Olympian Nadia Comaneci’s Improbable Story Of Success And Survival
At 14, Nadia Comaneci wowed the world with her record-setting gymnastic performances at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Shortly after reaching the pinnacle of success and becoming a global icon, her life began to crumble. Miraculously, she was able to extricate herself from multiple life-threatening situations and reinvent herself time and time again. Here’s the crazy story of how the world’s greatest gymnast found herself atop life’s podium.
A Star Is Born
Flacara, meaning “Flames” in Romanian, was Nadia Comaneci’s first gymnastics team, a name fitting for a girl who would one day wow the world and take the Olympics by storm. A name very fitting for a girl from the mountains of Romania whose image would be burned into the minds of the stunned television audience as she made Olympic history at the young age of 14.
However, it was Nadia’s epic tale of survival that really punctuated her incredible life story and defines the true meaning of success. That’s because Nadia’s journey took her from child star and national icon to political prisoner in a brutal communist regime. It then took her to the heartland of America where she’d finally find happiness, something that eluded her despite her success. It’s all of those unlikely elements that make her journey so much more improbable, important, and valuable than any of the nine Olympic medals she no longer has.
The Cartwheeling Kid
Nadia Comaneci, the daughter of a mechanic, grew up poor in the small town of Onesti. Like most children, she was a ball of energy that couldn’t be controlled, and at recess, Nadia and her friends would execute perfect cartwheels and other gymnastic moves on the playground. Normally, these ordinary moves would go unnoticed.
But Bela Karolyi, the legendary gymnastics coach, the man behind the resurgence of U.S. women’s gymnastics, happened to be in the area. By chance, Karolyi decided to open up a gymnastics school in Onesti and would spend his afternoons at the local schools, scouting recesses for latent talent in a country full of promising gymnasts.
Bela Karolyi Finds Nadia
On one such afternoon, he popped into a recess where his eye was immediately drawn to a girl doing perfect cartwheels and other athletic moves. Karolyi was hooked, but before he could approach the pupil, the bell rang and the students were shuffled back into their classrooms.
He panicked, unsure of how to proceed, knowing very well that this girl had a genuine talent, and losing this opportunity to coach her would be catastrophic. So Bela went inside and walked into every class and asked the students who loved gymnastics. The girl and a friend answered. He found her. “It was an important moment in my life,” Karolyi reflected to Sports Illustrated. That girl turned out to be Nadia.
A Challenging Childhood
As a six-year-old prodigy training in a communist country with an emphasis on discipline and success, life for Nadia wasn’t easy or glamorous. It was spent in the gym, practicing six to seven hours per day with nearly-robotic precision. But for Nadia, the gym was her sanctuary, the place that helped her escape Romania and its crumbling economy, its bleak, oppressive communist way of life. Outside of Karolyi’s gym, Nadia was like everyone else, a number in the system, but inside, she was a star.
Slowly but surely, Nadia’s practice and patience began to pay off. “I actually did a lot more than they were asking me to do and I think about when Bela used to say ‘today we do five routines on the beam’ and I used to do seven. So I could do more than he was asking. I don’t mind working hard and don’t complain if I work hard” (Euronews).
Then, in 1976, Nadia got her first big break on the world stage.
1976 American Cup
At the inaugural American Cup, a premier gymnastics competition that featured top talent from around the world, Nadia Comaneci dominated. Her training paid off and she was awarded with the gold medal in the women’s division. That competition, more importantly, was a springboard for her quest towards Olympic history. It was also at that American Cup where Nadia would share a brief kiss. That kiss, seemingly innocent at the time, would end up having a profound, lasting impact on her life decades after it occurred.
Four months after dominating the American Cup in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden, a 14-year-old Comaneci was set to head to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics as a member of the Romanian Olympic delegation, a daunting task for a 4-foot-11, 85-pound girl.
Montreal Olympics: Big Stage, Bigger Expectations
Despite her diminutive stature and larger-than-life expectations in front of millions of peering eyes, Nadia didn’t falter, bend, or break. Well, she kind of bent, but those contortions were by design and were a part of her once-in-a-lifetime routine. As Comaneci stepped up to the floor, the usually-rowdy Montreal crowd was hushed to a complete silence. They were captivated and star-struck as they witnessed history.
Each swing, jump, and twist was executed to perfection. Each landing accompanied by a smile. Nadia was zoned in. Not even the gasps of the stunned audience could throw off this tiny teenager who seemingly defied physics and gymnastic precedent.
When her exhilarating routine concluded, Comaneci calmly awaited her score, completely unaware of the history she was about to make.
The Day The Scoreboard Could Not Comprehend
“I was told, ‘a 10.00 is not possible,’” recalled Daniel Baumat, the director of Swiss Timing. So we only did three digits” (The Guardian). And for Nadia, a girl who entered the Olympics with self-described “low expectations,” the score came as a complete surprise.
“I always say about the fact that I don’t watch the scoreboard because I feel how I did the routine. I thought I did a pretty good routine” (Euronews). When she finally did turn around to look at the scoreboard, she saw 1.00. The equivalent of an F-, a score so bad it’s almost as unheard of as a perfect score.
