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[Exclusive interview] Mircea Brînzea: All the 22 years in gymnastics were special. If I had to start again, I would still do gymnastics!

Mircea Brînzea is one of the most accomplished Romanian Aerobic gymnasts, having won everything there is to win in this field. Although it’s difficult to count the actual number of medals he has won throughout his career, the 5 World and 4 European gold medals, as well as the 2009 World Games gold medal with the very successful trio Brînzea – Zamfir – Mavrodineanu, stand out. He officially said goodbye to elite gymnastics last year at the Sofia World Championships – where he picked up no less than 4 medals – and decided to join the National team staff as a coach. Romanian Gymnast caught up with Mircea as he embarks on this new journey and asked him a couple of questions.

Photos: Volker Minkus

Romania is the first nation in terms of number of medals in Aerobic gymnastics. What led you, the Romanian gymnasts, to become so successful in this field?

It´s true we have been able to maintain the first place for the past four to six years. What keeps us up there? First of all, team spirit. Secondly, hard work and our desire to become champions. Becoming a champion is easy but keeping that status is hard. When you are part of a team, knowing that if you fail, the entire team goes down with you, makes you be more responsible and work differently. You assume a big responsibility at a World Championship when you know you can´t lose the medal. It´s difficult to put this into words. Ambition, hard work, taking it seriously and patience. You need a lot of patience in gymnastics and you need to work hard every single day.

It´s obvious  the trio  Brînzea – Zamfir – Mavrodineanu was something special. What made it work so well?

Mrs. Marcela – “the comrade” as we call her – used to say: “this trio fits like a glove”. Mircea Zamfir, Mavrodineanu and I met while doing gymnastics and started working together when we moved to Aerobics. It just clicked, it worked from the very first choreography, we started winning competitions straight away. You need time to adapt in Aerobics. Even if you find a trio or a couple with the same qualities, it´s pretty difficult for them to match instantly. Our case was different, we were made to perform together in this trio. We felt each other, we didn´t need to work hard on the synchronization. I just can’t forget the 2009 World Games, our best competition. China had scored a 22,100, if I am not mistaken, and we got to perform right after them. We told each other: “It’s either first place or 8th!” We went in and, for the first time, I got goose bumps while we performed. We were a force to be reckoned with, you could only experience that with that trio. No matter what happened, we were a force. It’s very difficult to put into words what I felt. It was meant to be, God wanted to put us all together and we were able to maintain ourselves at that level. Of course, we are human beings too. Proof of that is our third place at the last Worlds. But the podium was ours for 5 years…

You speak of the third place as if it were a failure…

For a champion there is no third place, only the first place matters.

What made you go into Aerobic gymnastics?

As long as you love gymnastics, it’s not important what branch you are in, it’s still gymnastics, you still spend your time in the gym. I started with Artistic and I made the Reșița Junior National team in 1998 but I had to give it up because of a health issue. When I left the team, I knew nothing about Aerobic gymnastics. When I was offered to move to Aerobics, I asked what was Aerobics. And when the answer was gymnastics, I was in the training gym the next morning. I remember taking the train at 11pm, getting to Bucharest at 7am and being back in the gym at 11am. It’s still gymnastics…

Do many gymnasts come from the other branches?

No, it’s something different. Not anyone can do this. I would like to contradict those who think this sport is easy. It’s a difficult sport since it combines strength with mobility.

You’ve competed a lot, with many gymnasts. Is there anyone you particularly remember?

I’ve never had an idol, I’ve always been more interested in my own work. If you really want something, it doesn’t matter who you are, you will get it. You don’t have to believe in anyone else. I admire a number of athletes but I never wanted to be like them or copy them. This happens, people copy their idols. I tried to be a simple and modest person but I wasn’t always successful at it. I am a champion, but I am a person just like you, a colleague, a friend. My father keeps asking me why I never talk about my achievements. But I don’t like it, I feel like other people should talk about that if they want to. I became a champion because I wanted to, it was my goal and my desire. Everyone has a goal in life and wants to achieve something. I wanted my work to be successful. In conclusion, the team, hard work, ambition… I admire the Romanian team, now that I think about it.

We will be celebrating shortly 20 years since Aerobic gymnastics was recognized by the European and World forums. How has this sport evolved? Where is it going?

Who will buy the champagne in 2015? (laughs) I was impressed with how much this sport has grown at the recent World Championships. More and more countries want to win a medal while before you only had 7 or 8 countries like Russia, Romania, France, Italy… Now you’ve got 15, Mexico is on the rise and so is Korea, Japan, the Czech Republic. There are great kids in every country. This sport is growing every day. And it’s also valid from a technical point of view. With the new code of points, we can now use some gymnastics elements: a back flip, a cartwheel… It is slowly being refined.

There are discussions about the skills borrowed from Artistic and Rhythmic. Does Aerobic gymnastics want to integrate elements from the other branches or does it want to be an innovative branch only?

