Gina Gogean Dedicates her Final Season to Team Triumph
Poised on the brink of womanhood, Gina Gogean (20 on Sept. 9) appears little different from the reserved child of 11 who made her international debut in 1989. Her pre-teen coming-out party preceded growing pains for her homeland. Soon after, Romania ousted its communist government and temporarily closed the national training center, Cetate Deva.
The lone Romanian at the 1990 Goodwill Games, Gogean competed stoically amidst speculation that her country's gymnastics legacy would end along with the socialist system that nurtured it.
Eight years and two world titles later, Team Romania has conclusively proven it is far from finished. Deva continues to turn out daring darlings ably led by Gogean, now a steadfast veteran with a massive medal collection (7 European, 11 world and 5 Olympic; 10 of those gold).
The recent retirement of friend and teammate Lavinia Milosovici makes Gogean the last remnant of Communist-era glory. What started with Nadia will end with Gina.
Atlanta would have been an obvious farewell, but the enigmatic Gogean chose to hold on for one final world championship. "Every day I ask myself, 'Why am I working this hard and learning so much just for one year [of competition]?'" she says. "It's hard, but I wanted to help my team so I decided to keep going."
Individual accolades have never been an issue with Gogean. She eats, breathes and sleeps "team." Her childhood was spent in Deva with coaches and teammates serving as family. The image of her biological relatives is blurred by time and distance. "I don't ask my family what they think [of my performances]," Gogean shrugs, unaware of the implicit snub in this casual statement. "But I'm sure that they're very happy and proud."
Her life at Cetate elicits a more emotional response. "I'm trying to take over Milos' place at Deva because I am the oldest now," she says. "It's hard to train without her, because we were so close, like two sisters. But I try to be an example and lead the younger girls."
Known for unerring consistency, Gogean is a coach's dream; calm and stable, especially under pressure. It is this asset - her composed, aloof demeanor - that has sometimes earned Gina the label "boring." Her technical prowess is undeniable, but her expressiveness, or lack thereof, has often been criticized. Straightforward and direct, Gogean makes no excuses for what some feel is a lack of charisma. "I have only one response to that," she answers without rancor. "It doesn't matter what other people think about me. I'm not interested in their opinion. But, if you want to know how I feel inside, I'm happy when I win."
During the competition I'm very focused on trying to do my best. I don't look at the scores, or other gymnasts. I don't feel any outside pressure. I think my gymnastics [reflects] my character. I'm a very quiet person and I'm happy like this. I don't want to smile because someone asks me to."
Gogean is not so much shy as she is cool, and her conversation reveals a sharp intelligence. Always forthright, she has learned to state her opinions clearly. "I think the new Code is bad [because] it forced a lot of good gymnasts to quit,"
she offers. "To learn a new vault and new combinations is too much for older girls. They say you must now be 16, but all of the skills are for, like, little children. It's impossible!"
She holds the controversial Code of Points responsible, at least in part, for the retirement of best-friend Milosovici. "I think maybe Milos was mentally tired and felt that she just couldn't go on," Gina says sadly. "I know that she is still [physically] able to be a good gymnast, if she wanted to."
A child of the modern age, gymnastics first captured Gogean's attention in the media. "When I was a child, every day on television and in the newspaper - everywhere they talked about Nadia Comaneci," she recalls. "Nadia was a big name and, when I was young, she was still competing and making very good results."
At 6 Gina made the switch from fan to participant, when her parents took her to the local sports club in her hometown of Focsani. "I didn't go in the gym intending to be another Nadia," she insists with a laugh. "I just wanted to play. I just did gymnastics for fun. But, after a while, the fire inside me was so strong I couldn't escape from it. Still now, I can't stop doing gymnastics because I like it very much. It's a great sport."
With success comes attention and Gina has grudgingly accepted public interest as a part of her life. "The media in Romania is like everywhere else; they are very interested to know what it means to be a champion," she says. " I accept now that I must talk about Gina Gogean the gymnast but they think it's interesting to know about your private life, too."
Gogean finds that difficult to deal with. "[Recently], I was invited to a radio station in Bucharest to answer questions from a lot of different people all over Romania who called and wanted to know things about [me]," she remembers nervously. "Luckily, there weren't that many questions about my private life."Gogean may fear media intrusion, but she thrives on the affection and admiration she receives from fans. "[To be looked up to] is a big satisfaction to me," she declares earnestly. "I've met ordinary people in the street and they ask me, 'You are Gina Gogean?' And when I say yes, they tell me, 'I have a daughter who wants to be just like you. We admire you very, very much.' It makes me feel like a very important person (giggles). I feel good."
Gogean's expanding resume as role model includes six world championships and two Olympic Games. "In
Barcelona I was the youngest member of the team and there was no [thought] of a medal for me. I was there only to help the team," she says. "In 1996, it was very different because I had a big name. I had won many medals at European and world championships and so I had a good chance. The judges knew me now, not like in 1992."
In Atlanta her four-medal performance (a silver in the all-around and three bronze) lived up to all expectations, except maybe her own high standards. "I was proud for myself but hoped for bigger things for the Romanian team," she admits. "We had a very hard time with injuries and [other problems]."
Shortly before the Games, Gogean underwent an emergency appendectomy, which made her ability to compete at all a major accomplishment, according to coach Octavian Belu. Obstinate and driven, Gina doesn't acknowledge her extenuating circumstances as an excuse. "I was mostly happy with how I did," she shrugs.Perhaps that is why she has decided to continue, hoping to lead her team to victory one more time. Retirement certainly would be sweeter.
Win or lose, Gogean feels she can move on after 1997, knowing that Romania will remain strong.
"I trust in a couple of good gymnasts, especially Simona Amanar and Alexandra Marinescu," she predicts. "Also, others who are not big names now - like Maria Olaru - but show good potential to be part of a strong team in the future."
Gina's plans after gymnastics are nebulous ("I guess I want to be a coach"), but she is emphatic that the Lausanne Worlds will be her last stop. "It's true, you won't see me in a big competition next year," she insists. Perhaps not, but Gogean is no longer a little girl and it's a women's prerogative to change her mind.
*Appeared in International Gymnast Magazine