Although the Romanian women won the lion's share of their impressive number of gymnastics medals in the 1990s, many fans of the sport would agree that the heyday of the team was in the late 1980s, when stars like Daniela Silivaş, Aurelia Dobre, Ecaterina Szabo, Eugenia Golea, Camelia Voinea, Celestina Popa and Gabriela Potorac did not just make fewer mistakes than their rivals, but actually wowed friends and foes alike with their flair, originality and brilliance. Undoubtedly, the greatest star of that generation of Romanian gymnasts was Daniela Silivaş, who won seven world titles and three Olympic titles between 1985 and 1989 before retiring and moving to the USA in the 1990s.
Last month two Romanian publications, Adevărul (twice) and Click, almost simultaneously posted interviews with the former star, all compiled by the same reporter, Adina Blaj. We finally had some time to translate the articles, put the different parts together and post this story about one of our all-time favorite gymnasts...
Seoul 1988: Daniela Silivaş with her Olympic medals
The Heroine of the Last Communist Olympics
Like many Romanian gymnasts, Silivaş started doing gymnastics in kindergarten. "I was about five and a half when I took part in a selection procedure conducted by Bela Karolyi. Like all children, I had a lot of energy, but more than that, I was flexible," says Daniela Silivaş about the qualities which led her to take her first steps in the sport. She only trained under Karolyi for half a year. "I didn't get to experience that period about which the girls are complaining, the Bela Karolyi era. I was too young. I was only six, so I hardly remember him," says the triple Olympic champion about the legendary coach, who left for America in 1981, never to come back. That very same year she won the national junior title. But she didn't have to compete in that age category a lot, being whisked straight into the national senior team.
Silivaş was forced to quit the junior league by means of a ruse. Seeing her ambition and the incredible progress she made year after year, the Romanian Gymnastics Federation changed her date of birth in 1985, claiming she was born in 1970 rather than in 1972, so as to allow her to compete in the Montreal World Championships. Although the age falsification was suspected at the time, it has never really been looked into.
"At competitions, I would say the same thing my passport said, but away from competitions, among friends, I would tell people my real age," says the former gymnast. But in 2002, Silivaş came clean, admitting that her age had been modified at the time and that the Romanian officials had given her a new passport and drawn her attention to her new age.
Thus Silivaş got an opportunity to follow in Nadia's footsteps, in the same place where Nadia had scored her tens. At age 13, she scored a perfect 10 on the beam, winning her first world title and defeating the reigning Olympic champion on the event, her friend and teammate Ecaterina Szabo. In the all-around competition she finished behind Russia's Elena Shushunova and imposed herself as the leader of the Romanian team.
Silivaş in 1985 (photo: Tom Theobald)
Two years later came the 1987 European Championships in Moscow, where Silivaş obtained her greatest triumph - on Russian soil of all places, at a time when the Russian gymnasts were deemed invincible in women's gymnastics. She took four titles (all-around, bars, beam and floor) and placed second on vault. Later that year, at the World Championships in Rotterdam, she missed out on the all-around title, placing third behind Aurelia Dobre and Elena Shushunova, but took the gold with the team and added two more golds on bars and floor.
"1987 was the most beautiful year of my life as a gymnast," says Silivaş. "On top of the competitions I won, the atmosphere on the team was one of great harmony. Everything just worked for me that year. It was even better than the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, where I won a medal in every single event."
Two decades later, Silivaş is of the opinion that the Romanian women's gymnastics team of the 1980s was the best ever. "We were a team in the true sense of the word. That's what I liked most about it," says the former gymnast, who has stayed in touch with all of her former teammates. Even though they have scattered all over the globe and are separated by thousands of miles, she is as close as ever to Ecaterina Szabo, Eugenia Golea, Aurelia Dobre, Lavinia Agache and Celestina Popa.
