The Problem with Romanian Comebacks

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When Catalina Ponor posts pictures of herself within a five mile radius of a balance beam, my head immediately goes to “oh my gosh, she’s training again!” Stretching with her boyfriend? TRAINING. Gym posing in a pretty dress? TRAINING. Dancing at a club? TRAINING.

But now, it looks like she’s back in the gym for real. Again.

An article by Romania’s ProSport reported that the 27-year-old five-time Olympic medalist is training again and is willing to return to the national team and elite competition if she passes an evaluation by Octavian Belu and Mariana Bitang (Ponor took to Facebook after the article was posted to say she’s not back yet, yet being the operative word).

Adrian Stoica, the president of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation, said her return would help the currently struggling team to a major comeback. “Her presence would motivate the younger ones, and make them more competitive,” Stoica said, adding that four-time Olympic medalist Sandra Izbasa is also “flirting with the idea of returning,” and will likely make a decision before the end of February.

In a way, Stoica is right. Having Ponor – and possibly Izbasa – back in the gym full-time will without a doubt give the program a much-needed boost, especially if they make it back to a level where they’ll be seriously competitive in an international arena. They both seem to love the sport, and really take their roles as supportive team leaders seriously.

But at the same time, what does it say about the Romanian gymnastics program if they have to rely on the same gymnasts for nearly a decade? As a kid I knew Romania as a factory that churned out hoards of champion gymnasts on a yearly basis, and now we’re lucky to get one every four years.

In 2014, Larisa Iordache was in a league of her own after Diana Bulimar‘s injury. The Romanian team at world championships was a very young and inexperienced one, and yet instead of pushing them to build on their skills and become stronger competitors before 2016, the federation is expecting Ponor and Izbasa to come in and solve all of their problems once again, pushing talented kids like Andreea Munteanu, Ana Maria Ocolisan, and Stefania Stanila aside. Because come on…they say Ponor and Izbasa in the gym would create stronger competition between the girls, but we all know the real reason for bringing them back is to actually have them competing at major international meets again.

If they’re such good motivators, why not bring them in to…motivate? Like, through workshops and seminars instead of shoving them in front of the younger ones as if to say “look who’s gonna get the spot you worked for because you’re not good enough”? If anything, that just shows the younger generations that it’s not worth the effort. With a year and a half left until the Olympics, it’s less motivating and more disheartening for hopefuls to see reinforcements brought in, especially as they watched the same thing happen when Ponor was brought back in 2011.

Saying “screw it” and ignoring gymnasts who are still growing in their ability to compete at a high level by going back to rely on the same group time and again isn’t healthy for a program. Look at the United States, a team with the opposite problem. Elites who want a second shot at going to the Olympics in the U.S. better be prepared for letdown, because here the focus is almost solely on development. Sure, it’s cool when former gymnasts come back at a high level because they love the sport, but there’s no expectation for comebacks and frankly, no need. If the current 14 to 17-year-olds in Romania were given the same attention as young U.S. gymnasts, there’d be no need for the president of the federation to basically beg for the return of the program’s saviors. Romania has a very deep pool of gymnasts turning senior this quad, and that’s where they should be turning to build their 2016 team – to the future, not the past.

As a Ponor and Izbasa fan, I’m very excited to see what they can potentially bring back to the world stage. But as a fan of Romanian gymnastics, I fear that the longevity of the team as one of the best in the world isn’t very strong when every four years, they get discouraged with the state of things and have to dig to pull former superstars out of retirement. It’s a short term solution to a long-term problem, and if they don’t fix it, they’re going to be in very deep trouble.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

45 thoughts on “The Problem with Romanian Comebacks

  1. This article is so well said and written. You just said everything that was on my mind! By putting Catalina and Sandra on international teams time and time again takes away the chance for youngsters to make the team and gain experience. There will be a time where Sandra and Catalina will not come back for X reason and it will be too late for the Romanian Federation to finally start building the little ones.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to agree that these comebacks are a temporary solution to a long-term problem.

