Nadia Comaneci, the gymnastics darling of the 1976 Olympics, said the man who helped her flee Romania last year, far from being her lover, kept her prisoner in the United States, beat her regularly and cheated her of $150,000 in income.
Comaneci said the ordeal lasted three months and took her on a harrowing journey through Florida, California, New York and Canada. She said shortly after arriving in the United States that she was locked in hotel rooms and a Los Angeles apartment and wasn't even allowed to answer the phone."I was in a free country," she said. "But I was not free."
Comaneci, 29, said she has settled since February in Montreal, where she is planning to become a Canadian
citizen, stage gymnastics exhibitions and perhaps enter coaching.
The woman who scored the first perfect 10 in the Olympics said the Florida roofer with whom she was romantically linked had taken her earnings from interviews and magazine layouts and had returned with his wife to his native Romania.
Comaneci spoke at a ballroom table to a handful of reporters after being honored by the Women's Sports Foundation. Wearing a crisp gray business suit and a white blouse, she said in halting but capable English that this was the first time she has spoken of her travails in America since her perilous escape from Romania on Nov. 28, 1989.
She said she wanted to clear her name after innuendos surrounding her involvement with Constantin Panait, the self-employed roofer who helped her flee Romania and soon dominated her life.
"I am not a scandal person," she said. "This is not my image."
At a Hollywood, Fla., news conference just over 10 months ago, Comaneci said she was involved with Panait and did not care if he was married. She stoked romantic flames, hinting they would set up house. She also said at the time she wanted nothing to do with her celebrated coach, Bela Karolyi.
Comaneci now insists that Panait was not her lover but her captor. She added that she speaks often with Karolyi, a Romanian who runs an acclaimed gymnastics school in Houston. Karolyi was not immediately available at his school to confirm the account of his most famous pupil."When I came to the United States this guy kept me like I was in a prison," she said of Panait. "He didn't let me call anybody. I couldn't call my family in Romania. I knew something was wrong. I couldn't go anywhere alone. I moved from one apartment to another."
Comaneci said she did not speak of Panait's abuse because he was her lifeline to this country. She also feared more beatings from him if she did not cooperate.
"He punched her black and blue," Alexandru Stefu, Comaneci's manager in Montreal, said as he pointed to the side of his face. "The guy is a bandit."
Comaneci was asked if she was sexually abused by Panait. She did not reply. She admitted to physical punishment but did not want to elaborate. She said she is still recovering emotionally.
"He beat me," she said. "There are some things I don't even want to remember."
Comaneci said she did not go to the police or take legal action against Panait because she did not understand how to handle such things.
"I come from a communist country," she said. "We learned nothing of lawyers, nothing about rights. I don't know what to do. He said, `I'll send you back to Romania.' It was like I was dropped from the sky. I knew nothing. I was scared."
Comaneci said she had few resources when she arrived, but income from interviews, photographs and a fashion spread in a London magazine produced about $150,000. But she said she was not allowed to cash a check and never saw a dime. "He used me for money," she said.
A network of Romanian friends came to Comaneci's aid, including Stefu. She said she and Panait traveled to Canada in February because of the prospect of lucrative contracts.
That was where she finally rid herself of him. Apparently, Panait feared Stefu or the police would intervene, and the roofer ran off to the airport at dawn, leaving Comaneci behind.
Comaneci said she is glad to return to Montreal, the site of her great triumph, where as a winsome 14-year-old she mesmerized a global television audience with her grace, strength and acrobatics.