But it was an error. The scoreboard wasn’t programmed to take into consideration a perfect 10. It hadn’t been done before, and there was no reason to believe it was about to be done, especially by a 14-year-old girl. Yet, Nadia did it on the uneven bars. A perfect 10. Olympic history had been set, and she was just getting started.
In total, Comaneci earned seven perfect 10s, a feat so remarkable that it virtually solidified her as the greatest Olympic gymnast in history. Today, the minimum age to compete in the Olympics is 16, making her record as the youngest gymnastics champion unbreakable.
When the 1976 Olympics wrapped up, Nadia managed to rack up three gold medals, one silver, and one bronze. She also became a celebrity and national icon overnight, something that would indirectly alter her life in innumerable ways.
A National Hero
As if her trophy case wasn’t already replete with medals and trophies, Comaneci was awarded the AP Female Athlete of the Year in 1976 and the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year. Back in Romania, Nadia was awarded the title of “Hero of Socialist Labor” and received the golden “Hammer and Sickle” medal. Romanian president and Communist Party Chief Nicolae Ceausescu personally bestowed the honors upon the new star.
Her face was printed on stamps. Her legend put Romania on the map. The song she danced to, “Nadia’s Theme,” went gold. She was a tiny model of perfection and success in an era and region defined by a lack of individuality.
Yet as quickly as she rose to the top of the podium, Nadia plummeted from it just as fast, and her life began to spiral out of control.
Suicide Attempt Marks Catastrophic Demise
One year after her Olympic triumph, Nadia was in a hospital. “I was glad because I didn’t have to go to the gym,” she told Life Magazine. The news broke and was heard around the world. Nadia Comaneci, the sweet face of the Montreal Olympics, attempted to kill herself by drinking bleach. The stardom and pressure were too much for her to bear.
As a result, she gained an unhealthy amount of weight, which prohibited her from competing. When she did compete, her form was off and she was a shell of her former self. Then the Romanian government inexplicably separated her from her coaches and her performance faltered even more. She fell into a deep depression, one that she was barely able to crawl out of.
1980 Moscow Olympics
Reunited with her coaches, her comeback was rapid and impressive, and four years after her initial triumph in Montreal, Nadia was back on the Olympic stage. With the Olympics being held in Moscow, the crown jewel of the Soviet Union, this was Romania’s chance to prove its superiority over the USSR, a regime that heavily influenced Romania post-WWII.
In Moscow, Nadia excelled once again, winning two gold and two silver medals. But her performances were mired by controversies regarding her scores. Her coaches believed the judges unfairly docked her points while awarding bogus points to the home-team Soviet gymnasts. Karolyi claimed the judges had “an arrangement to give low scores to Nadia” (Sports Illustrated).
The entire debacle, especially Karolyi’s argument with the judges, was captured on camera and drove a wedge between the already strained relationship the Romanian government had with the fiery coach.
Nadia Tours The World
Following another legendary Olympic performance, Romania decided it was time to capitalize on their national treasure. So in 1981, the country organized an 11-city “Nadia Tour” where the gymnast, along with her American contemporaries, would tour the United States, raising money for Romania.
Her coach, Bela Karolyi, would lead the tour that ended up generating $250,000 for the State. However, Nadia only saw a sliver of that and pocketed a mere $1,000. Then, on the last day of the tour, Nadia’s coaches made the most surprising move of their careers. They defected to America. The Romanian plane waited for three hours at the airport but the defectors were not coming back.
The tension between the State and Bela Karolyi could be cut with a knife. As the U.S. trip concluded, the Karolyis, along with other staff members, decided they needed to make a change. The Romanian government was hampering their abilities to coach and using the athletes as pawns to propel Romania into the international spotlight. “This interference with Nadia’s career led to her widely publicized decline between 1977 and 1978,” Karolyi told the Washington Post.
And once Nadia became a national icon, a cash cow to be milked at Romania’s convenience, she was snatched from the tutelage of the Karolyis. But “when Nadia slipped, the state rushed back to us, asking us to take her back. This exercise took place on three separate occasions, and it made us very unhappy” (Washington Post). While the Karolyis began their new life in America, Nadia’s life began to take an unfathomable turn for the worst.
A Powerless Prisoner
“My life drastically changed after the Karolyi defection,” Nadia said. “I was no longer allowed to travel outside Romania. Whenever the Gymnastics Federation put me on a list to travel for some kind of exhibition tour, the list came back with my name crossed out. I was cut off from making the small amount of money that had really made the difference in my family’s life. I started to feel like a prisoner. In reality, I’d always been one” (The Guardian).
And the preferential treatment most national heroes get was just a figment of her imagination. “I had to live like everybody else…(and) stand in lines, and miss out, and be followed by the police. I had no money, no special treatment” (The Guardian). Just like her former coach, Nadia needed to make a decision, lest she waste away her career and life in a communist country ruled by a murderous drunk.
