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

 

Chicago Marathon features Emily Sisson’s return, Conner Mantz’s debut, live on Peacock

Emily Sisson
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At Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, Emily Sisson makes her return, nearly three years after Olympic Trials disappointment. Conner Mantz makes one of the most anticipated U.S. men’s debuts in 26.2-mile racing.

It is not the norm, but an American will be one of the spotlight runners in both the men’s and women’s elite races at a major marathon. Peacock airs live coverage at 8 a.m. ET.

Sisson, 30, starts her first mass marathon since dropping out of the Olympic Trials on Feb. 29, 2020, her legs “destroyed” on the hilly Atlanta course where she started as arguably the favorite. She ran the virtual New York City Marathon later in 2020, but that was solo (and not in New York City). Her 2:38:00 isn’t recorded in her official results on her World Athletics bio.

Since, Sisson won the Olympic Trials 10,000m on the track and was the top American in Tokyo in 10th place. She moved back to the roads, winning national titles at 15km and the half marathon and breaking the American record in the latter.

Sisson vaulted into the elite group of U.S. female marathoners in 2019, when she clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in American history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow.

At the time, it was the 12th-best U.S. performance all-time. In the last two years, Keira D’Amato, 37, and Sara Hall, 39, combined to run seven faster marathons. At Chicago, a flat course that produced a world record three years ago, Sisson can answer them and perhaps get close to D’Amato’s American record 2:19:12.

“I’m hoping sub-2:20,” coach Ray Treacy said, according to LetsRun.com. “With the [super] shoes and the training behind her, I would think that’s [worth] at least three minutes.”

It is less likely that Sisson can challenge for the win on Sunday given the presence of Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich, the 2019 World champion and defending champion in the Windy City. The 28-year-old mom is the fifth-fastest woman in history with a personal best of 2:17:08. And Ethiopian Ruti Aga, a podium finisher in Berlin, New York City and Tokyo with a best time of 2:18:34, though she has one marathon finish since the pandemic (a seventh place).

Like Sisson, Mantz has shown strong recent road racing form. The American men’s debut marathon record of 2:07:56 (Leonard Korir) is in play. If he can break that, Mantz will be among the five fastest U.S. marathoners in history.

Rarely has a U.S. male distance runner as accomplished as Mantz moved up to the marathon at such a young age (25). At BYU, he won NCAA cross-country titles in 2020 and 2021 and placed fifth in the Olympic Trials 10,000m, then turned pro and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championships last December.

“If everything goes as planned, I think sub-2:08 is realistic,” Mantz said in a Citius Mag video interview last month. “If everything goes perfect on the day, I think a sub-2:07, that’s a big stretch goal.”

The men’s field doesn’t have the singular star power of Chepngetich, but a large group of East Africans with personal bests around 2:05. The most notable: defending champion Seifu Tura of Ethiopia and 2021 Boston Marathon winner Benson Kipruto of Kenya.

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Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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