Head Over Heels
updated 03/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST
Even before their Nov. 12 engagement, when Conner surprised her with a 3.3-carat diamond ring at an Amsterdam hotel, the two had been inseparable—pairing up for gymnastic exhibitions, Jockey underwear ads and even a regular cable TV show, Food and Fitness. Next spring, after 4½ years together, they'll take it to the altar in Comaneci's native Rumania. "She's very passionate, like her people," says Conner, 37, of his dark-eyed intended. "You never know what to expect with her." Comaneci, 33, says simply, "I think everything about him is good."
She should know. They shared their first kiss 19 years ago. It was March 1976, and both were competing in the American Cup International gymnastics meet in New York City. He was 18 and she was a whippet-thin, 83-pound 14-year-old. "We both won," says Conner, "and after the meet we stood together and raised these big silver cups. Some photographer said, 'Why don't you lean down and give her a little kiss?' I did, and it ran in the paper the next day."
For Conner, the kiss remained sealed in memory. Comaneci, though, never gave it a second thought. Her life was already filled with attention. Raised in Onesti, Rumania, she was discovered at age 6 by her renowned countryman, coach Bela Karolyi, who recognized her world-class potential. At 14 (four months after she met Conner), Comaneci made Olympic history at the 1976 games in Montreal, scoring the first-ever perfect 10s and taking golds in the all-around and on the uneven bars and the balance beam. Though her father, Gheorghe, an auto mechanic, and her mother, Stefania, divorced a year later, she struggled on to another triumph in Moscow in 1980. Then at 19, reaching the end of her competitive career, she quit. Shortly afterward, it was said she had an affair with Nicu Ceausescu—son of the Rumanian dictator—though she denies it. She eventually took a government coaching post and—prohibited from traveling to the West because she was considered too valuable to let slip away—languished in frustrated obscurity until 1989.
That year she chose her own way out. ("I used to say I'd rather die in a free country than die in a Communist one," she says.) She walked six hours in darkness to cross the Hungarian border, where Rumanian émigré Constantin Panait, then 38, a Florida roofer who engineered her defection, waited on the other side. Panait brought her—via Vienna—to the United States.
For a time, exposure to the West worked a garish transformation on Comaneci's lithe, gamine beauty. Traveling with Panait across the U.S. and living out of motel rooms, she began turning up in public overweight, in heavy makeup and stiletto heels. Her reputation suffered a similar reversal. It was widely assumed that she and Panait, who was married with four children, were lovers—though she now claims that was not true. Instead, she says, she was a virtual hostage to Panait—who pocketed her fees from performances and TV interviews and threatened her with deportation if she exposed him. "I do not feel good about all that," she says. "That was not me."
Comaneci's troubles did not go unnoticed in the tight-knit gymnastic community. "We saw the travesty she was going through," says Conner, who had parlayed his gold medals into a lucrative endorsement career and who had run into Comaneci during a Rumanian team tour of the U.S. in 1981. Former Rumanian rugby coach Alexandru Stefu—living in Montreal—also saw the trouble. In 1990, in an elaborate scheme involving the promise of a big payday for Comaneci, Stefu lured Panait and Comaneci to a meeting. There, Comaneci acknowledged that Panait was mistreating her. Realizing the jig was up, Panait fled. Stefu and his wife then took Comaneci into their home, where she lived for 18 months while she trimmed down and shaped up. When Stefu died in a snorkling accident, Comaneci turned to Conner's coach Paul Ziert—who had arranged her gymnastics shows—and took a room in his Norman home. She and Conner had already performed a number of exhibitions together, but now the pace heated up—and so did their relationship.
In November, five years after her escape from Rumania, Comaneci returned with Conner for a visit and, en route, he proposed. "I said 'No,' " Comaneci reminds him. "I couldn't believe that you asked." Conner hardly believed it himself when she changed her mind a few minutes later. "You grow up with the idea you'll marry an American girl," says Conner, who was raised in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Ill., the second of three sons of Harold Conner, director of the School of Construction Science at the University of Oklahoma—which Bart attended on a gymnastics scholarship—and his then wife, Jackie, who is now remarried and lives in Chicago. "It's quite different when you open your heart and mind to a different culture."
In July 1993, Conner and Comaneci moved into a custom-built home in Norman, and with the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy—opened two years ago—they have helped turn their town into a hotbed of gymnastics. More than 1,000 students (mostly grade-school kids) use the academy. And Conner plans to move the California-based International Gymnast magazine, which he co-owns, to Norman.
The couple hopes to have children within the next few years. "They're going to have to hang out a lot in the gym," says Comaneci, who works out with Conner roughly an hour a day to stay tuned for occasional exhibitions. But Conner doesn't plan to push them. "If they want to be gymnasts, great. But if they do gymnastics just for fun, that wouldn't bother me at all." It would, of course, do considerable damage to his faith in genetics.
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Norman