I wish I could say I was surprised about Romania. I really do. I wish I could’ve come into the Olympic Test Event last week with hope that the problems eating away at the program for the past twenty years would magically all be solved. I wish I was able to believe that Catalina Ponor alone could fix everything the Romanian federation broke. I wish I had thought that Romania had even the slightest chance at making it to the Games, but I knew early on that even with hit routines and a perfect day, they’d still need big mistakes from at least four others because they just didn’t have the difficulty. To me, sadly, and to the many others who have followed this program’s hard and fast downfall this quad, it was no surprise at all.
In January 2015, I shared the news of the impending comebacks of Catalina Ponor and Sandra Izbasa alongside my opinion about how begging superstars of the past to return in place of young and not yet polished seniors doesn’t bode well for a program. Many readers were irked by this, I think assuming I blamed the athletes for coming back when in reality, I love having Ponor back. I would’ve loved having Izbasa back. And I love that Larisa Iordache and Diana Bulimar stuck around after 2012. What I don’t love is the federation bringing gymnasts back because they give up on young gymnasts after one bad meet, essentially tossing aside the promising girls of fifteen or sixteen and saying “we’re done with you.”
I specifically made reference to Andreea Munteanu and Stefania Stanila in that article, both of whom showed tremendous potential as early as 2011 and 2012. Both turned senior in the early half of the quad (Stanila in 2013 and Munteanu a year later). Both were on the worlds team in 2014. Both looked good there in Nanning; not perfect, they had mistakes and going forward could have worked on fine-tuning, sure, but they had made steady progress since their time as juniors and absolutely looked like threats for the rest of this quad, especially Munteanu with her 15+ potential on beam. They had two years to improve before the Olympic Games. They were the future.
Within a year, both Munteanu and Stanila were demoted from Izvorani to Deva, a decision made in December 2015 at the same time the federation decided to bring Octavian Bellu and Mariana Bitang back into the mix. It was a bit shocking, especially given that Munteanu won the European beam title earlier in the year (albeit in a super-weak field with several falls), though both reportedly showed a lack of interest in training and then a steady decline as the months ticked by. When it was time to choose the 2015 worlds team, Stanila had been out of competition for a year and Munteanu was named alternate, but was so out of shape she wasn’t even brought in to compete when Ana Maria Ocolisan got injured in podium training. They preferred a team of five instead.
It would be too easy to say “this happened because Ponor came back.” It didn’t happen because Ponor came back. But it did happen because of the way Ponor came back. Ponor wasn’t dying to jump back into a leotard, but rather it was at the insistence (read: begging) of the Romanian federation which gave up on its new seniors much too soon, before they ever had the chance to grow or develop into thriving senior athletes. The best gymnasts in the world have bad days, and use those rough competitions to learn from mistakes and improve. Romania’s young gymnasts were never even given that chance.
Of course, the federation justified the decision by saying Ponor was coming back to motivate the younger gymnasts, but as I wrote in my article at the time of the announcement, we all knew the real reason. Seriously, Ponor wasn’t going to come back and get in Olympic shape so she could help kick the younger generation into gear. Wouldn’t she just go into coaching if that was her goal? No, she was coming back to compete at the Olympics. And had Sandra Izbasa decided to return, it was because she had a third Olympic Games of her own in sight. We all knew it. And so did the young Romanian gymnasts. Even if the federation didn’t outright say “you did a poor job at worlds so we’re bringing in replacements,” it was clear that’s what was going on, which is incredibly demoralizing to a group of girls aged 14-17 just getting started in the sport. When the attitude is “we trust someone who hasn’t trained in over two years more than we trust you,” it’s hard to motivate yourself to train at the elite level, especially with only five Olympic spots available (and at least three clearly already taken).
“Save us” comebacks aside, the biggest problem in Romania right now is depth. They just simply don’t have enough gymnasts at a high enough elite level to contend with other major world powers. But why, though? They’re certainly not lacking in numbers, even with Munteanu and Stanila falling by the wayside. Between the end of last quad and the early half of this quad, I’ve been excited about several up-and-comers with huge potential – Anda Butuc, Andreea Iridon, Andreea Ciurusniuc, Maria Holbura, Dora Vulcan, Miriam Aribasoiu, Asiana Peng, Denisa Stanciu, Stefania Orzu, Christina Vrabie, Laura Jurca, Ioana Nicoara, Paula Tudorache, Silvia Zarzu, Andra Stoica, Diana Damian, Adela Florea, Ana Maria Ocolisan, Teea Milea, Diana Teodoru, Madalina Blendea…
A couple of these gymnasts would decline and retire due to injury or physically peaking, which is normal, and there was an odd incident with Teodoru that led to her moving to Belgium in her first year as a senior back in 2014, despite being one of the only competitive seniors at the time. But seriously, this is a list of nearly 25 gymnasts, all of whom turned senior this quad, and none of whom progressed beyond where they were as juniors. Jurca is the one exception, as she did continue to grow in her ability until her ankle injury last month, and had Ocolisan not been injured at worlds last year, I think she was on track to be a great late-bloomer. But the rest? What happened?
