Tribute courtesy of Ioana
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
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.
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
(February 20, 2000). In December 1999, Popa moved to California to accept
a new coaching position.
(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.
(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.
(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
. This page was created on January 15,
2000 and last updated on March 27, 2001.