Elfi Schlegel: Nadia Comaneci and her Olympic perfection changed my life

Elfi Schlegel: Nadia Comaneci and her Olympic perfection changed my life


‘It was Nadia who gave me the inspiration to realize my dreams,’ says former Canadian gymnast

By Elfi Schlegel for CBC Sports
October 4, 2017
 

It was the 1976 Olympic Games at the Forum in Montreal. Nadia Comaneci became a household name and put Romania on the map.

At the age of 12, Elfi Schlegel got to see Nadia Comaneci's
 mesmerizing performance up close and personal.
 (Larry Rubenstein/The Canadian Press) At the age of 12, Elfi Schlegel got to see Nadia Comaneci's mesmerizing performance up close and personal. (Larry Rubenstein/The Canadian Press)

I was 12 years old. My coaches thought it would be a great education for me to make the journey from Toronto to Montreal to watch the women's gymnastics events, seeing that it was in our backyard.

When would we have this chance ever again? I was so incredibly excited, all I remember was wanting to go to the Olympics, and now here was a chance to witness the very best. I was on the cusp of being a member of Canada's national team and was about to see one of the most amazing performances in the history of our sport.

The gymnastic stadium was abuzz. I remember sitting quietly in my seat, ready to watch the performances of gymnasts from countries I had only read about in magazines. They all came alive, and it was beyond my dreams to be there, watching them in person, including the likes of Nellie Kim and Olga Korbut, just to name two stars.

But it was Nadia who brought the people to their feet. How could she be so brilliant? So perfect? Each night, I would visualize her routines, playing them over and over in my mind. I had memorized her every move. I would wake up thinking about all I had witnessed the day before, and couldn’t wait to watch her again.

Would she succumb to the pressure, the fear? Was she afraid? I was nervous for her. Everyone was waiting on the edge of their seats, and then, another day of perfection for Little Miss Perfect, as she was fondly labelled by the media. How was it possible? I had never seen or heard of an athlete like this before.

 

I will never forget seeing the 1.0 displayed on the scoreboard and the subsequent confusion from the audience. Clearly, no one else had ever seen such perfection either, and it became obvious very quickly that no one knew what to do. How could the judges show a perfect 10? They were not equipped for this game-changing moment in our sport.

 

Courage and strength

Nadia inspired me in Montreal, with her courage, strength, power, ease and perfection. I have many memories I carry forward from my years in the sport, but it was Nadia who gave me the inspiration to realize my dreams. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for this incredibly gifted athlete.

Today, Schlegel runs a recreational gymnastics facility with her sister. (Photo courtesy Elfi Schlegel) Today, Schlegel runs a recreational gymnastics facility with her sister. (Photo courtesy Elfi Schlegel)

The sport of gymnastics has provided me with an abundance of stories and experiences, but none would have the profound impact of the week I spent in Montreal for the 1976 Olympic Games. Being in the presence of such greatness inspired me to a level I clearly would never have known had I not experienced Nadia and others in person. I was a member of Canada's national gymnastics team from 1976-1984. My accomplishments during this time are as follows:

  • Double gold at the 1978 Commonwealth Games.
  • Gold at the 1979 Pan AM Games.
  • 1980 World Cup bronze.
  • World championship team member (1978, 1979, 1981 and 1983).
  • NCAA athlete at the University of Florida (1982-86). 

Gymnastics has been my life. It shaped my childhood and my career. It is all I have ever known. I went from being a decorated national team member to commentating with NBC and CBC, to owning my own recreational gymnastics facility, along with my sister Andrea. It is where we have the golden opportunity to share this wonderful sport with children each and every day.

It is truly a gift to share my love of this sport , to share my many memories and stories. I am very eager to watch, in person, the gymnasts who will realize their own dreams and potential while competing at the 2017 world gymnastics championships in Montreal. I hope they provide the inspiration for aspiring gymnasts, just as Nadia did for me.

Nadia Comaneci is the face of the 2017 worlds, a well-deserved honour for her years of dedication and commitment to the sport of gymnastics. I did get to know Nadia throughout my years as a commentator in the sport. Our paths crossed many times at world championships and Olympic Games. I never did tell Nadia the impact she had on my career, but I just might when I see her again in Montreal, where it all began over 40 years ago.

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