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
"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.