Who Is Catalina Ponor? The Romanian Gymnast Is One Of The Country's Last Remaining


The team all-around gymnastics finals are Tuesday night, but one of the biggest names in international gymnastics won't make it to the floor. Romanian gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Catalina Ponor is in Rio for her third Olympics, but it's her first without a team by her side. Romania's last Olympic gymnastics hope has a big legacy on her shoulders ― one that started with a perfect 10.

Ponor is one of the last of a dying breed of Romanian gymnasts. Born in 1987 in the seaside city of Constanta, Ponor started gymnastics at the age of four, when the Romanian gymnastics team was near its peak. The gymnastics world was still reeling from Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics, and Romania swept the podium at the Sydney Olympics, the Games which came just before Ponor competed. Ponor was posed to become the next star in a gymnastics aristocracy, but the country's reputation plummeted just before she got her chance.

The team that made Nadia Comaneci a household name around the world was plagued by scandal throughout the early 2000s — allegedly lying about age, doping, and a stripped medal made their reputation come crashing down, snowballing to a complete failure by the team to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Ponor was the one bright spot during that period, leading her team to gold at the 2004 Olympics and bronze at the 2012 games, and picking up two individual golds and one silver as well.

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But Ponor couldn't carry the team by herself. With a bench so shallow, they chose to sit out events rather than field subpar athletes. Romania lost its standing among the world's gymnastics elites. The Romanian team failed to qualify for Rio after a flameout at both the 2015 World Championships and the Olympic test event in April. Ponor, who came out of retirement just to try to help the team qualify, earned her berth as the country's sole individual competitor. In this capacity, she might be able to bring back some of Romania's gymnastics legacy. But without a team by her side, the chance for glory at these Olympics is significantly diminished.

Ponor has a slim chance to medal again on the beam this year and perhaps reignite the reputation for gymnastic excellence that her country once held. The fact that the reigning bronze medal team didn't even qualify for the following Olympics shows the dire straits in which they now find themselves. Even if Ponor can pull off a medal (she's in fifth place after qualifiers, .233 points behind third-place Brazilian Flavia Saraiva), it may not be enough to make Romania a real gymnastic competitor again.

But Ponor says she doesn't mind being on her own in Rio, because it's less pressure. "I have been in two Olympics with a team and I miss my teammates being here to enjoy the Olympic experience," Ponor said in an interview for the Rio 2016 website. "But at the same time it took a little pressure off my shoulders because I don't have to carry a team. If I make mistakes by myself then it's on my hands. If I don't do anything it's my fault." Ponor's grace and talent will still make her one of the greats in the history of gymnastics, even though her team may have fallen from the top of the pack.