    Indeed, Romania seems to defy all odds and succeed at the Olympics every time, but you have to wonder how much longer they can get away with that strategy. One of these days they’re going to run out of luck especially in today’s scoring system that seems to work against them.

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  3. Actually, I shouldn’t say the COP is against them. That implies some sort of ill-intention by FIG. But rather Romania has had difficulty adapting to recent COPs.

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  4. As much as I would love love love to see her back, I agree it’s a temporary solution. They need to take a step back and figure out where things took a turn, they seem to have switched places with the US.

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  5. Personally, I’d love to see Ponor and Izbasa coming back, Ponor especially is one of the reason I fell in love with this sport. But I think Lauren is SO right about the problem of the Romanian gymnastics federation. They can’t rely on Catalina and Sandra forever; one day they basically won’t be able to help the team again. Of course, if they want to come back, the federation will welcome them, since they did so much for Romanian gymnastics through the years; but the Federation should try to maximize the efforts of their youngsters, or the next quad might be very difficult.

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    • Hahaha…it’s funny that I think of Larisa right away as a “great bars gymnast” when I think of Romania! She should do two routines and Iridon can do the other. :-p

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  6. I think you’re completely right with your concern…. BUT…. seeing Catalina Ponor back in competition…!!!!!!!!!! I know it’s wrong but I can’t help but be excited, too!!!

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  7. Romania needs to realize that they must put their faith in the gymnasts they have now. Like you said, Ponor and Izbasa won’t be around forever. The coaches also focus way too much on Iordache and Bulimar. The reason Romania didn’t do well at the last world championships is because they never sent the youngsters to competitions. They should have learned from that mistake, but instead they decided to bring Ponor out of retirement.

    Plus, even if they wanted to bring someone out of retirement, why not someone who could do bars??

    I also feel like Russia has a similar problem with their reliance on Aliya, Kramarenko, and Afan…

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    • Anamaria Ocolisan went to a few competitions after Worlds, but she didn’t do well at any of them. She had several disasters at the Blume Memorial in particular.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I thought that too…Ponor may come back to a high level on beam and floor, but wouldn’t be helpful on bars…Izbasa MAY put up a decent bars routine, but I don’t know if she could truly go back to the bars level she had in London (which, at this point, would be good enough for Romania, since they lack consistency on this event so much). The bars issue is still there!!

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  9. It’s also not a good sign that the men’s team is hanging by a thread. Of course, the Romanian men were never as successful as the Romanian women, but they often performed better when the women were doing well. Right now they have a couple of talented guys sort of going to waste, and the men’s team is at risk of not qualifying a full team to Rio. They’re falling fast.

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    • Any idea what happened to Dragalescu’s comeback? A article popped up at the beginning of 2014 claiming he was making (yet another) comeback with Rio in mind. I haven’t seen a thing since.

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  10. Romanian team is between a rock and a hard place. Sad for them. I can see right now they are kind of panicking because of the lack of depth. Russia did sort of the same thing for 2014 but I think Romania situation is a lot more bleak. They should push the youngsters by sending them to more competitions. But in the end, if the oldtimers are better, it’s kind of hard to argue about not sending the best even if the best is not the newest. I really hope that the youngsters can step up though. Their Olympic team medal streak is definitely in danger….

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    • Guys, Romania’s team is in a rather difficult situation. It’s a matter of supply and demand-since Romania joined the EU, and got a better hold on their economy, parents don’t have to send their kids off to Bellu and Bitang anymore. Combined with the old stories about starvation and abuse of gymnasts, going all the way back to Bela Karolyi, Romanian parents are rather, shall we say, RELUCTANT to send their kids off to Izvorani. That’s the reason the RGF is going to Cata and Sandra on bended knee and begging them to come back-although I do think eventually they will get bored with it and say NO. In fact, I’d ask the RGF if they’ve contacted Monica Rosu.

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      • PS: I also say this: I have no doubt that B&B have changed their act and aren’t abusive any more. However, the Romanian media did one hell of a lot of damage to the Romanian program between the years 2001-2004. And thanks to those stories, a LOT of Romanian parents aren’t that enthusiastic to send their kids to B&B.

