Catalina Ponor wants to be the next Nadia Comaneci. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the 14-year-old Romanian gymnast revolutionized her sport by scoring the first-ever perfect 10.00 on the uneven bars, capturing hearts all over the world and launching an era of child gymnastics stars. Ponor, at 16, has superb balance and a rare clarity of artistic expression that recalls Comaneci. Whether she has Comaneci's effortless grace under pressure won't become clear until she competes in Athens, but Comaneci herself says Ponor has "everything it takes to be a champion." And Ponor leaves no doubt about her goal. "I have a picture of her in my head and I want to become like her," she says during a break in practice on a recent morning at the gym that for the last two years has been her home. Ponor's emergence is yet another testament to the durability of Romania's national gymnastics school in Deva, western Romania, which dates from the communist era and continues to produce top gymnasts with only a fraction of the resources of big rivals such as the U.S. and China.
The past four years have been particularly rough for national coach Octavian Belu and his team. Andreea Raducan was stripped of her all-around gold at the Olympics in Sydney after testing positive for pseudoephedrine. Over the next four years, the national team had to be rebuilt twice due to untimely departures of top talent. Belu had to fend off accusations in the Romanian press that the strict regime at Deva tipped over into exploitation and abuse of his athletes. Belu dismisses the charges by saying that training is "200% voluntary" and that he keeps "the door open for anyone who wants to leave."
And even Comaneci's iconic status was challenged in a recent book by Dick Pound, a former vice president of the International Olympic Committee, who attributed her high score in Montreal to Soviet judges putting in the fix for Bloc athletes.
Despite the troubles, Romania placed second in team finals at the 2003 world championships. In what was her first-ever big international contest, Ponor won two silver medals. And last month, Romania won four out of six possible golds at the European championships, including the team title. Ponor scored two gold medals in floor and beam, and Monica Rosu won the vault. Going into Athens, Romania is once again a top contender for gold.
Most observers attribute Romania's enduring success in women's gymnastics to its centralized training system that has barely changed in three decades; the government's continued spending on what is one of the country's top three medal- getting sports (track and field and kayaking are the others); and the experience and skill of Belu, a 23-year veteran of national coaching.
The training system requires sequestering the 13 to 16 best gymnasts in the year-round training camp in Deva and giving them 11 or 12 training sessions a week while tightly controlling all other aspects of their lives, from social schedule to nutrition. The system has been criticized as unduly harsh. Gymnasts, who enter Deva at around age 14, are allowed only one or two visits home a year. But it produces results, bringing talented athletes to top international level within two years. "Deva is like a military camp," says Marius Chican, a sports writer for the daily Evenimentul Zilei who attributes the success to "titanic work, military discipline and special diet." He adds, "But it allows you to do miracles almost overnight."
Training conditions have improved greatly since Comaneci's time. When Comaneci, who now runs a gymnastics academy in Norman, Oklahoma, trained in Deva, the apparatus was antiquated, the gymnasium was stifling, and there was little money to be made from the sport. Today athletes get luxury treatment by comparison, she says. "It's more like Ritz-Carlton today." They sleep in air-conditioned rooms, have bathrooms with Jacuzzis, and train on the latest equipment.
The gymnasts' motivation has never been greater, particularly from a financial standpoint. Although, Belu says, each gets only a monthly allowance of up to $160 (the Romanian average net salary is $175), wins in major competitions carry cash awards in the tens of thousands of dollars. International medal winners are also guaranteed a lifetime pension equaling almost four times the average Romanian salary. The money, in fact, is so good that it sometimes acts as a disincentive, Belu says. After Romania won the world title in 2001, four of the six gymnasts in his lineup quit, having made enough money to retire from his grueling school.
The 53-year-old Belu, who describes himself as an "unsuccessful gymnast," has a friendly disposition but runs a tight ship. The athletes train in two or three groups on different apparatuses, while Belu and Mariana Bitang, his coaching partner, cajole and encourage them from the sidelines. There is little obvious camaraderie among the girls. They focus on their performances, voices rarely above a whisper.
Ponor stands out easily. Though petite by normal standards, she is the second- tallest of the Olympic lineup and has a commanding presence on the floor. According to Comaneci, she has a very good shot at at least one Olympic gold. Her uneven bars routine needs work, Comaneci says, but she is the world's best on the beam and "probably the best on the floor at this particular time." "I really like Ponor," she adds. "She is a great athlete. She is pretty, has a great personality simply everything."
She is also stubborn. As a 4-year-old, she dragged her mother, a bank cashier in the Romanian seaport of Constanta, to the gym to sign her up for lessons. Five years later, when her mother wanted to pull her out of training, deeming it too strenuous, she threatened to run away from home.
Now Ponor is training even harder, cramming up to six hours of exercise into a single day. Her mother would not think again of asking her to leave training, says Ponor. "Now she knows I have to accomplish my dream."