GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — The reality hit and the tears, like the mistakes that doomed the Romanian women’s gymnastics team on the worst day in the program’s medal-strewn history, piled up quickly.
First Larisa Iordache cracked, the 19-year-old star’s composure slipping away after a handful of questions about what exactly happened. The rest of the team soon followed, leading Iordache to usher them out of the media zone Friday on the first — and Romania’s almost certainly last — day of the World Gymnastics Championships.
“Sorry, thank you,” Iordache politely said over her shoulder as she picked up speed.
The sooner one of the sport’s original superpowers moves on, the better.
While Russia eased to first with an opening total of 231.437, Romania’s stunning collapse in the opening session overshadowed everything that came after it. The same country that has medaled at every Summer Olympics since 1976 finished a distant eighth with the U.S. and China to come on Saturday.
The top eight qualifiers advance to next Tuesday’s finals and an automatic berth in the 2016 Summer Games. Romania will still head to Rio next year, just sooner than planned. Teams who finish between ninth and 16th will compete in a test event in April, where the final four Olympic spots will be determined.
Amazingly, jarringly, Romania will be in mix with the likes of Spain and Poland, whose programs would consider an Olympic trip a blessing. Not in Romania, where it has been a birthright since Nadia Comaneci was perfect in capturing the all-around gold in 1976.
“I am sick to my stomach,” Comaneci said Friday after watching from the stands.
Hard to blame her. She understood her home country walked onto the floor at The SSE Hydro shorthanded after veteran Catalina Ponor injured her leg in training a few weeks ago and Ana Maria Ocolisan twisted her ankle in practice on Thursday. Comaneci didn’t expect to see what amounted to a full-on meltdown.
Neither did anyone else, with Britain’s Elissa Downie calling it a “disaster.”
“You don’t want to wish that on any team,” Downie added. “Everybody works so hard for that championship, and nobody goes out to fall purposely. It’s just one of those things.”
Things that typically happened to someone other than the Romanians.
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Yet from the start, they just seemed off. They were sluggish on floor exercise and uninspired on vault. Uneven bars, never a strong suit, proved their undoing. Laura Jurca was the only one among the five Romanian women to get through a routine without hitting the mat. Diana Bulimar came off twice, standing there stunned for several moments after her second miscue.
The mistakes continued on beam, with Iordache botching an early skill and appeared disinterested as she tried to complete her set. Comaneci, who attempted to give the girls a pep talk after Ocolisan went down, believes the program can rebound even by next summer.
“It’s not the best year for them,” Comaneci said. “I know they have a few girls that aren’t of age who are in the plan for next year’s Olympics. There’s been a lot of accidents also. It wasn’t very smooth for everybody and psychologically on top of that, (Ocolisan’s injury) hit them hard.”
While the Russians have problems of their own, including back issues for 2010 World champion Aliya Mustafina that have sidelined her indefinitely, they seemed to grow stronger as they made their way around the pink-splashed SSE Hydro. Russia posted the highest team scores on bars, vault and balance beam, mixing their precision with a seemingly effortless grace.
They were followed by the energetic Brits, buoyed by competing on home soil they continued the rise that started in the run-up to the London Games. Confident and calm, they weren’t cowed by the stage or the idea of leaving Romania in the rearview mirror, if only for one meet.
Neither were Italy, Japan, Canada or Brazil as the field behind the U.S., Russia and China grew more jumbled with flame being lit in Rio in 287 days.
Barring something unforeseen, Romania will almost certainly make it through the test event. It will likely be joined there by Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan. The 40-year-old — yes, she’s 40 — finished with an all-around total of 52.998 and will probably miss out on the vault finals here after sitting on her Produnova, basically two forward flips. She hardly seemed undeterred and why should she? It’s only one of the hardest vaults being done at an event where she’s twice the age of most of the competitors.
Three years ago, Chusovitina insisted she was going to retire after the London Games. Yet she’s still here, still flipping and still a marvel.
“We are women,” she said through a translator. “We say one thing and we change our mind. It happens all the time.”
It’s a sentiment that could be echoed by the Romanians. Comaneci is optimistic a rough morning doesn’t indicate tougher times ahead.
“Gymnastics is still popular (in Romania),” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll forget about this day.”
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