NEW YORK (AP) _ 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.

She was accompanied to her news conference by Konstantin Panit, a Frenchman who said he was a friend of Comaneci.

The gymnast was to spend the night in New York at an undisclosed location, and two people familar with her plans who spoke only on condition their names not be used 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.

Justice Department spokesman David Runkel confirmed that Comaneci, who fled her homeland for Hungary on Tuesday, had been granted refugee status and was ''in the air on her way to this country.''

Comaneci contacted a U.S. Embassy in Europe on Friday morning and was quickly granted that status, said State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher, adding: ''We certainly welcome Ms. Comaneci.''

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.''

Her whereabouts and plans were unknown until word of her impending arrival in New York broke Friday. Karolyi had encouraged Comaneci earlier this week to follow his example and come to the United States.

Karolyi defected from Romania in 1981. It was initially believed Comaneci would return to the United States with Karolyi from Stuttgart, West Germany.

Karolyi, who coached the then 14-year-old Comaneci during her perfect performances at the Montreal Olympics, told U.S. Gymnastics Federation spokesperson Patti Auer ''it was a big relief'' to know the gymnast was headed for the United States. Auer spoke Friday with Karolyi from West Germany.

''I was concerned when I heard she left the Hungarian hotel in an unmarked car, but I was confident that she knows the lesson - that she needed to go to the American Embassy,'' she quoted Karolyi as saying.

Comaneci's defection was a blow to the hard-line government of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, who had named the 4-foot-11 gymnast a ''Hero of Socialist Labor'' for her accomplishments. She was held up as a role model for Romanian youth.

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.