In 1989, Nadia, aided by a man named Constantin Panait, trudged for six hours through the cold night, over frozen rivers, past armed guards and barbed wire fence, to the Hungarian border. “We were stumbling and often crawling through water and ice,” Nadia remembered (LA Times). “Leaving meant you were gone. You couldn’t go back. I didn’t tell my mom” (Daily Mail).
“I could not bring anything else with me (other than the clothes on her back), not even my precious gold medals or a photograph or my family” (LA Times). After making it to Hungary, Nadia proceeded on to Austria where she finally found the U.S. embassy. There, the embassy provided her with a flight to New York and a path towards salvation.
Little did she know that America would become more like the land of in-opportunity.
Not Welcomed With Open Arms
When Nadia arrived in the States it was with much fanfare and enthusiasm, two emotions that would soon disappear. In the public’s eye, she was still the 14-year-old darling that charmed the masses with perfect 10s at the Olympics. However, shortly after her arrival, controversial and contradictory details leaked out about her supposed relationship with Nicu Ceausescu, the son of the brutal dictator Nicolae.
Back in Romania, Nadia’s mother maintained that Nicu raped Nadia when she was still a 17-year-old virgin. Others claimed they had a legitimate relationship marked by debauchery and lavish spending. Nadia, conversely, had this to say regarding her relationship with Nicu. “So when people see Nicu and me, they think we are lovers only because they know me. All lies” (LA Times).
But her reputation was further smeared when details emerged regarding the man who set her free, Constantin Panait.
Panait was a Romanian roofer who moved to Miami with his wife and child years before Nadia escaped. Some say he was a family friend of the Comanecis, while others say the two met at a party. Regardless of how the two ended up meeting, their relationship appeared scandalous from the outset. When Comaneci was asked if she knew Panait was married, she replied, “Yes, so what?” This reply didn’t sit well with the American people.
When Panait was asked how his wife was doing with the bizarre situation, he replied, “She has been hurt, but (this romance) was the right thing to do” (LA Times). The public was further enraged when Panait’s estranged wife was interviewed and said, “I am sorry my husband ever helped Nadia escape because it is giving me a lot of trouble” (LA Times).
And Nadia, unfazed by the negative publicity surrounding her scandalous affair, publicly decried Bela Karolyi. “I have no business with my former coach,” she told the LA Times. Despite the animosity, Karolyi wished his former pupil well but expressed concern with Panait. “I don’t know who he is, what he wants or what his plans are. 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,” he told the LA Times.
And Geza Pozsar, Comaneci’s former choreographer who is married to Comaneci’s second cousin, expressed a similar concern. “We’ve made so many efforts to contact her,” he told the LA Times. “Maybe someday she’ll remember the people who helped her when she was young.”
Failing to contact Nadia, it turned out, wasn’t an isolated event and concerned more people than just her former coaches.
The Kiss Seen Around The World
“She doesn’t remember it of course. But I do. Who could forget someone who went on to score a 10 and change the sport forever?”- Bart Conner, U.S. Olympic gymnast and two-time gold medal winner reflecting on an iconic photograph. That photograph he’s recalling took place at the 1976 American Cup after Conner and Nadia both won their respective divisions.
As Conner stood next to Nadia on the podium, a photographer suggested that he give her a kiss on the cheek, and he obliged. That kiss lingered in Conner’s mind, and he, like the rest of the world, closely followed Nadia’s gymnastic career.
When Nadia came to America on her 1981 tour, Conner reunited with her, and a friendship slowly blossomed. But maintaining a connection with her proved difficult. When Connor, and other U.S. gymnasts, found out that she defected to the States in 1989, he tried reaching out, wanting to offer a helping hand. Nothing. No replies, no contact, and no information regarding her whereabouts.
Then Conner caught wind that Nadia was set to appear on the Pat Sajak Show. He learned of this hours before the show was scheduled to air on CBS. Frantically, he called an old friend who happened to know one of the show’s producers and asked for a favor.
The Pat Sajak Show
Midway through the show, the host announced that there would be a special guest in attendance, and from behind the curtains emerged Bart Conner. He had barely caught a flight from Oklahoma City to L.A. and was escorted to a CBS-arranged helicopter that flew him directly to the studio. Conner arrived just 10 minutes before the show started.
He emerged on-stage clutching a bouquet of roses and flashed his signature smile. Comaneci and the tight-lipped Panait seemed visibly stunned by his appearance. As the segment wrapped up, Bart mentioned how he heard her transition to the States had been anything but smooth.
“But I wanted to stop by to welcome you because I know that you’re introduction here to America has been less than great and it has been difficult for you and to leave your homeland and come here, and on behalf of the athletes we want to welcome you and tell you we love you and appreciate all you’ve done for our sport,” Connor said.
Little did he know just how difficult her life in America had been.
On the outside, everything may have appeared to be going well for Nadia in her new country. She had done some commercial photo shoots and had a movie about her life in the works. However, this was a facade, and behind it her life was actually crumbling.
Once her savior, Panait had turned into her captor. “When I came to the United States this guy kept me like I was in a prison. He didn’t let me call anybody. I couldn’t call my family in Romania. I knew something was wrong” (UPI). Isolated from the outside world, Nadia’s world was once again turned upside down.