"We are all still friends. It's impossible to be anything else, after all the happiness and pain we shared for seven years," says Silivaş. "Once every two weeks we ring each other to catch up. When I have a bit of time, I even meet up with the girls. Last year I specifically went to the European Championships in France to meet up with Cati Szabo, who now lives there. We also met with our former coaches, Adrian Goreac and Adi Stan. Last Christmas my family and I visited Eugenia Golea, who lives in New York," says Silivaş.
Silivaş, right, with Ecaterina Szabo
And she's not limiting herself to the gymnasts of her own generation. "Gymnastics is one great family to me. I owe pretty much everything I have to the sport. I also keep in touch with the younger girls: Lavinia Miloşovici, Maria Olaru and Andreea Răducan. When I go back to Romania, we always look each other up."
The last time several of them got together was in 2006, when Romanian gymnastics celebrated its 100th anniversary. "About three years ago quite a few of us met up at the Romanian gymnastics anniversary. About 25 of us got together, from several different generations. Then we went to a restaurant, where we all reminisced," remembers Silivaş.
The triple Olympic champion from Seoul still has a few souvenirs from the time she competed in major championships. "Many of my souvenirs are just memories. The tangible things are my medals and the leo and track suit I wore at competitions in 1989," says Silivaş, who ended her career with three more titles (bars, beam and floor) at the 1989 World Championships in Stuttgart.
After the 1989 Revolution, the Deva training center was closed, forcing the Olympic champion to end her career prematurely. [Note: As far as we know, Daniela's premature retirement was partly due to a knee injury.] She officially withdrew from competitive gymnastics two years later, when she left Romania and settled in Atlanta, USA. In 2002 she became the youngest gymnast to be inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. In May 2003 she married Scott Harper, a manager at a food company. They have two kids together, Jadan (aged 5) and Ava (aged 4), who are every bit as energetic as their mother. If it's up to Silivaş, they will follow in her footsteps. "I want to enroll Jadan in soccer, swimming and gymnastics. Ditto Ava. They absolutely love to run. I also take them to the gym with me."
Silivaş with her husband, Scott, and children, Jadan and Ava
The gym is where Silivaş works. Like many of her former teammates she has become a coach. After teaching American children the first steps of elite gymnastics for a while, the former world champion switched to a sports center, Hammond Park Gymnastics, where she teaches kids aged 3 to 12 the basic secrets of gymnastics. "I never wanted to become a coach for kids who want to compete at the highest level. That kind of thing takes up all your time, leaving you with no time to do anything else. And right now, I want to be with my family," says Silivaş.
Most of her students are future cheerleaders. "The kids are brought in by their parents so that they can learn some acrobatic elements, which will later help them to get into a cheerleading squad at high school or college. In America there are many contenders for spots on cheerleading teams, and the kids' parents are all too aware of that."
She only coaches three hours a day. "The rest of the day I'm at home, with my kids," explains Silivaş.
Although she is firmly settled in America, she is trying to give her children a taste of Romania. She usually spends her kids' vacations in Romania, in Deva, where her family lives. However, when she can only take a few days off, she usually spends them on the beach in Florida. "It's a four-hour trip from our house to the beach. But we usually spend our summer holidays in Romania," says Silivaş.
Her children have learned a few sentences in Romanian. "When Ava gets up in the morning, she often comes to our bedroom and says: "Mama, vino cu mine!" (Mom, come with me!) so that I can give her some milk. Or when I drop her off at her kindergarten, she will say: "Mama, dă pupic." (Mom, give me a kiss). When we go to Romania and stay with my mother, who does not speak English, she will tell her: "Vreau supă!" (I want soup!).
Silivaş has a Facebook account, both to keep in touch with her friends and to communicate with her fans. "Many people who have seen me compete leave messages for me. Some thank me, others congratulate me," says the champion, who is obviously glad not to have been forgotten.
Daniela Silivaş's proudest moments:
FX, event final, 1987 Worlds
Compulsory FX, 1988 Olympics