The ‘King of vault’ Marian Drăgulescu never says no

Marian Dragulescu of Romania competes in Men's Vault Final during the 2019 FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Marian Dragulescu of Romania competes in Men's Vault Final during the 2019 FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The Romanian artistic gymnast is set to create history when he steps onto the mat at Ariake Gymnastics Centre for his fifth Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020.

Age has become just a number in sport.

The likes of Tom Brady, who won his seventh Super Bowl at 43, Serena Williams and Roger Federer (both 39) and LeBron James (36) have proven that. But there is one more name to add to that list: Marian Dragulescu.

Having celebrated his 40th birthday this past December, the Romanian will become the oldest male gymnast since Japan’s TAKEMOTO Masao at Rome 1960 to compete at an Olympic Games.

And with a career spanning nearly two decades, Dragulescu has almost won it all.

From his eight World Championship and 10 European Championship titles to a trio of Olympic medals and even having a vault element named after him, the Dragulescu name is alongside the gymnast greats.

However, there is one thing the Bucharest-born athlete still wants to achieve: an Olympic gold medal.

“It's the only medal I don’t have in my career,” the five-time Olympian told Tokyo 2020.

Winning an Olympic gold medal has been a driving force behind Dragulescu's continued presence in elite gymnastics. He’s come close twice at achieving that goal at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, where he was the favourite to win the title.

In Athens, he settled for silver in the floor exercise after a tie-breaker with Canadian gold medallist Kyle Shewfelt then as fate would have it in Beijing, while performing his signature, Dragulescu made a mistake in his landing – seemingly seeing the gold slip from his grasp.

“I have European Championships, World Championships, and Olympic Games silver and bronze. It's very important for me,” he said.

The master of comebacks

It’s become a bit of a running joke for Dragulescu when asked when he will retire.

“I learned to never say no,” he laughed.

To date, he’s retired twice.

The first came in mid-2005, after helping Romania win team bronze at Athens 2004 and receiving the highest vault score (9.9) in World or Olympic competition since 1995 performing his namesake vault. But Dragulescu returned to competing and won the vault titles at the 2005 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia.

Then at Beijing 2008, after performing a seemingly flawless first vault, he fell during the landing of his second vault which resulted in him finishing fourth place. Dragulescu told media his “soul broke” when he fell during the landing of his second vault attempt.

Announcing his retirement, once again, he looked to become a coach.

“I was sure I would be retiring in 2008 at 28-years-old,” Dragulescu commented.

However, just like the first time, the gymnast returned to the world stage in style winning both floor and vault titles at the 2009 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.

While there were times since then that has seen Dragulescu took breaks to recover from injury – including missing London 2012 and even falling ill two weeks prior to his Olympic return at Rio 2016 – he’s always been able to make a return to the sport he started when he was seven-years-old.

“I see myself today still doing what I love the most [and that’s] gymnastics, and I'm glad I am able to do that. I'm healthy and things are going well for me.”

However, in a career that has seen him win 31 medals, becoming Romania’s most medalled gymnast of all time, there is something that he has learnt.

“Every competition is different,” he told Tokyo 2020. You cannot fully prepare for that. I can only expect to be in my best of shape at that moment, to be very healthy and to have a little bit of luck, because that’s also very important.”

Marian Dragulescu poses with his gold medal after he won the vault event during the Apparatus Finals at the 2009 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships. Marian Dragulescu of Romania won gold, Flavius Koczi of Romania won silver (L) and Anton Golotsutskov of Russian Federation (R) won bronze (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Marian Dragulescu poses with his gold medal after he won the vault event during the Apparatus Finals at the 2009 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships. Marian Dragulescu of Romania won gold, Flavius Koczi of Romania won silver (L) and Anton Golotsutskov of Russian Federation (R) won bronze (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
2009 Getty Images

A year almost without competitions

With the Olympic Games postponed and sport across the globe coming to a halt due to the pandemic last year, it looked as though Olympians and Olympic hopefuls would have to wait to return to the competition stage.

So it was an exciting time when the 2020 European Artistic Gymnastics Championships got underway on 9 December in Turkey after originally being postponed from 30 April to 3 May window and relocated twice from Paris to then Baku and finally Mersin.

It was very important the fact that we still had a competition in 2020,” said Dragulsecu, who is currently one of two gymnasts set to represent Romania in Tokyo this summer.

“It kept me motivated to train. It was a difficult year for all of us. When you don't have competition, it's not such a big motivation to train.”

While he acknowledged a fourth place finish in his pet event, vault, at the event wasn’t his “biggest achievement”, it was nonetheless a chance to compete.

“It was just another chance for me to compete at what you can show for me to all the people here. Of course, I know it's not my biggest achievement, I know my potential is bigger than the fourth place [at the] championships and every competition is different,” Dragulescu said.

“I'm glad I was able to compete over there. I got to the finals competition. I did a mistake at the championship, but I'm glad it happened there and I hope it's not at the Olympic Games.”

With less than six month until the Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Dragulescu is hoping to compete at the 2021 European Championships in Artistic Gymnastics set to be held between 21 April – 25 April in Basel, Switzerland.