The Great Romanian Gymnasts Who Came Before Nadia (Part II)

In Part I of this series I covered the careers of three Romanian gymnasts in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) who were trailblazers of the Romanian program in the pre-Nadia era. To complete the series, I am going to profile four additional Romanian gymnasts.

Elena Ceampelea (1964-1974)

When Elena Ceampelea first appeared at the 1964 Olympics, she was only 17 years old. In one way, Elena Ceampelea was the perfect representation of the new direction the sport was taking with the wave of young gymnasts that were about to overtake the sport. But Ceampelea would evolve to later represent the last of the “old guard” classical 1960s era gymnasts who were doing everything they could to maintain their existence in a sport that was now being over taken by young child-gymnasts of the Nadia Comaneci profile.

There is not much to say regarding the early years of Elena Ceampelea, only that she was a lot like Sonia Iovan, a gymnast who would start off slow and wasn’t expected to hit her stride until years later. The 1964 Olympics was her Olympic debut, but the 1968 Olympics would be her time to shine. Only, it wasn’t to be.

What makes Elena Ceampelea one of the most fascinating gymnasts in this series was the storm she weathered. Romania had finished 6th at the 1964 Olympics and officials were “dissatisfied” with the result and pulled support from the program. Romania would not be sending a full team to the 1966 World Championships, only a small number of individuals. As for the 1968 Olympics, Romanian WAG withdrew from that competition entirely.

If officials had decided Romanian WAG was a lost cause, in many ways they were right. In the 1960s they had accurately predicted the rise of superpowers such as East Germany, China, and the United States and other challengers such as North Korea and Bulgaria that would eventually start taking medals for themselves. It was also apparent that the current generation, Elena Ceampelea included, did not have the capability to win medals. But what Romanian officials didn’t know was that there was a little girl in Onesti who in just a few years time, was about to change all of that. They probably couldn’t fathom that Romanian WAG was about to become the most sacred and historic WAG program for the next fifty years.

But that was what was to come. For now, Romania had to get through its darkest hour, and that is where Elena Ceampelea comes in. When her program appeared to quit on itself, Elena Ceampelea didn’t quit on Romanian WAG. Her 1968 Olympics may have been stolen from her, but Ceampelea would come back for the 1972 Olympics. Becoming a 2x Olympian who competed in three different Olympic quads.

Elena Ceampelea never won a medal in her career, a 4th place finish on vault at the European Championships was the closest she ever came to winning a medal. But Ceampelea’s legacy would be the way she inspired through sheer stubbornness. The same gymnast who kept faith with her program even while it had opted to forego the Olympics would once again refuse to budge when the sport started pivoting towards child athletes.

In the 1970s no program had a greater emphasis on child Olympic gymnasts than Romanian WAG. But in an ironic twist of fate, at the same time Romania also had one of the oldest WAGs in the sport. When Elena Ceampelea competed at the 1974 World Championships, she was the oldest gymnast from any of the major gymnastics powers.

Elena Ceampelea once had the distinction of being the last gymnast who was 27 years old or older to be a member of a starting lineup in a WAG team that was top-4 in the standings. It wasn’t until the 2021 Olympics that Vanessa Ferrari became the first gymnast to match or exceed Ceampelea’s benchmark.

If Elena Leusteanu and Sonia Iovan were Romania’s great gymnasts who came before Nadia, Ceampelea was one of the gymnasts who was around during Nadia’s time. In 1973 at the age of 26, Ceampelea competed directly against an 11-year old Nadia in various Romanian competitions.

Nadia won.

What makes Elena Ceampelea such a fascinating gymnast is how strange this experience must have been for her. The gymnast who once competed alongside Larissa Latynina and Vera Caslavska where the top-gymnasts were typically in their late 20s and early 30s was part of a national program filled with child prodigies, many of which were under the age of 12.

Elena Ceampelea should be remembered for two things. First, she was one of WAG’s most valuable role models considering her relationship with so many Romanian youngsters such as Nadia Comaneci who would take the program to new heights starting in the mid-1970s. Secondly, Elena Ceampelea never won a medal in her career and helped Romania rise from the ashes to a 4th place finish in 1974.

Elena Ceampelea never got to experience the thrill of winning a medal, she never even won a medal in the team competition. But after Elena Ceampelea, Romania would win a medal on nearly every occasion from 1976-2012.

Alina Goreac

Alina Goreac (1970-1974)

The reason for Romania’s sudden rise in the early 1970s was the young supporting cast accompanying the rest of the national team, the first of which was Alina Goreac. At the 1968 and 1972 Olympics East Germany was at the height of its power. At the time it appeared East Germany would be the second strongest WAG program after the USSR and hang on to that role for the foreseeable future.

While East German gymnasts Erika Zuchold and Karin Janz were having massive amounts of success at the senior level, at the junior level a different pattern was emerging. At 1968 Druzhba, the Cold War era equivalent of a Junior World Championships, it was the Romanian juniors who had outperformed the East German juniors. Leading the way was the 15-year old Alina Goreac who finished 3rd in the AA.

The only two gymnasts who had beaten Goreac were Ludmilla Turischeva, the future 1972 Olympic AA Champion, and Tamara Lazakovich, the gymnast who would have won the Olympic AA under carry-over scoring. Romania’s decision not to attend the 1968 Olympics most likely costed the 15-year old Alina Goreac an Olympic appearance that year. Like so many of the Romanian legends who came before her, Alina Goreac needed time to grow.

Ludmilla Turischeva congratulates the victorious Nadia Comaneci at the 1975 European Championships in what is seen as one of the most historic/symbolic moments in WAG history. Alina Goreac is on the far right next to Nellie Kim (2nd from right). Richarda Schmeisser is on the far left.

She attended the 1972 Olympics as a 19-year old and didn’t have much of an impact. But in the following year at the 1973 European Championships, breakout success would finally come. Goreac started the competition off by finishing 4th in the All-Around and 4th on vault. But on her three remaining events she won a bronze on bars, a silver on beam, and another bronze on floor. Throughout the entire competition Alina Goreac never fell below 4th place.

At the 1973 European Championships Romania would win medals for the first time since the 1950s. Then at the 1974 World Championships Alina Goreac recorded an 8th place finish in the All-Around and narrowly missed out on two medals in Event Finals. Goreac finished 4th on vault and 5th on beam.

Her 5th place finish on balance beam was especially cruel as the four gymnasts ahead of her were all Soviet. The 1974 World Championships was the last time a major WAG competition was held without country limits. Had that rule change been introduced just one season earlier, Goreac would have finished 6th in the AA and won a bronze medal on beam.

Alina Goreac competes on vault at the 1976 Dual Meet between Romania and the United States. This competition was an important Olympic qualifier for the United States, while Romania featured an iconic lineup of Anca Grigoras, Alina Goreac, Teodora Ungureanu, and Nadia Comaneci

Unfortunately for Alina Goreac, the medals she “almost” won at the 1974 World Championships would prove to be costly. At the 1976 Olympics Romania won a silver medal in the team competition. Had Goreac been on the team, she would have won the first and only medal of her career. But that didn’t happen and her omission was one of Romania’s more controversial team selections of the 1970s.

It is widely speculated that at 23 years old, she was left off the team because of her age and Bela Karolyi’s philosophy of investing exclusively in young, child gymnasts. Goreac was five years older than the oldest member of the 1976 team, and eight years older than its median age. There were also geographical considerations as at the time, Bucharest and Onesti had rival clubs/programs.

Alina Goreac’s 1976 omission is startling considering her strong performance in 1975.

Alina Goreac (left) and Nadia Comaneci (right) meeting with Romanian government officials following their success at the 1975 European Championships

At the 1975 European Championships Romania could send only one other gymnast to complement Nadia, and the gymnast they selected was Alina Goreac. Despite competing against Nadia, Nellie Kim, and Ludmilla Turischeva, three Hall of Fame gymnasts, Goreac still managed to win two bronze medals on bars and beam. She also recorded a 4th place finish on floor and a 6th place finish in the All-Around (AA).

The 1975 European Championships is one of WAG’s most legendary moments. It was the competition that made everyone take Nadia seriously as a child prodigy who could beat all of the top gymnasts in the world. It was also the competition that marked the arrival of the Romanian program as a whole. From that point forward, Romania would be seen as a first-rate WAG power and maintain that position for 40 years.

Alina Goreac was the other Romanian gymnast who was able to be part of that moment and compete by Nadia’s side. Alina Goreac competed throughout three Olympic quads, only to miss the Olympics on two separate occasions, both occurring under questionable circumstances. But in heartbreaking fashion, she never won a medal at the Group-1 level. It could be argued that Alina Goreac is Romania’s greatest, most deserving, and most historic gymnast to have never won a medal.

Media coverage of Alina Goreac’s performance at the 1977 University Games

Goreac would prove to be a fighter. She continued to compete after the 1976 Olympics. In 1977 she earned a spot in Romania’s lineup at the 1977 University Games, marking her last appearance in a high-profile international competition. In 1978 she won a pair of bronze medals on bars and beam at Romania’s National Championships.

But the most compelling stat line is that Alina Goreac competed into 1979 and managed to directly compete against Natalia Ilienko. At this competition the 27 year old Goreac lost to the 12 year old Ilienko, a Soviet gymnast more than half her age. It also meant a Soviet gymnast who should have been a 1984 Olympian competed directly against a Romanian gymnast who should have been a 1968 Olympian.

Not only was this encounter an unusual meeting of two gymnasts of different generations who were separated by 3-5 Olympic quads, but adding to the symbolism was this meeting occurred in 1979. This was the very same year Natalia Ilienko had won Druzhba. This created an absurd dynamic where Alina Goreac has the distinction of competing against a gymnast who ranked as a #1 junior in the current year, on two separate occasions, 11 years apart.

Alina Goreac

Alina Goreac has the distinction of being front and center during two of the most historic moments in WAG history. Alina was in Olga Korbut’s apparatus rotation during the 1972 All-Around Finals where Olga Korbut had her famed ill-fated performance on the uneven bars and broke down into tears. Korbut’s heartbreaking reaction won her sympathy amongst Olympic viewers and was a defining moment of both Olga’s career and a trigger in the rapid explosion of popularity WAG achieved at the 1972 Olympics.

It was Alina Goreac who was next on the start list in what is one of the most famous and historically significant routines in WAG history. Goreac was also one of the athletes who tried to comfort a crying and distressed Olga Korbut. Then there was the 1975 European Championships where Nadia Comaneci trounced Ludmilla Turischeva in an event that was seen as the start of Romanian WAG’s four-decade run of success and is widely seen as the birth of a new era in gymnastics where “little girl” gymnastics became the dominant ideology.

Goreac was physically standing no more than two or three feet away when Ludmilla Turischeva gave Nadia Comaneci a congratulatory kiss in what is one of the most symbolic moments in WAG history and the most defining “passing of the torch” example in the history of the sport.

(From L to R): Liu Yajun, Nadia, Ning Xiaolin, and Anca Grigoras. Photo taken in Shanghai, 1978.

Anca Grigoras (1972-1978)

What has become a theme throughout this series, when one legendary Romanian WAG is profiled, there is another gymnast who competed right alongside her worth mentioning. Nadia raised the profile of Romanian WAG, but Nadia didn’t do it alone. The 1973 European Championships established that even before Nadia’s arrival, Romanian WAG was surging.

In 1973 there was the previously mentioned stat line from Alina Goreac where she won three medals and finished in 4th place on her two remaining events. But the other Romanian entrant at this competition was Anca Grigoras who won a bronze medal on beam. After having gone medal-less at the European Championships for over a decade, two different Romanian gymnastics had won medals in the same competition. The 1973 European Championships proved just how strong and well-rounded the Romanian WAG program was becoming.

Anca Grigoras was Romania’s “Nadia before Nadia.” Like Nadia, Anca had been a child prodigy who went to the Olympics at 14 years old back in 1972. If Elena Ceampelea was Nadia’s role model during the junior portion of her career, Anca Grigoras was Nadia’s role model for the bulk of her senior career. Anca Grigoras and Nadia Comaneci were teammates at both the 1976 Olympics and the 1978 World Championships. When Nadia was a 14/15 year old, she had an 18/19 year Anca by her side to help guide her.

Anca Grigoras and Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics

Note: The same trend occurred in 1975 when Anca aso played the role of an elder gymnast guiding along a 14 year old Teodora Ungureanu at the World Cup.

How much of an influence did Anca have on Nadia? On her official Facebook page Nadia has paid tribute to Anca on multiple occasions. Most notably reposting a collage created by Magda of I Love Romanian Gymnastics. At one point, Nadia appears to have acquired a framed set of the two photos in question.

