Day 5: Catalina Ponor

With only five days to go in the #countdowntoRio, we thought it best to answer a question you’ve probably all been wondering. Where are the Romanians? Well, five time Olympic medalist and veteran Catalina Ponor will certainly be competing next week. Her road to Rio, however, has been a rocky one and the team’s failure to qualify has been one of the biggest shocks gymnastics has witnessed for a long time. Gone are the days of Nadia Comaneci, as the Guardian in April highlighted just some of the reasons why it’s all gone wrong…

First, Cata’s story.

Olympic champion on floor, beam and the team final in 2004, Cata is renowned for her graceful lines and old-school skills, as well as a flair and precision that, when combined with great difficulty, makes her still one of the best beam workers in the world. Here’s her near flawless routine from Athens Beam 2004 and now in 2016 (Beam) – she’s still bossing those twisting flicks!

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She officially retired in 2007 due to injury and in 2011 underwent surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. However, 2011 also saw her return to gymnastics and by 2012, not only did she help team Romania to bronze in London but also became the first ever four-times European beam champion. She was to suffer heartbreak at that Olympics, coming fourth on beam to Aly Raisman after a tied score, and announced her retirement for the second time, saying ” I have worked every second for my team, I have worked every second for myself, I have worked every second for everybody. I have already been an Olympic champion. I will quit gymnastics with my chin up.”

Such a work ethic has been a constant throughout her career; so has her proclivity to break her promises! Sure enough, she returned to training in 2015 and waited nervously as the rest of the Romanian team, led by multiple world medalist Larisa Iordache and best friend and teammate Diana Bulimar, headed to Glasgow for the World Championships in October.

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Coming into Worlds, Larisa had been in good form, sweeping medals across the board at the National Championships, but in what has been described as a ‘meltdown’ from the entire team, a series of falls ended their hopes of automatic qualification and the pressure proved too much at the calamitous Test Event with more uncharacteristic failures all round. Since then both social media and the Romanian governing body have been divided in the decision over whether to send Cata or Larisa for the only nation-guaranteed spot for the Games.

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The issue raised further contention because of the strange FIG rule – that the World medalists on each apparatus qualify automatically to the Olympics if their team does not, but the all-around medalists don’t – which prevented Larisa, as the proven third best gymnast in the world, from taking a guaranteed spot in Rio. To add insult to injury (quite literally), in the build up to the Romanian National Championships which would decide the recipient of the individual spot for Rio, Diana Bulimar got injured, Larisa’s broken finger was proving slow to mend and her all-around title belied her lack of preparation, and Cata ended up in A&E with a fever – she still competed the next day but was decidedly under the weather. Nevertheless, Cata has been granted the individual space and is also Romania’s flag bearer – the first time a gymnast has led their nation into the arena (keep an eye out at the opening ceremony, although you might be waiting a long time as the procession won’t begin until at least after midnight BST on 5th August!).

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Cata, at 28, has put her body and her reputation on the line to train so very hard for this final (surely!) chance at Olympic glory and to hopefully inspire a new generation of Romanian gymnasts. Her vault at the test event proved how she’s been pushing herself to relearn skills too quickly and training videos even showed her doing some basic bars after years out (the hashtag told it all)! I really feel for Larisa, she has been so unlucky and does now seem to be getting back into top shape, but Cata also deserves the credit for putting the heartbreak of the Test Event (which she only did to help the team) behind her and embarking on another gruelling path to take that sole place.

Here she is in Rio now, getting ready for qualifications (a little sleepily!) and the chance of another beam final!

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