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With the Spanish women’s gymnastics team qualifying for the final Tokyo Olympic spot last month, you couldn’t help but revisit the story of Roxana Popa. Imagine you’re an 11-year-old gymnast and you bring a package of talent to the sport. You perform with strength and flexibility, power and grace. Your hard work and ability vault you to the Spanish Juniors National Gymnastics Championships, where you win every apparatus, but you can’t collect a single medal because you aren’t a Spanish citizen.
The story of Popa begins in Constanta, Romania, where she was born and raised until she was 6 years old. Constanta is the birthplace of many gymnastics legends, most notably, Simona Amanar and Catalina Ponor.
In 2001, when she was 4 years old, Popa began gymnastics, bonding to the sport like chalk on an uneven bar. Her rise was natural, and she showed an intuitive understanding of all events, often medaling as the top all-arounder. While Popa and gymnastics are seamless, the country of Romania is a cobbled mess, and in 2004, Popa and her mother decided to move and make a new life in Spain.
Four years later, already a rising gymnastics star in Spain, Popa became a Spanish citizen in late 2008 and was cleared to compete for her new country.
But in June 2010, she suffered the first in a string of major injuries: a broken elbow sustained during a fall at the Spanish Championships, which required two surgeries and intensive rehab and left her out of competition for a few years. In 2013, however, Popa seemed headed in a better direction. She won the Senior All-Around Mexico Open, beating American gymnasts Maggie Nichols and Peyton Ernst.
The next year looked very promising for Popa. She competed in the American Cup and had an excellent vault and beam routine. On floor exercise, she inspired the crowd with her routine and finished all-around in sixth place. She then took silver in the Tokyo World Cup, and in July, she defended her all-around title at Spanish nationals.
In December of 2014, she entered the Mexico Open again and was considered the front-runner. But in training the morning of the first day of competition, Popa injured her knee and withdrew.
The injury, diagnosed as a torn ACL and meniscus rip, not only required surgery, but her doctors also learned the tear was an old one which had gone unnoticed. As a result, she had to have three surgeries.
Popa missed most of the 2015 season recovering. She did get a chance to compete on the uneven bars at the Novara Cup, earning the third-highest score on that event, and helping the Spanish team place in fourth. She was strong enough to be named to the Spanish team for the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, competing in bars, but had a fall and didn't make the event finals. (Spain finished qualifications placing in 17th, narrowly missing out on qualifying a full team to the Olympic Test Event in April.)
Although Popa was healthy enough to represent Spain individually at the Rio Olympic test event in April 2016, she re-injured the meniscus in her knee in late March, eliminating any chance for her to qualify for the Rio Olympics, adding to her disappointment.
It is hard to speculate why someone would undergo years of rehabilitation to return to the same sport, not once, but twice. A gymnast’s age has a half-life quality to it. Some people call it dog years. Whatever the terminology to describe the quick-sand time passage, every month without practice is a lost opportunity to upgrade and refine a gymnast’s skills. The lost time factor aside, injuries are painful, wreaking havoc on your body and your psyche.
Gymnasts are no stranger to injuries, surgery, and rehab. But the sheer number of procedures Popa had resembles the number of operations an NFL player might undergo. Repaired meniscus tears and anterior cruciate ligaments take notoriously long to heal. Only elite athletes would understand the psychology of why Popa kept going, finally returning to gymnastics last February and competing for the first time in three years.
In February, Popa participated in her own club event for Los Cantos Alcorcon in Girona, Spain, competing only on the beam, saying just being present at the meet was enough. Before that event, she said, “My pride and my smile will never be taken from me.”
That smile and pride were evident during last month’s 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, where Popa competed in all four events. Although she had an exciting spin during the routine, the beam isn’t the apparatus where Popa stands out. As for vault, she shows sharpness, precision, and dynamics, but her score is typically lower than other vault powerhouses. On bars, she is very quick with lovely form and fast, fluid connections.
Where she stands out, however, is on the floor. If you were impossibly lucky and watched the World Gymnastics Championships in person, then you couldn’t help but notice the enthusiasm and support for Popa as she began her routine. Tumbling to a flamenco rock song “Ameksa” by the Taalbi Brothers, Popa pulls you into the choreography, not only selling her tumbling, but also the artistry that accompanies it.
She confidently takes over the floor with sharp movements and elegant dance. Her first floor pass is a well-executed double layout. She continues with massive, powerful tumbling through her next pass, two whips into a full-twisting double tuck. She ends her routine with a double pike.
Her choreography consists of precise percussive footwork and dynamic hand gestures. She holds her upper body like a flamenco dancer, emotionally committing to the music, dramatically using her arms, and rhythmically stomping her feet.
Often noted for her fluid spins, most notably the “Triple Y,” Popa performed one before her third tumbling pass. The podcast Gymcastic described the turn as, “maybe the best triple Y spin I’ve ever seen anyone do.” Gymcastic might be onto something. When it comes to spins, it is hard to beat the Dutch team’s execution, but if anybody can, it would be Popa.
In the final pose of her floor routine, you can see the joy and relief in Popa’s face. In the stands, a group of fans eagerly waved the Spanish flag while a television commentator cheered, “It is called women’s artistic gymnastics for a reason!”
For Tokyo, Popa might be considering upgrading her tumbling, particularly in her third pass, currently a handspring full-twisting front. While we can’t predict Popa’s upgrades, she is a major contender for Tokyo and a favorite to make the floor event finals.
During her latest period of rehabilitation, Popa coached gymnastics at her club Los Cantos in Alcorcon. In 2018 she was named Spanish Twerk Champion and represented Spain in international competitions. She has developed her own dancing style and taught dancing in a school in Madrid until last summer.
If she returns to teaching one of her own dance styles, we will gladly sign up for one of her classes.