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  11. This article is interesting. I do think it’s a leap to say that their comeback means that the federation is not investing in the young ones though. I think that they could still be doing BOTH (encouraging comebacks and investing in the young ones), and that the comeback doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not (unless I missed something). However, I fully agree it’s a temporary solution if that’s what they are doing though maybe a temporary solution is what they need. If Belu and Bitang think that the current crop just isn’t cutting it (which it really hasn’t been to be honest especially with ANY injuries among the very few top athletes) then a temporary solution could help them while they focus on the youngsters that need to be ready for the next quad. I’m just speculating and either way it’s an interesting discussion!

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  12. True, true, the point here is totally valid. I think Russia is doing the exact same thing, and it’s ruining their program.
    But SANDRA MIGHT BE BACK IN COMPETITION!!!!!!! I can’t find it in myself to be worried about the repercussions with that in mind.

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    • Russia is a less extreme case. Yes, Valentina begs Aliya to come back every quad, however, they still seem to get a few useful gymnasts every year (Angelina Melnikova, Seda Tutkhalyan). Now they have Eremina and she is probably gonna be their next breakout star. I just wish they could train floor better. Floor for Russia is like bars for Romania. They get a few gymnasts that don’t suck (Iordache for Romania and Melnikova for Russia), but the rest of them are very scraggly or low difficulty

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  13. I agree with the statements in the article and the commenters. Just to add some additional maybe unknown info: Didi is being pressured to improve her bars and upgrade them also; Irirdon and Tudarache, the best swingers on the team, are also being given specific, individualized, and intense coaching on UB along with Jurca. I learned this thru snooping instagram accounts and fan pages for romanian gymnasts on FB. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like anything’s being done about most of the girls all around-program difficulty. Romanians are supposed to be great on FX and BB yet, though the latter has crazy potential among a number of them, these apparatus are very low scoring for all the newbies. Consider that Didi and Lari are still the only two who can get a score in the 14’s everywhere; that isn’t good. Historically Romania is weak on bars but strong on the other 3; this quad they’re above average on vault, mediocre on beam, bad on floor and poor on UB :/

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  14. It’s a scary thought that the 2016 Romanian Olympic team could end up having four out of the five 2012 team I think another important thing for the Romanian team is to have some consistency in their coaching structure, the way Bellu and Bitang ‘quit’ every year is so disrespectful to their hard-working athletes. It’s also a shame that the measures put in place after London seemed to prompt Haidu and Chelaru to retire. If Ponor and Izbasa can inspire Jurca, Iridon and Munteanu to work even harder to make Rio, I suppose their comeback is ultimately a good thing, although it’s a really bad sign for the programme that well-known gymnasts who have earned an enjoyable retirement (and then some) have so much responsibility for the fate of the team.

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    • What people don’t understand is that BB didn’t quit. You have to know that after the Olympics, the first 2 years after the Olympics, the team belongs to the Federation. The Federation decides who is the the master of the program. In our case, 2013-1015, BB were not the coordinator coaches. They did not have a contract. They went to coach from time to time when big competition were coming because it was the only time Federation was asking for their help.

      Starting the first of january 2015 the team goes to the Olympic Comitee who decides who is going to train the team until the Olympics. For Rio, they choose BB. Don’t get fooled by Stoica declarations who said that the Federation will choose the coches after worlds. The Olympic Comitee had their way. The Olympic Comitee will pay for everything until Rio that’s why you will see the romanian gymnasts going to more competitions until Rio.

      So always think in what year before or after the Olympics are you and you will understant why some thinks are working the way they are.

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  15. I want to respectfully disagree with this article. The Romanian Federation depends on the success of the women’s program to receive continued funding – so if the current crop of seniors isn’t enough, then they really need to bring back the super talented gymnasts that can earn medals. Otherwise there would be fewer and fewer opportunities to develop the new gymnasts. In 2013, the new seniors (then juniors) went to Massila, the Japan International Junior Competition and the European Youth Olympic Festival. In 2014, we saw them at Jeselo, Euros (Junior/Senior Level) before the senior girls went to Worlds – Stanila had already been to a worlds. Laura Jurca went to YOG – training in sweden and many mixed friendlies. They are getting plenty of opportunities for experience in international competitions and continued development, perhaps they just don’t have the talent of Ponor and Izbasa? Or the constant shuffling of coaches – Bitang and Bellu keep leaving the girls and other coaches are left to work with them – is the reason why they aren’t prepared.

