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Interview: Eugenia Popa (Romania)
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Eugenia Popa (Romania) at the 1991 Worlds

Now coaching in Northern Ireland, two-time world team medalist Eugenia Popa shares her perspectives on her competitive success for Romania, and her efforts to improve gymnastics abroad.

Popa was a strong, elegant member of Romania's powerful team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Born Sept. 10th, 1973, she began gymnastics at Dinamo Bucharest, training alongside the legendary Aurelia Dobre. Her major competition debut was at the 1988 Junior European Championships in Avignon, France, where she finished fourth all-around and second on balance beam.

With her outstanding flexibility and extension, Popa stood out the most on balance beam and uneven bars. She also used her fluidity and grace to excel on floor exercise, where she often dismounted with a double back, punch front.

Popa helped the Romanian team win the silver medal at the 1989 World Championships in Stuttgart, and the bronze medal at the 1991 World Championships in Indianapolis. She served as the alternate on Romania's silver medal-winning team at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Following Barcelona, she retired from competition and began coaching in her hometown of Bucharest.

For the past 13 years, Popa has devoted her attention to developing gymnasts in Northern Ireland and England. She began coaching at Salto Gymnastics Centre in Lisburn, a suburb of Belfast, in October 1995. Popa later coached in England, and returned to Salto four years ago to continue her work on behalf of Northern Ireland's young talents. She and her husband, businessman Adrian Dickson, have a 3-year-old daughter named Ellie Anna.

IG's John Crumlish visited Popa — known as "Gina" — in Northern Ireland this week. In this IG Online interview, Popa shares her insights on her own competitive fortunes, and her work to help Northern Ireland's gymnasts reach and succeed at the international level.

Popa and daughter, Ellie, at the Salto gym in Lisburn, Ireland

IG: When and why did you leave Romania for Northern Ireland?

EP: I retired after the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. I suppose I felt I was getting older (laughs) — I was turning 19, so I think it wasn't just my point of view that I was getting old, but also the coaches' point of view. They always wanted younger gymnasts to move into the team. Now it is different because you can do one or two events and go on longer, but back then, you had to do all four pieces, so it was tougher. I had injuries, and my back wasn't great at the time, so I didn't think there was any point in carrying on.

I started working at my old club, Dinamo Bucharest. My coach, Rodica Apateanu, was the adjunct director, so she was basically my boss — again! Rodica selected me when I was 6; she came to my school, and I think she really liked me. I didn't go to the gym after the selection, but she came back to the school and more or less dragged me to the gym (laughs). She showed me where the gym was because I wasn't that interested. She was very perseverent with me, and then she married Liviu Mazilu, who also coached me. They are coaching in America now, in San Jose, Calif. They have very good kids. They have been in America for about 13 years — the same time I've been here. Rodica has been basically my second mother.

I worked in Bucharest for three years, but I wanted to work abroad. There was a girl who worked with Tony (Byrne, Salto co-owner and head coach), and she came to Romania to visit some gymnastics clubs. Through (1987 world all-around champion) Aurelia Dobre, I met them, and they told me Tony needed a coach. Tony came to Romania for a training camp, and I went up to Deva (Romanian national team training center) to meet with him. He gave me a three-month contract, and I came here in October 1995. I also coached in Birmingham, England, for a couple of years, when I lived in the Midlands. After that I decided to stop gymnastics and do something else. I did beauty therapy for a couple of years — massages, facials, aromatherapy, full-body massages and such. I wanted a change, but gymnastics was still in my blood. After so many years, it doesn't wash off. Tony needed another coach and said he would take me back, and I came back about four years ago.

IG: As the product of such a systematic training program in Romania, how have you been able to adjust to a different style of coaching in another country?

EP: It's very hard, but I was quite young when I came here, and I didn't coach long enough in Romania to have that strict kind of approach where you had to do what your coach tells you, no matter what. Here, I found it difficult at first. It's an attitude thing. You have to say, "If you want to do it, fine, but if you don't, there's nothing I can do about it." It is frustrating because you get kids who are so talented and you want to do so much with them, but you can't. It's very much a struggle, but I suppose you just have to adjust. You have no choice, really. You know you can do more, but at the same time, you can't. The kids have the freedom to say yes or no. We (in Romania) had the freedom to say yes or no, but if it was no, there was no second chance.

IG: Were any aspects of the Romanian system easy to adapt to Northern Ireland?

