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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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MORE: Nadia Comaneci returns to Montreal, linked by more than 1976 Olympics

 

Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

MORE: Why Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson went 8 years without talking

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