Ponor’s return boost for Romania on and off floor | dailypost.org

Ponor’s return boost for Romania on and off floor

TOKYO (AP & Staff) — Catalina Ponor strutted onto the floor, and all eyes immediately turned toward her.

The triple Olympic gold medalist is the center of attention at the world gymnastics championships, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Back in her element after deciding — again — that she’s not cut out for the sedate life of a retiree, the 24-year-old is giving the Romanians some badly needed swagger as they rebuild their once-proud women’s program.

“We need to have a star, a leader on our team,” Romanian coach Octavian Belu said Monday.

A star? Ponor is more like a galaxy.

Her three Olympic gold medals — she won the beam and floor titles in Athens in addition to Romania’s team gold — alone are enough to solidify Ponor’s place among gymnastics’ greats. But it was the way she carried herself that made judges and competitors alike stop and stare, with a sass and attitude even the world’s biggest divas would admire.

When the Romanian national team was based in Deva, Ponor was the one gymnast who didn’t train there. Her flaming red convertible was a familiar sight in Bucharest. She once got busted for going to a nightclub without permission. And woe to anyone, even her teammates, who got in her way, as Ponor would fix them with an icy stare.

Bad knees forced Ponor to retire after she won the beam title at the 2006 European championship. She made a brief return in 2007, but called it quits again at the end of that year because of her knees. She lived comfortably on the healthy stipend awarded to Olympic champions by the Romanian government, and tried coaching.

After watching the Romanians struggle at last year’s worlds, however, Ponor decided to make one last comeback.

“She’s coming back because maybe she feels like we feel, the place of a gymnast is in the hall,” said Belu, who resumed his old post as coach of the national team last year after spending five years in politics. “A gymnast like Catalina, with three gold medals in the Olympic Games, it’s better to have in the hall like a symbol than, I don’t know, in the museum.”

Romania certainly needs her.

After the Soviet Union broke up, Romania became the world’s most dominant team. It won five straight world titles from 1994 to 2001, as well as the team gold medal at the Sydney and Athens Olympics. Romanians won three of the five individual titles in Athens, and they would have swept the all-around titles in Sydney if Andreea Raducan hadn’t been busted for taking cold medicine.

But Belu and longtime assistant Mariana Bitang stepped down in 2005, and the program quickly fell into disarray.

In 2006, Romania finished fourth at the world championships, the first time since 1981 it had failed to win a team medal. It got back on the podium with a bronze in 2007, but it was a distant third behind the United States and China. Same story at the Beijing Olympics, when Romania finished more than seven points behind China and five behind the Americans, and Sandra Izbasa’s gold on floor was the only individual medal.

“It was very, very difficult for me” to watch, said Belu, who left the national team to become head of Romania’s Ministry of Sports. “I tried to help, looking to the budget and other facilities. But I think it was not enough.”

After years of hauling in multiple medals at every major competition, the Romanians had become an afterthought. The pipeline that had turned out one generation of champions after another appeared to have dried up.

“If you have two leaders and two gymnasts on each apparatus (capable) of being in the finals, you have 10 possibilities to have medals. So this is a very, very simple thing,” Belu said. “If you go with one gymnast for one apparatus, in the one final with one possibility, it’s very difficult to expect to some miracles.”

Belu and Bitang were asked in the summer of 2010 to lead the national team again. Though Romania again failed to medal in the team competition at last year’s worlds, Ana Porgras won the beam title, the team’s first gold at worlds since 2001.

Romania won two of the four event titles at this year’s European championships, and four medals overall.

“I don’t know if my coming back was enough to put the Romanian gymnastics at the same level as before, but I try,” Belu said. “Step by step we arrive at the Olympic Games, and I hope we’ll be enough good to hope to have good results in London.”

Ponor will be a key to that. She still appears to be among the world’s best on beam, and her floor exercise would outshine some of the shows in Vegas. But her greatest value will be her leadership and reputation. She could be seen giving her younger teammates advice during Monday’s podium training, and she even helped chalk the uneven bars.

Better yet, judges all over the floor were craning their necks to get a look at what Ponor and the Romanians were doing. Podium training is the gymnasts’ only chance to work on the competition floor before the event begins, but it’s also when judges start handicapping the field — and Ponor gives Romania some big bonus points.

The world championships, the main qualifier for the London Olympics, begin Friday.

“I don’t look to Catalina like a gymnast who is now 24. She is very dynamic and she keeps the same qualities as before,” Belu said. “It’s only one step, these world championships, but she looks toward London, and I hope she’ll be in her best condition in London.”