With Nicolae Forminte back in place as the national team coordinator, a healthy crop of juniors and young seniors putting together a good foundation at Deva, and both Catalina Ponor and Larisa Iordache picking up beam medals at Euros this year, things looked like they were slowly and steadily getting back on track for the Romanian program after last year’s disappointing Olympic Games.
But because this is Romania and not a Disney movie, on Monday, Forminte announced on Facebook that Olivia Cimpian — the 2016 junior national champion who made the all-around final at Euros in April — is no longer training at Deva.
“Nobody has anything to hide and nothing is rotten in Deva…there was no reason to justify such a decision. I can only respect each family’s right to make decisions for their own children, [and] I hope Olivia will return to Deva, where she is loved and respected unconditionally.”
Fans had speculated in the weeks leading up to Forminte’s announcement after Instagram posts between Cimpian and her teammates hinted at something strange. “Forever friends…missing you!” fellow new senior Carmen Ghiciuc posted last Friday, while a few days earlier, Cimpian posted, “Good friends are hard to find, harder to leave and impossible to forget,” getting “goodbye” and “I’ll miss you” responses from teammates like Ioana Crisan, Maria Holbura, and Dora Vulcan, to name a few.
The few days between the Instagram posts and Forminte’s confirmation had fans guessing that Cimpian was merely moving to a new gym within Romania, maybe training in Bucharest with Iordache or something along those lines, but Cimpian — who won a bronze medal with the Romanian team at Euros in 2016 — is actually setting her sights on competing for Hungary internationally in the future.
Cimpian will move to Dunaferr, where 2016 Olympian and this year’s European all-around silver medalist Zsofia Kovacs trains. A six-year member of the Romanian national team, it seems Cimpian’s parents were largely behind the decision, noting that the 16-year-old parted on good terms with everyone at Deva without any hint of a scandal.
“What we want is for our daughter to grow as much as she can in the sport that she loves,” Cimpian’s father Marcel Cimpian, who used to play football in Hungary, told the press. “In Hungary, there is a different approach to training that we think will benefit her, and we think she could help their team.”
The Cimpian family will attempt to obtain Hungarian citizenship for their daughter, and Marcel hopes his own athletic connections to the country will help speed that process along, though it won’t be anywhere near as easy as he thinks.
The International Gymnastics Federation allows athletes to apply for change-of-nation requests once citizenship in a second or adopted country is established, but that change must also be approved by both the federation the athlete is entering as well as the one she is departing.
Naturally, the Romanian federation — which failed to qualify a full team to the Olympic Games in 2016 and is slowly trying to rebuild — considers Cimpian one of its top competitors currently at the senior level and doesn’t want to let her go. If no agreement is reached, Cimpian could basically be sitting in limbo for a year or more as the FIG tries to work on a solution, meaning Cimpian could still compete at various friendly meets and invitationals but wouldn’t be eligible for world championships this year, or any other FIG-organized events in the future until this is resolved.
At first, I thought the change would hurt rather than help Cimpian, as major changes like this tend to push gymnasts into the spotlight where they become too surrounded by drama and red tape to make training their focus. She was in a good enough position within the Romanian national team to make any major team coming up in the next couple of years, and was one of Deva’s shining stars, truly respected and adored by Forminte, making the desire to leave the program all the more confusing. So why leave?
In recent years, many gymnasts and parents have complained about the national team training system in Romania. The coaching allowed for very little individualization in terms of skills and routines, there was concern over the effectiveness of the quality of workouts and conditioning, and perhaps most obviously, the level of bars coaching was abysmal, all of which hindered the potential of talented young gymnasts trying to succeed within the program.
In the past five years, literally dozens of promising young juniors have completely fallen off track by the time they’ve reached the senior level, as if the national team staff is struggling to keep up with the advancement of its gymnasts. This issue was the primary cause behind the Romanian team being unable to send six gymnasts capable of qualifying to Rio, so the transition of the program back into the hands of Forminte was supposed to combat that, though it’s not going to be an overnight fix.
Cimpian is actually a prime example of the kind of gymnast who flourishes as a junior but then stagnates or even regresses at a time when she should be beginning to thrive. Taking the new code of points into consideration, Cimpian’s scores at age 14 and 15 — which hovered in the 52-53 range internationally on average — have dropped, with most of her event scores now hovering around a high 11 or low 12. She’s performing at nowhere near the level she was at as a junior, and while you could argue that some gymnasts simply peak before they reach the senior level, with Romania, it’s become the rule rather than the exception.
