Romania’s last golden gymnast says goodbye in Nadia Comăneci’s city

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The reeling Romanian women’s gymnastics program suffered two more considerable losses at the world championships this week.

First there was the sight of Larisa Iordache, its all-around star, being carried off the floor with a torn Achilles in qualification warm-ups.

Later that session, Catalina Ponor, the last remaining link to Romania’s most recent golden generation, attempted a layout mount onto the balance beam.

She fell. The eight-woman final will be held on Sunday without her. Onto retirement for the 30-year-old who won three titles at the 2004 Athens Games.

Romania failed to advance a female gymnast to any final at an Olympics or worlds for the first time in more than 50 years.

All this happened on Wednesday in the 1976 Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The city where Nadia Comăneci scored seven perfect 10s and won three gold medals to put Romania on the sports map.

Romania earned women’s team gymnastics medals at every Olympics from 1976 through 2012. The drop-off started after 2004 and hit a nadir last year, when Romania couldn’t qualify for the 12-team Olympic competition.

Comăneci is optimistic about Romania’s future, but it could take several years to rebuild. She was part of a financially backed campaign two years ago to develop 8- and 9-year-old girls.

“The U.S. population is close to four million kids [doing gymnastics]. Go back to Romania, and you have 300, 400,” said Comăneci, who lives in Norman, Okla. “Finding five amazing girls [for an Olympic team] out of four million, the ratio’s a little bit higher, no?”

Ponor will try to help.

She is retiring due to an accumulation of injuries, currently Achilles and back pain and the need for knee surgery. But she will remain visible, hoping to coach after finishing her career with smaller competitions later this year.

“It’s really hard for them, and it’s going to be hard for me to see it from the outside,” said Ponor, who previously left the sport in 2006, 2007 and 2012, but was lured back (“My body is made for gymnastics,” she says, despite all those health problems). “Try to turn them into a stronger team, something that we were before, even if it’s a little hard to do that. … But I hope I can give them motivation to go, move forward and fight.”

Ponor says her two favorite competitions were those 2004 Olympics, where she bagged team, balance beam and floor exercise gold, and this year’s European Championships held in Romania. She won the balance beam over a field that included the Rio gold medalist.

“Everybody said ‘disaster’ in Rio,” Ponor said of her seventh-place beam effort at the Olympics. “I worked so much for showing that was just a moment that didn’t work.

“My career, it’s full. I have everything that I want. Maybe more than I dreamed.”

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