MONTREAL, Canada—On Wednesday afternoon, 21-year-old Larisa Iordache strode across the stage set up on the floor of the Olympic Stadium in Montreal just as she was supposed to. She presented herself to the crowd when the Romanian women’s gymnastics team was announced, acknowledged their cheers, and joined the other Romanian team members—newcomer Ioana Crisan and veteran Catalina Ponor—in walking across the arena to the floor exercise area, where they started to warm up for their first event of women’s qualification. None of this was remarkable, yet.
Iordache is the defending world all-around bronze medalist, and with American Simone Biles not competing for the first time in four years, Iordache entered this year’s world championships as a heavy favorite for the title. She had upgraded her difficulty across all four events and was fresh off recent wins at the University Games and at the Paris Challenge Cup. After a five-year drought at the world and Olympic level, Iordache seemed ready to bring some gymnastics gold back to Romania. She and her team were more than due.
Montreal, more than any other city, seemed to be the right place for all this. It was in Montreal that, 41 years ago, Nadia Comaneci scored the sport’s first Perfect 10s as a prepubescent 14-year-old. Comaneci’s presence has loomed large in women’s gymnastics ever since her triumph in 1976, and her legend has defined Romania’s program for a generation. It cemented the trend, which had started in the late 1960s, of young teen girls excelling in women’s gymnastics. Comaneci also helped establish the Romanian women as a global force in gymnastics. She is one of the few athletes that can lay a legitimate claim to having changed her sport, and she put her country’s gymnastics program on the map.
Comaneci’s presence, physical and otherwise, loomed over these championships. She was there in the flesh at the opening, charming the assembled media with her knowledge of French. The plaza outside the Olympic Stadium was dedicated in her honor. And her name was mentioned by the in-house emcees at the Olympic Stadium several times during each subdivision.
This all seemed to bode well for Iordache. Anyway, I hoped it would. It’s hard not to root for the young Romanian. She entered the senior ranks in 2012, bursting with talent and energy, but has dealt with pyrotechnically bad luck more or less ever since. Sometimes that came in the form of injury, as it did during the 2012 Olympics; sometimes it was just the result of flukish poor performance. One of the best balance beam workers of the past four years, Iordache still doesn’t have a world title on the event despite twice entering the competition as the favorite to win it. Despite all that disappointment, she has always been gracious to fans and her fellow competitors. In 2015 during the all-around medalist press conference, she seemed especially cozy with the Americans and gamely answered questions in English. There was every reason to believe that she was ready to become one of the sport’s biggest stars. This story was supposed to be about that.
In the mixed zone after women’s podium training, Iordache was asked a question that began, “Simone’s not here this year,” and she smiled. She understood where the question was going. Simone is not here meant that Iordache, who has twice had podium finishes behind Biles in the all-around—second place in 2014 and third in 2015—finally had a shot. Iordache answered in Romanian, “Each competition has its own level of high technical difficulty and its own pressures. I hope I will do each routine correctly and then I am sure the result will be good.” This was a very diplomatic way of saying, “If I hit, I can probably win.”
Then she added, “But Simone is not here and I do wish she was here.” Judging from their exchanges on social media, it seemed like she meant it; Biles and Iordache really do seem to like each other. I’d like to think that their friendship was cemented on the 2014 all-around podium, when the Romanian warned the American that there was a bee on her bouquet of flowers and then offered her sanctuary on the second place podium as the gold medalist threw her flowers down and fled.
But Biles was not in Montreal, and it was Iordache’s title to win or lose. After the intros, she started her warm-up on the floor exercise. I don’t usually watch warmups closely and was looking at my computer screen when a friend, a Romanian gymnastics blogger, directed my attention to the floor. In the corner of the mat, I could see Iordache was down, and that she was grasping her leg, and then that she was in tears; the Romanian coaches huddled around her. The emcee announced that warmups on floor exercise were being halted. I asked my friend what happened, expecting her to tell me that Iordache had been warming up a triple twist and under-rotated it or some such expert-level injury. She hadn’t. Iordache had simply been doing a roundoff into a backflip and bounced up, the sort of skill that many gymnasts can do with relative ease. Iordache had simply been trying to get a feel for the floor and her timing when she tore her Achilles, as was later reported by the Romanian Gymnastics Federation.
After a few minutes, Cristian Moldovan, one of the Romanian coaches picked her up and carried her off the competition floor.
