RA Diaries: The summer of Nadia

At the summer Olympics in Montreal in 1976, a 14-year-old Romanian gymnast named Nadia Comaneci made history. Not only was she the youngest gymnast ever to win the best all-around category; she was the first in modern Olympic gymnastics to score a perfect 10 on the uneven bars.

Comaneci’s triumph that year changed the dreams of little girls world-wide, mine included. So many of us wanted to be her, in her slightly chalky white leotard and bangs and a ponytail, flying around those uneven bars, stepping lightly on that balance beam as if gravity had never existed.

Those little girls whose parents could afford it immediately signed up for gymnastics lessons. Those who couldn’t afford lessons practiced cartwheels on the playground, swung from monkey bars and tree branches and balanced on railings. I remember watching a news story on television later that summer, where Comaneci was teaching a little girl how to turn a cartwheel at one of the many schools the gymnast visited upon her return home. For that little girl, it was the thrill of a lifetime, and possibly the beginning of her own Olympic dream.

For me, though, that was a dream that could never come true. That same summer, the summer of Nadia, as I like to call it, doctors finally figured out what was wrong with me. It was Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, and it explained quite a lot of things, like why a sprained ankle or wrist never seemed to heal, and why it took me forever to learn how to walk. Though I finally did walk, out of sheer stubbornness.

I remember the doctor talking about my diagnosis that day in the summer of Nadia, and what would likely happen. Terms like “swan-necked fingers” and “hammer toes” were thrown around. I remember he never looked at me as he spoke, though he used my various body parts to demonstrate. Nor did he talk to me; he talked to my parents (a phenomenon I would continue to experience until I was in my teens), trying to prepare them for the future.

No one talked to me. No one asked me how I felt about the whole thing, or how I was supposed to cope with this emotionally. But it was the ’70s. Children, even sick children, were to be seen and not heard.

I was put on anti-inflammatories (anything stronger would have hurt my growing body). I was given a Silly Putty-like substance to exercise my fingers with. I was given splints to keep my wrists from weakening.

But even with all that happening, I still wanted to be Nadia. I still dreamed of turning cartwheels on a balance beam, though my actual attempts at a cartwheel of any sort were foiled by my stiffening wrists and inflamed fingers.

At age seven, I managed to convince my parents to let me sign up for gymnastics. They were given in the same sports complex as my brother’s basketball lessons, so it was convenient for commuting purposes. I was so excited; I wore my hair in a ponytail and got that coveted leotard at last.

I knew even then that I would never be a Nadia; the joint damage had progressed to the point that I couldn’t make much of a fist. But the teachers were kind, and the other little girls didn’t judge, and we all had a good time pretending to be gymnasts (some of us even were).

Things for Comaneci were not going as well in 1978. Her coaches, the Karolyis, were ordered to stop working with her. Her parents divorced. All the stress took its toll, and she did badly at the World Championships. But the next year was her year. She got her old coach back, and went on to kick ass at the World Championships (after being hospitalized for blood poisoning, no less!).

1979 marked a big change for me as well. My father got a job in another country, on another continent, and I left the only home I had ever known (Northern Italy) for a place I had never even heard of — Mexico.

The culture shock was huge, but for me, the hardest part wasn’t living in a city where the altitude made it difficult to breathe, where you had to boil the water before you drank it, where distances to everything were vast.

Not even starting an English-speaking school and having to learn Spanish was the hardest part. No, the hardest part was my new gym class. They were deeply into gymnastics, but this was not play or pretend. Here, it was all about really becoming Nadia, and anyone who couldn’t measure up was scrutinized quite harshly.

At that time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about my RA, nor the nerve as the new kid. No one in my family thought it necessary to advocate for me. I’ve asked my mother since why she didn’t talk to my gym teachers about it. She told me she didn’t think I wanted her to, since I badly wanted to be normal. I find it interesting that she would think such a thing, since for the most part what I wanted was overridden by parents who knew better. But I realize now she was every bit as overwhelmed trying to adjust to her new environment as I was.

Still, her reluctance to step in, even just to enlighten the coach, hurt me, because kids tend to make up their own facts unless set straight. My classmates were soon convinced I was double-jointed. That was actually the kindest theory — goodness knows what they thought was wrong with me during the small circles of discussion that tended to form when, once again, my joints prevented me from performing some gymnastic feat.

Things got a little better when the gymnastics unit ended, and by spring 1980, we had moved on to the somewhat less excruciating track and field unit. By that time, my dreams of being Nadia were pretty much gone, and I equated gymnastics with pain.

Comaneci went on to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and did fairly well, defending at least one of her titles and tying for another. But I don’t even remember watching her.

For me, 1980 was the summer I decided I wanted to become a writer.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

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4 comments

  • As a teenager with an illness that affects her joints, this spoke to me in so many ways — the longing that I could just have that motion back, that I could move to the music, that I could dance, that I could run, that I could do backflips. Thank you for writing this.

  • Thank you for commenting! I’ve tried very hard to focus on what I can do, as opposed to what I can’t do, for so many years, but I still can’t help but mourn for that lost mobility, especially on days like today, when my limbs aren’t cooperating.

  • akwhitney,

    may i use this piece in a class I’m teaching this fall? I can send you more details–it’s a class on the construction of femininity.

  • Certainly. I would be honored.

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