Her biggest claim-to-fame this year is being a beneficiary of the two-per-country rule at Euros, qualifying to the all-around in 26th place and getting a finals spot only because a couple of gymnasts who finished ahead of her were their countries’ third-best all-arounders, taking them out of contention (in finals, Cimpian finished 23rd after a disastrous routine on bars, always her weak event). Where gymnasts from programs much smaller and weaker historically than Romania stepped up and thrived on the European stage, Cimpian competed nervously and tentatively, looking like a junior despite turning 16 in January.
Hungary was one of those traditionally smaller and weaker programs that ended up standing out in Cluj, with 17-year-old teammates Zsofia Kovacs and Boglarka Devai both ending their country’s nearly 20-year European medal drought after confident and skilled performances in the all-around and on vault, respectively. Both Kovacs and Devai have grown tremendously in the sport, starting out as talented juniors a couple of years ago but then truly beginning to blossom once they aged into the senior division, showing a kind of transition all countries should strive to emulate.
The Hungarian program has made huge strides in the past few years, and is on track to continue its rise a great deal internationally in the coming years. Hungary is clearly doing something right when it comes to training, pacing, and putting together programs that suit each gymnast, so based on this and on their recent international success relative to Romania’s, it’s easy to see why this system is so appealing to the Cimpian family.
Even the potential suspension while her nationality change gets worked out could be in Cimpian’s benefit. The year or more it could take to straighten everything out means Cimpian can take a step back and focus on reconfiguring herself within the sport, getting used to new coaches and workout regimens and routines early enough this quad so that by the time everything works out, she’ll be back early enough to get some major competitions under her belt before she needs to start worrying about qualifying to Tokyo, but not so early that she’ll end up burning out, which often to happen to gymnasts who turn senior so early in the quad (Cimpian turned 16 exactly one day too late to be eligible for Rio).
Additionally, while Cimpian is on a pedestal within Romania at the moment, we don’t have to look much further than last quad to see how quickly things can turn around. Catalina Ponor coming out of nowhere to swoop in and take all the team spots is kind of a running joke at this point, but it’s actually a serious concern in Romania, especially as several top young gymnasts have been pushed aside rather than nurtured when veteran gymnasts announce their plans to return to the sport.
2015 European beam champion Andreea Munteanu was one of several of last quad’s new seniors who felt discouraged by the threats to bring in Ponor whenever the team didn’t perform at a high standard. She and others felt sidelined by this, thinking, “why even bother training when Ponor’s just going to get the spot anyway?” which led to a mass exodus of several European and world team members between 2014 and 2015. Even Larisa Iordache, who led the Romanian team by a landslide all quad, wasn’t safe, losing out on the Rio spot to Ponor in the weeks leading up to the Games despite the two being pretty equal in terms of finals potential in Rio.
Veterans can be incredibly inspiring to young gymnasts, which is why the Hungarian girls all look up to two-time Olympian Dorina Böczögö, who still competes to this day despite no longer always being one of Hungary’s top team choices. The culture of the Hungarian program is one that allows the gymnasts to see Böczögö in the gym and think, “I want to be like her” instead of seeing her and thinking, “I might as well quit,” which is why Kovacs and several others were able to rise up and challenge her last year, with Kovacs ultimately beating her for the Olympic spot.
This symbiotic relationship between motivation and collaboration in Hungary is what Romania said they were going for back in late 2014 when they announced Ponor’s return to the sport, but we could see almost immediately that instead of feeling motivated and inspired, the younger Romanian athletes simply felt shamed and ignored for not being as good as their veteran teammates, leading to the exodus that dropped Romania’s depth into the toilet and ultimately gave them no shot at qualifying a full team to Rio. In Hungary, Cimpian can benefit from having several successful older teammates guiding her without also feeling like her position on the team is automatically threatened by them if she makes a mistake, making this yet another positive outcome of her move.
Honestly, after Euros, I fully felt like Cimpian was going to end up another Munteanu or Andreea Iridon or Stefania Stanila by the midpoint of this quad. Seriously, with every ounce of promise she had as a junior, I was so bummed about all of that talent being completely thrown away, and yet it felt inevitable for because of how frequent it happened with gymnasts last quad. Now with her switch to the Hungarian system, while a bizarre move to me at first, I can see about a million pros and almost no cons.
The Romanian program is dying, but Hungary is on the rise. Through a training system that is much more attuned to the needs of teenage gymnasts, Cimpian can revitalize and thrive, in turn helping the federation right back by adding depth to the small-but-mighty Hungarian team. This quad, Hungary could be on the shortlist for qualifying a full team to the Olympic Games, and a fully productive Cimpian could get them even closer to their goal.
Article by Lauren Hopkins