There was a lot of this in Montreal, and the pre-meet favorite in the men’s division was also taken down by an injury. But Iordache’s injury had a different resonance, and not just because of her potential. The Japanese men, even without Kohei Uchimura, have a chance to win multiple medals in Montreal. But without Iordache, the Romanian women will not return from Montreal with any hardware. Neither Ponor nor Crisan qualified for any finals.
Right after the competition, Ponor, a 30-year-old triple gold medalist from the 2004 Olympics, reiterated her plans to retire this year. Ponor was the star of the last Romanian team to win a world or Olympic team title, and with her out of the picture Iordache is, in a sense, the last real Romanian gymnast, or at least the last that can enter a competition expecting podium finishes instead of merely hoping to participate and gain experience. Iordache has vowed to come back and I believe that she can. But it will be at least a year until Iordache will be able to return to competition. In that time, we’ll see what, if anything, remains of Romanian gymnastics without her.
One ill-timed injury shouldn’t destroy the medal hopes of an entire program for the foreseeable future if a program is healthy enough. But Romanian gymnastics has been in trouble for almost 10 years.
Back in 2010, the Romanian women failed to win a team medal at the world championships for the first time since the ’70s. At this point, Iordache was a promising junior competing with other promising juniors such as Diana Bulimar at the 2010 European championships; they placed second that year behind Great Britain, a rising power in women’s gymnastics. Iordache wouldn’t be able to join the senior ranks until 2012, the next Olympic year.
In 2011, the Romanian women again failed to medal at the world championships, despite Ponor coming out retirement. (That would be the first time that she did that.) After those worlds in 2011, Ana Porgras, Romania’s top all-around performer and the 2010 world champion on beam, abruptly announced that she was quitting. The Olympics was less than a year way.
But when Iordache joined the senior national team and it seemed like things were on an upswing, especially once Sandra Izbasa, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist on floor, was able to get back to top form. Another thing working in the Romanian team’s favor heading into the Olympic was the reduction of team size from six at the world championships to five for the Games in 2012. For a team struggling with depth, not having to find one more talented gymnast to complete the roster was a plus.
Despite the addition of Iordache to the Romanian roster just as the Olympic year was getting underway, it was clear that the team had deeper problems. That talented 2010 Junior European team that Romanian fielded? Only two of them, Iordache and Bulimar, successfully transitioned to the senior ranks. This meant that while Romania had some stars—Iordache, Ponor, and Izbasa, all world class talents—they didn’t have depth. If a top athlete got injured, they really didn’t have a replacement anywhere near the same level.
Gymnastics being gymnastics, an injury did strike one of Romania’s top gymnasts heading into London; in this case, it was Iordache. The 16-year-old was coming off a brilliant string of performances during her rookie season, and had helped lead the Romanian team to the title at the European Championships. Individually, she won the gold on floor and silver on beam; no all-around was contested that year. Iordache was heading into the Games as one of the favorites to win the women’s all-around title.
But then came her first stroke of bad luck: right before the Games, she suffered a heel injury. Iordache limped her way through the competition and Romania won the bronze—the last medal as a team in world or Olympic competition—but London was certainly not all that Iordache hoped it would be. The two veterans on the team had a much better competition. Izbasa won vault after heavy favorite McKayla Maroney fell and Ponor won the silver medal on floor behind American Aly Raisman. (Ponor had also tied Raisman for the bronze medal on the beam but was bumped to fourth due to a tiebreaker.)
After 2012, the burden of winning medals for Romania would fall solely to Iordache. Ponor retired once again and Izbasa would do the same after a 2013 world championships in which she wasn’t really a factor. By 2013, Iordache was finally healthy enough to contend for medals, and she seemed like she had a good chance to place or even win the all-around at the 2013 world championships. That was the first senior season of the gymnastics juggernaut known as Simone Biles, and she wasn’t yet regarded as the inevitable winner of everything.
As you might expect having read thus far, it didn’t play out like that. Iordache fell off the beam during the all-around finals and ended up in fourth. She fell again during the beam final. This was probably the most disappointing of her mistakes, since Iordache was the top qualifier into that apparatus final.
Iordache did redeem herself in the floor final, winning the bronze behind Biles and Italy’s Vanessa Ferrari. It was Romania’s only women’s medal in the 2013 world championships.
