The case of Catalina Ponor has been an interesting one. By ‘case’ I certainly don’t mean Ponor’s ‘case’ for making the Worlds team. Anyone who was paying the slightest attention to the press and the video that has been emerging in the last many months since Catalina Ponor re-joined the Romanian National team would have already had a pretty good idea that she would be joining the younger Romanians in Tokyo.
If they didn’t know then, they definitely know now. Her performance at Onesti this week more than stated the case for why she is once again a vital and valuable member of the Romanian national team.
Her beam set was shades of old Ponor, solid as a rock and and very difficult. She barely wavered and attacked that beam like a Romanian of yore. On floor she was closer to her old self than I expected, with tough tumbling and dynamic dance (and some of the old form issues). She even- cleverly I might add- for the nostalgics among the judges, used some of her old floor poses, just to remind anyone who had dared forgotten that once, she too was an Olympic champion once.
Gymnastics moves in such a way that for the fans who think gymnastics only existed since Beijing, or the dawn of Liukin and Johnson, Catalina Ponor is a fossil, old and unfamiliar. True, In some ways that day when she pulled out all the stops and won both the Olympic beam and the Olympic floor final back-to-back seems eons ago. But then, if you think that she was the last floor champion before her team mate Izbasa, it doesn’t seem that long ago at all.
Ponor has always been a special case. Strangely, she was not sown and harvested at Deva or Onesti as a baby gymnast like so many of the gymnasts we came to know in the bad old days. She was plucked out of Constanta, the town where she spent her younger years by Bellu and Bitang already a talented, if slightly wild gymnast. At this time Romania was in a time of crisis and opportunity, and the discovery of Ponor as a highly developed, skillful gymnast in that gym in Constanta was one such- golden as it turns out- opportunity.
After this discovery, Ponor began training with the National team in 2002, and it was only one year later, in Anaheim where she made herself known on an international scale with a silver medal win in the beam finals. Although she was new to the team, the girl with the cat eyes and the glossy black hair stood out among the traditionally teeny Romanians because she looked like a woman and she already, with her obvious maturity and composure, looked like a leader.
After that 2003 silver, beam would from then on be known as her pet event and despite the fact she often had great success on floor, it was the event she was and shall always be known for. Blessed with the assurance of so many Romanians, she also had an ability to perform with an aggression on that apparatus. This fearless attack style of gymnastics meant she could produce enormous difficulty.
Her routines also showed just enough originality to stand out in this period, featuring a one-armed step-out in her tumbling pass, which was connected to an Onodi. She also performed a Kochetkova and an Omeliantchik, two interesting twisting handstand/handspring moves which were rarely used on beam. Funnily, the front aerial to back tumbling she used was quite prescient as it is now a popular means to gaining connection bonus in back-to-front tumbling. Ponor would also help popularise the back layout on beam, a move that began to separate the beam wheat from the chaff as the 2000s marched on before it was a de rigeur element of any sufficiently difficult beam set in the last quad.
In Anaheim she would also win the silver on floor, an event that she was slightly less spectacular on- but nearly as successful- in the years to come.
Then came that incredible Olympic Games where she walked away with two individual Olympic golds and a team gold. No other gymnast since Daniela Silivas had won three gold at one Olympic Games for Romania. She told the press; “When I won the gold medal on balance beam, I was very emotional. I had wished to win that medal forever. I became even more emotional when I won the gold medal on Floor Exercise, because it became a second gold medal, and a gold medal is very hard to get.”
In 2005 she arrived in Melbourne Australia for the World Championships. Here, all was not right with the Romanians. The team was depleted and only Florica Leonida and Ponor were deemed fit enough to perform for Romania at this individual World Championships. Ponor won the bronze on beam, and also managed to earn a reputation as a wildchild when it was reported in the media that she was in trouble for having snuck out of her lodgings to attend a party. She also appeared generally out of sorts, which was attributed, ahem, to lady troubles by the Romanian press.
In the year that followed, Bellu and Bitang would retire as head coaches of the Romanian women’s team.
It seemed like the end was nigh for Ponor too, as she announced her retirement in early 2006. Her last big event was to be the 2006 European Championship. Here, Romania lost the gold in a surprise defeat by Italy. Ponor was devastated, saying, “After the finals I started crying in the dressing room, because we almost touched the gold. In such competitions mistakes are paid bitterly and we made mistakes that we paid for them. This is my last competition. I feel very tired to go on. I am also facing difficulties with my injuries, something you can all see”.
Things got better, however, a she finished up her individual career by winning her third consecutive European beam title in Volos, Greece. She told the media;
“This is the ideal end for my career, the one I had hoped for when I came to Volos. I aimed to win the gold on the balance beam, I knew I could make it. And on the floor I was happy to win any medal, it did not have to be the gold.”
She did not attend the 2006 World Championships. Instead Steliana Nistor and Sandra Izbasa, the new guards of the Forminte generation would represent Romania in the finals. Things were never to be the same again- or so we thought.
After an extended break, however, Catalina Ponor told her former coach she wanted to train again. She was told that she would have to prove herself at the Romanian National and to head coach Nicolae Forminte. At this point, Romania apparently only wanted gymnasts willing to compete on all apparatus.
It was never known precisely why Ponor would not work with the new team coach, Nicolae Forminte, a man who had started his career in Constanta as well or the new beam coach, Cosma. It may not have been about them, however, and perhaps more about the life she would be forced to live in Deva, a tiny town in the west of Romania. It was said that she did not like, at her more mature age, to be restricted to life in such a place. It was not, however, deemed suitable for a national team member to train somewhere else, such as her home town of Constanta.
Whatever tensions existed, Ponor made it to Worlds and helped Romania to take the team bronze. The depleted talent-starved team couldn’t not take her and, such was Marianna Bitang’s commitment to the gymnast who had been their shining light in the last four years that she stayed on to coach Ponor through one last beam finals, one where she found herself in that unlucky fourth place.
Once again, Ponor retired, citing injuries and a desire for a more comfortable life;
“There are medical reasons and I don’t want to take any chances. I am now focusing on my university studies and I want to spend the holidays with my family.”
In the years that followed the news of Ponor for the next years was the tabloid kind, with the Romanian press featuring the womanly gymnast in bikini shoots on beaches or partying at clubs. The gymnastics world had enjoyed a long period of Ponor’s discipline and commitment to her nation and now it seemed she was taking her reward.
Then, with the return of Bellu and Bitang, came the return of Ponor to the national team this year. I doubt it was a coincidence.
The news of Ponor’s attempted return followed the brief and unsuccessful comeback bid of another Romanian veteran, Corina Ungureanu, whose beleaguered body had not been able to take the daily rigours of training. Some thought it might be the same case for Ponor, but it was not. Before we knew it, the woman who had never, ever been considered a bars worker, was not only returning to her original, incredible form on her old events, but was vowing to try, if it would help her country and it would help her to another Olymic Games to do bars.
Given what we saw last night, she may just make it there.
Cover photo: by www.gymbox.net