90% of the skills are specific for Aerobics, only 10% are borrowed from other branches. The Thomas comes from Pommel Horse, the planche from MAG, the Illusion turn comes from Rhythmic, the double pirouette with leg held at 180 degrees… 15% of the elements can come from the other branches but the rest are specific to Aerobics. They seem easy but they are not…

What routines would you show those who have not been following this sport so far to attract them?

I’d rather talk to them about it first. Many mistake Aerobics for mass gymnastics, for fitness. Some know what it is but others just confuse it for Rhythmic gymnastics or for something that helps you lose weight. Fitness has nothing to do with elite gymnastics.

What is the most emotional moment in your career, the one that you will always remember?

Something special? The 22 years I spent in the gym! Not a certain event, not even a certain medal. All the 22 years of gymnastics were special for me. And if I were born again, I would still be in gymnastics.

We all believe our best gymnasts are not recognized and rewarded enough for their achievements. This is probably even more valid for Aerobics. Do you think this would change if Aerobic gymnastics became an Olympic sport?

I honestly believe it would make a great difference from all points of view, including financially. But I doubt this will happen any time soon. Maybe one day… Back in 2006, watching anything else than the finals at the World Championships would be boring and tiring. If you wanted to see something interesting, you would have to watch the finals. The best of the best, a show, great choreography… We started to see progress in 2006.  Coreos are more refined, costumes are simpler, music is taking the classical side. This sport started to grow and head into the right direction. Despite all this, I don’t think it will turn into an Olympic sport for now.

You retired and started coaching in the UK. Then you returned to the National team. You could not stay away from competition?

Right before the 2010 Worlds, I suffered a knee injury that caused me to miss that competition. It was supposed to be our last Worlds, we had decided to retire while still on top. Then there was the injury, my move to England and the coaching position. Coincidentally, Romania organized the 2011 European Championship in Bucharest so  I had to come with the England team. I had a discussion with “the comrade” and the guys, who told me the team needed me. It was painful to watch them compete while I was part of the England team.

The most difficult thing is to give up something you love. I always wanted to continue, I would still not retire, I would go on until I were 40 despite of the fact that there is a lack of funding, publicity, a lot of hard work and pain, sacrifices… But I was meant to do this. I had not competed for two years: I first had to go through knee recovery and then I didn’t move a finger for a year. What I promised them was that I would join the training camp and give them an answer after one or two months of training. And I started working – I had the will to do it – despite the pain and the age. Pain usually joins in once you are older. But I got through it despite of the time off. I would like to thank God, the team, all my friends, all those who supported me through this. I managed to perform well – not as well as I would have liked. I’m glad I could help the team because we kept the first place for the team and we were really happy for it. I’m sorry the trio could not win gold, the medal we had been hoping for, but I was surprised to get an individual medal…

You decided to move on and join Marcela Fumea’s team (she is the National team’s head coach). Is this a normal transition for you?

It’s not easy, these are two very different things. Being a gymnast has nothing to do with being a coach, regardless of whether you change the branch or stay in the same gym. It’s a different level of responsibility. You don’t have to put in physical work, but the psychological involvement is huge. You can’t compare working with the Romanian team with working with the England team, either. We are champions, we want to stay champions. I am happy to have had this opportunity and I hope I won’t let anyone down. Everyone’s been happy with me so far and I will do all that is in my power to help the team. There’s a new generation – only Corina, Andreea are left from the old one – and it’s not easy. But the kids have good qualities. We hope everything will run smoothly,  with patience and hard work. Every single generation – that of Remus Nicolai, Cristi Moldovan, Claudiu Varlam – had to reach the level of the previous one. We surpassed that! Now I hope that this generation can surpass us. And my goal as a coach is to create champions, like me.

What do you look for in a gymnast when do a National team selection?

We have few gymnasts coming in and those who are want to know what we can offer first. We are looking for devotion, the passion we once had, that “I want to become a champion”. I want to become a champion before I get a financial reward, an equipment or a house. This is what we are missing. But this is not valid for the entire team, of course… On top of that, we are looking for a gymnast with physical qualities that we can develop to an international level. The girls are at a good level, the guys need to improve.  It’s difficult because we do not have great conditions or financial rewards but we hope to be able to motivate them. So, what we look for is will and devotion. We’ve always given anyone a chance because life is full of surprises. You never know what might happen…

We have the World Cups and the France European Championships this year. What can we expect?

We would like to win everything… We have the World Cups and the Columbia World Games, at the beginning of August, which are very important to us. The World Games are the Olympics of the non-Olympic sports as they are held every 4 years. We will be going to France, Japan, Portugal and Bulgaria. The National Championships and the Open will be held in Constanța in October and this will be our last competition before France. We hope to win three to four medals, but we don’t know how it will all turn out. We want to perform clean, simple routines. They will not be as difficult as ours were. This is the first year on the new code of points and it will be a bit chaotic for the judges too.  What we want to show is that Romania can win without us, that the gymnasts who have taken over are even better than we were. Fresh air, new goals…

This post is also available in: Romanian