Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Born to Move: Nadia, the Girl Who Couldn't Sit Still by Karlin Gray

In the village of Onesti, Romania, there lived a girl who couldn't sit still. She loved soccer, swimming, playing with dolls, and climbing trees. But she didn't just climb--she swung from branch to branch.

Little Nadia was a perpetual motion machine. The nearby forest trees were her climbing bars. She was fearless, feisty, forever on the go, and sometimes unpredictable.

As a tot she tried climbing even the Christmas tree. Both she and the tree wound up on the floor amidst broken ornaments.

Once she got in trouble for trying on a pair of roller skates in a store... and skating right out the building.

Mama Comaneci decided that her busy daughter need something to focus her energies upon. She took her down and enrolled her in a gymnastics class. Nadia stood still, a little taken aback, in the big room with the strange equipment. But there were so many things to climb, to jump on, to swing on!

Nadia loved gymnastics class. She and her friend practiced their cartwheels together on the playground, where they were spotted by a coach named Bela Karolyi, who invited the two to join his new gymnastics school. Nadia was small, almost dainty, but very strong and agile and she progressed rapidly, At the age of nine, with high hopes, Nadia went with her team to compete in the National Junior Championships.

But Nadia was new to competition, and she fell from the balance bar. Bravely she climbed back up to continue her routine, but she fell two more times. She finished an unlucky thirteenth place. But that only made Nadia practice harder, and at the very next Junior Championships, Nadia won first place.

Soon it was time for the Montreal Olympic Games. Completing in the women's rounds were Russia's renowned gold medalists Olga Korbut and Lyudmila Turischeva. Nadia was still a small, light girl, barely fourteen, and looking much younger, but Bela Karolyi believed that she was ready.

Nadia mounted the uneven bars. She was a long way from the forests of Romania. But she swung around as easily as she had jumped from branch to branch as a little girl. The audience gasped.

Nadia finished her routine by soaring through the air and landing perfectly on the mat below. The crowd exploded with applause.

The fans murmured with excitement. In their minds, the tiny girl with the dark pony tail was surely the winner, flying higher and with more ease and grace than even the veteran Russian champions. They waited as the judges scored her performance. Possible scores ranged from a 1.0, the worst, to a possible 10.0. But no one had ever received a perfect score. Surely Nadia would receive the coveted 9.9.

After a long wait, the scoreboard flashed a number. 1.00. A terrible score.

The crowd couldn't believe that. Everyone looked at the judges' table. And then...

One of the officials held up ten fingers as a voice announced over the loud speaker:

"Ladies and gentlemen, for the very first time in Olympic history, Nadia Comaneci has received the score of...
a perfect ten!"

But Nadia wasn't done. At the close of the gymnastics rounds, Nadia Comeneci had scored a perfect 10 on seven different events. She went home with three gold medals one silver and one bronze medal, the youngest gold medalist in gymnastics ever.

And the rest, as we always say, is history! Nadia Comaneci had become the first female Olympic phenom of the television age. She was celebrated everywhere, by fans and world leaders, a media sensation, right down to her image on boxes of Wheaties, and millions of little girls worldwide put down their Barbies and signed up for gymnastics classes, some of them soon following Nadia to Olympic gold stardom.

Karlin Gray's forthcoming Nadia: The Girl Who Couldn't Sit Still (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) tells the story of how Comeneci conquered the gymnastics world and the hearts of people all over the world, many of whom knew nothing of her sport. Gray's memoir portrays the great passion Nadia had for her sport, and Christine Davenier's light and graceful curved lines and subtle humor perfectly capture in sumptuous watercolor illustrations the spirit of her lighter-than-air grace on the bars, the beam, and the vault. As we approach the next Olympic Games, this book is a perfect introduction to one of the Games' most popular sports and most beloved champions.

For more of Christine Davenier's delightful art, see the best-selling series by stage and screen star Julie Andrews, beginning with The Very Fairy Princess or Davenier's charming young danseuses in Grace Maccarone's series beginning with Miss Lina's Ballerinas.

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