Gymnast Nadia Comaneci Leaps for Freedom—and Lands in the Arms of a Married Father of Four

updated 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

She was perfect. At 14, Nadia Comaneci was the embodiment of aerial grace as she soared to seven 10s in gymnastics at the 1976 Olympics. It was the highest score ever achieved—and Nadia, the child who captured hearts with a mischievous grin, was the first to score a perfect 10. The three gold medals she took back to communist Romania were inadequate tokens of the world's affection. Now Nadia, who once seemed lighter than air, turns out to have feet so clumsily cast in clay that she could not even take the step to freedom without stumbling and wrecking a home.

"So what?" she said, when reminded that Constantin Panait, 38, the Florida roofer for whom (or at least with whom) she'd fled Romania, is married and the father of four kids, aged 2 to 6. "There is nothing wrong about what I am doing. I want to spend my life with Constantin."

Nadia met Panait, himself a Romanian émigré, at a Bucharest party in 1987. "It was love at first sight," Nadia told one London tabloid. The vision remained so vivid that when Panait returned last month and offered to help her escape, she risked prison and the loss of her privileged life as a gymnastics coach and venerated former Olympic star. Panait drove her and six friends to the Hungarian border; the seven slogged across frozen rivers and met him on the other side. Then they made their way to Florida, where the town of Hollywood (near Panait's Hallandale home) gave Nadia the key to the city.

"I am sorry my wife is hurt, but I feel I am doing the right thing," Panait told a London paper. His wife, Maria, 25, reportedly replied: "I feel betrayed. Perhaps I am misunderstanding what is going on." Or perhaps Nadia is. She wants to star in the movie version of her life. But does she know Hollywood, Fla., from Hollywood? And does she know the difference between freedom and license? Freedom, Nadia said at one point last week, means "to do what you want." Hardly a perfect definition.

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