In Quest for Freedom, a Wrestling Coach Defects
“I’m not coming back...I’m going to America.”
Teodor Nastu didn’t tell his wife he was defecting when he arranged for an official trip to Greece from his native Romania in 1982.
The East European nation was still under the clutches of communism and travel abroad was restricted for most citizens. It wasn’t until the end of 1989 when Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, was toppled in a bloody revolution and the country set free.
A rising wrestling coach in the Romanian sports scene, Nastu managed to secure an exit visa under the guise that he was scouring competition events for his Greco-Roman wrestling club. In reality, he was hoping to make contact with a distant cousin who settled in Greece.
A week into his trip, he notified his wife that he’s not returning. “I’m not coming back…I’m going to America,” he said to her.
In Greece, he spent 7 months at a special camp set up for asylum seekers and with the help of the Greek Orthodox church, made his way to the U.S. He landed in New York and within two days, received his social security card. Two and half years later, his wife and two children joined him.
Nastu’s story wasn’t unique to the sporting world in the post-World War II period. Prominent athletes who fled the iron curtain include Romania’s Nadia Comaneci (gymnastics,1989), Czechoslovakia’s Martina Navratilova (tennis,1975), Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas (soccer, 1956), Bulgaria’s Naim Suleymanoglu (weightlifting, 1986), and many others.
Now 72 years old, Nastu runs a Sports & Orthopedic Massage practice in the Riverdale section of New York City (www.teodornastu.com). Soft-spoken and still carrying the stalky athletic build of a wrestler, he is eager to share his story, displaying old photos and expounding on his massage therapy skills.
Born in Timisoara, the city that decades later became the cradle of the Romanian revolution, Nastu started wrestling during high-school. His talents on the mat earned him 2nd place at the junior national championships in the 57 kg weight division (125.5 lbs).
He trained in the same club with Roman Codreanu, the super-heavyweight wrestler who would go on to win multiple medals in international competitions, including bronze at the 1976 Olympics and gold at the 1978 European Championships.
Romania’s foray into modern sports dates back to 1900 when the country first entered the Olympics. Since then, athletes from the Balkan country have captured 308 summer medals (16th in the world), of which 90 were gold. In wrestling, they rank 13th with 7 gold, 8 silver, and 19 bronze.
On the soccer pitch, Romania was one of only 4 teams from Europe that took part in the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930. The national team reached its peak at the 1994 quarterfinals and Steaua Bucuresti, the country’s most successful club franchise, was the first from the East to claim the European Cup in 1986.
Romania’s commitment to its rich sports heritage was evident when it became the only Warsaw Pact country to participate at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The Games were boycotted by all the other Soviet bloc nations in retaliation for the U.S. decision not to attend the 1980 tournaments in Moscow.
Even today, Nadia Comaneci is still remembered for her masterly performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The 14-year-old mesmerized the world by becoming the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10. She clinched 3 gold medals,1 bronze, and returned 4 years later to win 2 more gold and 2 silver.
Nastu went on to earn a degree from Romania’s prestigious Institute of Physical Education & Sports and pursue a career in coaching. Unlike in the U.S. where colleges serve as incubators for athletes and competitions, sports in Romania were developed through independent clubs with government support.
With proven success among 8 to 21-year-olds, Nastu was able to obtain funding and resources to build a Greco-Roman wrestling club in a small town on the Black Sea. His teams started winning regional and national championships.
But Romania’s political repression and economic deprivations made him yearn for the wider free world. His final decision to defect came when one day, after standing on line to buy food for his family, the store ran out and there was little to bring back home.
In New York, his immigrant odyssey took him through odd jobs, first as a restaurant dishwasher and then as a building doorman before reclaiming his profession. In 1986, he became Head Coach of the Manhattan College wrestling team.
The school had just launched its wrestling program and under Nastu’s tutelege, the Jaspers managed 2nd place in the 177 lb. division at New York’s Empire State Games.
Valued for his experience and deep knowledge, his playbook was straight out of Romania’s top tier wrestling fundamentals, which emphasized a disciplined regimen around proper training and techniques.
But after his first season, Nastu decided to pursue his physical therapy degree and he left Manhattan College despite pleas by the Athletic Director for him to stay.
Bruce Haberli took over as coach until 1995 when Manhattan discontinued the program. A celebrated coach at NYU since his days with the Jaspers, Haberli was inducted into the National Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2018.
Nastu got his massage therapy certificate in 1991 and opened his private office in Riverdale. For two decades, he also worked with the Gaelic Athletic Association in New York as their sports injury therapist. His expertise earned him two trips to Ireland with both the men’s and women’s county teams.
He notes that Romania’s training methods were superior to those he encountered in America. At the New York Athletic Club where he volunteered, he introduced valuable techniques that were previously unknown, or unutilized by the organization.
During the summer of 2001, he noticed an unusually high number of injuries among the Gaelic football players who competed at New York’s Van Cortlandt Park. He placed a lot of the blame on inadequate warm ups and cool-downs, and the uneven playing surface at the park.
“The key to success is to avoid injuries, not to cure them,” he says.
Reflecting on his long journey from the sports clubs in Romania to his office in New York City, Nastu has no regrets making the difficult leap between languages, cultures and continents.
“I am so proud and grateful to be an American citizen. I am happy that my grandchildren were born in this great country and have many opportunities to do great things.”
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