A Light At The End Of The Tunnel
Panait exercised total control over her life and threatened to deport her back to Romania should she disclose any of the abuses. He stole the money she earned from interviews and television appearances, and worst of all, he physically, mentally, and potentially sexually abused her. “I was in a free country. But I was not free…He used me for money” (UPI).
Panait shunned her from the outside world, keeping her isolated and bereft of communication. It was Panait that prevented her from speaking with the athletes and her old coaches. “What I felt, I can’t explain. I started to cry. All along, I wanted to see him (Bela Karolyi), but I wasn’t allowed to by Panait. It was all a misunderstanding,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
Finally, there was a light at the end of the tunnel: Alexandru Stefu.
Alexandru Stefu was a Romanian ex-pat living in Montreal. He was heavily involved in the sports community there and was the former rugby coach of the Romanian National Team. He was also friends with Bela Karolyi. Karolyi, who had long sensed trouble with Nadia, requested that Stefu reach out to Panait. It was a simple ploy. Offer Panait, the greedy, money-hungry captor, a lucrative deal for him and Nadia in Montreal.
Eager to continue profiting off her celebrity, Panait accepted the offer and took Nadia to Montreal to meet Stefu. There, Stefu immediately sensed something was horribly awry. It wasn’t verbally communicated because Nadia was never let out of sight, but her body language said enough. The next morning, Panait fled Montreal with $150,000 of Nadia’s hard earned cash.
“He punched her, black and blue,” Stefu said. “The guy is a bandit” (UPI).
With her captor out of the question, Nadia was finally free and set up, with Stefu’s guidance, a new life in Montreal. But the exhilaration of freedom was, yet again, short-lived.
Nadia moved in with Stefu and his family in their Montreal apartment. She kept in touch with Bart and performed with him on gymnastic all-star teams. “He’s my best friend,” she told People Magazine in November of 1990. Then her phone rang. It was the police relaying tragic news she never thought she’d hear. Alexandru Stefu had tragically died in a scuba diving accident at 47.
She was heartbroken and in a panic. Once again, the fragile stability that was her new life was teetering on the edge of collapse. Out of options, she turned to the man who startled her on national television years ago, Bart Conner.
“I’d never heard someone so terrified in my life,” Conner said. “Stefu was the one good thing that had happened to her in her life and he was gone” (Chicago Tribune).
Head Over Heels
Naturally, Conner offered Nadia a place to stay in Oklahoma. He was in the process of setting up a gym and could use an extra hand. After a year of living together, romance between the two finally blossomed. “We were good friends before there was physical attraction,” Conner recalled to the New York Times. “I was curious about him. He didn’t want anything in exchange for helping me,” Comaneci told the New York Times.
In 1994, years after dating, touring together, and building a life together, Conner, on Nadia’s birthday, proposed. Although it was the surprise of a lifetime, Nadia had an inkling that he was about to propose. “He got me a ring, then a bracelet– he was running out of jewelry. The engagement ring had to be next,” Nadia fondly remembered (NY Times).
Bart The Blessing
Two years after their engagement, the two former Olympic gold medalists married in Bucharest, Romania. “Romania had a big role in everything that I’ve done, and still has. I couldn’t imagine doing the wedding somewhere else,” she told the Huffington Post. Back in her home country, the wedding became of national interest and was broadcasted live on television. The entire country had the day off from work as Romania’s golden child became a goddess enshrined in the country’s lore forever.
“Most women bring the man home to meet the father,” Conner said. “I had to meet the entire country” (Chicago Tribune). And the usually stoic, emotionless Nadia revealed a side of her not many had seen before after her marriage. “Bart is something everyone wants in a person. He helps everyone. You look at his face and what you see is that you can trust” (Chicago Tribune).
In 2001, Nadia received another remarkable honor, one completely unrelated to her gymnastics career.
An All-American Couple
“I never thought I would be standing here, married to an All-American guy, living in Oklahoma,” Nadia told the courtroom. “What a country” (Arizona Daily Sun). Those were her first words after becoming an American citizen. Since becoming a citizen, Nadia has had a child named Dylan and works with her husband at a gymnastics academy they co-own.
Comaneci is also a member of the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. She wasn’t the first foreigner in the hall, but she was the first athlete whose athletic success came as a representative of a different country. Today, however, her biggest joy — other than her son — is helping with a few charities she holds close to her heart, namely the Special Olympics and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
A Special Charity
Both Nadia and Conner are members of the Board of Directors of the Special Olympics. According to their website, they have “traveled all over the world to support the mission of Special Olympics to give opportunities through sports training and competition for persons with disabilities.” She told AARP that the Special Olympics are “a part of our family.”
Nadia was also honored at Monticello’s (Thomas Jefferson’s estate and current museum) 50th Annual Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony. By speaking at the event, Nadia became the first athlete to deliver the keynote speech. Decades after becoming the first gymnast to score a perfect 10, Nadia is still managing to find new firsts and push the envelope of success.
