Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Black Sheep of Deva.......

Romania was probably the first country to have to field all the accusations of producing factory line, cookie cutter-robot-gymnasts. 
Their gymnasts, particularly in the eighties and nineties had a tendency to be tiny, mostly brunette, long-legged-short torso-ed little dynamites that could tumble and vault with the best of them, to glue themselves to the beam with a seemingly collective uncanny balance, and to look very uncomfortable on bars but still pull off all-around medals. 
They were often serious to the point of glum-looking in competition, mostly had short careers and, as we have found out, had a tendency to be a little on the underage side.
Of course, among those who know their gymnasts, there were vast competitive differences, and personality variations among these girls, but the media were always using terms like robotic and grim to describe them, especially in the nineties. 
But it didn't matter, Romania had found it's physiological and psychological formula for success and by golly, they were sticking to it! And they just kept pumping Romanian champions out of Deva so it was clearly a winning formula too.
Every now and then, though, one would come along that was different, that would break the baby brunette stereotype and still do well.  
There was the very, very tall Maria Olaru, the long-time competitor and dual Olympian Lavinia Milosovici, the very blonde Amanar, or the "lazy and naughty" Marinescu to shake things up every now and then. 
But the Romanian gymnast who really broke the Romanian mold would have to be Catalina Ponor. Everything about her was different
If Queen Khorky was the drama-lovin' diva of Russian gymnastics, Cata was the slightly naughty Princess of Romanian gymnastics. But she was never too outrageous.  Unlike some of the other girls who went on to some illustrious non-clothed careers, she managed to stay on the right side of outright scandal....just.  
But she still managed to be interesting and just slightly outrageous in a sport dominated by images of good little girls.  
Here's are just some of the reasons why Cata stood out from the flock.
She looked different. Unlike her team mates, even when she was younger, she looked her age. She looked like a woman, not a little girl. She was tall for a gymnast and she was also, of course, stunningly beautiful.

She didn't have the usual Romanian gymnastic upbringing.  She didn't even train at Onesti or Deva, initially and was only discovered because she peaked in those days when Bitang and Belu were quite desperately trawling the country for new talent in the darker years of Romanian Gymnastics.  They found Ms Ponor training in a gym in her home town of Constanta at age fifteen.
 And she was a latebloomer, not peaking at eight years old like the resy of her confreres, but coming to her best at seventeen in Athens. In fact, though she later competed very well at Anaheim in 2003, she wasn't even a medallist at the Romanian National Championships that year!  In an interview, she actually attributed her desire to continue after Athens to the fact she hadn't been very long at Deva, meaning that the compromises she had to make to be a serious gymnasts weren't yet "weighing me down."

Like Khorkina, people talked about her.  She always had the Romanian rumor-mongers going about her love life (she had a love life!) in the news.  In fact, at one point, she was looking to become Deva's answer to Typhoid Mary for a while there when, after she recovered from a bout of Scarlet Fever, her rumored-to-be-boyfriend Robert Stanescu suddenly, mysteriously came down with it too.  The whole Romanian men's team was put on medical watch and made to take antibiotics- two days before the European Championships in Amsterdam!  Needless to say, she wasn't popular for a minute there.
She certainly wasn't afraid to take on the judges. She and Belu campaigned to have her start value raised on both beam and floor in a much media-covered dispute at the 2005 Worlds when she was given a surprisingly low score in prelims, initially leaving her out of both finals. Afterwards, Cata got her claws out, complaining openly to the media about how disappointing the judging was in the competition and that she thought they were not doing their jobs properly.
(Poor Cata got her karmic return. In a humiliating newspaper article back home after the championships, the writer attributed Cata's 'bad mood' in Melbourne to her- how should I put it delicately?- to her first experiences of 'women's troubles'! 
It then went on to explain, at length how these experiences come late to female  athletes and that Cata was very disturbed and upset.  Is nothing sacred or private in Romania?!!! 
(I don't feel so bad mentioning it here now considering the entire population of Romania was already allowed to know!)

She was rebellious. She and her team-mates, Florica Leonida and Alexandra Eremia were busted coming back from a party in the early hours of the morning whilst training. I imagine at Deva, that behaviour would be considered the delinquency equivalent of taking crack and getting pregnant.   None of them had permission to be out partying, even for the couple of hours they were gone.
 In fact, they were supposed to be busily preparing for Worlds! This behavior was one of the reasons Belu cited for disbanding the Romanian women's team and sending them all home to train for a period after that, saying the girls were being lazy and uncontrollable.

And, uh, she certainly dressed differently (clears throat).


  1. You seem much more interested in non-athletic aspects of this sport.

  2. Hi,
    This is Andrea from LBLGymnastics. I wanted to say that I love your website! I love how in depth you get with the articles you write and I definitely loved this one about Cata. I loved how she was a rebel in the sport. I hope that she is doing much better these days and I look forward to reading more interesting articles from you.


  3. There are plenty of people writing about the athletic aspect of gymnastics. I wanted to have some fun- and leave the more qualified people to dissect the code.
    There have been some great personalities, some great relationships, some funny moments and some very interesting things happen in and around this sport. I wanted to write about them.
    When my sister watched some gymnastics at Beijing for the first time, she commented on the reason she found it so enjoyable was because of the way you saw everyone perform, yet you also saw them sit and wait for their results. You got to see a bit of their personality and the way they interact on the sidelines. You got to know each performer a little through their style of performance and watch the drama unfold.
    She pinpointed one of the things i love about the sport. It's the added, human beauty of gymnastics. I want to celebrate those things too.

  4. I absolutely love your blog! I write about gymnastics occasionally but I don't usually know what I'm talking about and your insight is much appreciated! Thanks so much- your Tomei post is my favorite :)