    Although getting to the Olympics is certainly the dream and I am sure it is disheartening to group of 8-10 girls who have a shot at 1 of 5 spots (already depressing to me) to potentially lose 2 of those spots to superior athletes – I think the best of the best should go to continue to support the program.

    Romania should work on keeping some of its gymnasts, instead of dismissing them (Chelaru, Haidu) so they would have a larger talent pool to work with. The depth issue is certainly a problem, but funding issues will continue to force the program to pick its returning champions over the ones they are currently developing.

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  16. This article makes far too many assumptions about what is going on in training and jumps to too many conclusions and I think could be seen as disrespectful to those running the Romanian gymnastics program.

    “The Romanian team at World Championships was a very young and inexperienced one, and yet instead of pushing them to build on their skills and become stronger competitors before 2016, the federation is expecting Ponor and Izbasa to come in and solve all of their problems once again, pushing talented kids like Andreea Munteanu and Ana Maria Ocolisan aside.”
    ??? Who says they are not pushing them to improve? Having more gymnasts doesn’t mean that the other girls are just left out to dry. In fact, may times the opposite is true.

    “If they’re such good motivators, why not bring them in to…motivate? Like, through workshops and seminars instead of shoving them in front of the younger ones as if to say “look who’s gonna get the spot you worked for because you’re not good enough”? If anything, that just shows the younger generations that it’s not worth the effort.”
    Probably because the girls (Ponor and Izbasa) WANT to do gymnastics, if they didn’t want to they wouldn’t. And if a previously retired gymnast comes back and is legitimately better they deserve to have their spot. IF they think hard work should guarantee them an Olympic/Worlds spot then they were in for a rude awakening to begin with.

    “With a year and a half left until the Olympics, it’s less motivating and more disheartening for hopefuls to see reinforcements brought in, especially as they watched the same thing happen when Ponor was brought back in 2011.”
    You have no idea how the girls feel.

    “Saying “screw it” and ignoring gymnasts who are still growing in their ability to compete at a high level by going back to rely on the same group time and again isn’t healthy for a program.”
    Once again who says they are being ignored?

    “Elites who want a second shot at going to the Olympics in the U.S. better be prepared for letdown, because here the focus is almost solely on development. Sure, it’s cool when former gymnasts come back at a high level because they love the sport, but there’s no expectation for comebacks and frankly, no need. If the current 15 to 17-year-olds in Romania were given the same attention as young U.S. gymnasts, there’d be no need for the president of the federation to basically beg for the return of the program’s saviors.”
    4 of the 5 of the fierce5 are going to vie for this Olympic team
    4 of the 6 from Beijing attempted to comeback for 2012 (and the other two would have most likely if not for injury)
    I think you are attributing to “not focused on development/ignoring” to an extreme disparity in talent between the two nations.

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    • I think you’re taking offense to something that wasn’t meant to be such. Yes, the Americans attempt to make comebacks for the Olympics, but not because the program is suffering and they absolutely need past Olympians to return. They return because they want to and it’s on their own terms, and zero of the Beijing Olympians were relevant in 2012 because the young talent in the 2009-2012 quad could handle it on their own.

      The difference with Romania is that they give up too fast. They were unsuccessful at 2014 World Championships, and with 18 months before the 2016 Olympic Games, the Romanian program is basically giving up on girls like Ocolisan, Stanila, and Munteanu by begging Ponor and Izbasa to return. Both of these ladies retired after 2012, and they’re not coming back because they really want to…they CONSIDERED coming back after the Romanian program BEGGED them to, because 18 months before the Games, they’re scared that they’ll ruin their team medal streak with the young girls they have now.