Back to Canada
Back in Canada, the place Nadia rose to fame and lived, the former Olympian is still being honored and celebrated. The Windsor Essex Sports Persons of the Year committee nominated Comaneci as the event’s keynote speaker. “I am honored and just happy to be there and be a part of these awards,” Comaneci told CBC, the largest Canadian broadcasting and news corporation.
And the locals are hopeful that Comaneci’s presence will boost gymnastics participation in an area dominated by ice hockey. Despite Nadia not electing to live in Canada, the country still resonates with her after having such an enduring impact on her life at such a young age.
Katie Holmes and Nadia’s Unlikely Friendship
Out of all the people in the world for Nadia to befriend, choosing an actress who was most famously known for her marriage to Tom Cruise seems rather unlikely. And out of all the film possibilities for a director to choose from, electing to document Nadia Comaneci’s life seems just as unlikely.
Many people have made Comaneci the subject of documentaries and short films, and the subject seems a bit played out. But Katie Holmes was determined to tell Nadia’s tale. And throughout it all, an unlikely friendship developed between the two stars. The film, Eternal Princess, was only 17 minutes long and told, from a slightly different angle, Nadia’s incredible journey.
Although Nadia, a full-time mother, is no longer a competitive athlete, that doesn’t mean she forgot how to stay in shape. Nadia told InStyle Magazine that her “idea of a good workout is something that fits easily into my lifestyle…I like to workout every day.
I prefer to workout in the morning and I do a maximum of 30 minutes, which will include cardio like running or the elliptical and stretching and light weights.” Her favorite clothes to workout in? “Loose shorts and a comfy tee.” Although shorts, t-shirts, and some light cardio is a far cry from her regimen as an Olympian, it appears to get the job done for Nadia.
New Perfect 10
Just because Nadia is no longer competing, that hasn’t stopped her from getting perfect 10s. Like most people who have adapted with the times, Nadia has found a way to get involved in technology, and more specifically phone applications. Nadia released Nadia’s Perfect 10-Gymnastics for Android phones that lets users play as Nadia while attempting to get a perfect score.
And by releasing this game, Nadia became the first gymnast in history to release her own game. Safe to say playing the game on your phone is easier than hitting the gym and practicing some of those electrifying moves that made her so famous.
Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy
According to the gymnastics academy’s website, “The Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy in Norman, Okla. is one of the largest and best-equipped gymnastics centers in the United States.” The gym features state-of-the-art equipment and despite the gym’s namesake belonging to Bart Conner, Nadia’s presence is equally felt there.
Oklahoma may not seem like a gymnastics epicenter, but with two famous Olympians running one of the bigger gymnastics gyms in America, it just might become one. For Conner and Nadia, it’s only a matter of time until their only son gets involved with sport, and when he does, he’ll have the perfect place to train.
She Set The Bar
“When I look back at everything that has happened in my life. I don’t think that there would be one thing that I would have done differently because every little thing that I have done connected the dots to what I am today” (Euronews). Back in 1976, Nadia set the bar, and the new standard for gymnastics was born. She defined the sport and was an impetus for change and growth in a sport that has since exploded in popularity.
Since retiring from the sport, her life has taken her through extreme highs and devastating lows. She’s reached the pinnacle of success and plunged to the deep depths of failure, but all of it has shaped who she is and has helped her tell an improbable story that has left an indelible impact on the world.
NEXT: Nadia wasn’t the only Olympic medalist with a rocky life after her record-breaking career…
Olympic Trials to Court Trials: How Molly Bloom Became the Poker Princess
It’s not often that someone trains for the Olympics as a mogul skier, becomes the hostess of America’s highest-stakes poker games, get’s involved with the Russian mob, faces nearly a decade behind bars, and gets off practically scot-free. Unless you’re Molly Bloom, America’s poker princess and inspiration behind the best-selling book and Academy Award-nominated film “Molly’s Game.”
Here’s the incredible tale of how Molly Bloom hosted poker games with stars like Leonardo Dicaprio and survived a brutal scare at the hands of the Russian mob…
Meet the Blooms
Molly Bloom grew up in a talented family full of high achievers. Her father was a clinical psychologist and a professor at Colorado State University while her mother owned a fly fishing guide company and her own clothing line. Her two brothers were equally impressive.
One brother, Jordan, is a Harvard-educated cardiothoracic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her other brother is Jeremy Bloom, a two-time Olympic skier, three-time World Champion, and 11-time World Cup Gold Medalist. Oh, and when Jeremy wasn’t skiing, he was excelling on the football fields at the University of Colorado. Bloom was an All-American receiver and return specialist who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, making him the only athlete in history to ski at the Olympics and make an NFL team.
Naturally, Molly grew up in a hyper-competitive environment. As Ricky Bobby once said, ‘If you’re not first, you’re last.” And with that mindset, Molly would do everything in her power to succeed, excel, and get attention, and skiing would be the vehicle, at least initially, by which she would get those things she so desperately craved.
