Larisa Iordache, once Simone Biles’ closest rival, chases comeback

Larisa Iordache, Simone Biles
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Nobody has challenged Simone Biles in international gymnastics quite like Larisa Iordache. As Biles prepares to finish her career at the Olympics next year, Iordache hopes to join her there, which would be quite an achievement.

Iordache, a 23-year-old Romanian, recently announced she plans to compete later this year for the first time since 2017 and three surgeries. The circled competition is the European Championships in Azerbaijan in December, rescheduled from early spring.

Though Romania failed to qualify a team for Tokyo, Iordache can secure an individual Olympic spot for the nation via her all-around result at Europeans.

“I went through a lot of difficult moments,” in recent years, Iordache said via email through Romania’s gymnastics federation, “but I never gave up to the idea of doing gymnastics. It was hard to perish so long, but now I’m fine. I can say that I like what I do so much, so I decided to give myself another chance to prove myself that I can do it.”

Iordache is the last remaining link to the nation’s storied women’s gymnastics history — 10 straight Olympic team medals from 1976 through 2012.

Romania failed to qualify a women’s team for the Olympics in 2016 and 2020. For Rio, the nation could send just one female gymnast of its choosing.

It opted for Catalina Ponor, the triple 2004 Olympic champion hanging on for one final Games. Iordache, a 2012 Olympian sidelined by two surgeries for a broken finger and a concussion in the lead-up to Rio selection, went to Brazil, too. As the alternate.

Unfortunate, given Iordache still owns the distinction of being the closest of any gymnast to beating Biles at a global championship. At the 2014 Worlds, Iordache finished .466 shy of Biles in the all-around. Since, Biles won the Rio Olympics and three more world titles, all by at least one point.

“To be honest, I never thought about the competition between athletes,” Iordache, who also took bronze in the 2015 World all-around, said when asked about competing against the American. “I always tried to prepare and implement my own exercises in a safe way.”

Iordache endured after Rio. She won the Romanian national title in September 2017 and arrived at the world championships in Montreal that autumn as a medal favorite.

All of the Olympic medalists were absent. Biles on a break from competition. Raisman made Rio her last competition. Russian Aliya Mustafina became a mom. Iordache had the best credentials of anyone in the field.

In warm-up for the qualifying round, Iordache tore an Achilles. She was carried off the floor and later wheeled out in a chair. She has not been seen in competition since. She underwent surgery in October 2017, another one a month and a half later and a third in September 2018.

Though she never quit gymnastics, the thought crossed her mind. Then she considered the alternative, giving up a sport that first piqued her interest at age 5. When Iordache was 11, a Romanian newspaper ran a story about her with the headline “The New Nadia.”

“When I’m in the gym I forget everything about what is happening around me, and the feeling I have in these moments is the one I can’t meet in my daily life,” she said. “I try to take advantage of this feeling as much as I can.”

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