On July 19, 1976, a young Romanian gymnast approached the uneven bars in Montreal. She was just 14, and her own expectations for the Summer Olympics were "very, very low."
She had earned four gold medals at the 1975 European championships and scored the first perfect 10 in gymnastics history the following spring, at the American Cup. But the Soviets still ruled the sport. They had dominated the 1972 Munich Games, and now their two stars -- Olga Korbut and Ludmilla Tourischeva -- were back for more.
Then Nadia Comaneci began her routine, and with each flawlessly executed skill, the fans grew quieter. Finally, after she landed her dismount without so much as a quiver, they erupted, only to quickly fall silent again when her score flashed on the board inside the Forum.
"It was a 1.00," recalls Bela Karolyi, her coach. "That was a shock. Nobody could explain where the penalties came from. I ran toward the judges for an explanation, but I never got to the table." Karolyi and his protege were frozen by the announcer's voice. "He said, 'Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. For the first time in the Olympic history of the sport, a perfect 10!'"
The scoreboard, it turned out, had only a three-number display. "There was craziness in the arena," Karolyi says. "They were stomping on the floor and flashing the lights. It was unbelievable."
Forevermore, Comaneci would be synonymous with perfection, especially after notching six more 10s in Montreal on her way to three gold medals, in the all-around, beam and uneven bars. By the third day of competition, wrote Dave Anderson of The New York Times, "All the other competitors were watching her, except for the Soviet athletes, who never seem to look at her as she performs."
Eyes remained focused on Comaneci after the Games. She appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Time. Girls from Minsk to Minneapolis hung her poster on their walls. They bought Nadia dolls and wore her white leotard with the stripes down the sides. And they flocked to gyms, hoping to emulate her elegance and error-free routines.
It was the dawn of the Comaneci era, when gymnastics would become the domain of girls with sylphlike bodies and unthinkable composure and strength. "Nadia had the most important impact on gymnastics," Karolyi says. "She brought millions of children to the sport and made it the most-watched television event at the Olympics."
And she was hardly finished after Montreal. Comaneci won gold in the balance beam at the 1978 world championships and in the team competition at the 1979 event, while also hauling in five golds from 1977 to '79 at the European championships. She returned to the Olympics in 1980, leaving Moscow with two golds and two silvers, including a controversial second-place finish in the all-around, behind the Soviet Union's Elena Davydova. (Comaneci is the last Olympic all-around champ to come back and try to defend her title.)
In 1989, Comaneci caused another stir when she defected to the U.S. She would eventually marry retired American gymnast Bart Conner and settle in Norman, Okla., where the couple own and operate a gymnastics academy. The little girl who captivated the world is 50 now, but she will always be remembered for what happened in Montreal.
"She had an amazing capability to perform under pressure," Karolyi says. "As the competition got tough, she got even tougher. She dominated the sport with such authority, but she was also so graceful."
And, in the biggest moments of her life, she was perfect.
-- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine