An Olympic silver medallist in women’s epée in 2008 and team gold medallist in Rio de Janeiro four years ago, Romania’s Ana Maria Popescu is aiming to compete at her fifth Olympic Games in Tokyo. Here, she reflects on the past Olympic adventures which inspired her to write a book – and explains why, at 35, she feels stronger and fitter than ever.
One of my strongest Olympic memories is of the men’s sabre final in Sydney in 2000 when Romania’s Mihai Covaliu won the gold medal. I was at high school in Craiova and I asked my teacher to let us see the match. He was very kind and let us watch it; right after the medal ceremony, I said to myself, “One day I’ll be there. I only needed 16 years, but I did it”.
I am a kid who dreamed, who worked for her dream, and who succeeded. If I did it, I am sure that other kids can do it and this is why I wrote a book about my career – to try to be an inspiration for future champions. It is called En Garde: The Little Girl with the Tricolour Mask and it’s about a girl, Branzica, who goes to the Olympics. Writing the book was a journey through my memories. I enjoyed every part of it – from the first word to seeing it in the bookstore and then in children's hands.
Looking back on my career, I was still a kid at my first Olympics in Athens – I was only 19 and I was fascinated walking around the Olympic Village and passing by all these athletes I’d only ever seen on TV. Four years later in Beijing, I won the individual silver medal and that was down to the madness of youth – I was willing to take risks. It’s almost 12 years ago now and I suppose that means I’m getting old! I’ve grown up a lot since then and have a lot more experience. Now I’m much more balanced, but the joy of the sport is the same for me.
I don’t actually remember too much about Beijing. I was there for almost one month but was so focused on the competition. What I do remember is my winning last touch in the semi-final against Ildiko Mincza-Nebald, my opponent from Hungary. The emotion was something else. We were tied at 14-14 and, though it wasn’t the first time I’d played one touch, this was the Olympics, where everything feels completely different.
Speaking of emotions, I can’t forget my failure at London 2012 – both in the individual and team competitions. It taught me a lesson about not giving up. Right after London, I saw a photo of myself crying and it served as a big motivation because I thought, “That’s not me”. Some of my team-mates quit for a while just after London, but we then got together and said, “Look, it’s not over for us; let’s try one more time”, and we ended up with the team gold in Rio de Janeiro. I’m so glad I was able to live all these emotions at the Olympics and I hope history has another chapter for me in Tokyo, although the most important thing right now is just to qualify.
Although I’m currently No. 1 in the world in women’s epée, that ranking doesn’t matter so much – the important thing is the points that will help me qualify. I’m travelling with a new coach, Mihai Popa, who is full of joy and passion for fencing and is really helping me on the piste. I also feel in better shape than before as I’ve focused more this year on my physical training, working with a trainer called Gabriel Ghita. He knows what I need, we make a good team and you can see the results – I feel stronger and more confident although, equally, I know the season is long and there are still many competitions ahead.
I also have to thank my lifelong coach, Dan Podeanu. I had some big problems in 2017 with a badly sprained left ankle and, for several months, I wondered if I could get back on the circuit. Dan convinced me that I could – and that I could still win medals too. I’m really grateful for everything he said. He told me, “I really believe you can be on the podium one more time”. I was a little bit afraid when I first came back. I was anxious that my ankle would go again but it’s been okay. We have an agreement that for the next year it needs to be friendly with me!
As an athlete, you need good people around you and I also have the help of my husband, Pavel Popescu, who plays water polo for Steaua Bucharest. He understands my work, we support each other and, when we’re at home, we try to talk as little as possible about sport. We don’t really succeed! Because of our commitments, we don’t get too many weekends together but instead we try to spend some time together in the middle of the week. At my age, 35, I need to be more careful with recovery and if I feel my body needs a rest, I’ll call my coach and tell him he won’t see me for a couple of days. However, when I do come back I give more than 100 per cent because on the piste, it is all about me. There’s nobody that can help me there: it is me and my sword.
I’ll hang up my sword one day and, when that happens, I will write another book. Will it be after Tokyo? I don’t know. Sometimes I think Paris 2024 is not too far away. I remember that Hungary’s Ildiko Mincza-Nebald and Geza Imre won Olympic medals at 39 and 41 years old. They showed that it can be done – if you want it and work for it, it is possible. But first things first: I need to focus on qualifying for Tokyo!