A little while back I wrote about the famed 1964 USSR Championships which saw a 15 year old Larissa Petrik defeat Larissa Latynina the very same month she celebrated her 30th birthday. The fact that Latynina, the most accomplished athlete in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) had lost to someone half her age sent shockwaves throughout the sport.
Nearly the exact same scenario would occur within the Romanian program nine years later. This time a veteran didn’t just lose to a gymnast that was half her age, but half her age and then some. It is no surprise that Nadia Comaneci is the culprit in this story. But what is surprising is just how young Nadia was when she did it. At 11 years old it would be one of the first high profile victories of her storied career.
At 26 years old Elena Ceampelea was rapidly becoming an outlier in the sport, if not the very last of her kind. A 26 year old WAG may not sound all that unusual by modern standards, but by the early 1970s, the “little girl” era was already in full force. At the 1972 Olympics 48% of the field was under the age of 18. Three out of every four gymnasts were under the age of 20. Eight different teams had a 14 year old in their lineup during the team competition.
Elena Ceampelea had already witnessed the near total purging of her generation. She was the oldest gymnast still competing for an Eastern Bloc nation. Only a handful of WAGs from other countries were older than Ceampelea. And virtually all of them were no more than a year older. The closest there was to another WAG power having a gymnast like Ceampelea was Japan. And the only reason Japan was fielding older gymnasts is because their WAG program was in complete collapse. It would take fifty years and the arrival of Mai Murakami for Japan to return to the level it was at in the 1960s.
Whereas the sun was setting on Japanese WAG, it was very much rising on Romanian WAG. Elena Ceampelea made her Olympic debut at the 1964 Olympics. But over the next four years, Romania would not participate at the Olympics and only sent individuals to the World Championships. When Romanian WAG appeared to quit on itself, Ceampelea refused to quit on her team.
When Romania made its return to the top level of WAG at the 1970 World Championships, it was Ceampelea leading the way as their top ranked gymnast. Ceampelea finished 18th in the All-Around (AA). In her era the AA was significantly harder due to a complete lack of country limits. All but one spot in the top ten had gone to a Soviet or East German. At the 1971 European Championships Ceampelea would finish in fourth place on vault which would prove to be the closest she ever came to winning a medal.
This is not to say that Ceampelea was a top tier gymnast. She was a top 20 WAG that was almost always out of medal contention. And that’s true for both her general career as well as the position Ceampelea found herself in when she started facing Nadia in domestic competition in 1973.
The competition in question was the International Championships of Romania (ICR). The ICR was unusual due to its format that mixed elements of an international competition, while also feeling very much like a domestic competition. The ICR had virtually no country limits for the home team meaning those who attended were going to square off against all the Romanian gymnasts the Romanian program could muster. Under this arrangement it was very much a “domestic” meet as one could look at the standings and figure out how the top nine Romanian gymnasts compared to each other. But it also had foreign competitors making the ICR technically an international competition.
The ICR was distinctly different from the Romanian National Championships of which Nadia also won (the senior level) in 1973. The ICR went the same way with Ceampelea finishing second to Nadia and Nadia then proceeded to win every gold medal in event finals. With two different victories on the Romanian circuit, it couldn’t be argued that Nadia had won on a fluke.
That very same year Nadia would also win the top international junior competition, beating out Nellie Kim in the process. A competition report from that meet gives us insight as to just how high the caliber of moves an 11 year old Nadia was performing in 1973.
“A real surprise at this Gera tournament was caused by a dainty little girl, just eleven years old, Nadia Comaneci from Rumania who won the spectators’ sympathies from the start. In the vault, for instance, she performed the Tsukahara, a sideways handspring with back somersault which, until recently, was only ever executed by the men. She performed it so safely, precisely and perfectly in its various phases that she was awarded the highest mark of the day, 9.80 points. However, she also proved her talent on the other apparatus. Her exercise on the asymmetric bars, including a salto between the bars and her flying somersault with full body twist from the upper bar recalled the skill of 1972 Olympic champion Karin Janz.”
At the 1974 World Championships the Romanians would be forced to leave Nadia at home. The highest ranking Romanian was Alina Goreac who had finished 8th in the AA. The 1974 World Championships was the last time a major WAG competition would not feature country limits. Had country limits been in effect as they had been at the 1976 Olympics, Alina would have finished two spots higher. The success of Alina meant that after 15 years of decline, Romania once again had a WAG who was capable of being a serious medal contender. But it also meant something else.
