The 1984 Olympics in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) is often told through the lenses of Mary Lou Retton winning the All-Around (AA) title by default. After the 1984 boycott caused nearly every major WAG power to withdraw from the competition, the Romanian program was the only country left to challenge the Americans for the AA title. And when Romania’s top gymnast Ecaterina Szabo recorded a key fall during team optionals, there was no one left to win the AA title except for Mary Lou Retton.
But what this narrative misses is that Romania was far too strong of a program to have their dreams live and die based on the result of just one gymnast. Where was the Romanian depth that should have backed up Szabo and taken her place on the leaderboard after her fall on the uneven bars?
In all the hoopla over Retton v. Szabo, it is frequently forgotten that there was another high-caliber Romanian gymnast at the 1984 Olympics who was every bit as good as Szabo. In hindsight, the lesser known Lavinia Agache may very well have been Romania’s biggest threat in the AA.
Historically, fans and the media in WAG have placed a strong emphasis on following junior prospects hoping to find the next superstar. But never was the spotlight on junior level prospects more extreme than in the late 1970s in the immediate aftermath of Nadia Comaneci and Nellie Kim.
The Nadia-Nellie rivalry goes all the way back to 1972 when they first faced each other in a competition called “Druzhba” which was the top competition for juniors of the era. The two gymnasts placed 1st and 2nd at 1973 Druzhba making them the top ranked juniors. In 1975 in the first year both were at full health and eligible for senior competition, they again took the top two spots, embarrassing established veterans like Ludmilla Turischeva in the process. This did two things for the sport.
First, when juniors have immediate success against the seniors, it gives the impression that a junior champion could theoretically be the best gymnast in the world while the best senior was merely a pretender to the title. Secondly, the dual success of Nadia and Nellie gave the impression that junior level results were an extremely accurate predictor of who would go on to have success at the senior level.
When Ecaterina Szabo won the 1980 Junior European Championships, it automatically made her one of the most talked about athletes in the sport. Even before her 1980 victory Szabo had been something of a big deal. Shortly after the 1976 Olympics CBS aired an hour long special on national television called “Nadia—From Rumania With Love.” One of the few gymnasts who was given a solo performance in the feature was a very young Ecaterina Szabo.
But coming up alongside Szabo was the slightly younger Lavinia Agache who was every bit of a medal threat as Szabo. The two gymnasts had different strengths. Szabo was the more talented gymnast, but was prone to costly errors. Agache didn’t have the raw athletic talent as Szabo, but she made up for it with strong mental composure. Agache had finished third at the 1980 Junior European Championships.
To explain Agache-Szabo to non-hardcore gymnastics fans, they were like Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas. The two biggest names for the same program of the same era, separated by a 13 month age gap. To explain Agache-Szabo to hardcore gymnastics fans, they were the Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova of their generation.
The Romanian program had long had big plans for Agache and Szabo. From a young age the duo had been identified as the top candidates for the 1984 Olympic team and had been singled out for special preparation for that specific role (prime-positioning). Entering the 1980s Agache and Szabo had already been training alongside the senior members of the Romanian team for years. Everywhere the senior members of the team went, Agache and Szabo followed.
Note: I use the term “prime-positioning” in lieu of “grooming” which has been used as an athletic term, but has since evolved to become a term that also deals with sexual assault. I don’t want to create such confusion.
This included even the 1980 Olympics as Agache and Szabo were members of the Romanian delegation. They were in Moscow as spectators to experience what an Olympic environment was like and get accustomed to such an atmosphere. This was all done in the name of getting a leg up over the 1984 competitive field, most of which would be first-year Olympians. This was the extent and the lengths the Romanian program was willing to go to prime-position Szabo and Agache for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Both Agache and Szabo grew up with the national gymnastics team and away from their parents. In both cases they have given interviews where they describe the difficulty of growing up where they were able to return home only a few times a year. Usually for a few days during Christmas. Direct family time was limited, Agache’s father passed away at the height of her gymnastics career in 1983 when she was 15 years old.
When the Moscow Olympics came to an end, the Romanian program was now tasked with redirecting their focus on Los Angeles. One of the ways Romania planned to kick off the new Olympic cycle was to send Szabo to a competition in Los Angeles that was slated to be held in late January of 1981.
Known as the International Gymnastics Classic (IGC), it was a newly minted competition created with the intent of being the American Cup of the West Coast. The IGC was by no means a small-scale event. Event organizers had hired a public relations expert, there had been coordination with the press, and American gymnasts had gone on television to help promote the competition. Among its American participants were four members of the 1980 Olympic boycott team.