Anca Grigoras never achieved much success in WAG following her 1973 performance at the European Championships. Her bronze medal on the uneven bars at the 1973 European Championships was the lone medal of her career in an individual event. Nor was Anca particularly well suited for the introduction of country limits in the mid-1970s. Anca finished 15th in All-Around qualifying at the 1976 Olympics. Mariana Constantin finished 14th in All-Around qualifying and eliminated Grigoras on country limits by the narrowest of margins.

The collage of Anca Grigoras and Nadia Comaneci made by Magda

At the 1976 Olympics every Romanian gymnast in both the All-Around and Event Finals was under the age of 16. Making the 18 year old Anca Grigoras the outlier veteran who tried her best to compete in a program that was dominated by young child prodigies. Like Elena Ceampelea and Alina Goreac, Anca Grigoras is one of WAG’s great stories of an aging veteran gymnast who refused to go down without a fight. Anca Grigoras’ ability to maintain a high place in the sport and make the Romanian team in both 1976 and 1978 was particularly impressive considering her height.

Anca was a rather tall gymnast in an era where coaches were rapidly emphasizing short gymnasts. She did it while competing for Romania, a program that was more aggressive in prioritizing small/young gymnasts than any other WAG power. And yet Anca Grigoras persisted and even won herself a spot on two different teams.

Anca’s career following her 1973 performance at the European Championships would be three consecutive years of regression. Unfortunately for Anca, that trajectory had run its course when she was Romania’s lowest scoring gymnast at the 1978 World Championships. The result effectively ended her time as a member of the Romanian A-Team. Like so many Romanian icons of the era, Anca Grigoras took a “curtain call” at the University Games. This particular competition would frequently serve as a symbolic send-off for aging veterans of the Romanian program. Giving them one final appearance in a prestigious competition and the opportunity to leave the sport on a high note.

Alina Goreac (L), Ludmilla Turischeva (C) and Anca Grigoras (R) during the beam finals podium ceremony at the 1973 European Championships

For Anca it came in 1979 where she finished 4th in the All-Around, won a bronze on the uneven bars and a silver medal on the balance beam. Two years later, Nadia would take a curtain call of her own when the 1981 University Games would be the final competition of her storied career.

Emilia Lita

To conclude this series, I want to pivot back to the 1950s/1960s and profile a Romanian gymnast by the name of Emilia Lita. As a gymnast, Emilia Lita was never competitive enough to contend for medals. In most competitions she was only Romania’s 4th or 5th best gymnast and her median All-Around rank was 36th. The most noteworthy aspect of her career was Lita’s longevity where she never missed a major competition from 1954-1964 and became a 3x Olympian.

She was a staple of the Romanian program where Lita was a core member of the national program who always found herself in the starting lineup. But what makes Lita important (other than a ten year gymnastics career) was her post-athletic contributions to the Romanian program.

Emilia Lita has the distinction of coaching two of the gymnasts previously profiled in this series (Elena Ceampelea and Alina Goreac). This particular detail provides a small sample of just how significant the veterans of the pre-Nadia era were in advancing Romanian WAG in later years. Not only does Lita have a coaching association with Elena Ceampelea and Alina Goreac, but according to Magda Petrescu, she also worked with Aurelia Dobre, Laura Cutina, and Simona Pauca who were all legends of the 1980s.

Alina Goreac (R) as a coach

Elena Ceampelea herself also passed on her gymnastics knowledge to future generations. Sandra Izbasa, Loredana Boboc, Alexandra Eremia, Carmen Ionescu, and Florica Leonida are amongst the examples of gymnasts who have had direct coaching interactions with Ceampelea.

Anca Grigoras went on to become both a Romanian coach and an international judge. She rose to become a member of the UEG Women’s Technical Committee. Emilia Lita also served as a judge and was on the judging panel at the 1977 European Championships, one of the most defining competitions in Romania’s program history.

The reason I cite all these post-Olympic accomplishments is to highlight their involvement in administrative roles. These gymnasts not only hail from an era that predates Nadia Comaneci, but an era where it was the expectation that former Olympic gymnasts immediately fill critical needs on the administrative side in WAG upon their retirement. The Romanian gymnasts of the pre-Nadia era not only proved that success in this specific national program was possible and kickstarted a standard of greatness, but were quiet contributors to the growth of Romanian WAG even after Nadia became a household name.

Link to Part I of this series

Anca Grigoras

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