There wasn’t much to do in Loveland, Colorado, her hometown, but when winter came, everyone and their moms made the weekend trek to the slopes. A young prodigy, Molly was being groomed to be an Olympian, but at the age of 12, disaster nearly ended her promising career. Molly had scoliosis and needed surgery to correct the potentially-devastating issue.
A Miraculous Recovery
Doctors were skeptical whether she’d ever be able to bomb down the slopes again. Like you’ll soon find out, Molly wasn’t too concerned with following the rules or heeding to the advice of others, and shortly after the operation, she was back on the slopes, improbably looking better than before. With her surgically-fused spine, Bloom was on the fast track to the Olympics.
When it came time to go to college, Molly, one of the country’s top skiers, opted for a school that was both close to home and could afford her an opportunity to keep skiing at an elite level. In the fall of 1996, Molly enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder, one of America’s best universities in terms of producing Winter Olympians.
End of a Dream
As a sophomore, Bloom bloomed, making the U.S. Ski Team while placing third overall in the country in her signature event- moguls, a discipline of freestyle skiing. As the competition began to heat up for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Bloom took a turn for the worst, literally. In a qualifying run, Bloom took a nasty spill.
Her Olympic dreams were over, but the ramifications were much more significant than a missed spot on the team. Her body was out of commission. She had battled various injuries season after season and her back was a mess, stemming from her surgery as a child.
When One Door Closes, Another Opens
“I had a pretty horrific crash on my Olympic qualifying run,” she told NPR. “And after I quit the U.S. Ski Team, there was a fair amount of, you know, grief that follows that.” But that grief would pale in comparison to the horror Molly would face staring down the barrels of 17 assault rifles during an FBI raid on her home just a few years later.
After the crash, Molly returned to school to finish her degree, but her aspirations of attending a top-tier law school and becoming a lawyer were also over. Molly was trapped in a life she didn’t want to live, and her gut told her to head west. She packed her bags and moved to L.A.
Molly reached out to a friend in L.A. and asked if she could crash on the couch while she sorted out what was supposed to be a temporary year-long adventure. Her dad, who raised Molly in a structured environment centered around athletics and academics, wasn’t thrilled by his daughter’s decision to move across the country without a job or a plan for the future.
He decided to cut her off financially, nearly severing the fragile relationship the two had maintained over the years. With her connection to home reduced to almost nothing and no concrete plan in place, Molly opted to use her good looks to jumpstart her new life.
An attractive woman with an athletic build, Molly took up a job as a cocktail waitress at a high-end bar. She was banking on her body and jovial personality as a way to rack up tips on a nightly basis, but little did she know that in just a few years, she’d be making millions of dollars per year solely on tips.
Bloom’s shift had just finished. The exhausted waitress was meandering back to the couch she called home when she was nearly run over by a silver Mercedes. The potentially fatal misfortune actually turned into a blessing in disguise that opened the Pandora’s box of a lavish lifestyle she would soon live.
Reardon Green emerged from the Mercedes apologetic and infatuated. He was captivated by Bloom’s looks and charming personality. Their encounter was brief, but it ended with Green offering Bloom a job at his restaurant, Boulevard. Working at Boulevard wasn’t necessarily an upgrade from her first job, but it allowed Bloom to get her foot in the door with other more lucrative industries and opportunities, including underground poker.
By day, Bloom would be serving drinks in a highball glass, and by night organizing poker games full of high rollers. When Bloom’s shift at the restaurant ended, she’d head over to meet Green at the Viper Room. That’s where he hosted his weekly poker games for celebrities.
The Viper Room was a dingy nightclub on Sunset Boulevard, but it was inconspicuous and provided the perfect atmosphere for these games. The games attracted Hollywood stars, athletes, businessmen, and real estate moguls. The buy-ins were high and the stakes were higher, but something was missing. That something was an attractive piece of eye candy that could act as the game’s host and greeter, and that someone that could fill the role was Molly Bloom.
“My boss, Reardon, a real-estate investor, had decided I would be the hostess of a poker game he had organized at Hollywood’s infamous Viper Room.” Bloom told Vanity Fair. Just like that, Bloom had a new career, one she knew nothing about and one she never could have dreamed of having.
First Night on the Job
“It felt more like a sports arena than the basement of the Viper Room. Reardon finished ripping into a sandwich and shouted, ‘Let’s play’” (“Molly’s Game”). “I was standing in the corner of the Viper Room counting ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS IN CASH! I was in the company of movie stars, important directors, and powerful business tycoons.”
That was Bloom’s first night hosting the underground Poker games, and when it ended, she pocketed $3,000 in tips. In hindsight, that $3,000 would be a trivial amount, and with each subsequent game, the guest list grew, the stakes were raised, and the potential for trouble magnified.
“Wow, they are swinging, huh?” Rick said. “Want to [have sex]?” (“Molly’s Game”). That was Rick Salomon, the infamous star, director, and producer of the Paris Hilton Sex Tape “One Night in Paris.” Molly’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. She politely declined the offer and kept her composure. Rick paid the $50,000 buy-in and asked for $200,000 in chips.
More stars began to flood the Viper Room, and the money on the table began to reach unbelievable amounts. Rick, one of the more crass players in the game, asked Ben Affleck, a regular at Molly’s games, a rather personal question.