The competition was slated to appear on national television with newspapers claiming the television contract was worth $150,000. That $150,000 price tag was quite significant for the time as it represented 1.5% of what the NCAA was being paid for March Madness college basketball. In the current era, 1.5% of March Madness would come out to roughly $16 million a year.
Ecaterina Szabo was slated to be its top international participant. But when “Szabo” appeared at the 1981 IGC, it wasn’t Ecaterina Szabo. What the Romanians had done was to send Lavinia Agache to play the role of an imposter pretending to be Ecaternina Szabo. Considering that by this point in time, Szabo was already a well known figure within the gymnastics community, participants at the 1981 IGC were quick to question “Szabo’s” identity.
Not only was Agache a brilliant gymnast who could live up to Szabo’s reputation for impressive athletic abilities, she was also a capable actress who could keep the impersonation going. After learning of the controversy, Bart Conner approached an English-speaking member of the Romanian delegation who was sitting next to Agache and asked if the girl in question was Szabo. Despite the language barrier, Agache was able to recognize the situation. She smiled at Bart and simply said “Szabo.” The Americans knew that the real Ecaterina Szabo’s birthday had occurred the week before the IGC. During her visit Agache collected birthday greetings from the Americans and even stood up as they sang “Happy Birthday” to her.
Agache recorded a second place finish and after the IGC was over, the Romanian program returned home. What they left behind was an American program startled and confused over the events that had transpired. One month later the Romanian delegation returned to the United States as part of a tour called “Nadia-81.” The tour featured all of Romania’s big names from the 1977-1980 Olympic quad, but also tagging along were its two young prospects for the 1984 Olympics. The Americans were about to see Agache and Szabo side-by-side.
Whereas on her first trip to America Agache was cooperative with the impersonation, on her return trip Lavinia seemed to have a different attitude. At least according to Cherly Grace who was a judge at the 1981 International Gymnastics Classic and the director of the Nadia-81 tour.
Grace would later claim she had conversed with Agache through a translator where they discussed the cities on the upcoming tour and had even brought out a map of the United States to go over the cities they would be visiting. It was during this conversation that Agache listed Los Angeles as a city she had already visited. Grace further alleged the translator speaking on behalf of Agache told her, “she did not want the other gymnast to receive credit for the skills she performed.”
Surprisingly, the Romanian delegation managed to get through the entire Nadia-81 tour without the previous controversy derailing it. The tour was such a success that both Agache and Szabo were hailed as the “next Nadia Comaneci” in separate newspaper accounts. The Nadia-81 tour is best known for the point at which Romanian coaches Bela Karolyi, Martha Karolyi, and Geza Pozsar defected to the United States. Shortly after the Romanian gymnasts departed the mainstream media caught wind of the Agache-Szabo impersonation and the story was covered by some of the biggest media outlets in the country.
There are many examples of notable young gymnasts crashing onto the gymnastics scene with a bang. But no one ever did it with such a loud bang, or create such a ruckus in the process as Lavina Agache. For as bizarre as the whole affair was, the sport wanted nothing more than to move on from the controversy and get back to focusing on the competitions. Szabo may have been the more famous gymnast, but Lavinia was going to have the superior performance in 1981.
At the 1981 International Junior Championships, Szabo finished 3rd in the AA. Lavinia won the AA title and also took the top spot in 3 of 4 events during Event Finals (EF). Whereas Szabo did not compete at the 1981 World Championships, Lavinia Agache did. The Romanian program did not fare well at the 1981 World Championships due to the lingering instability of the Karolyi defection and the competition being held in Moscow. Agache competed in the All-Around and qualified to EF on two events, but did not win any medals.
Agache’s appearance at this competition was not without controversy. The 1981 World Championships would be dominated by age falsification allegations. Bela Karolyi dumped fuel on the fire after claiming that half the Romanian team was underage including Agache. It would later be confirmed that both Agache and Szabo had had their ages falsified. In 1981 the age cutoff was 15 years old. In reality Lavinia had turned 13 shortly after the Agache-Szabo impersonation controversy earlier in the year.
The presence of Agache at the 1981 World Championships was especially egregious as American gymnast Julianne McNamara claimed Agache had told her she was 13 when they competed against each other at the American Cup earlier in the year. Once again the story was covered by the mainstream media and Agache added an age falsification scandal to complement her impersonation scandal.
