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Lavinia's Legacy

Milosovici Represents the Latest Chapter in Romania's Rich History of Women's Gymnastics

Lavinia Corina Milosovici has retired, albeit reluctantly. Her mind is still willing but there simply are no routines left in her body. Used them all up. Milosovici, the Cal Ripken of gymnastics, aches from a prolific career that may never be matched for its longevity. And while a major all-around title somehow eluded her,Milosovici may well have been the most accomplished gymnast of her time. If the International Gymnastics Federation were to name a Most Valuable Player after each quadrennium, Milosovici would be its current MVP. Few would disagree after scanning her steady streak. Milosovici, who turned 20 on Oct. 21,is the only female gymnast to have competed -and medaled - in all seven world championships and both Olympics since 1991. And with her bronze medals in 1992 and '96, she became the first gymnast since Nadia Comaneci (1976-80) to place in the all-around in consecutive Olympiads.

Even more impressive, perhaps, is that "Milo" is the first female gymnast since Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia (1964-68) to win a world or Olympic title on every event. Milosovici earned the vault gold at Indianapolis '91 and the uneven bars title at Paris '92. At Barcelona '92 she added a gold on floor exercise (and another on vault). The following year she completed the set by edging Dominique Dawes for the world title on balance beam in Birmingham, England, despite an uninspired eight-place all-around finish. It was the lowest point of her career, and fans assumed Milosovici's impact on the sport had come and gone. "The Code of Points was new and I had to change all my routines," says Milosovici, a native of Lugoj. "I wasn't ready yet." A year later she was. Milosovici looked refocused at the 1994 worlds in Brisbane, Australia, and the all-around gold seemed her for the taking, since Shannon Miller, the defending champion, was hurt (abdominal). "I didn't think she would compete," says Milosovici, who placed a close second. "And then she came out of nowhere. After she won I started to consider her a rival." Milosovici's best swing at the all-around went foul by only .038, a margin that shows how tenuous the top ranks can be. "I was upset because I made some mistakes," she says. "And Shannon made some mistakes, sometimes bigger than mine." Asked if she thought she had beaten Miller, Milosovici nods her head without hesitating.

Later that year in Dortmund, Germany, Milosovici got revenge of sorts by leading her Romanian team to its first of two consecutive world titles. The U.S. placed second without Miller, who had strangely gone home after the compulsories. (The medals were decided by an optionals-only team final.) "The only thing we knew was that her coach was very upset," Milosovici says. "We heard only that she didn't want to compete. There is no way one of us would do something like that, because even if you were hurt a little bit you should stay." Milosovici doesn't think Miller's presence would have mattered, anyway. "They couldn't have beaten us," she says with a proud smile. Miller hung around for the 1995 worlds in Sabae, Japan, but Milosovici and her mates were much too solid. Romania defeated China by more than a point, the U.S. by more than two. Milosovici was the top Romanian in preliminaries and again in the all-around, where she won the bronze. She wept tears of satisfaction, knowing that she still was a factor as a new generation emerged. Better yet, the 1996 Olympics were less than a year away.

In Atlanta Milosovici looked better than ever. She still had terrific tumbling - she could always tumble - and bore a quiet confidence that carried her to another all-around bronze. "Maybe I looked better [in Atlanta], but it was easier in Barcelona for me because I was smaller," Milosovici confides. Four years ago Milosovici had followed the lead of best friend and team veteran Cristina Bontas, but now she was the new den mother. The pressure to win as a team in Atlanta was immense to begin with, but late developments in the Romanian camp made things even more tense. Ana Maria Bican tore ligaments in her right knee on a double-twisting Yurchenko, an injury that left the two-time world champs one gymnast short. It also set off an already agitated Octavian Belu and threatened to rattle the whole team. "When Bican got hurt, all the girls panicked," Milosovici says. "We were all tired. We did about 45 minutes of vaulting that day, which was a lot longer than usual. When she got hurt, Belu said he wasn't going to go out on the competition floor with us; we would have to go by ourselves. I told the girls to stay calm because everything would be OK, and that Belu would not do what he said." Perhaps Milosovici knew Belu best, having considered him a father figure until 1992, when their close relationship began to suffer.("A lot of different things I don't want to talk about," she says.)And she was right; he had been bluffing out of frustration from the whole Olympic experience. Drawing the morning compulsory session had only exacerbated his mood. "I was more worried about the other girls because I thought they would lose their concentration," Milosovici says. "After compulsories, when the crowd went wild for the Americans, I thought if the optionals go the same way, we might not win any medal. I didn't tell that to the other girls, though." In that respect, it's a wonder that Romania hung on for the bronze. Milosovici, the emotional barometer of her team, had wisely chosen to intercept any negative vibes from the coaching staff. "They are like sisters," Belu would say later. "When Lavinia is happy, everyone is happy."

