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COMANECI LANDS IN U.S., IS GRANTED POLITICAL ASYLUM

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Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, the darling of the 1976 Olympics with her seven perfect 10s, landed flawlessly in the United States Friday after her stunning defection three days earlier.

"I wanted to have a free life," Comaneci, who was guaranteed political asylum, said in halting English at a news conference at John F. Kennedy International Airport.Asked how long she had thought about defecting, she replied, "A long time. I had it in my mind for a few years."

The 28-year-old Comaneci arrived on the Pan Am plane "Liberty Bell" from Vienna just before 4:30 p.m., an airline spokesman said.

Comaneci - wearing a blue denim jacket, black shirt and jeans - said she was not thinking about embarrassing her country's government when she made her decision.

"It's not my business," she said. The Olympic gold medalist also said she was looking forward to a change in lifestyle, "I know it will be different. I was nine times in the States, I know the life here."

Comaneci was surrounded by Port Authority police as she walked through the Pan Am terminal about 25 feet away from a horde of reporters after her arrival. Clutching a bouquet of flowers, Comaneci kept her head down as she entered a private Pan Am office where she filled out forms.

Comaneci appeared pale as she strode briskly through the terminal, but the gymnast later smiled broadly as she walked toward an airport lounge for a news conference.

The gymnast was to spend the night in New York at an undisclosed location, and two people familar with her plans said she intended to leave for Miami on Saturday.

Her former coach, Bela Karolyi, said earlier her final destination was Indianapolis, headquarters of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. But Patti Auer, spokeswoman for the foundation, said they had no word of Comaneci coming there.

Refugee status means U.S. officials believe Comaneci has a well-founded fear of persecution if she returns to Romania, where the hard-line Marxist government has rejected the reformist tide sweeping other East European countries.

She would be eligible to apply for permanent resident status in the U.S. in one year, U.S. officials who requested anonymity said.

Comaneci has been in hiding since fleeing Romania. She reportedly told a border guard she was leaving "for the sake of freedom."

Comaneci won 21 gold medals in Olympic and other international meets during her career, which won her a life of privilege in a country that has endured chronic shortages of consumer goods for most of this decade.