There was neither a World Championships nor a European Championships in 1982. Instead the premier competition that year would be the World Cup. Lavinia finished 3rd in the AA and won a silver on floor. She also finished 5th on vault, bars, and beam. The following year in 1983 marked the first time both Szabo and Agache were able to compete against each other in high level senior competition.
Oddly enough, entering the 1983 season Ecaterina Szabo was the older gymnast, but Lavinia Agache had more experience at the senior level. There were going to be two major competitions in 1983. It was at these two competitions that Szabo and Agache would compete as teammates, while simultaneously trying to establish themselves as the leading gymnast in the Romanian program.
The first major competition was the European Championships. At this competition Agache won a silver medal in the AA and had placed one spot ahead of Szabo, who shared the bronze medal with Soviet gymnast Albina Shishova. The Romanian duo proceeded to dominate EF and won six medals combined. However, a disastrous floor performance caused Agache to finish in last place. If not for that one bad performance, Agache would have won a medal on every event. Agache also would have walked away from the 1983 European Championships with both the superior AA performance and more medals than Ecaternina Szabo. Instead the Romanian duo won four medals each.
The other major competition of the year was the 1983 World Championships. Ecaterina Szabo won a bronze medal in the AA while Agache placed 6th. But a closer look at the scores reveals just how close Agache and Szabo truly were. During qualifying it was Agache who had the higher qualifying score. During the AA Agache scored a 9.900 on vault, bars, and floor. Coupled with her high qualifying score in the era of carry-over scoring, Agache needed merely an average beam routine to win an AA medal.
Lavinia Agache needed to score only a 9.800 to win the AA silver medal. This was easily doable for her as ten other gymnasts in the AA had hit that threshold, and Agache had won the gold medal on beam at the European Championships earlier in the year. But it wasn’t to be. Agache scored a 9.350 and lost out on an AA medal.
During EF Agache and Szabo would once again square off against each other. They shared the silver medal on vault, they shared another silver medal on bars, and Agache won a bronze on beam. During floor finals Szabo won the gold medal while Agache finished 4th. If not for that 4th place finish, Agache would have equalled Szabo’s medal total at the 1983 World Championships.
It may sound strange that I have praised Agache for her consistency while simultaneously pointing out an example where an ill-timed mistake had costed her a crucial AA medal. But here is what I mean by Agache’s consistency. Between the 1983 European Championships and the 1983 World Championships, Szabo went 6 of 8 when it came to qualifying to an Event Finals. In contrast Agache had competed in all eight apparatus finals, plus four more from the 1982 World Cup.
It is remarkable that Agache went 12-straight appearances in 1982 and 1983 Event Finals. But even more remarkable was her performance in these 12 events. When a gymnast botches a routine in EF, what typically happens is they finish in last place. That only happened to Agache on one occasion during 1983 floor finals at the European Championships. In the 11 other routines she competed in, Agache finished 5th or better in all of them.
Not only had Agache and Szabo shared medals on two different apparatuses at the 1983 World Championships, and traded victories over each other in the two major AA competitions that year, they had competed to a draw in other competitions as well. Szabo beat Agache in the AA in a dual meet against West Germany. But in a dual meet against Great Britain it was Agache who had beaten Szabo.
Agache would also win the 1983 Romanian National Championships, but Szabo won the 1983 International Championships of Romania which was the Romanian equivalent of the American Cup. When all their 1983 competitions are combined, Agache has one more victory over Szabo in the AA, but Szabo won one more medal than Agache in the two high level competitions of 1983.
If you were to ask gymnastics fans in 1984 who was the Romanian favorite for the Los Angeles Olympics, the correct choice would have been Szabo. But it was only after the 1984 Olympics ended that we have the hindsight of knowing that despite all of her talent, costly errors in critical moments was a recurring theme for Szabo. With that in mind, perhaps the real Romanian favorite for the AA gold was Lavinia Agache because of her consistency.
Because she had won medals at the 1982 World Cup, it was actually Agache who was the most decorated gymnast among all non-boycotting nations at the start of the 1984 Olympics. And after the first day of Olympic qualifying had been completed, Szabo and Agache were tied for the lead in the compulsories.
What happened next can best be described as one of the greatest implosions in WAG history. After finishing tied for the lead in Day #1 of qualifying (Compulsories). On Day #2 (Optionals) Lavinia Agache performed horribly finishing 23rd on the day and ended up 11th in the final qualification standings. It was more than enough to eliminate Agache from the AA on country limits. The bizarre turn of events would later be attributed to Agache suffering an adverse reaction to medication that was intended to combat the effects of jet lag.
