I remember my 9 years-old self watching Catalina Ponor live at the 2004 Olympics in Athens with eyes wide open because I couldn’t believe that an actual human being could possibly be capable of what she was doing on the balance beam. Eleven years and two comebacks later, I find myself watching her routines with the exact same awe and admiration for the exact same reason. I just don’t understand how what she does is even possible. A comeback in gymnastics is not an easy thing. When you are away from the sport for months it’s incredibly hard to get back in shape, to get your skills back and to build the necessary strength end endurance it takes to be an elite athlete. Olympic medalist and World champion Alicia Sacramone was training for about a year before coming back on only two events, because her floor routine was not ready yet. 2008 Olympic All Around Champion, Nastia Liukin announced her comeback at the October of 2011. About 8 months later, she wasn’t anywhere near close elite shape and even though she had only focused on two events, she didn’t have the endurance to get through a full bars routine. Two times Olympic champion Alexandra Raisman had one of the most succesful comebacks the sport has ever seen and she managed not only to get back her difficulty from 2012 but to also add new skills and combinations to her routines. However, even she had to delay her return to competition and she was training for almost two years before she could be in the amazing shape she is now. Her Olympic teammate, and 2012 Olympic All Around champion Gabrielle Douglas had been in the gym for about a year, with a gym change interrupting her training. She came back to competition showing world class routines and proving that she still is one of USA’s best but she was not able to regain some of her most difficult elements, like her amanar on vault and her 1.5 + triple full combination on floor. This is not to say that those women are not fantastic, succesful athletes who deserve our respect and admiration. On the contrary, they are all magnificent and yet, they still needed their time before they could get their old difficulty and shape back after taking a break from the sport. And then, we have Catalina Ponor.
Ponor was one of the biggest stars of the 2004 Olympics, winning three gold medals, which is something that no woman has achieved in the last few quads. The only other athletes who have become three times champions in the same Olympic Games are legends, who shaped the sport of gymnastics like Ecaterina Szabo (in a boycotted games), Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut, Vera Caslavska and Larisa Latinyna. After the Games, Catalina continued competing and winning international medals at world and European championships but she didn’t seem to have the same sparkle or to be in the same shape she was at Athens. She announced her retirement in 2007, before having the chance to compete for a spot in her second Olympic Games due to injuries. Her name went down to gymnastics history and people always mentioned her aggressive beam routines among their all times favorites.
However, that didn’t seem to be enough for Catalina Ponor who surprised gymnastics fans from all over the world when she announced she was returning to the sport in 2011. She exceeded everyone’s expectations and did something that was considered impossible by many when she presented world class routines on three events after only 7 months of elite training. She continued to improve and upgrade her routines and at the age of 25 she was capable of more difficult routines that she did at 16. She was a key player to Romania’s gold medal at the 2012 European Championships and of course to their bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics while she also managed to earn multiple individual medals at international competitions. With one more European title and two more Olympic medals for her collection, Ponor retired for the second time after the 2012 Olympics.
But for one more time she wanted even more from the sport and she announced her second come back at the March of 2015. The FIG license she applied for proved that she is serious about her comeback once again and she kept us up to date with her progress by posting training videos at social medal. She has been in the gym for about 6 months after being away from the sport for two years and yet, this time -that would be very little for most athletes – seemed to be enough for her. Today, she competed for the first time since the London Olympics and she already showed a double twisting yurchenko on vault, a switch ring, a round of + layout on, a kochetkova and a switch leap + omelianchik on beam and a double layout, two whips into a piked full in and a triple full on floor. Her form doesn’t look much cleaner than it did in the past and she still has a long way to go, but who cares? After six months of training, this woman can perform routines that others can’t even dream of. She posted a 6.3 start value on beam and it seemed like she was trying to connect her kochetkova to her switch half for two extra tenths. Her floor routine started out of a 6.0 and this is without her gomez or any jumps out of her tumbling passes. With numbers like that, Ponor comes as a savior for the Romanian team that has been struggling for the entire year and if she continues like that, there’s no doubt she will be representing her country at worlds for one more time.
Of course, one succesful competition does not guarantee a succesful comeback and this is only the beginning of a rough path for Catalina Ponor. The odds and the statistics are not in her favor. I can’t think of an other athlete who was able to win world and Olympic medals after taking a break from the sport not one but two times. I can also think of very few people who are still competing at the sport’s highest level in their late 20s. Gymnastics is a sport that you are considered too old at the age of 20 and Catalina will be almost 30 years old by the time the Olympics come around. Will her body be able to handle the hard training? Will she be able to learn new skills and keep upgrading? Will she manage to keep up with the younger and healthier gymnasts from all around the world? Will she stay healthy and motivated? Nobody can know the answer to these questions. But the only thing I know is that the odds were against her in 2011 too. Even then she was considered too old, too beaten up and her chances to make a succesful comeback didn’t seem very realistic. And yet, she was able to win three European and two Olympic medals.