Two years ago in 2018, a series of translated comments from Larisa Iordache made its rounds across the Gymternet. Fans found the commentary concerning because of the following statement:
“Iordache said to the media that the recovery is going very slow and that she even has troubles walking on the street. She still wants to do gymnastics but it will depend on whether she’s able to recover. She said that currently the chances of her to recover and continue gymnastics are about 50%.”
It presented a bleak outlook for her prospects in future gymnastics competition, but some had gone as far as to express concern over more than just Larisa’s gymnastics. By this point Larisa had experienced two failed surgeries, and the statement acknowledging difficulty with her leg injury in day-to-day life had fueled social-media commentary that she was dealing with an injury that may have long-term consequences impacting her quality of life.
Throughout her career Larisa Iordache was a Romanian icon who usually topped the list of gymnasts who could truly be described as a fan favorite. If gymnastics fans were ready to write-off Larisa Iordache in 2018, they only did so reluctantly. The inevitable conclusion in a sport where most athletes retire young.
That narrative would become empowered later in the year when a 16 year old Romanian gymnast by the name of Denisa Golgota won medals on two events at the European Championships. If 2018 was the year gymnastics fans began writing-off Larisa Iordache, it was also the year they touted Denisa Golgota as her replacement. In a gymnastics story that had been told so many times before, an aging veteran had turned into a fallen star. Becoming increasingly marginalized as she took up the impossible task of trying to compete with a younger gymnast that everyone had pegged as the gymnast who would carry the future.
But two years later it is Larisa Iordache who is staging one of the greatest comebacks in gymnastics history, while Denisa Golgota is happily retired. Denisa Golgota realized that she was young and could do anything she wanted in life, and it didn’t have to involve gymnastics. Golgota formally announced her retirement just one month after her 18th birthday.
The unreliable, injury prone veteran outlasting the younger phenom is one of the many bizarre story lines COVID-19 has given sports fans in 2020. By every conceivable metric, Denisa was the correct gymnast to bet on as the Romanian gymnast of the future. But while all the attention was being paid to age and injury history as Denisa and Larisa were compared, one thing went overlooked.
At this point, it is not raw athletic talent that has allowed Larisa to overcome such a difficult predicament, but something else that exists inside of her. Larisa is having success in a way that no other gymnast could, because she has a tool that no one else has. The painful reminder of past events which gives Larisa the motivation she needs to push forward. Even as numerous injuries, two failed surgeries, and a three year absence from major competition have all tried to put the brakes on her career.
Even by gymnastics standards where gymnasts are dealt tough blows on a regular basis, Larisa Iordache has had exceptionally bad luck. In 2017 Larisa Iordache was injured during warmups right as the World Championships were about to start. In any other situation an athlete can find consolation in telling herself “there’s always next year.” But 2017 wasn’t any other year.
The 2017 World Championships was the only time a major competition was held from 2013-present where Simone Biles was not in attendance. At the top level Simone Biles is undefeated in the All-Around (AA). What the 2017 World Championships meant, for the only time in the current era of women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG), everyone else actually had a chance to win the highly coveted AA title. Through no fault of her own, Larisa missed her best shot at winning an AA title. If ever there was a time where missing out on a World Championships felt like a gut punch on par with missing out on an Olympic Games, it was 2017. But missing out on the Olympics was an experience Larisa was familiar with as well.
In 2015 Larisa Iordache won a bronze medal in the AA at the World Championships, effectively making her the #3 ranked gymnast of the year. But Romania had failed to qualify a team to the Olympics and as a result, Larisa Iordache failed to qualify to the Olympics as well.
It was unprecedented in WAG history that a gymnast could be a reigning AA medalist on the eve of the Olympics and still fail to qualify to the upcoming Olympic Games. But that was Larisa’s experience. The cruelty of the heartbreak Larisa experienced at the 2017 World Championships was that it came immediately following a heartbreaking Olympic experience in 2016 as well.