EP: Not really. The kids here tend to want to be more friends. They think that, if they're competitive, they lose the friendship. I don't think they know yet how to be friends and competitive at the same time. When we trained, we were both. We were very competitive, but we were friends at the end of the day. We lived together so we had to be friends. And even if you don't like somebody, you have to have respect. Gymnastics is about respecting the kids, and having the kids respect you to achieve something. But I think it's because the kids here are just nice. You don't have to be nice in gymnastics (laughs) — you have to be tough, and build up your strength, mentally and physically.

Popa shows off her flexibility at the 1991 Worlds

IG: What was your relationship like with Dobre and other members of your team?

EP: Dobre came from my club. She was a year older than I, and I used to look up to her and the older girls. I remember the first time I went to the national team, I thought it was so wonderful to have such good gymnasts to learn from. That's one thing I want my gymnasts to see — that the older ones should be good examples for the younger ones. I used to respect the older girls because they were very good and I wanted to be as good as they were some day. I was very intimidated by them, because they were older and better. It was quite an achievement when I went to the Romanian Championships and came in first on bars. I beat Daniela Silivas, which was a big achievement for me.

IG: During the years you competed for Romania, there were so many great gymnasts on the team. What made your team so good, and good enough to challenge for first place?

EP: Hard work. Determination and the hunger to do well were also important. I don't know how the Russians or Chinese trained, and I'm sure they trained hard, but we were always consistent, and that came from repetitions over and over until we became perfect. The coaches used to tell us, "You should be able to get out of bed, get up on the beam and do it" — with no fear, wobbles, falls or anything. That's hard to teach here. Even in Romania nowadays, it's not as good as it used to be. The system has changed a lot. Also, a lot of good coaches left.

We did what we were told. We couldn't say anything in interviews except "Yes" and "No." We couldn't express our opinions about anything. So in that way it was a duty, as well. You had to do what you were taught or you were off the team, and someone would take your place. If I went to a competition and was injured, I couldn't say I wouldn't compete, because otherwise I'd be off the team. I competed many times with injuries, because it was a strict regime. At the moment, I don't think the Romanian system is as strict, and they are losing it, and we can see it.

IG: What do you think it would take for Romania's team today to return to the same level as in your day?

EP: I haven't been there is a long time and I don't know how they train, but they know they can probably turn around and say a lot of things, good or negative, in interviews. I think the coaches may have reservations on how to coach. You're not going to be able to push gymnasts to do it anymore. The only motivation they may have is money or power, to be the best in the world. The fact that you can be an individual gymnast and not an all-arounder can be an advantage, or a disadvantage. I don't think the team is as strong because you don't have as many four-piece people. Some choose three (events) and the others fill in. In our time, we had good coaches and choreographers. Romania has kind of lost that. I think it's also a matter of coaches not wanting to commit to living in one place (at a national team training center) — even the good coaches. Whoever wants to stay there has to sacrifice the time with their family. It is kind of disappointing to see the system drifting away, but I hope the juniors will be better and prove they are still worth it.

Popa doing a Tkatchev on uneven bars

IG: What is your opinion of the state of artistry in artistic gymnastics, compared to when you were competing?

EP: It's quite sad to lose that, because after all, gymnastics is about elegance. I miss watching girls doing beautiful routines, because I don't get inspired. I don't get inspired if I don't see anything. It's nice to see people doing beautiful dance. But I think (the decline in artistry) is because of the new Code of Points. Everyone is trying to get in so many elements for their Start Values, so they just leave out the dance. I think that's one of the main problems. They have five tumbling passes on floor like the men, so there isn't energy for dance! Even if you wanted to, it's tough. So I think most coaches will go for strong gymnasts instead of elegant gymnasts.

IG: What was your opinion of the Beijing Olympics this summer?

EP: I liked Nastia Liukin. She's very elegant, and it's nice to see an elegant gymnast winning the Olympics. Shawn Johnson is a nice gymnast, pretty and strong, but I think she lost because she lacked elegance. Maybe next time she'll win, but I preferred Nastia.

IG: There was speculation that perhaps some gymnasts in Beijing were underage, and you lost your place on the team in Barcelona to Gina Gogean, who later said she was not actually old enough in 1992. How have you reconciled that?

EP: I'm not resentful. I was kind of aware, but because I was very young at the time, I became more aware of it as I got older. I was disappointed because the year before the Olympics was the hardest year for me. I was never angry at Gina, and we were friends afterward, too. I could have competed, but they wanted her on the team so she could make a name for herself. They didn't really care about me because I was stopping anyway, so they preferred someone younger. I wasn't resentful toward Gina. She's a very nice girl, and it had nothing to do with her anyway. It wasn't her fault. It was a decision made above us.

