Ponor, Romania run a close second to China after qualifying session

Updated: September 1, 2007, 5:38 PM ET
Associated Press

STUTTGART, Germany -- Most women start their floor exercise in the corner. Catalina Ponor of Romania struts out to the center of the arena and strikes a diva's pose.

She owns the place when she's out there, and, now that she's back, it's hard to ignore the feeling that Romania might be on its way toward owning women's gymnastics again, as well.

With Ponor's personality leading the way -- to say nothing of her glittering beam routine -- Romania proved itself a contender after the first day of qualifying Saturday at world championships.

The defending Olympic gold medalists finished only 1.3 points behind China, which led with 241.175 points after the first day of qualifying. The United States and Russia each compete Sunday.

Romania was trailing badly heading into its closing event on beam. No problem. While other countries hold their breath to get through it, the Romanians attack. They had three of the day's four top scores on that event, and Ponor's execution mark of 9.45 was unrivaled.

"What can I say about Catalina Ponor?" Romanian coach Nicolae Forminte said. "You know what kind of gymnast she is. She's a big success for the team. She is still queen of the beam. I hope she'll still be queen of the beam at the Olympic Games."

She is close to royalty in Romania, as well.

Often spotted zipping around Bucharest in a flaming red convertible, Ponor is better known for another color -- gold, as in the three (team, floor and beam) she won in Athens when she led her powerhouse country to its third Olympic title.

Recurring knee injuries forced her into retirement last year, and Romania was held without a team medal at world championships for the first time since 1981. Now she's back, and she's got her country in contention again.

"I feel good," Ponor said, ceding to an interview begrudgingly because, well, it's exhausting out there. "I think in the final team [standings], we hope to be somewhere up there, like maybe in third place."

Romania will fight for a medal against the improving Russians, the Americans with Nastia Liukin and their new national champion Shawn Johnson and, of course, the Chinese, who made news more for who they left home than who they brought to Germany.

China has only two carryovers from last year's world champions, Cheng Fei and He Ning. The Chinese left Zhou Zhuoru and Olympic bronze medalist Zhang Nan at home, and made Pang Panpan an alternate.

They are trusting defense of their gold to three 15-year-olds and a 16-year-old.

Or maybe they're just looking ahead.

"They are prepared to make mistakes," coach Lu Shanzhen said. "They know it's going to happen. It's OK. We have some young gymnasts here, because it's better to have some experience before next year."

Indeed, there were errors.

Balance beam is normally China's best event. But there was nothing great about these routines. Cheng and Xiao Sha both fell, and He and Yang Yilin also had wobbles.

Cheng won three gold medals at last year's worlds, leading China to its first world title and adding two more on floor and vault. She said then that her goal was to become an all-around threat for Beijing, and she's added the balance beam to her repertoire this year.

Though she has some nice skills, she ran into trouble on a backward somersault with a full twist. She landed with one foot on the side of the 4-inch beam and couldn't steady herself, and was forced to jump off. She also had to take a big step backward on her dismount.

"Today's the first day, so many were not so good," Lu said. "They can get better."

The same could be said about Vanessa Ferrari of Italy, the defending all-around champion, who gutted through pain in her feet to finish second among those who competed in all four events on the first day.

Ferrari jumped higher than most on the floor, though the rest of the routine lacked her usual flair. She fell on beam, but knows she did that last year in the all-around final and still won.

"She's not used to working with pain," Italian coach Enrico Casella said. "This was the first time she's had a physical problem, and this gave her a chance to fight through the pain. It wasn't perfect, but we've got some time to rest."

The only gymnast with a better all-around effort than Ferrari was Steliana Nistor of Romania, whose 16.05 on beam capped a solid day -- maybe even made her the next Romanian to watch.

Of course, everyone knows who the current one is.

Ponor is the only gymnast on her Romanian team who trains in Bucharest, away from the rest of the squad and where she feels most comfortable.

She gets star treatment in and out of the competition hall.

As such, Ponor took the floor first for the Romanians on the floor, where she flowed through a less-than-difficult number that lacked huge jumps and twists but made up for it with elegance and style -- as much performance art as athletic endeavor.

Later, she closed the night for her country on beam -- pirouetting around like a top, then stopping on a dime with nary a wobble.

Most women dread the balance beam, just praying to get through it. Ponor revels in the tightrope walk, and everybody can see it. When she jumped off with a solid landing, she got a huge ovation befitting a gymnastics queen.

"When you win a gold medal at the Olympic Games, you get that," Forminte said of the adulation Ponor receives. "There are not many gymnasts who win three gold medals at the Olympic Games. Just a few."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press