was presented as factual in the movie was not quite correct. Nadia tells her story from her perspective, which for me, was very illuminating.
I liked that Nadia addresses the way the Karolyis have been criticized by Americans for being too strict and abusive toward their athletes. Nadia explains that she never saw the Karolyis as abusive. She lived in a country where people had little food because their dictatorial leader was exporting everything that was produced in Romania. Because she was an athlete, Nadia and her teammates ate very well. They were taken care of much better than most of their countrymen. It wasn’t until she was a young woman in her 20s that Nadia began to experience what life was like for ordinary Romanians. In fact, in her case, it was somewhat worse because her coaches defected. For several years after the Karolyis left Romania, Nadia was under constant scrutiny by the Securitate (Romanian secret police during Ceausescu’s era).
When it became clear that Nadia’s gymnastics career was “over”, she was treated more like everyone else. When she turned twenty-five, a large chunk of her meager pay was withheld by the government because she was childless. Imagine that. She was being paid about $100 a month and a lot of that money she never saw, all because she had not produced any babies for the state. Nadia writes that during Ceausescu’s era, women were ordered to have children. Fetuses were considered state property. Most women under age forty-five were escorted to doctors every three months to see if they were pregnant. Nadia writes that she never had to go, but other women did. More babies were born, but there wasn’t enough food for them and their mothers were not getting proper care during their pregnancies. Nadia even references an excellent book about Romania during the Ceausescu regime, Red Horizons by Ion Pacepa. I read that book myself several years ago and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about what life under Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu was like.
I remember back in 1990, I read an article in Life Magazine about Nadia’s daring defection from Romania. She and a group of other Romanians decided to flee the country in late November 1989. I was then a senior in high school. No one in that group had any idea that there would be a revolution within just a few weeks and the terrible Ceausescu regime would dramatically fall apart. Nadia writes that she was going crazy in Romania, working a boring desk job with barely enough money to eat and heat her home. She wanted something more and knew she was unlikely to get it in 80s era Romania. So she decided to leave.
I distinctly remember reading the article in Life, which was entitled something along the lines of “Fall From Grace”. It basically portrayed Nadia as a cold hearted slut. The author wrote about how Nadia was dressed, with too much makeup and short skirts. I remember the writer’s insinuation that Nadia was bulimic. She wrote about how Nadia ate from her companion’s plate and then disappeared into the bathroom, coming back smelling “sickly sweet”. Here’s a link to an old article from People magazine that depicts her in much the same negative way. And it seems that Nadia’s story has also been “told” by actress Katie Holmes, who may have some things in common with the gymnast.
Nadia explains that during that time immediately after she defected, she barely knew any English and had dressed the way people in Europe were dressing at the time. She was ignorant about the local mores and did and said things to make her look unappealing to the American public. I think part of her problem was the fact that she had little experience dealing with Westerners and didn’t know much English. Part of the problem comes from the fact that she is apparently very introverted and doesn’t show emotion to others. She initially came across as cold and unfeeling, which doesn’t appeal to a lot of Americans (even though she notes that Americans are generally a lot less physically affectionate than Romanians are). I think that many Americans didn’t know what to make of Nadia back in 1990… and poor Nadia was dealing with some pretty significant culture shock. Aside from that, her country was in chaos. She’d risked her life escaping Romania, not knowing that had she waited a few weeks, she probably could have left with less drama. But then, maybe if she’d done that, her story would have ended differently.
Nadia Comaneci has been married to fellow gymnast and Olympian Bart Conner for over twenty years. I always thought they made an interesting couple. Bart Conner is very friendly and extroverted. He’s been a gymnastics commentator and always comes across as super people oriented. Nadia, on the other hand, seems much more reserved and mysterious. I enjoyed reading Nadia’s perspectives on how her relationship with Bart Conner bloomed into marriage. They now live in Norman, Oklahoma and run a gymnastics school. They have a son. Nadia is a naturalized American, but she has kept her Romanian citizenship. She loves Romania and, apparently, Romania loves her right back.
Anyway… I did very much enjoy Letters to a Young Gymnast. Perhaps this book is even more interesting to those of us who remember when Communism was a reality in many more countries than it is today. I would definitely recommend this book, not just to young readers, but to middle aged people like me.
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