Five of the Greatest Olympic Gymnasts
Even though we're between Olympics, there's never a bad time to take a moment to look to the past and remember some of the great Olympians in history. These five girls all rocked the gymnastics community at one point or another, and most of them have become household names for what they sacrificed for their country, for political statements, or just for being amazingly talented. Regardless of the reason, they will forever have their place in history.
Name: Kerri Strug
Year(s) Competed: 1992, 1996
Kerri Strug competed in the Olympics twice for the U.S., but she didn't earn her fame in 1992. It was in 1996 that one particular split-second vault earned her recognition, the privilege of being considered a part of the "Magnificent Seven," and a spot in the Olympic Hall of Fame.
Strug was the last of the American team to vault. America needed a good score from her in order to win. The team was relying on her. Unfortunately, she injured her ankle pretty badly on her first vault. At the time, she had heard something snap but didn't know she had two torn ligaments. Not wanting to let her team down, she decided to do a second vault despite the fact that she was obviously in pain. She landed her vault, hopped onto one foot, presented to the judges, and collapsed to her knees on the mat, but she had gotten more than the score America needed to win. Her injury prevented her from competing in the individual competition she had so wanted to compete in, but she will forever be one of the most famous and revered gymnasts.
Name: Mary Lou Retton
Year(s) Competed: 1984
Mary Lou Retton rose to fame after competing in the 1984 Olympics for a few reasons. She was the first female American gymnast to win the gold medal in all-around competition. She was also one of the first to ever score a perfect 10.0 at the Olympics and was the first to score it on vault. Her gold medal plus two silvers and two bronzes made her the athlete to win the most medals at that year's Olympic games.
Her bright smile and happy demeanor made her loveable to all watching. As Bela Karolyi said in an article in the Los Angeles Times in 1994 (linked below), "She was crying, she was laughing, she was a joy. Today, you don't see that. Now you have these girls with their frozen fish faces. My heart is breaking because that is not the sport." Her ear-to-ear grin and victory dance in the video shows exactly what he means.
Name: Nadia Comaneci
Year(s) Competed: 1976, 1980
I think an article written by Simon Burnton on The Guardian website in 2011 says it best: "There are very few Olympians who can say with absolute certainty that their achievements will never be equalled, but Nadia Comaneci is one."
Comaneci was the first gymnast to ever score a perfect 10 at the Olympics, and she was only 14 years old. It is believed that she scored the first perfect score of any event at the Olympic games, not just gymnastics. Actually, she scored a perfect 1.00 because those who ran the competitions were so sure no one would ever get a 10 that they didn't have four spaces on the score boards. After that, she received a perfect score six more times before ending her gymnastics career. She is the youngest gymnast to ever win the all-around title and was the first Romanian gymnast to do so.
At this point in time, she has two skills named after her, she has received the Olympic Order award twice, she has a spot in the Olympic Hall of Fame, and many gymnasts look to her as their inspiration and consider her one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, if not the best.
The first video is her perfect 10 routine. The second video is my personal favorite Comaneci video, and it shows the two skills she has named after her (the cast to straddle front flip regrab right at the beginning and the dismount).
Name: Vera Caslavska
Year(s) Competed:1960, 1964, 1968
Team: Czech Republic
Vera Caslavska is a highly decorated gymnast who won three gold medals, including all-around, in 1964 and four gold medals, also including all-around, in 1968. She too has a spot in the Olympic Hall of Fame and an uneven bar skill named after her (swing backward to 360 twist regrab).
Caslavska, however, is known for more than just her stage presence and athletic beauty. At the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony, she made a political statement against communism and the Soviet invasion of her country by putting her head down while the Soviet anthem was played. It was a silent protest, one that made her even more famous but also made her made her life much more difficult in her country which was still under Soviet influence. She was oppressed by authorities with a form of internal exile within the country.
Eventually the communist regime ended, and she was able to return to a life of normalcy, even becoming president of the Czech National Olympic Committee.
Name: Olga Korbut
Year(s) Competed: 1972, 1976
Olga Korbut won four gold medals and two silvers in her time at the Olympics and was the first gymnast inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, but that's not why she's famous. She's famous partially because, as olgakorbut.org (linked below) says, "she did more to ease the tensions of the Cold War than all the politicians and diplomats of the day put together." Tensions were high at that time, but along came Korbut, a small, emotional, loveable Soviet-born gymnast who showed the rest of the world that every athlete from the Soviet Union wasn't just a cold machine.
Her real contribution and claim to fame though is how she revolutionized the face of gymnastics and made into the popular sport it is today. She turned the focus from grace to acrobatic skill and turned the sport into something populated by younger girls rather than older. She herself was 17 at her first Olympic games. She also introduced a skill to bars and beam that had never before been done on those apparatuses: flipping backwards. She captivated audiences everywhere causing a major surge in gymnastics, earning herself the title "The Mother of Gymnastics."
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