Business is Boomin’
“Hey, yo, did Jennifer’s ass have cellulite on it, or was it nice?” A moment of tense silence filled the room before Ben nonchalantly answered. No punches were thrown, yet. The games, and Molly’s reputation for being a fantastic host, kept on reaching new heights. Leonardo DiCaprio was becoming a familiar face. So was billionaire founder of Cirque Du Soleil Guy Laliberte. Tobey Maguire, one of the more skilled and neurotic players there, wouldn’t miss a game.
With all the new star power, the Viper Room became inadequate. Bloom had a burgeoning business — she had registered an event-planning LLC in her name — and needed a new venue to host some of the highest-stake, celebrity-laden games in the country.
Beverly Hills, That’s Where Bloom Wants to Be
So long as Bloom only kept tip money, the venture was legal (and taxable). She may have missed the Olympics and the potential to win the gold medal, but Bloom had stumbled upon a gold mine that she planned on mining to its full extent.
Following the Viper Room, Bloom began to host games at some of L.A.’s most lavish venues, such as the Peninsula hotel, the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the Four Seasons. Buy-ins increased, scantily-dressed models that acted as masseuses perused the game’s grounds, and five-star restaurants catered the festivities. Celebrities, even those not directly involved in the game, began to show up, like Nelly and the Olsen twins.
As for Bloom, her life began to look more similar to that of a Hollywood actress than an elite skier from small-town Colorado. She dated Drew McCourt, the son of former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, partied with celebrities, and swapped out her discount heels for Louboutins and her sedan for a Bentley.
However, not all that glitters is gold, and the empire that Bloom worked so hard to build up was about to come crashing down in dramatic fashion. “Bark like a seal who wants a fish,” Tobey Maguire instructed Bloom. Bloom rejected the offer. Maguire had been growing impatient with Bloom for weeks, and now he was taking his frustrations out on her in front of her guests, her clientele, her livelihood.
Bark Like a Seal? No Deal.
Maguire, who was one of the stingiest players in the game, wanted Bloom to get on a table and demean herself for a tip. Bloom continued to refuse, but Maguire wouldn’t back down. “I’m not kidding. What’s wrong? You’re too rich now? You won’t bark for a thousand dollars? Wowwww…you must be really rich.”
Bloom was, in fact, very rich. In a single year, she pocketed over $4 million from tips alone. However, her relationship with Maguire had soured, and that spoiled relationship indicated trouble around the bend. With that in mind, Bloom packed her bags again and headed east to New York City, a poker hotspot where she intended to capitalize big-time on the Wall Street money that flowed into the games like water after a storm.
Bloom in the Big Apple
In 2009, Bloom arrived in New York City with eager eyes. There was a lot of money to be made, and she had the recipe for success. Like she had done in L.A., Bloom rented out suites in some of Manhattan’s most luxurious buildings, filled the rooms with models and gourmet food, and made an exclusive invite-only list that would generate enough hype and word of mouth to promote itself.
The buy-in was a cool $250,000 and the stakes were extraordinary. Wall Street executives, billionaire business moguls, celebrities, and the likes of New York Yankees star slugger Alex Rodriguez all made the rounds at Bloom’s weekly New York City games.
Sliding Down a Slippery Slope
But the big city lights of New York proved to be too bright, and that’s when Bloom began to unravel. “When the games started lasting more than 24 hours, my life was not sustainable,” Molly told the Denver Post. “I turned to drugs and alcohol to manage it.”
Bloom would pop pills to stay awake, use alcohol to drown her sorrows, and take Xanax to level herself off. She was caught in a vicious cycle with no end in sight. To make matters worse, Bloom started guaranteeing games and bankrolling her players with her own line of credit; a recipe for an unsustainable business model.
Taking a Rake Was a Big Mistake
“I was essentially giving them money to play. It wasn’t like, ‘Thanks for bringing me a drink’ or ‘Thanks for inviting me.’ It was like, ‘Thanks for allowing me to win $5 million with the money you vouched for,’” Bloom recounted to the LA Times.
As Shakespeare once said in Hamlet, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.” Bloom wasn’t about to lose any friends by extending credit, but she was about to lose large sums of cash. After being burned by a player for a quarter of a million dollars, Bloom began taking a percentage of the pot for herself, known as a rake.
Taking a rake is illegal, and it led Molly down a slippery slope more dangerous than anything she had skied in her life. In 2010, Bloom’s personal driver introduced her to two members of the Russian mob who offered Bloom protection. That offer wasn’t so much a question as it was a proposition she shouldn’t refuse, which she did.
The mob isn’t really in the business of being denied, and when they were, they punished Bloom. “I opened my mouth to scream, and he pulled out a gun from under his jacket and slammed me back against the wall” (“Molly’s Game”). Bloom pleaded with the armed intruder, offering him money and valuables.
Down Deep in Depression
The man, not interested in her material things, kept punching her in the face. Blood was gushing from her nose. Finally the man ceased, but not before issuing her a stark warning. “Don’t disrespect us again.” The “us” the man was referring to was the Russian mob.
