Whatever Happened to
Eugenia Popa?

Popa at the 1991 World Sports Fair
Photo used with the expressed permission of
Sato Takeo of the OEFC Gymnastics Gallery

 

Popa's
Competitive Results:

1988 Junior European Championships: 4th AA, 6th UB, 2nd BB
1988 Junior Friendship Tournament: 2nd T, 2nd BB
1989 Worlds: 2nd T
1990 Romanian International
1991 Romanian International: 1st UB
1991 USA vs ROM: 1st T, 2nd AA
1991 World Championships: 3rd T
1991 World Sports Fair: 2nd AA
1991 Kosice International: 3rd AA
1992 Hungarian International: 2nd AA
1992 Romania vs Belgium: 1st AA
1992 Olympics: 2nd T (alternate)

 

The majority of these results were compiled
from information found at
Gymn Forum

 


Tribute courtesy of Ioana Jadic.

Beautiful and elegant, Eugenia Popa was a standout on the Romanian team in the early 1990's. She was best known for her amazing flexibility, and used it in skills that became her trademark, such as a full turn in a Y scale on beam. Gymnastics fans may also remember Eugenia for her role as stunt double for the main character in the 1991 movie Campioana (Reach for the Sky in English and La Championne in French).

Eugenia was born on September 10th, 1973 in Bucharest, and started gymnastics when she was in first grade at Dinamo. Eugenia was not the only daughter in the Popa family to aspire to sports greatness - according to NBC's 1991 USA vs ROM commentary, Eugenia has three sisters, each whom was an aspiring athlete (one in volleyball, a second in track, and a third in shooting).

Popa eventually moved to Deva and joined the National senior team in 1987. Her first major competition (and, for that matter, one of her first international competitions) was the 1988 Junior European Championships, where Eugenia finished 4th in the all-around. She also qualified for two event finals, finishing 6th on bars, and second on beam. Eugenia was well on her way to establish herself as one of the top gymnasts on the Romanian team. Unfortunately, Eugenia missed most of the 1989 season (I don't know if she was injured, or if the coaches simply decided not to send her to any internationals), but she was named to the Romanian team for the World Championships. Despite her limited international experience, Eugenia performed well in Stuttgart, and helped the Romanian team win a silver medal. She won herself many fans with her original and creative routines, and she was voted "most beautiful gymnast" by the International press. (However, Dennis informs us that according to the Hungarian daily sports magazine Népsport, Brandy Johnson (USA) was named "most beautiful gymnast.").

Eugenia suffered a knee injury in early 1990, but she chose to compete at the Romanian International with watered-down routines, partly because her coaches at Dinamo advised her to do so, in order to prove she was still ready to compete, even though she wasn't training at Deva anymore. The strategy backfired, as Eugenia's injury got worse, and she had to spend the rest of the year recovering from her injury. Eugenia started competing again in 1991, and she won a gold medal on bars at the 1991 Romanian International, with a 9.975, the highest score awarded in the event finals. She finally got a chance to compete internationally as well, and many experts were left to wonder why she didn't compete more in the past. Eugenia won the AA at the Catania Cup, and she surprised everyone by being the top Romanian finisher in the all around at the USA-Romania dual meet.

She was a member of the Romanian team who finished a disappointing third at the 1991 World Championships. An article in Gazeta Sporturilor praised the gymnasts for their performance in the optionals, but the team, and Eugenia in particular, was heavily criticized for letting the crowd interfere with their performance during compulsories. "They [Eugenia Popa and Maria Neculita] made childish mistakes, that you just don't expect from experienced athletes like them", said head coach Octavian Belu, perhaps forgetting it was the coaching staff at Deva who denied them the opportunity to compete internationally in the first place.

Eugenia decided to try and make the 1992 Olympic team, and she laid to rest all the talk about her being past her prime and too old (at just 18!) by finishing second at the 1992 Hungarian international, behind Henrietta Onodi, and winning the all around at the Romania-Belgium dual meet, ahead of Gina Gogean. Eugenia was named the first alternate to the Romanian team, and she traveled to Barcelona with her teammates. She was very supportive of her teammates, and even the once critical Octavian Belu told Gazeta sporturilor that "all our gymnasts contributed to this silver medal, including the alternates who worked very hard to help us get ready (for this competition)." Eugenia's father, who worked as a jeweler in Bucharest, came to welcome her at the airport with two bronze medals he had made. He gave them to Eugenia and Izabela because "they deserved them just as much as the rest of the girls", he told Gazeta Sporturilor.

Eugenia Popa and Northern Ireland's 1998 Commonwealth Games team. Photo used with the expressed permission of Ying Min. Thanks Min!

Eugenia quietly retired after the Olympics and she went on to study at the Ecological University in Bucharest, making her one of the first gymnasts from the Romanian team who didn't go to a Sports University. A couple of years into her degree, she received an offer to work in Ireland. She gave up her studies and moved to Northern Ireland, where she worked as an assistant coach at Salto Gymnastics club coaching Holly Murdoch, arguably the best gymnast to come out of Northern Ireland. Popa accompanied Holly to the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Malaysia, serving as the assistant coach for Northern Ireland's gymnastics team. Most importantly though, Eugenia isn't just a coach who gets great results, she is well-liked by her students. I asked Holly about Eugenia and she described her as "a wonderful and very supportive coach."

Update (February 20, 2000). In December 1999, Popa moved to California to accept a new coaching position.

Update (March 9, 2000). Although only in California for a short time, Popa apparently knew it was not for her. She returned to the UK shortly after moving to the USA. She is now living in Birmingham, England. 

Update (February3, 2001). In April 2000 Popa accepted a position with the City of Birmingham Gymnastics Club. She works with a young development group. Popa commutes to Birmingham each working day, leaving approximately 30 minutes away on the Leicestershire border. Many thanks to Phil Barrow, head coach at the City of Birmingham Gymnastics Club, for providing this information. 

Update (March 27, 2001). Popa is engaged to be married! Her fiance is from Northern Ireland. The wedding will take place this summer, in Romania. Many thanks to Colin Close, a former coworker of Popa's, for providing this information.

. This page was created on January 15, 2000 and last updated on March 27, 2001.

 

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