02 Oct A New Beginning | Romania clinches Olympic team berth for first time since 2012
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A New Beginning | Romania clinches Olympic team berth for first time since 2012
By Ashlee Buhler
The last time Romania sent a team to the Olympics was over a decade ago.
Now, they are going back.
In Antwerp at the 2023 World Championships, a new generation of talent and potential punched Romania’s ticket back to the coveted Olympic stage, breathing new life into a program that dominated the sport at one point in time.
The Romanian gymnastics legacy is one that all fans of the sport know and respect. We all know the story of Nadia Comăneci, the youngster who became a household name after winning three gold medals at the 1976 Olympics, where she captivated the crowd with her effortless gymnastics and became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 in Olympic competition. Nadia left a mark on the sport that was not only felt in Romania, but around the world. Every little girl wanted to be like Nadia.
When you take a look at the history books, Romania has a long history of success. The nation has produced countless individual World and Olympic champions, has won seven team World titles, and 12 team medals at the Olympic games – three of which are gold. But after the team’s bronze medal performance in London at the 2012 Olympics, the program saw a drastic drop in the rankings. The team has not only been absent from the medal podium in World and Olympic competition ever since, but failed to qualify a team to the last two Olympics and finished 19th the last time they had a full team at the World Championships in 2019.
In Antwerp it was a much different picture. Watching the Romanian women, you couldn’t help but feel (and hope) it was the start of a new era – a rebuilding era. Gone are the days when hundreds of little girls would line up outside the gym in Deva hoping to be selected for the team, but some momentum from a strong performance in Antwerp could certainly help. However, the true rebuilding starts from within and focuses on shaping a new culture for the program.
“There are talented gymnasts, but 20 years ago 500 girls would line up in front of the gate to be selected,” said Patrick Kiens, who joined the Romanian team as head coach this year. “There are now 10. And that is the change.”
Kiens is the former coach of Dutch gymnast Eythora Thorsdottir. He began working with the Romanian team in January 2023 and now serves as head coach. It’s the first time Romania has outsourced its head coach position, but so far the results are speaking for itself. The Romanian women finished fifth at the European Championships earlier this year and in Antwerp, they finished 10th after Qualifications in their first World Championship appearance as a team since 2019.
Kiens’ focus for the Romanian team is one of health, positivity and empowerment. He believes this will translate into more gymnasts wanting to stay involved in the sport.
“If you analyze the systems that are in gymnastics, I would say there are two systems,” Kiens told Inside Gymnastics after the Qualification round in Antwerp. “One is based on fear culture. That is basically what Mártha Károlyi did in America … and the other one is based on empowerment … If you don’t empower them, they will not last. 30 hours a week training is a lot. Without having a voice, without having a good relationship with your coach, without having good communication, you last one cycle.”
Injuries have plagued many of Romania’s top prospects in recent years as well. When Kiens first started working with the team earlier this year, lack of depth was certainly an issue. He only had two athletes that weren’t injured – 2022 World Team member Ana Bărbosu and Lilia Cosman, who is from the United States (Michigan) but has been training in Romania for the past year. Just as with any team who is small in numbers, Kiens knows maintaining good health is crucial.
“We need to keep everybody fit and healthy and everybody matters,” Kiens said. “[We can’t squeeze anyone] like a lemon and throw them away. We can’t! That is why the only survival possibility is empowerment.”
The Romanian team is one of the youngest teams competing in Antwerp, all under the age of 17. (For comparison, all of the athletes from the Netherlands are over the age of 21, the oldest being 2016 Olympic beam champion Sanne Wevers who is 32.) However, that didn’t stop the Romanians from handling the pressure and rising to the occasion when it mattered most. Kiens said he never doubted the team’s potential to punch a ticket to Paris in Antwerp.
“The potential is there because you can look at the start values they have and you can look at the hit consistency they have in training,” Kiens said. “The question is, can they produce it when the green light goes on?”
Today they certainly did.