I took some time getting to this article, because it is hard to know what I want to say about Ana Porgras’s sad retirement. I only know that as sorry a thing it is- it may be the right thing for her. We can just be grateful we had her while we did.
People are always proud- a little bit cocky even- to say they spotted Ana Porgras early in her career. I am not one of those people. I first knew of the young Romanian up-and-comer in 2009, the meet where she made herself known to the gymnastics world at large.
The 2009 World Championships was to me somewhat lifeless, a meet bereft of a nail-biting team competition, and one that felt like it featured only a handful of tired, post-Beijing gymnasts lucky enough to have recovered in time for the next big competition. What saved it was the many bright-eyed bushy tailed young juniors who emerged in London. Among the medal winners were the likes of Chinese pixie Sui Lu, and powerful young US stars like Rebecca Bross and Kayla Williams.
And then there was Ana Porgras.
The young star marked her first senior major when she won bronze on bars and was the revelation of the qualification competition. The veritable ’slip of a girl’ in the Romanian national colours emerged in qualifications a virtual unknown, yet danced and swang her way to the number two spot in the qualification competition. It was hard to know what was more special about her- her incredible natural grace- grace such as hadn’t been seen in a Romanian for eons, or the fact that she could swing bars beautifully.
What was immediately intriguing about Ana Porgas was that she was a changeling child thrust among a group of typical Romanian children- a dark-eyed sylphide sibling in a family of sturdy pixies. We should forever consider ourselves lucky that the Romanians chose to play to the young Ana’s strengths- that those who raised her fully realised that her singular indefinable qualities should be nurtured and not subsumed into that signature efficient but somewhat artless Romanian uniform style. She was raised to be special- one of the few Romanians with a standout, specially tailored floor routine and with actual choreography in her beam routine. Even the ever-efficient Romanians couldn’t hide her light under a bushel.
Worlds 2009 didn’t end up being the most fortuitous meet for the young rookie, who couldn’t repeat her AA performance from the qualification competition and who fell from the beam for no other reason than first-timer stage fright.
But it didn’t even matter.
From this moment on- Ana Porgras would be a star, a star of the old school- the timeless Hollywood type- not the disposable five minute, one-quad heroes of modern gymnastics.
My standout memories from that 2009 meet were her floor routine, a lilting waltz performed like no other gymnast there- even the most impeccably drilled-at-the-ballet bar Russian or Chinese girls. Another memory is of seeing her standing in the food area being hounded for autographs by legions of new young fans. The then-head coach Nicolae Forminte was standing patiently for a few minutes while she signed programs. Eventually he placed a tender, fatherly arm around her and led her away, telling the disappointed fans that she needed her sleep. This man already knew what precious cargo he had in this gymnast. My most lasting memory is seeing her wide-eyed terror as Nadia Comaneci spoke gently to her before her first nerve-wracking individual final, trying to prepare the young gymnast for what lay ahead.
2010 didn’t start well for the young star. Her pinched, pained face, and the flapping of her frail little arms as she limped away from her favorite apparatus tore at the heart strings of even the most hardened fans during the European Championships. Injured, she would not be able to prove her beam or AA prowess here either. We would not see her again for some time. The cruel question had to be asked. Would this harsh elite sport once again chew up and swallow another potential star before her talent had been fully realised? The news that she was back and ready to feature on the Worlds team was welcomed rapturously by many fans some months later.
By the time she arrived at the 2010 World Championships Ana Porgras was less sylph-like and more substantial- in all the right ways. Still lithe, leggy and ethereal- her delicateness was now tinged with substance- she no longer seemed like she would snap, or blow from the beam at the slightest breeze. Gravity had its hold. She was now weighted, sturdy in her effortlessness on her pet apparatus.
Working at Worlds and being able to watch the gymnasts train and compete up close, I became acquainted with Porgras’s competitive charms. I discovered she was superstitious, nervously clasping the hands of the team nurse before every routine. I realised her closest friend and team mate was Diana Chelaru, who she coached, and encouraged and accompanied in finals- sometimes treating her elfin friend as if she was the more seasoned senior and not the other way. I saw that she liked to nibble chocolate throughout the competition, and to rub her hands and stare into space as she waited her turn to compete.
What we all learned about Porgras at that meet was that she could be a champion. She was not one of those impossibly graceful gymnasts who would wallow in the middle ranks because they were all style and no big tricks. This kid had more than star quality- she had skills. From the moment she stepped from the podium after that shaky but beautiful beam routine, the smile never left her face. She knew how good she was, and that was such a beautiful thing to see. When it was confirmed that she was the World beam champion, she tucked her face in the neck of her coach and allowed herself a moment of pure disbelief and relief before turning to the crowds with that beaming smile.
Porgras never reached those heights again. It was not to be. She became all about exceptions. She was a bona fide beamer with bad luck in qualifications. She was a beautiful and talented bars worker with a new routine she couldn’t get a handle on. She was the consummate all-arounder without a DTY. She was a good team contributor without a strong team.
Despite being probably the most universally loved gymnast since Cheng Fei, and the most exquisite gymnast of her time, she was never to quite pull it together again. The 2011 Worlds were unlucky for Ana, who was only really able to give to her team, and not able to have an individual moment. What saved this meet for her and for her fans was the fact that she was rightfully and finally acknowledged for the beauty she brought to the sport in the name of the Longines prize. It was a long time coming- but perhaps the right time for a gymnast in need of a boost.
Ana Porgras is (I refuse to speak about her in the past tense yet- she is not dead and she is only a teenager- I just can’t do it yet) an ‘it’ girl of gymnastics, there is no doubting that. But she is not one of those modern ‘it’ girls, famed for fame, the kind you wonder why they are even in the spotlight, wasting your time with facile, meaningless celebrity. Porgras was an ‘it’ girl of the old school- an Edie Sedgewick, a Holly Golightly, a beautiful, intriguing presence that made people want to admire her- to both put her on a pedestal to immortalise her and to tuck her under their arm and protect her in equal measures.
She has it. It isn’t just her long legs- though they do help- it is the way she uses them. It isn’t just her good looks- and she is beautiful- but her natural presence. It isn’t just her skills- and they are great- but the way she infuses them with style and her special, indefinable quality.
There is not much I can say about Ana Porgras that hasn’t already been said, or photographed or made into a montage. Porgras is our archetype of the ideal gymnast- beautiful elegant, powerful and skilled.
She is the ghost of a gymnastics past we will never, ever get back.
All I can do is echo Bea Gheorghisor’s words, “It is a very sad day”- a sad day for gymnastics and a sad day for gymnastics fans.
Thanks for everything Ana, and thanks for giving it everything you had.
Article: Brigid McCarthy
Cover photo: Ana Porgras