Sandra Izbasa is a gymnast who needs little introduction. Her face is instantly recognizable, her achievements are widely remembered, and highlights from her career continue to circulate across the Gymternet. Sandra Izbasa is one of the few gymnasts from her generation whose name will be known among younger generations of fans who weren’t old enough to witness her career firsthand. But even with all of that being said, it still doesn’t reflect the true legacy of Sandra. She was more than a legendary gymnast, but an icon of Romanian women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) who had an impact on her national program that went beyond the number of medals she won.
The origins of Sandra’s legacy started in the 1980s when she had yet to be born. Back to the days of Szabo and Silivas when not only Romanian WAG ran supreme, but Romanian sports in general ran supreme. At the 1984 Olympics the Romanian program wrecked havoc on the medal count. The final result, 20 gold medals and the #2 spot in the medal standings. Only the Americans had a higher medal count.
But surely that was a fluke spurred on by the Soviet boycott? Well, not entirely. Even without the boycott Romania would most likely have recorded a sizable medal haul. At the 1980 and 1988 Olympics Romania had finished among the top-8 in the medal standings across all Olympic sports. Romania may have been a small country, but it was by no means a small time Olympic program.
But for Romania, that may as well be ancient history. As the line graph below demonstrates, Romania’s Olympic sports has suffered a complete collapse in the past two decades.
This is what often gets missed in the discussion as fans ponder how the legendary Romanian WAG program could have fallen apart so quickly. Romanian WAG collapsed, but Romanian WAG did not collapse alone. The diminishing results had occurred all across the board and affected every Olympic sport. In the process, disputing the notion of a “one-sport problem” and absolving Romanian gymnasts and coaches of blame for their recent lack of success.
By the time Sandra Izbasa came along Romania’s Olympic status was that of a nation where its medal count was rapidly falling and on the verge of hitting rock bottom. For that reason, every medal Sandra won was going to be significant. In 2012 Sandra Izbasa upset McKayla Maroney for the gold medal on vault. It is one of just three gold medals Romania has won at both the Summer and Winter Olympics since 2010. Adding in her gold medal from the 2008 Olympics, Sandra Izbasa is the only 2x Olympic gold medalist the Romanian program has produced in any Olympic sport since 2006.
In 1976 Nadia Comaneci was the crown jewel of the Romanian Olympic program. Nadia’s celebrity status was unrivaled and she was responsible for 3 of 4 gold medals Romania had won at the 1976 Olympics. But Nadia was by no means the only medal threat Romania had that year. Romania as a whole had finished 5th in total medals won across all Olympic sports. Romania could have left Nadia at home and still would have finished top-10 in the Montreal medal count.
In contrast, even with Sandra’s contributions Romania had placed 31st in the medal count in 2012. Call it the “Sandra Izbasa paradox,” but as Romanian WAG has continued to implode, Romanian gymnasts have remained as important as ever. Whereas in 1988 Romania was an Olympic super power with multiple stars, in 2012 Romania was a small Olympic program who valued its cherished few who could deliver Olympic gold medals.
Sandra didn’t just win a pair of gold medals, she won each of them in iconic fashion. Her 2008 gold medal on floor was accompanied by floor music that is frequently considered one of the greatest in WAG history. In many ways, it is a throwback to a previous era of gymnastics, where floor music was designed around the choreography of the routine and was intended to give the audience an intriguing feel. It is a stark contrast to modern floor music where the trend is an emphasis on repetition and beats to draw attention to the tumbling of the routine.
In doing so, Sandra Izbasa not only brought back a style of floor music that felt more in-line with days of the past, she had revitalized a tactic that went all the way back to the era of Nadia. Using WAG to showcase the culture of Eastern Europe. In the 1970s Romanian gymnasts Teodora Ungureanu and Emilia Eberle popularized a Romanian folk song by the name of Sanie Cu Zurgalai (Sleighs With Bells).
In 2008 Izbasa popularized the soundtrack of a 1997 European movie which featured a multi-national cast, but the film itself had mainly been a Polish production. All of its filming locations were in Poland, the director was Polish, as well as the composer who was responsible for the trio of songs Sandra included in her floor routine. The songs were two different versions of “Elena’s Dance” and “Brute’s Gift.”
In 2012 Sandra Izbasa upset the legendary McKayla Maroney on vault. For many, the idea of McKayla Maroney having the Olympic vault title was the perfect climatic moment to the career of one of the all-time greats on that apparatus. The dynamic between Maroney and Izbasa is intriguing because regardless of who had won the 2012 gold medal on vault, either gymnast would have done so for historic reasons.
For Maroney, it would have been a historic moment for gymnastics. But for Izbasa, winning that gold medal was far more historic for her country than anything Maroney could have done for the United States. The 2012 vault final remains a special moment in WAG history because it presented two very different scenarios of Olympic greatness. And to top it all off, Maroney’s “not impressed” face during the medal ceremony went viral on the Internet. Inadvertently granting Maroney more world-wide name recognition for her silver medal than what she probably would have received had she won the gold medal.
When Izbasa won the gold medal in 2012, she did it as a returning Olympian who completely understood the significance of what she had just accomplished. But Sandra probably didn’t realize that it was the last time a Romanian athlete would win the second Olympic gold medal of his/her career. And Sandra would almost definitely be shocked to learn that this would be the final time the Romanian national anthem was played during an Olympic medal ceremony in gymnastics.
Sandra wasn’t just a proven a winner, but a person of the upmost integrity who abides by the highest standards of sportsmanship. As Sandra received congratulatory hugs from all her rivals, she spent significantly more time embracing Maroney than any other gymnast who had participated in 2012 vault finals.
Perhaps Sandra felt guilty that she had just destroyed the Olympic dreams of a 16 year old girl and shattered her heart in the process. Perhaps it was Sandra’s way of acknowledging that even though she had won the gold medal, Maroney was the bigger legend.
But though it all, a 22 year old gymnasts in the middle of her second Olympics was old enough to realize what her medal meant to Romania and what her upset of a legendary vaulter meant to gymnastics history. But most importantly, Sandra seemed to understand that because of her youth, Maroney needed to be treated with extra care. In that moment Sandra Izbasa was everything an aging veteran in the sport was supposed to be about. Conducting herself in a way that sets an example for everyone else and looks out for the youngest gymnasts in a sport dominated by child athletes.
Izbasa did all of this while winning an Olympic gold medal on two different apparatuses. Between the Olympics and the World Championships, Izbasa won medals in 5 of 6 events. This includes the All-Around medal she won at the 2006 World Championships. By every sense of the word, Izbasa is a highly decorated gymnast. But in the Romanian program where gymnasts like Nadia, Ecaterina Szabo, and Simona Amanar have set the bar so high, it is easy to say Izbasa was an icon of her era as opposed to one of the all-time Romanian greats.
But unlike virtually every one of the legendary Romanian gymnast who came before her, Sandra Izbasa carried the weight of the entire country on her back in a way that few Romanian gymnasts could ever relate to. She did it while conducting herself with integrity and class at every turn. When Romania needed dependability, Sandra Izbasa was exactly that. When Romania needed an icon to rally around, Sandra Izbasa was exactly that.