For days, Bloom hid in her apartment while her battered and bruised face healed up. The mob was on her case, people owed her big chunks of money, and word got out that the FBI was beginning to uncover an underground poker ring in New York. Things were not looking up for her.
In 2011, the FBI raided one of Bloom’s games. The government seized her money and froze her assets. Bloom was forced to testify against one of the locals at her games, hedge-fund manager Brad Ruderman. Ruderman was being sued by angry investors for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme and using investor money on poker games. Ruderman blew all the money ($25 million) while simultaneously managing to network at Bloom’s games and recruit more helpless investors into his scheme.
Bloom left the Ruderman ordeal broke and out of options. So she moved into her mother’s house back in Colorado and began to pen her story, hoping to get it published and earn back all of the money she had lost.
FBI Comes in Gun Blazin’
For a moment, life for Bloom appeared to be on the mend. The first draft of her book was complete and she was in negotiations for a book deal. In 2013, she moved back to L.A. and settled in an apartment in West Hollywood. That’s when the FBI showed up again, but this time with 17 automatic weapons pointed at her and a warrant for her arrest.
Bloom was escorted away in handcuffs. Bail was eventually posted, but not without a cost. Bloom’s mother was forced to sell her house in order to procure the necessary funds. Once again, Bloom appeared to have bitten off more than she could chew.
Bloom Catches a Much-Needed Break
Bloom was facing a five-year prison sentence and millions of dollars of debt. She had dug a hole she could not get herself out of. The judge offered to reduce Bloom’s sentence should she implicate more people in the poker ring. Bloom wouldn’t budge. She cared more about her reputation (whatever was left of it) and her integrity than a reduced sentence.
Seemingly out of good options, Bloom finally caught a break. In 2014, a judge ruled that Bloom “had ultimately been a minor player in the illegal gambling ring and sentenced her to one-year probation, fined her $1,000, and said she would have to perform 200 hours of community service” (LA Times).
Banking on a Book
Others sentenced in the massive underground poker ring included Russian mobsters and Hillel Nahmad, a Manhattan art dealer who owns more Picasso’s than most people own televisions. Bloom wasn’t fully in the clear. She still had no money and no clear path to financial restitution. Then Harper Collins came calling, offering her $45,000 for her book.
Bloom would not disclose any names that hadn’t already been revealed in court documents related to the Ruderman Ponzi scheme, but what she could tell was juicy and enticing. She’d been a fly on the wall at some of America’s most lavish and grandiose poker games, and the stories she had to tell came straight from a Hollywood movie script.
On to the Silver Screen
The book, “Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World,” became a bestseller and spawned a movie deal. To hook the movie, Bloom had to tirelessly plead and pester Hollywood agents, connections, and lawyers to land a meeting with Aaron Sorkin, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the “Social Network.”
Once the two met, Aaron Sorkin knew this was a piece he’d be passionate about doing. He described Bloom as professional and poised, despite the massive debt she had and the broken reputation she carried with her at every turn.
Molly’s Game: The Film
The film, “Molly’s Game,” stars Jessica Chastain as Molly and Kevin Costner as Molly’s father. Like her book, Bloom would not disclose every name or person she interacted with and admits that there could have been much more salacious information revealed, but Bloom took it upon herself to preserve her integrity and the reputations of those at her games.
Since the movie’s release, Bloom has moved back to Colorado where she plans on living a quieter life. Despite moving away from the big city that helped quench her thirst for attention, Bloom doesn’t plan on being stagnant. Bloom plans on starting a coworking space exclusively for women.
On the Ellen DeGeneres show, Bloom gave an honest, heartfelt testimony about her life and its trials and tribulations. “I’ve been hugely successful at times in my life, and I have also been in ruins,” she said. “But the lessons I learned on the way up were just as valuable on the way down. This time I will use everything I learned to do something that matters.”
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Bloom’s second chance at life will not be taken for granted. She plans on using her experiences to empower women and better the lives of those around her. She’s not craving fame or money; nor is she’s chasing Olympic gold.
The Future Looks Bright
She’s at peace with her journey, content with how it all panned out. She could have died or ended up in jail for nearly a decade. Or she could have sold out many high-profile stars for a reduced sentence. She gambled on herself, on her pride and integrity, and accepted her fate, whatever it would be.
Fortunately for Bloom, her punishment wasn’t crippling. When she was down, like she had been so many times before, she knew she had to get up. She had to fight for a book deal and find a company willing to publish her story while deliberately omitting some of the most explicit and interesting details.
The Best of Bloom
After that, Bloom had to fight again to find someone to make her movie happen, a director willing to take a chance on her. She did, and Bloom seized the opportunity in every way possible. The movie was a smash hit, she’s back to making money, and she plans on empowering women. She can go to the grave proud of the way she conducted herself in trying times under the scrutiny of millions of people.
Now, the world is open to Bloom and she plans on taking full advantage of it- this time for good. This time in a way that would make her father, the one who cut her so many years ago, prouder than he could have imagined.