Nadia and Bart: Olympians in love and in ads AS GOOD AS GOLD


Let us begin with their first kiss. He remembers it. She doesn't.

But, hey, give Nadia Comaneci a break. After all, she was only 14 when Bart Conner -- an older man of 18 -- kissed her. For the first time. On the cheek.

It was at a gymnastic competition in New York, just before the 1976 Olympic Games. Which, in case you are from another planet, ended up with the Romanian Nadia becoming the first Olympic gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect 10. Seven perfect 10s, actually. You could look it up.

Anyway, getting back to the kiss. Bart and Nadia had never met before, but when they both won in the New York competition . . . but, look, why not let Bart tell the story: "I remember distinctly we were holding up our trophies and some guy from the New York Times said, 'Why don't you lean over and give her a little kiss on the cheek?' So I did."

Bart, a three-time Olympic gymnast who won two gold medals in the 1984 games, interrupts himself. "Don't you remember that?" he asks Nadia. It is early evening, and they are sitting in a downtown hotel overlooking the waterfront. "No, I don't," she says. "Although I read it in a magazine last year."

OK. So it wasn't love at first sight. But now, 16 years later, Bart and Nadia -- who between them have a closetful of gold medals -- are in love. Have been for about a year. But more about that later.

Sex symbols

Right now, Bart and Nadia are in Baltimore to promote their association with Jockey underwear. Each is currently appearing in magazine advertisements for Jockey. She in pink French cut briefs, matching top and lacy stockings; he in bright blue bikini briefs.

When asked how it feels to be a sex symbol, Bart laughs and invokes the name of another jock for Jockey: "When they asked me if I wanted to appear in their ads I thought, 'If Jim Palmer can do it, I can do it."

"And I thought," says Nadia, butting in, "if Bart can do it, I can do it."

Which brings up this important question: Are they both wearing -- right now -- Jockey underwear?

"Yes, I have," says Nadia -- which, translated into English -- means "Yes, I am."

"You know how much Jockey underwear we have?" asks Bart. "How could we not be wearing Jockey underwear?"

Although they have no official connection with the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials currently being held in Baltimore, their interest in the competition is high. In fact, they've just come from the trials at the Baltimore Arena where, once spotted, they were surrounded by fans and media types.

What everyone wanted to know, says Nadia, was how she felt about a Baltimore Sun article on her old coach, Bela Karolyi -- one in which some of the young gymnasts he trained were highly critical of his methods. Nadia was one of the original "Karolyi Kids" back in her native Romania, and she trained with him from 1967 to 1981 -- the year he defected to the United States.

He has called Nadia "the greatest gymnast ever." The admiration is mutual.

Father figure

"I read the article today, and I'm really disappointed about the reaction of the girls," Nadia says, referring to the critical comments made by some gymnasts in the newspaper. "I know Bela very well. And he was not only a coach to me, he was a father. And his wife was a mother for me. . . . And I don't agree with those girls. You know why? Because the gymnasts who blame that he is pushing too much and being too tough are some gymnasts . . ." She stops, searches for the right words in English.

Then: "Their dreams are a little bit too big for their possibilities. And when they don't make that, they start to blame everybody. And the first person they blame is the coach. I didn't hear any blame from Mary Lou Retton. . . . But you never hear a complaint from somebody who became a champion. And the work is the same for everybody."

Of course, Nadia knows in a very personal way what it's like to get bad press.

Involvement misunderstood

When she fled from Romania to the United States in 1989 with the help of Romanian national Constantin Panait -- a married man whose wife and four children lived in Florida -- it was reported as a romantic relationship. It turned into a scandal and Nadia -- who as a ponytailed 14-year-old gymnast had won worldwide affection -- suddenly was seen as a home-wrecker. Her involvement with the man, she says now, was totally misunderstood. And a nightmare.

"That was not a romance. That was the only chance for me to get away from Romania. I knew that guy only five days before I left." Her plan was to come to the United States and stay with the man's wife and children in Florida until she made a life for herself. Instead she was held almost a hostage by Mr. Panait.

She claims the romance story was concocted by Mr. Panait and his wife, who then used the titillating story to charge money for interviews with Nadia. She escaped from the situation in February, 1990, with the help of Alexandru Stefu, a former Romanian rugby coach who, upon meeting her in Montreal, knew instantly something was wrong.

Bart Conner remembers having the same feeling when he read about Nadia's "scandalous" defection in the papers: "I was as appalled as everybody was when I read that stuff. But I didn't believe it. I knew there was something wrong there." He was one of the first to welcome her to this country -- he presented her with two dozen red roses when she appeared on "The Pat Sajak Show."

One-sided attraction

They began working together about five months later in promotions and exhibitions. The attraction was immediate. But one-sided. Temporarily.

"At first she had a hard, outer shell about her. It was an attitude and a look -- to be honest -- that was quite unattractive to me," Bart says. Upon hearing this, Nadia -- who is by any standards a beauty -- starts rolling her eyes. He turns to her: "We've talked about this."

But as time passed he saw that the "coldness and tough edge" were a result of her lack of trust and fear of being vulnerable. "Then I began to see glimpses of a charming, really warm, sweet person. And in the last year-and-a-half as she's learned to trust people, there's been a total metamorphosis."

"He didn't like me"

"It's true," says Nadia. "I didn't have too many friends. Just my family knew really the kind of person I am. And I can say that it was hard for me with Bart because I liked him from the first, but he didn't like me." She laughs. "But it was, like, well, through the time he will see what kind of person I am."

Now Nadia is about to move part time from her apartment in Montreal to Norman, Okla., where Bart runs a gymnastics school. They've patched together a nice network of careers: In addition to their affiliation with gymnastics and Jockey, he broadcasts for ABC-TV and she is about to become national spokeswoman for the Step, an aerobic fitness apparatus. And, of course, the Disney Studio has a movie about Nadia's life in the works.

All that and enough Jockey underwear to last a lifetime. Who could ask for anything more?

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