      I think you took a lot of my word choices – some meant to be hyperbolic, i.e. “ignored” – as super serious and they weren’t meant to be. Obviously they’re not LITERALLY ignoring the younger team. But they are GIVING UP on them by bringing in reinforcements. If they had a healthy developmental program, they would trust their current young girls – the 15 to 17 year olds competing as seniors for the first time this quad – and give them the tools to grow before 2016 instead of saying “we’re bringing back Ponor and Izbasa to SAVE THIS TEAM.” Because that’s what they basically say – we struggled last year, and Ponor and Izbasa will save us.

      I think it speaks a lot of their program if they bring in people to “save them” instead of trusting their younger athletes to mature and grow enough to succeed. It inherently creates problems by telling those girls they’re not good enough. Instead of motivating them to get better, it makes them think “well, I wasn’t good enough at Worlds, so they’re bringing in other people instead of me.” If anything, it’s demotivating and kind of insulting.

      I think the younger generation in Romania is very talented. They just lack experience, and bringing back experienced Olympians doesn’t help give the younger girls experience. It does the exact opposite. How can they judge their abilities based on one Worlds? A Worlds they came SO CLOSE to medaling at DESPITE being one of the youngest, least experienced teams there. They would have beaten Russia had Stanila not fallen on beam at the last minute! That’s pretty impressive for a team of young kids. Why not keep pushing them to succeed instead of saying “okay, we tried you out, and now we’re just gonna go back to Ponor and Izbasa?”

      It’s not disrespectful to the program to question why they run right to bringing back former Olympians to “save” their team. In other sports, people are critical of absolutely everything and that’s okay, but why when we become critical of things in gymnastics is it “disrespectful?” It’s a legitimate concern of mine that Romania bails on the young kids before they’re able to reach their prime. I don’t think it’s “disrespectful” to question something that’s becoming their modus operandi. If they think they need saving, fine. If that’s what’s going to bring in the medals, it’s a very good SHORT TERM SOLUTION. But in the long run, it’s problematic and I don’t think it’s wrong to talk about why this is so.

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      • I did not have a problem with you bringing up the possibility. The issue was with you using your admittedly hyperbolic opinion, and stating it like its a fact.

        Asking two of your best gymnasts ever to see if they can come back on a team that is clearly struggling is nt giving up. It could be interpreted that way by some but you phrased it like it was god’s truth.

        Another just as valid explanation could be that they are using every possible resource to ensure they have the best team for 2016

        Such as phrases like this:
        “okay, we tried you out, and now we’re just gonna go back to Ponor and Izbasa?”

        Where are you even getting that from? That makes it seem like they treat the younger girls like yesterday’s trash. Which there is NO evidence of.

        And assuming that you know what is going to motivate the girls.

        I agree that bringing them back is a short term solution, but you don’t have to insinuate that it is due to malice by B&B

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        • I thought it was pretty clear to 99% of people who read this that this was an opinion piece, based on MY personal opinion of why I don’t think having Ponor and Izbasa back is necessarily a good thing in the long run. You’re reading FAR too much between the lines if you think I was insinuating malice from B&B. They didn’t literally say “screw it” just because I happened to use that terminology, but the actions of Stoica – who seems to be the one wanting Ponor and Izbasa back – pretty clearly say they’re throwing in the towel. Of course Izbasa and Ponor aren’t going to be thrown on the team without any tryout. They’re gonna have to compete with the younger girls for the spots. I thought that was a given and didn’t think I’d need to explain that. But basic analysis of them bringing back two retired athletes after not medaling at Worlds suggests that they’re nervous and want reinforcements. Even if Ponor and Izbasa don’t work out, the program doesn’t show much faith in the younger ones with Stoica running to the press to say “have no fear, Ponor and Izbasa are returning!” (No, he literally did not use that quote, in case you’re confused, but that’s the essence of the original ProSport article.) I didn’t say that they weren’t trying to use every available resource, and I even said that I agreed with Stoica in that it was smart to have them there in case the younger ones aren’t working out. It might be their only option and they’d be crazy not to use strong resources if they need to solve a depth crisis. But my opinion is that if they CONTINUE this attitude of “well, it’s not working out again, time to bring so-and-so back!” it shows that they don’t have much faith in the current system of training and development, and if that’s the case, something needs to change on that level. For LONG TERM depth and strength, i.e. what they had in the glory days of the program, they need to start from the ground up. Because grasping at straws 18 months before the Olympics every four years (if they continue this trend in the future) isn’t a smart, credible long-term solution. If this were a college essay, that’d be my thesis, not that I think the Romanian program throws girls out like trash, as you seem to have understood. Again, it’s all my opinion. It’s my OPINION that the long-term health of the program is suffering and it’s my OPINION that bringing Ponor and Izbasa back will do nothing to help them. I don’t expect everyone to agree, and I’m sure if they do come back at a high standard, they’ll be able to help the team in ways that will put them back at their competitive best. Who am I to say it’s unfair to younger girls if it means they’re winning medals again? But that’s neither here nor there when it wasn’t my point to begin with.

