Larisa Iordache exclusive: "I could not stay too far away from gymnastics"

The 2012 Olympic team bronze medallist looks towards April's European Championships and a chance to qualify to Tokyo 2020

By Scott Bregman

Seven years ago, Romanian Larisa Iordache was on top of the gymnastics world.

She’d come closer than any other woman had or would to defeating Simone Biles on the global stage when she finished second at the 2014 World Gymnastics Championships in Nanning, China.

Despite the .466 loss, Iordache remembers that competition fondly.

“Undoubtedly, all competitions or moments when I won and won medals were important moments for me,” Iordache told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview. “For me [Nanning 2014] has remained somewhere printed in my mind and is one of the most special because I managed to fight with the world’s best gymnasts and did very well, I managed onto climb the podium and that was for me a maximum achievement. I was very pleased with myself.”

The following year – though Iordache remained on the world all-around podium, finishing third behind Biles and 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas – was filled with heartbreak.

A series of heartbreaks

Romania, Iordache included, melted down during the qualifying round of the worlds in 2015 and failed to qualify to the Olympic Games. A shock for the team that claimed bronze at London 2012 just three years prior.

From there an injured finger in early 2016 that required surgery kept her out of the final Olympic qualifier. Romania without its strongest all-arounder once again missed Olympic team qualification, earning just one spot to Rio. That ticket went to Athens gold medallist Catalina Ponor.

Still, Iordache pressed on.

What else could she do in the sport she’d fallen in love with – even if tentatively at first – as a youngster, having been spotted by coach Mariana Câmpeanu-Silişteanu rollerblading in a park.

“On the first day of training, I didn't want to enter the gym because… I don't know. I was afraid,” said Iordache. “I don't know what I was thinking then but after about three days, I decided to go to the gym, and I went into the gym. Then, fell in love with gymnastics.”

After two tough years, Iordache returned to top form in 2017, winning bronze on beam at the Europeans and posting scores in the all-around that made her a favourite at the World Championships. But it wasn’t meant to be: Iordache tore her Achilles tendon in warmups for the qualifying round, an injury that would plague her for years to come.

“To be honest, it was very hard because it was very long, but at the same time I could not stay too far away from gymnastics,” Iordache said of her long road back to competition. “I still went to the gym. I had attempts that were not quite successful, but it seems that last year was a more positive experience for me.”

“To be honest, it was very hard because it was very long, but at the same time I could not stay so far away from the gymnastics,” Larisa Iordache on her road back to her sport.

A triumphant return

Those previous attempts had been frustrating.

“Quickly after the first surgery, I started training again but when I had the second tendon rupture, I decided to rest completely in order to recover physically, as well as mentally.

“I am glad that I'm in competitions now," she said.

Those competitions have included an exhibition performance at the Romanian Championships last November and December’s European Championships in Mersin, Turkey. There, Iordache won four medals: balance beam and floor exercise gold, and team and vault silver.

Those medals made her the second most medalled female gymnast at the continental championships behind only Russian Svetlana Khorkina.

“I was just happy with myself so I didn't think of anything else. I was living in the moment,” said Iordache of those Europeans. “I didn’t know if competing again was possible for a long time and I enjoyed it very much, I took advantage of every day of the competition, every day of training, in order to do what I know best: to enjoy the gymnastics I do.”

She admits to being nervous in her return to competition but says fan support has buoyed her.

“It’s very encouraging because I’ve received so many messages,” she said. “The first day they saw that I posted pictures from my gym on my social media, people – even though they did not see how I trained – they supported me every day, and it helped me a lot.”

Olympic postponement fuels return

Now, her next goal lies at the European Championships: earning one of the two spots available to Tokyo 2020. In order to do that, she’ll need to finish in the top two all-around among eligible athletes.

That chance is what sparked her return last year.

“The cancellation of last year’s Olympics was more pleasant news for me,” Iordache admitted. “Because it was kind of a chance to compete at the Olympics, especially since I found out it is possible that I can still qualify.”

Thinking of qualifying is what fuels the 24-year-old each day in the gym, she says.

“What it would mean to me? It means that once again I showed myself that my work was not in vain and I do not know… I’m going to be very happy.”

It will be tough: Russia's new talented duo of Viktoria Listunova and Vladislava Urazova, who finished 1-2 at the recent Russian Nationals, are likely to take one of the two coveted spots.

Regardless of what happens next month and this summer, Iordache is hesitant to put an end date on her return to the sport.

“I haven't set a point at which I'm going to stop yet. I am sure that when it happens, I will be sure about this decision and I will have a reason, but I hope to be healthy,” said Iordache. “But at the same time, I'm thinking that if my body says stop, I'll make the right decision for myself.”