Like Ceampelea, Alina had also lost to Nadia at the 1973 ICR and had finished in third place behind both of them. All six members of the Romanian team had performed well at the 1974 World Championships. Anca Grigoras finished right behind Alina with a 12th place finish in the AA. Aurelia Dobre* finished 16th in the AA.
Note: Romania has had two gymnast named “Aurelia Dobre” in its history. This is not the same athlete as the gymnast who would win the 1987 World Championships.
Romania was one of the few countries that had managed to qualify all six of its gymnasts to the AA which had 36 spots. That accomplishment gave Romania credibility that the country was now a WAG power. The success of Alina in the AA also made it widely understood that being the best gymnast in the Romanian program was synonymous with being considered one of the ten best in the world. Yet all of this was happening while everyone knew the Romanians had a whiz kid back home who had beaten all of the gymnasts they had sent to the World Championships.
The implication was, Nadia was one of the ten best gymnasts in the world. This was before her perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics and before she had usurped Ludmilla Turischeva at the 1975 European Champions. The official magazine for the United States gymnastics program put Nadia at #10 in their ranking of the 50 best WAGs of 1974. It was done in regards to a 12 year old Nadia who had been equally as impressive one year earlier back when she was only 11 years old.
Today Nadia is remembered as a gymnast who was of such exceptionally high talent, that she could compete well above her age group. The notion is correct, but is almost always incorrectly applied to assume a 13-14 year old Nadia had broken an age barrier. The statistical reality is that 14 year olds at the senior level had already become normalized prior to the arrival of Nadia. It is from the ages of 10-11 that Nadia started pushing the envelope of just how young a gymnast could be while being at the same level as the average Olympian.
As for Elena Ceampelea, she’s one of the most admirable athletes that ever was. It is one of the more ironic moments in gymnastics history that Nadia and Ceampelea competed at the same time and for the same country. One gets the lion’s share of the credit for crashing the age of your typical WAG. The other would symbolically be the last notable holdout against the “little girl” era of gymnastics.
When Elena Ceampelea retired at the age of 27, she was four years older than Ludmilla Turischeva was when the Soviet legend also threw in the towel after getting a shellacking of her own from Nadia. Ceampelea would be the last gymnast over the age of 26 to make an Olympic or World Championships team of a country that finished fourth or better in the standings. Even after the ages have started rising starting in the 1990s, it still hasn’t happened since.
At her final competition at the 1974 World Championships, Ceampelea would continue to be a key contributor putting up the 4th highest score among the six Romanian team members. The aging veteran proved she still had some value for the Romanian program. Ceampelea was Romania’s highest ranking gymnast at the 1972 Olympics and in both 1970 and 1971, had been the Romanian National Champion.
It must have been absurd even for Elena to have found herself losing to an 11 year old just one year later. But it wasn’t just Nadia. At 27 years old Ceampelea was completely surrounded by child athletes. Romania was one of the countries that had brought a 14 year old to the 1972 Olympics. In 1976, their eight member Olympic team had two 14-year olds, two 15 year olds, and another pair of 14 year olds who were serving as alternates. Ceampelea was an invaluable role model for them. But it also adds to the absurdity of how did Romania, the country who had the strongest emphasis on ultra-young athletes also end up having one of the oldest gymnasts in the sport? This was especially unusual for a program known to have prioritized, perhaps unfairly, the young gymnasts over its older veterans in the team selection process.
Gymnastics is a sport where the athletes need to be stubborn if they want to find success. Yet even by WAG standards Ceampelea was stubborn. How else could she have managed to stick around as a 27 year old in an era defined by 14 year olds? Even when Romania was at its low point in the late 1960s, when her own country wasn’t even sending gymnasts to major competition, Ceampelea stuck with the sport. Because Elena believed Romanian gymnastics still had a future. Ceampelea was right. That future was Nadia.
Ceampelea took her country to 4th place. Putting Romania in a position where it was right on the edge of winning medals. But Ceampelea herself would never experience the thrill of winning a medal in a major competition. But that wouldn’t be the case for the Romanian greats who came after her. Gymnastics fans can frequently cite the lineage of iconic Romanian gymnasts. A legacy that is currently in the hands of Sabrina Voinea and goes all the way back to Nadia. But rarely do people go beyond the 14 year old who achieved perfection in Montreal. Remembering the one who made the Romanian program famous, forgetting the one who helped build it.