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  17. I think it’s wonderful to see Catalina and Sandra considering comebacks. They are beautiful gymnasts and I’m certain that the main reason for their return is because they obviously love the sport and want to continue. 🙂

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  18. Also, as much as I like Ponor and Izbasa, I don’t think their comebacks will be that serious. In 2011, Ponor came back because she wanted to, not because the federation begged her to (at least I think so). If what you say is true, then I feel she’ll be less motivated on her comeback now. Not only that, but she’s 28…I mean what are the chances of her regaining her DTY and a competitive beam and floor while also adapting to the new code? Sandra is a similar situation. In 2013, she only managed to regain her floor. The chance that she’ll regain both her floor and her 2 vaults from London are extremely slim, let alone being an AAer.

    So that’s why I don’t believe B&B will completely ignore the current seniors. They can’t expect Ponor and Izbasa to be in the same forms that they were in London. But I do agree that Romania is not confident in their current seniors. Unless Iridon, Jurca, or any of the 2016 juniors make a huge splash as seniors, then B&B will most likely ask Larisa and Diana to stick around for another quad after Rio…

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  19. Here is a transcript of an interview of Izbasa discussing her chances to return to for Rio, back in May of 2014: http://wogymnast.com/?p=647

    Seems like she knows to be selected she’ll need to offer more than a single event and that the effort is to help the team. She also seems to know that to be in the running, she’ll need to help her team compete at or Euros and Worlds in 2015 as well as Euros 2016.

    Here more recently is a transcript with Izbasa where she reiterates the same information: http://wogymnast.com/?p=2370

    Help the team, train 4 apparatuses, decide if she can do it by January or February. She also mentions that the younger seniors are training harder events, so it seems like they truly aren’t ignored. She’s also hopeful the team can win the title… Could just be fluff, but I expect to see the Romanians fighting hard – for spots on the team and come Worlds/Olympics.

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  20. I understand your point, just thought it could’ve been phrased better and more clearly. No need to go into condescension and CAPS SPEAK

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    • That’s how I talk when it comes to pretty much everything I talk about. I think most people get that which is why no one else automatically assumed I’m freaking out and accusing coaches of neglecting athletes. I write differently as an opinionated gym fan than I do as a neutral observer when I cover events, which is why I created a category ‘on our minds’ for the more emphatic opinion posts I and other people make on this site. Sorry if it came off as intense but it really was nothing more than my opinion about the situation.

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  21. I’m torn because ponor is one of my all time favorites. like seriously my #2. But your’re so right in saying that the younger ones definitely do need time to grow into their abilities and gain experience. Izbasa and Ponor are definitely gonna retire for good at some point, Then who’s gonna carry the team?

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  22. Pingback: The Test Event Reflections: Romania | The Gymternet

    • I hope so…I think if they shift their focus from solving immediate problems to fixing all of the developmental issues, they do have the depth to crank out a few solid gymnasts a year. I just think their priorities are too much about medals and so they bring in someone who can get a medal at a competition that’s happening right this second rather than being like okay we need to send out about 10-15 girls a year internationally so they get experience, and we need to have a more individual focus on the girls rather than giving them all the same exact skills even if their strengths don’t fit that skillset. It can happen and I have faith in the gymnasts but I hope the leaders can figure it out.

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