In 2018 during an appearance on Romanian television* Larisa talked about the 2016 situation and stated the following:
After 2015 Worlds, I got an AA bronze medal, and since there’s a rule saying an AA medal doesn’t qualify you to the Olympics, I already knew it, but that night I was told ‘there’s no spot for you at the Olympics’. I was very sad, and when the team didn’t qualify for the Olympics, my spot was also taken away from me. In a way, I think karma did it’s job.
When a gymnast experiences heartbreak, they try not to dwell on the past and look for a path forward. But as the above quote demonstrates, Larisa Iordache didn’t react to her misfortune with a mindset comparable to other gymnasts who had experienced heartbreak of their own. Instead, Larisa expressed commentary where the issue was deeply personal. Going as far as to say her spot had been taken away from her and invoking the word “karma.” Committing to a belief that the universe had conspired against her. The implication being, Larisa missing out on 2016 was punishment for the events of four years prior.
*The interview was once available on YouTube with an English translation, however that version has since disappeared from YouTube and only a Romanian version exists. Luckily, a Tumblr account saved a copy of the translation. Magda Petrescu, who is one of the best there is when it comes to documenting the history of Romanian WAG was kind enough to verify that the translation is accurate.
Larisa saying “I think karma did it’s job” was a direct reference to the 2012 Olympics when Romanian coaches removed Diana Bulimar from beam finals in order to give her spot to the lower scoring Larisa Iordache. In 2012 Larisa had benefited from the Olympic heartbreak of someone else. In 2016 the tables had turned and this time it was Larisa experiencing Olympic heartbreak while someone else reaped the benefits.
Perhaps we should have paid more attention to that 2018 interview where Larisa talked about what had been “taken away from me.” It wasn’t so much a defeated gymnast mulling over past injustice, but a ferocious gymnast determined to take back what had been wrongfully taken from her, by going to Tokyo. This is the unfinished business of Iordache and the passion in Larisa’s heart that has motivated her to overcome her once dim prospects in a way that no other gymnast could.
If Larisa Iordache has motivation in her heart that is unrivaled even among all her contemporaries, it is a motivational edge that is unmatched because no other gymnast contending for Toyko has routinely found themselves in flabbergasting situations like Larisa.
In my points ranking there are 103 gymnasts who have recorded five or more points. All but four of them have a gold medal. Of the four gymnasts who don’t, one of them is Larisa Iordache. Statistically speaking, Larisa is one of the most successful gymnasts in all of WAG history who doesn’t have a gold medal. Once again, not enough attention was paid to that particular detail and how much unfinished business Larisa Iordache still has on the table. Larisa not only has a stolen Olympics she wants to atone for, but a gold medal she has yet to win that has eluded Iordache throughout the entirety of her career.
As Simone has continued to win, it serves as a continued reminder to the significance of what Larisa had lost out on in 2017. Of the four medals Larisa Iordache won in individual competition, all of them came in events in which Simone Biles stood at the top of the medal podium. On two separate occasions Larisa had finished in 2nd place. One of them was the 2014 AA in which Larisa lost to Simone by “only” 0.466 points.
Of the five other gymnasts who lost to Simone in the AA, their average margin of defeat was three times higher (1.572 points). The closest any of them ever came was Kyla Ross in 2013. The amount Ross lost by (0.884 points) was almost twice as high as what Simone had beaten Iordache by. Statistically speaking, Larisa Iordache was the gymnast who came the closest to containing Simone Biles in a major AA battle.
With all of these experiences in mind, Larisa is by no means your typical gymnast. No other WAG has been forced to leave so much on the table, to routinely come so close and yet so far, and to have so many goals that have yet to be achieved. Those experiences and the motivation they fuel has made Larisa an unstoppable force. Or at the very least, a gymnast that fans will rue the day they ever expressed doubts over her ability to continue forward.
Not even a recent COVID-19 diagnosis a few weeks prior to the 2020 European Championships was going to prevent Larisa from arriving at the competition in top shape and emerging as its strongest competitor in qualifying. No matter how alarming her previous injury history was, Larisa continued to power through it all. Larisa Iordache has unfinished business and no amount of misfortune and setback is going to get in the way of completing what she has set out to do.