None of the Romanians was thrilled after Atlanta. Slipping to third as a team had hardly been the plan. Worse, the Americans were being gloriously feted as The Magnificent Seven. World champion Romania had never been labeled anything but "consistent" or "deep." Still, Milosovici felt proud of her all-around bronze. "I was very happy, because of all the gymnasts who competed in Barcelona I was the only one to maintain her place," she says. Few go out as they came in, but you wonder if Milosovici feels frustrated without that all-around gold in her medal count. "It is often on my mind," she begins, "because sometimes I competed very well and didn't get the scores I was supposed to get. And sometimes I made mistakes when I would have won." After the Olympics, Milosovici celebrated with a rare three-week vacation at home. Her father, Tanase, an Olympic wrestler, had been the biggest influence in her career, while her mother, Ildiko, was a volleyball player. Before, Lavinia would return home only once a year, although her parents would visit her in Deva. "When I went home I would have nothing to do," says Milosovici, who has a brother, Cristian, 21.

Now Milosovici has little to do. She's in retirement limbo, performing in the World Gold Gymnastics Tour, sort of a present-day pension plan for gymnasts with a reputation worth cashing in. It's an excuse to keep one foot in the gym.

The day after 4 hours of dental work, including two root canals, Milosovici, for some reason, is swinging giants on the bars. Her swollen jaw throbs as much as her chronic right ankle. She has been going to the gym for as long as she can remember, and she doesn't want to think about quitting forever. "I think it's going to be very hard," she says sadly. Somehow it's fitting that she can dabble in the sport again, since one of her best memories is "the first time I went into a gym and played." She can do that now and not feel guilty. She knows down deep she has given everything to Romanian gymnastics. Despite the emotionless demeanor she and close friend Gina Gogean often wore during competition, they really enjoyed gymnastics. "Gina is not a sad person, but she does not externalize anything," Milosovici says. "I'm not used to being happy in the gym, but that doesn't mean I don't like the sport. I love the sport."

It would seem the immediate future for Romania rests on the slim shoulders of Alexandra Marinescu, whose Olympic debut was anything but encouraging. Marinescu was given Milosovici's ticket to the beam final and placed last. "She was too young," Milosovici says. "She wasn't training how she was supposed to. I think the coaches ran out of patience with her." Adds Comaneci, Milosovici's idol as a child: "Marinescu is from Bucharest, and I don't think the change to Deva was good for her." Milosovici thrived there. She's a student at the Institute of Physical Education in Timisoara but is allowed to remain in Deva. She might like to coach, too. Free time might not be such a bad thing, once she gets used to it. Maybe catch a few movies starring her favorite actors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean Claude van Damme.

And as the rules become stricter, Milosovici may be retiring at the perfect time. But she is concerned about the direction her sport is taking and thinks the difficulty requirements should be limited, once and for all. "A girl can have two release moves on the bars," she says. "If she does another one, she shouldn't get anything for it. I think there will be a lot more injuries with the new Code of Points, because people will try to do a lot more tricks." From a gymnast's point of view, Milosovici is equally skeptical of the new age limit of 16. "In a way it's good for spectators, because they won't see any more little kids," she says. "But for the gymnasts it will be very hard, because the Code of Points is so hard now. And at that age nobody is going to be able to do anything from the Code of Points." Milosovici should know. Few gymnasts have been as skilled as she, which makes her all-around void even harder to explain. But after a few months away from the gym, perhaps she will get the urge to return to the sport she loves so dearly. Maybe for an eighth world championships. Milosovici smiles at this thought, then says, "No chance." Indeed, she's finally run out of routines.

*Appeared in International Gymnast in January 1997