Iordache has won all of the world medals that Romania earned during the last quad. At the 2014 world championships, Iordache won the silver in the all-around behind Biles and the silver on floor, again behind Biles.
While the 2014 world championships were a success for Iordache personally, they were a disaster for the Romanian team. During the preliminaries, the six-gymnast squad came apart. It was one of the first times in my life that I remember thinking that Romania was not only no longer a team medal contending program, but not even a top ten squad. If it hadn’t been for Iordache’s heroic performance, they wouldn’t have made the team final. For one of the most iconic programs in the sport, even this seemed like more than a blip. It felt like a collapse.
It was. Ponor, once again out of retirement to help boost the team’s fortune, was injured before the 2015 worlds. Romania also lost another athlete right before the competition. The team only had Iordache and Bulimar and a promising newcomer, Laura Jurca. This time, that wasn’t even close to enough. The team placed 13th and failed to earn an automatic berth to the Olympic Games. They’d have to go to the Test Event in April of 2016 in hopes of qualifying a team to the Olympics.
Iordache still managed to win the bronze behind Biles and Gabby Douglas in the all-around, but she hadn’t qualified for any apparatus final. Had she qualified to say, beam, and won a medal there, she would’ve been able to personally qualify for the Olympics in Rio. But, due to a quirk in the rules, an all-around medal, while arguably more prestigious than an event medal, did not lead to an Olympic berth.
That rule has since been changed, but it was too late for Iordache. The Romanians failed to earn a team berth at the test event and were left with just one nominative spot, which they gave to Ponor instead of Iordache; the plan was that they could get a beam or floor medal instead of hoping that the younger gymnast, still coming back from an injury, might somehow win an all-around medal. Ponor, who was also recovering from an injury, only made the beam finals in Rio, and finished seventh.
The decision to send Ponor for two events instead of a recovering Iordache for the all-around was controversial at the time, mostly because it seemed to be a critical misread of the field in Rio. The beam and floor fields were sufficiently stacked that Ponor, who had only resumed training in January after tearing a calf muscle, was a long shot to win a medal. The women’s all-around field internationally, however, is much weaker, which would have given Iordache a better shot at a medal in the all-around than Ponor had on either of the two events she was training. Also, a non-podium finish in the all-around—that is, being the fifth best gymnast in the world—is more impressive than finishing fifth best on, say, beam.
It was a difficult call, in short, but the fact that Romania had to make it in the first place was a testament to how bad things had gotten for Romanian gymnastics. A healthy program does not have to decide between its best all-arounder against its best specialist for one Olympic berth. A healthy program—or, more to the point, every other Romanian gymnastics team in a generation—sends a whole team.
Romania, right now, is not that program, and it doesn’t look like they will be anytime soon. They don’t have any outstanding talent coming up the ranks in the next couple of years, and one of their senior elites, Olivia Cimpian, recently left Romania to train in Hungary, hoping to change national affiliation. The Romanian Federation has said they will oppose this move.
Ponor probably won’t be cajoled out of retirement again to rescue the team. When I asked her about the trajectory of Romanian gymnastics after preliminaries and what could be done to reverse the downward spiral, she said, “I hope, first of all, that nobody is going to make me change my mind and to come back.” She laughed as she said this, and generally answered questions with good humor after the preliminaries, despite her disappointment at falling on beam and the subsequent lengthy grilling by the Romanian media. She was more somber when she told me, “It’s just sad to know that Romanian gymnastics is going down. Even more, right now, that I won’t be there and probably for some time Larisa won’t be there because of her injury.”
Ponor is well aware that problems run much deeper than her or Iordache’s absence. It still says “Romania” on their warm-ups, but this is not the same country that produced Nadia, at least not in terms of material and structural conditions. Since the end of Communism, Romania has lost some of its best coaches to the West, with the U.S. claiming many of those. Since the 1990s, there has been little investment in the sport at the national team level, and even less at the grassroots. The past was present in Montreal for Romania, but it all seemed not just long ago but far away as well. Nadia Comaneci’s name kept coming up, and she was right there on the periphery of it all, but it has been a long time since she stepped on the mat. While Montreal was the city in which the Olympic legend scored her first perfect 10s, the gymnastics competition was held in a different venue altogether in 1976. That building, the Forum, is a gutted shell of its former self.
Just like Romanian gymnastics.
Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Iordache’s injury was a torn ACL.