Former gymnast Nadia Comaneci and the married roofer who arranged her defection from Romania revealed their romance Tuesday, but they repeatedly shunned questions about their immediate personal plans.
Comaneci made it clear, however, that she has no desire to become involved with gymnastics in the United States.
Appearing bewildered by the more than 100 journalists at a news conference in Hollywood, Fla., Comaneci, 28, and Romanian immigrant Konstantin Panait, 34, said that they plan to live in South Florida while they work out their relationship and other details, such as work permits and U.S. citizenship for the gymnast. She has been granted refugee status by the U.S. government.
Wearing jeans and a gray sweater, Comaneci said that she first considered defecting after retiring from competition in 1984. But she added that personal travel restrictions--not the recent East Bloc reforms--motivated her decision to leave.
She and Panait, posing arm in arm for photographers, said that they hoped to “settle down together.” But they would not disclose whether they would share a home before he obtains a divorce.
“You want to know all my secrets,” said Comaneci, who arrived in Miami Monday night after having spent several days in seclusion with Panait in New York.
Panait is a self-employed roofer who came to the United States from Romania in the early ‘80s. He has been living with his wife in Hallandale, Fla., about 10 miles north of Miami. They have four young children.
Asked whether she knew that Panait was married when they met two years ago at a party in Bucharest, Comaneci said, “Yes, so what?”
Comaneci and Panait said that they plan to visit his wife, Maria. When told that the house was surrounded by reporters and photographers and that his wife was upset by the attention, he said, “She has been hurt, but (this romance) was the right thing to do.”
Tabloid newspapers reportedly offered Panait’s wife $1,000 to $3,000 to tell her story and reported that she was angered by reports linking her husband romantically with Comaneci.
“I am sorry my husband ever helped Nadia escape because it is giving me a lot of trouble,” she said. “I know what’s true. I’m going to hold my head up high through all of this. I’m going to stick it out.”
One report said that she learned her husband had helped Comaneci escape when a friend called to say that Panait was on television with Comaneci. But an earlier report quoted her as saying that her husband had told her when he left Florida that he might bring Comaneci back with him.
She said that her husband had been visiting his parents in Bucharest. Friends of Panait’s family said that Comaneci’s mother and Panait’s mother were close friends in Bucharest.
Comaneci, who was 14 when she scored seven perfect 10s at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, said that she had been approached about making a film of her life and had agreed.
“I intend to make a movie about my story,” she said, adding that she also plans to star in the film.
But she said that gymnastics does not figure in her immediate plans.
“I want to do other things,” she said.
She also said that she does not plan to contact Bela Karolyi, her former coach, who defected from Romania in 1981 and now trains gymnasts in Houston.
“I have no business with my former coach,” she said.
Karolyi, who returned home Monday night from competition in Stuttgart, West Germany, said that he is disappointed that Comaneci has not contacted him. He had invited her to live with him and his wife in Houston. But he said that he is glad Comaneci is taking charge of her life.
“Even though I really wish from the bottom of my heart that she be associated with gymnastics, I am happy to see her taking her life in her own hands,” he said.
He, however, expressed concern about Panait’s intentions.
“I don’t know who he is, what he wants or what his plans are,” Karolyi said. “I appreciate his courage, taking a risk to get her out of Romania. But I want to know if he truly wants to help her.”
Similar concerns were expressed by Geza Pozsar, Comaneci’s former choreographer who defected with Karolyi from Romania in 1981. Pozsar, who operates a gym in Sacramento, is married to Comaneci’s second cousin.
“We’ve made so many efforts to contact her,” Pozsar said. “Maybe someday she’ll remember the people who helped her when she was young.”
He also said that he believed her image would be damaged in the United States because of her relationship with a married man.
Upon arriving in New York Friday, Comaneci sold the story of her defection to a London newspaper, The Mail on Sunday. It reported that the defection was organized by Panait and that she endured a muddy, nighttime trek through country terrain before reaching the Hungarian border when she left Romania under the cover of darkness Nov. 26.
Comaneci said that she, Panait and six other friends left her mother’s home in Bucharest in a rental car and headed for the town of Timisoara near the Hungarian border. Panait dropped them off 10 miles from the Hungarian border at about midnight.
“We were stumbling and often crawling through water and ice,” Comaneci said. She said that the group encountered no border guards, although they heard guard dogs barking.
They reached the border after walking for six hours, having veered miles off their planned route. At the border, the group was stopped by a Hungarian border patrol and taken to police headquarters at Szeged, Hungary, where they were reunited with Panait. Because he had an exit permit, he had legally crossed the border into Hungary.
“We never said we wanted to leave Hungary,” Comaneci said. “We never let on we were planning to go to the West. I didn’t know what would happen if I said I wanted to go to America. We had to lie.”
After the Hungarians had given them identity papers early last Wednesday morning, the group fled to Austria. She said that her friends are still there.
She left without saying goodby to her parents, she told the Mail.
“I could tell no one I was escaping,” she said. “I even had to lie to my brother. I was frightened, of course I was. I was scared of being picked up by the Romanian authorities.”
She also said that she had nothing with her when she crossed the border except for the clothes she was wearing.
“I could not bring anything else with me, not even my precious gold medals or a photograph of my family,” she said.
At the news conference Tuesday, Comaneci said that she fears retribution from Romanian authorities against her family members in Romania and hopes to call her parents this week.
“I wanted to go for me, to have a better life,” she said.
But she declined to discuss her plans.
“I want just a quiet life, but I don’t think I’ll have a chance,” she said, smiling at reporters.