By Pritha Sarkar
LONDON (Reuters) - After struggling with withdrawal symptoms for the past eight years, three-times Olympic gymnastics champion Catalina Ponor will refuel her addiction by making a comeback at the London Games.
"Catalina realised she cannot live without gymnastics. At one point she said to me ‘it's like a drug for me that I can't live without'," Romanian great Nadia Comaneci told Reuters in a telephone interview from Oklahoma.
"If you had told someone a few years ago that Catalina is coming back after not competing for eight years, you'd say that's not possible. Because in gymnastics even a month or a year is a long time," added Comaneci, who has been a guiding force in Ponor's comeback.
Ever since a 14-year-old Comaneci mesmerized the world by floating over and under the asymmetric bars to land the first perfect 10 during the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the sport had become the domain of waif-like Nadia clones from all over the world.
Ponor, now 24, never fitted into the normal gymnastics mould.
While most future Olympians subject their bodies to a relentless training regime from the ages of four or five, Ponor was not even spotted as a future global champion until she was 15.
She was plucked out of Constanta in 2002, rather than Deva or Onesti - the hotbeds of Romania's women gymnasts - by national team coaches Octavian Belu and Mariana Bitang.
As a late bloomer in a sport where young girls end up drawing pensions from their sporting federations by the time they hit their late teens, Ponor knew she had a very small window of opportunity to make her mark on the world stage.
She was barely given a second glance by her international rivals when she picked up three silvers - team, floor and balance beam - at the 2003 Anaheim world championships as she had not competed against them through the various junior ranks.
But the likes of Russian gymnastics queen Svetlana Khorkina and American favorite Carly Patterson could not ignore the dark-haired Ponor when she flipped her way to gold on the balance beam, tumbled her way to glory on the floor and lifted Romania's women's team to the top of the podium at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
She may have been dismissed as an outsider by her peers but Ponor became the first female gymnast since 1988 - and still the last - to walk around an Olympic Athletes Village parading three gleaming gold medals around her neck.
It was, though, all over in a flash. In the following year, then aged 18, Ponor decided she had had enough and at the 2005 worlds she was more interested in dancing the night away in Melbourne's club hotspots than singing to the tune of then Romanian coach Nicolae Forminte.
Ponor swapped her leotard for a bikini as her a life became stuff of tabloid fodder, with her beach photo-shoots becoming a regular feature in the Romanian press.
But the woman who thought the three Athens golds and five European golds she won from 2004-2006 would be her lasting legacy in the sport started to get itchy feet after spending some time with Comaneci in the United States in 2010, when she also dabbled in coaching.
The burning desire to succeed was shining bright again. But would she be able to compete with the current crop of elfin teenagers who can bend and twist their body in a way Ponor no longer could?
Comaneci said Ponor had one major advantage.
"She's lucky she did not grow really, really tall. She kept the petite frame and she didn't go through other major injuries so this helped her to make her comeback. So she was in a lucky situation," said Comaneci.
Height has long been the enemy of top-class gymnasts and, since Ponor's body did not let her down in that area, she was ready to conquer the rest in a gym.
"The interesting thing is for somebody who went away for such a long time, she has actually learned a new skill as she didn't do (asymmetric) bars before. She not only got back to the form she had before but she's adding new stuff. It's hard to believe somebody can do that," said Comaneci.
Just how well she can do that was in evidence during last month's European championships in Brussels. She eclipsed all her younger rivals on the beam and also helped Romania to the team gold.
Comaneci put Ponor's success down to her decision to turn her back on the sport when she did.
"I also quit for six months (after Montreal) because I didn't want to do gymnastics because I just wanted to be a regular person. You just want to grow up and experience something else," she said.
"But she's realised that it's not that great and it's something she can do later. Because all those episodes happened, she got back to what she loves. If she had stuck to gymnastics then, she would not have been competing in London today."
(Editing by John Mehaffey)