ROME, July 24 (Reuters) - There were many moments in Sandra Izbasa’s life that nearly steered her away from gymnastics that she is amazed to be spearheading Romania’s defence of the team gold at the Beijing Olympics.
“Honestly, I never thought I’d be here,” she told Reuters in an interview. “I had many failures, I wanted to quit many times, but my parents and my coaches advised me to continue.”
She started playing tennis at the age of four in her hometown, Bucharest. She abandoned it for fencing, but did not like that either.
“In the same sports complex there was a gymnastics hall and I was very impressed with the girls there, so I stuck with that,” the 18-year-old said.
Three years later she wanted to quit gymnastics too.
“I was hurt and I thought this sport was too difficult,” she said. “I overcame that unhappy period and here I am.”
But not before another twist. Having won a Romanian junior national title at handball, she briefly considered focusing on that sport.
“My parents told me it was better in gymnastics because in handball you have to rely on the team,” the 1.64-metre Izbasa said with a smile. “Not that you don’t in gymnastics, but in gymnastics I can also compete individually.”
Izbasa spends all but one week a year practising seven hours a day at the national team training centre in Deva, 400 km away from her family in Bucharest. Romanian Olympic champions like Lavinia Milosovici or Catalina Ponor honed their skills there but Izbasa is not that interested in heroes from the past.
“I want to be my own role model,” said the European floor champion.
”I rely on floor, vault and beam to compensate for my asymmetric bars routine.
“Ever since I was little I didn’t like the bars but now I‘m trying hard because I want to compete in the all-round. In the team competition, I hope to get the highest marks in floor and beam to lift us up.”
The Romanian women won four gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, including team gold. Then a revamped team missed the podium for the first time in 25 years at the 2006 world championships, fuelling talk of gymnastics being in a state of crisis in the land of Nadia Comaneci.
But Izbasa and team mate Steliana Nistor led Romania to victory in the European championships in April.
”We are a different team with more experience now,“ Izbasa said. ”But a European championship doesn’t compare with the Olympic Games. We hope to finish third in the team competition.
“There is a lot of pressure, many people want us to win gold, but we have to be realistic and know what we can do right now. It’s better to have reduced expectations and get a pleasant surprise.”
As for her individual medal hopes, she refuses to make predictions. ”Naturally, I want to win badly, every child who knows how much she works in the gym does.
“But I just want to do my job. The rest will come by itself.” (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)