PENANG: There were many raised eyebrows when the Penang Sports Council invited two young Romanians, the 20-year-old Maria Olaru and 19-year-old Andreea Raducan to conduct gymnastics workshops here.
But in reality, the Council could not have chosen better young role models in gymnastics to hold courses for the local coaches, parents and the young gymnasts.
Maria and Andreea, who have both tasted success at the Olympics and the World Championships, epitomise the true meaning of a champion as both have waded through hardships before reaching the top.
Maria, who is currently pursuing a sports degree to become a gymnastics coach, lost her father at the age of four and was sent to a children's home three years later by her mother due to poverty.
However, a deep love for gymnastics has seen Maria defy the odds to work her way into the national squad. Despite being written off by the Romanian coaches following a career -threatening knee surgery in 1999, Maria stunned everyone by becoming just the second Romanian woman to win a gold at the World Championships in China the same year.
She went on to add another gold at the same Championships and also won the artistic team gold in the Sydney Olympics the following year.
“Although I faced many hardships during my childhood, my strong ambition to excel in gymnastics was the main motivating factor for me to achieve my successes.”
“I fell in love with the sport since very young and have worked very hard through the years to become the best.
“But what is important is that despite all the sacrifices and sufferings to become a world champion, the burning desire is still there to continue loving and contributing to the sport,” said Maria after meeting the Malaysian artistic gymnasts at the Komtar Geodesic Dome yesterday.
“It does not matter whether an athlete is born in Romania or Malaysia or anywhere else in the world.
“All can be winners provided they are willing to train hard in order to go far.”
“In addition to being coached, it is important to set a goal and work hard towards achieving it with discipline and a determination to rise above the standard set,” added Maria.
The petite Andreea, nicknamed the “Little Princess” back in her homeland, first won a gold through the team event in the Sydney Olympics 2000 before cruising to the floor event gold.
However, she was stripped of the individual gold later in what she claims as a 'silly' incident after it was found out that the Romanian team doctor gave her a pill for her cold which contained a banned substance.
Although such an incident would have crushed the career of most athletes, it only made Andreea work harder.
She laid to rest the ghost of Sydney by sweeping to the same floor event gold at the 2001 World Championship. Andreea retired from international competitions two months ago.
“It was very hard for me when they took away the Olympic gold medal. The incident created a major furore in Romania with the people coming out in full support for me.”
“Everybody's support, especially those of my parents, friends and (former Romanian world champion and gymnastic legend) Nadia Comaneci made me strive harder and it bore fruits the following year,” explained Andreea.
“This has been my message to young aspiring gymnasts whom I meet throughout the world, that if they really set their mind and heart on achieving something, they can be successful.”
“I have not had the chance to look at the gymnastics set-up in Malaysia but judging from the response to our workshops so far, there is a good interest in gymnastics here from both the youngsters as well as their parents.”
The Romanians arrived in Penang on Thursday in their first ever visit to Malaysia and had a work-out with the national artistic gymnasts on Friday.
Besides the workshops, the Romanians also put on an artistic performance together with the national gymnasts for the local crowd last night. Maria and Andreea are expected to leave today.