I may have had a bitter taste regarding the coaches and not the gymnasts, because of the choices they made. I worked really hard, and that was my only chance to make the Olympics. I was reliable because I was a good competitor. I think I had a bit of bad luck, as well, because I missed two senior European Championships, which is a very good competition where judges start to notice you. I was an elegant gymnast, but not the strongest. Coaches focused on gymnasts they thought could win a medal, and the rest just supported the team, so that's why I probably never go the chance to be an overall gymnast. I think Gina and Lavinia Milosovici were probably stronger, so to the coaches it looked like they had a better chance to win than I did.

Popa has taken her experience in the Romanian system and adapted it to help young gymnasts at Salto

IG: What do you think it will take for Northern Ireland to establish itself internationally?

EP: We're trying. We had Holly Murdock (14th all-around at the 2001 World Championships), who was one of the best ones. She was a child I liked to work with, because she worked hard. If I asked her to do something, she worked hard to achieve things. It's nice to have kids like that, because you see a reward. That's what we're trying to do here. You have to work with what you have. When a talent comes along, sometimes they don't want to do it, and it's hard to make them understand the same thing you're thinking and what you want.

I think it takes years of following examples (older gymnasts to emulate). If they have good examples and follow them, they will progress. It doesn't happen overnight. That's what happened in England. (Romanian native) Adrian Stan has a very good program, and he helped the U.K. enormously to come to the level they have reached. He's put a lot of work into it. I don't think having good coaches is enough, if you don't have the material, the program and the system. So you basically have to introduce the system to make it work and have some decent gymnasts.

IG: You mentioned the importance of having older gymnasts to emulate. How familiar are your gymnasts with your own competitive career?

EP: I don't think they have an idol to look up to. I used to have Nadia Comaneci, and then when I went to Deva, there was Daniela Silivas and Aurelia Dobre. Dobre was very elegant, and I loved watching her. They don't have that, and I wish they did. The wee ones sometimes come up to me and say, "I saw you on YouTube." I ask if they liked it, and they say yes, and I say, "Well, you have to work very hard to get there, because I did!" In a way, it's hard for me to understand why they can't "feel" gymnastics. You almost have to teach them, rather than feel it. When I was a gymnast I remember I always felt it, maybe from so much practice, but I had a sense of where I was and how to change things halfway through. I knew the full element and how to fix it so I wouldn't fall, because that would cost us a lot. They (Northern Ireland's gymnasts) don't have that sense, but I think it should come with practice.

IG: What do you think you are contributing on a personal level to gymnastics in Northern Ireland?

EP: If you really want to have results, you have to commit yourself 100%. It's hard to do that, with my husband traveling for work and me at home with my daughter myself. It does affect the kids. With Holly, I was there six days a week, and now I'm here just four days a week. It's better than nothing, but you have to commit yourself. If the girls see you're committed and you work side by side with them, they take you more seriously.

It's especially true with the younger gymnasts. If you start fresh with a group of young gymnasts, it's much easier than with an older group you haven't worked with before. They had the liberty of doing what they wanted, and all of a sudden we change the program and push them into it, rather than give them the choice. I think the older girls find it difficult, but it's easier with the younger girls because they don't know anything else. They have known only you from the start, so it's not hard. That's all they know.

Popa at the 1991 Worlds

When I came here, I selected a group of young girls, and I used to be very strict. They hadn't done anything before, so they knew only me, and that meant hard work (laughs). So they didn't think it was that bad. But working with a child that has been playing most of the time and trying to change their approach to very serious, I think they find it very difficult. It's a psychological thing. But I think they're starting to get better, and once they see results, they think, "Oh, it's not so bad. We're getting somewhere."

IG: How did hosting last year's USA vs. Great Britain meet in your gym motivate your gymnasts and help you?

EP: I think the competition was great for the girls. I told them, "You might never be as good as they (USA and British teams) are, but you can always be so much better than you are. They work more than you do, but it doesn't mean you can't." Even the (USA and British) coaches saw some of our girls and said, "They're not too bad!" So I told the girls, "See, you can do more if you want to, but you must want to." But they're not going to do it just because I tell them to. They have to want to. That has to come from them. I'm trying to convince them that working hard isn't a bad thing!

IG: Overall what are your expectations for the next few years?

EP: It's hard work, but I like it. Sometimes I think of giving up, but I can't get the same satisfaction doing anything else. When you go to a competition and the gymnasts do well, you get great satisfaction. Even if they are not world champions, they've done well and I'm pleased when they have. They are getting better. It's been a long four years since I came back, but they are gradually starting to see progress. They're not the way I want them to be, but they are trying. They can do things better than they did three years ago. I think they see the benefit of working hard.

Popa on floor exercise at the 1991 World Sports Fair

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