So it’s not really a lack of depth. Twenty-five new seniors is actually a great deal of depth, especially given Romania’s low population compared to the bigger nations like the United States, Russia, and China. Really, it’s a mismanagement of that depth, and the inability to turn strong and promising juniors into reliable senior competitors. Okay, so they have poor bars coaching leading to poor basics and low difficulty. But plenty of teams around the world are able to push past their own weaknesses in order to remain competitive as a whole. Better bars coaching won’t help the fact that only one of Romania’s current seniors – Iordache – has a d-score greater than 6.0 on any event. Teams can’t be built on a single gymnast, and Iordache alone shouldn’t have to shoulder the responsibility of getting a team to the Games, which – given their four-point deficit behind fourth-place and final qualifier France – they likely would have struggled to do even with her there.
In Rio last week, the team featured veterans Ponor and Bulimar alongside first-year seniors Holbura, Ocolisan, Vulcan, and Zarzu. Not one gymnast was free from errors (though the young Holbura did a fantastic job getting her job done coming in at the last minute over Iridon), and the team counted a fall or a major mistake on every event but floor, where they were able to rebound from Zarzu’s fall though still had to count a painfully low 12.966 due to Vulcan’s inability to perform her easy set cleanly and with good landings. Even Ponor wasn’t exempt from disaster, her crashed attempt on vault – their final routine of the day – a burning symbol of the downfall of the Romanian program.
It was sad to watch, and I was gutted for the girls who are the heart and soul of this team, but it was not surprising. I had zero expectations for this team to qualify to the Olympic Games, and while I felt for the gymnasts who gave it everything they could, I was glad that things didn’t magically work out as has happened in the recent past. The federation needs to learn its lesson. Romania can’t keep pushing short-term solutions for decades-long problems, crossing their fingers and having it all turn out okay, only to be in the same predicament and again scrambling the next time a competition rolls around. They needed to fail for the people up top to finally work on a lasting change.
The program needs to figure out how to transition talented juniors into productive seniors. That’s the biggest and most destructive issue at the moment. Currently, Romania has one of the best junior squads in the world, and they should challenge Russia for the top spot on the podium at European Championships next month. They’re equally as talented as their 2012 counterparts, with some big skills and beautiful routines, though of course bars is as always an issue. If they hit the way they did at Gymnix, their team score should be about on par with how the test event team fared last week. If they hit the way they did at the friendly meet in Belgium earlier this month, where they improved on some of their Gymnix mistakes, they have the potential to outscore the test event team by more than three points.
Unlike the test event team, these current juniors have four years ahead to prepare for their own Olympic Games, and with continued and steady progress, by the time they reach 18 or 19 they could bring Romania back into the mix as a gymnastics world power. Assuming they’re given the chance to make it that far. What if Denisa Golgota misses her DTY in competition at worlds in 2018, or Ioana Crisan falls on her difficult beam? Will Adrian Stoica get on the phone with Ponor begging her to come back for the third quad in a row? Or will they learn from this quad’s mistakes and nurture their gymnasts, giving them further chances to improve rather than following their current “one and done” method?
There’s no one solution I can offer as an observer far-removed from the inner workings of the program that will change their fate, but at least for now, developing the current set of juniors into high-performing seniors should be a top priority. In the long-term, new coaching styles that treat the athletes as individuals rather than cogs in a machine would be great, and it would also be imperative to get someone in there who knows how to train gymnasts at least to the point of not totally imploding on bars. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the current American domination of the sport had a decade-long renaissance period before the team emerged as a superpower in 2011. It won’t be instantaneous and it won’t be easy, but if the federation allows for the process to happen rather than getting frustrated and calling in the pillars of former glory, they absolutely have a shot at rebuilding a once-historic program into a team that can dominate again.
For the near-future, like the 2020 Games, the foundations are at least in place. If they can build on this strong upcoming generation instead of knocking each and every brick down the way they did this quad, they could see the beginnings of the rebuilding process right away. At this point, I don’t trust that the federation will make the right decision, but if they let this junior group grow and thrive as seniors, making mistakes and learning from them along the way, they can absolutely rise like a phoenix from the ashes and reach for podium heights once again four years from now.
The Romanians will host a press conference tomorrow featuring the MAG and WAG teams alongside coaches and members of the federation. Following worlds last year, Alin Petrache – president of the Romanian Olympic Committee – urged Stoica to reinstate Nicolae Forminte – current head of Deva – as the national team coach. Stoica refused, instead returning to Bellu and Bitang, who stated in the lead-up to the test event that they were once again done leading the women’s program. My hope is that Forminte, who saw relative success during his tenure from 2005 to 2010, comes back to lead so that the current crop of juniors thriving under him see a smooth transition into the senior ranks. I’m not sure this will be the outcome, especially because then the issue will turn to junior development at Deva, but I do think that this could be the best possible option to restore the program for the coming quad. After that? We’ll have to wait and see.
Article by Lauren Hopkins