And just like that, a lifetime of hard work and years of planning had culminated in the gymnast who should have complemented Szabo, ended up spending most of the Olympics watching Szabo from the stands. Only one of the five individual events at the 1984 Olympics featured both Agache and Szabo. In that one lone event, each gymnast won a medal.
Following the 1984 Olympics, the 1985 University Games were slated to be held. Both the Soviets and the Romanian programs had decided to send their very best gymnasts. Naturally, Lavinia Agache was among the gymnasts slated to compete. The first event was a team competition and during warmups Lavinia landed awkwardly on her legs while practicing her beam dismount. Even though the stands were full and the television cameras were recording from the other side of the arena, the sound of Agache’s impact was loud enough to be heard on the television broadcast.
It was clear that something was wrong and coaches tended to Agache by immediately lifting her to her feet and had her limp to the bench on her one good leg. It seemed the more pressing concern was getting Agache off the podium as quickly as possible so the rest of the team wouldn’t lose any time during the warmup session.
Agache almostly certainly was in pain, but she did little to show it. Despite what had just occurred, Agache had maintained full composure and was totally alert. Agache could even be seen trying to test how much weight her injured knee could support. At no point had Agache appeared to cry out in pain or even grimace. But what had actually occurred, Lavinia Agache had just suffered a career ending injury.
The injury has been frequently cited as a broken kneecap. The injury would cause Agache constant, life long knee pain and the Mayo Clinic would describe it as “a devastating knee injury that would plague her for decades.” The Mayo Clinic would later work with Agache to help her alleviate her knee pain. Lavinia herself would later state:
“It was very difficult. When I broke my knee, no one cared how I was; They just wanted me to get better and come back to gymnastics to win more medals for their country.”
Lavinia Agache missed the 1985 World Championships in Montreal. Of the six gymnasts the Romanians sent to Montreal, all but one of them would return for the 1987 World Championships in Rotterdam. The 6th spot in 1987 would go to Aurelia Dobre. Romania-1987 would go on to become one of the most well known and respected teams in WAG history.
But even with all its star power and the iconic win the 1987 team produced, a critical piece of classic 1980s Romanian gymnastics was missing from Rotterdam. Lavinia Agache did as much as anyone to maintain the Romanian WAG tradition in the aftermath of Nadia. If there was one gymnast who should have been able to be a part of such an iconic moment, it was Lavnia Agache. To tell the history of 1980s Romanian WAG would be incomplete if Lavinia Agache was not mentioned alongside Daniela Silivas, Aurelia Dobre, and Ecaterina Szabo. They are the quartet of 1980s Romanian WAG. But Agache is the only one of the four who isn’t in the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
Lavinia was quietly one of the strongest gymnasts of the decade. When medals won at Big Four competitions* are combined, Lavinia Agache has more medals than Aurelia Dobre. Even if Olga Mostepanova and Natalia Yurchenko were allowed to count the medals they won at the Alternate Olympics, they still wouldn’t have as many medals as Agache. The most decorated Soviet of the 1981-1984 Olympic quad was 1981 AA Champion Olga Bicherova. When counting only individual medals won at Big Four competitions, once again Lavinia Agache has the superior medal count.
*Olympics, World Championships, European Championships & World Cup
For a gymnast whose career was infamously cut short, she was so dependable that Agache still ended up leading a number of prominent 1980s gymnasts in career medal totals. That was classic Lavinia Agache consistency. Agache was a workhorse for the Romanian program. During her career she appeared in the Olympics, two World Championships, and two American Cups. Agache was such a frequent presence on the gymnastics calendar that she managed to cross paths with just about everyone. This includes a very young Svetlana Boginskaya. They shared first place at the 1985 Hungarian International shortly before Lavinia’s career ending injury.
The 1981-1984 Olympic quad is one of the most misunderstood eras in WAG history. Caught between two Olympic boycotts there was a reluctance to talk about the years between these two Olympics as so many prominent names were absent from the 1984 Olympic AA. This has led to an oversimplified media narrative focusing on Retton and Szabo while overlooking so many others. The gymnasts who didn’t fall into the Retton v. Szabo media narrative fell to the wayside despite recording impressive careers of their own. Ironically, one of the gymnasts who became overlooked in the Szabo v. Retton narrative had been by Szabo’s side at every turn. She grew up alongside Szabo, had challenged Szabo for supremacy, and on one occasion, she even competed as Ecaterina Szabo.