The Stories of the Olympic Pioneers

Greetings, and welcome to month two of me watching through every single Olympic routine, trying to stretch this whole Rio experience out as far as humanly possible, mostly because I’ve been busy but also because there’s almost nothing else going on in the sport.

I have to say, my favorite thing about this year’s Games was the fact that we saw so many countries make Olympic debuts in gymnastics. Because it’s difficult to kick off successful gymnastics programs from the ground up with no outside help, most of these Olympic firsts were thanks to gymnasts who live and train elsewhere, a trend that has been growing over the past couple of quads. Some were controversial, especially as “outsourced” gymnasts beat out home-grown kids for spots, but either way, the sport became much more widely known in all nine first-time appearances, which will spark a love for gymnastics in kids from these countries and hopefully, in time, their programs will be able to produce Olympic gymnasts with no outside help.

The most inspirational Olympic first was the debut of India in the Games. Gymnasts from India have been attempting to qualify for the past 15 years, but it wasn’t until Dipa Karmakar came onto the scene with a Produnova vault that the dream looked like it could become reality. Without this vault — which earned around a 15 even if she sits it down, a huge number compared to the scores in the 11-12 range on other events — she wouldn’t have come close to qualifying for the Rio test event and thus wouldn’t have made it to the Games, but the sheer difficulty of this vault alone put her exactly where she needed to be. (Actually, Karmakar didn’t initially qualify to the test event and was instead a reserve, but when two other countries dropped out, she got lucky and took up the very last spot!)

At the test event and at the Games, Karmakar — who is the only gymnast from an Olympic debut country to live and train in the country she represents — actually showed improvement on bars, beam, and floor, but the Produnova was still where she was going to make her mark. She said she trained the vault about 500 times leading up to the Games, and while her landings are always a bit low with her butt grazing the mat before she quickly stands up out of her squat, it’s the best and most consistent Produnova since Elena Produnova herself.

In Rio, Karmakar became not only the first female gymnast to represent India at the Olympic Games, but also simultaneously became the first to reach an individual event final. With a tsuk double as her first vault and a Produnova as her second, Karmakar shared the highest level of difficulty on this event with seven-time Olympic veteran Oksana Chusovitina, also competing the Produnova at age 41. But Karmakar’s consistency in the wake of mistakes from both Chusovitina and North Korea’s Hong Un Jong meant she was able to bump up the vault hierarchy, finishing an astonishing fourth place in the final, just two tenths away from the bronze medal.

This is especially remarkable when you think about how Karmakar trained with almost zero resources for most of her career. In the west, it’s so easy to take advantage of everything we have, most people don’t even think about the lack of funding, coaching, and training facilities Karmakar grew up with, and when she first emerged on the scene, she actually took a lot of flack for throwing such a vault without proper attention to technique and the landing. But the sole reason Karmakar went for the Produnova was because that’s the vault that grabs event finals spots and attention. The code makes it possible for super difficult vaults to earn higher scores than easier and cleaner vaults, and so she — and many others who attempt the Produnova — took advantage of this loophole to put herself on the map, which is exactly what she did by winning vault bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

The Commonwealth Games medal brought so much attention and therefore funding to Karmakar, who went on to win the Asian Games bronze in 2015 and then the gold medal at the test event earlier this year. She is a national hero in India now, and even though she didn’t ultimately medal in Rio, she made it much further than anyone could’ve thought possible. Now she plans on training the double front half so she can become the first woman in the world to compete what is known as the Dragulescu for the men, but whether or not she makes this happen, she will definitely be a major vault medal contender at worlds in the coming years, and will continue to make history for India within the sport.

Houry Gebeshian lives and trains in Ohio but is Armenian by blood and takes pride in studying the language, taking part in the country’s cultural traditions, and acting as an ambassador for the sport in a country where no women’s elite gymnastics program exists. Among the women in this pioneer group, Gebeshian had the best all-around performance in qualifications, finishing 38th, just a point and a half behind the final all-around qualifier.

Though she didn’t make the final — which she knew would’ve been a long shot even had she chucked her not-quite-ready DTY upgrade — she had more fun than anyone else that day, hitting all four routines as close to perfectly as she could’ve hoped for, and getting a brand-new bars skill — a hecht mount over the low bar with a full twist before catching — named for her in the code of points. She was the darling of the Games for the announcers and the media, who loved watching her kiss each event as she finished competing, her way of thanking the sport for every opportunity it gave her. She also posted the highest elite all-around total of her life with a 53.848, which is just about the best way possible to finish off her incredible career.

Half a point behind Gebeshian was Irina Sazonova, who now represents Iceland after growing up in the Russian elite system. Sazonova represented Russia at Universiade in 2011, but didn’t have the difficulty to stand out in a deep domestic field. The 25-year-old originally trained in St. Petersburg, and when her coach was contracted out to work in Iceland, she decided to tag along, moving to the country in 2012.

Sazonova began training at the Fimleikadeild Armanns club in Reykjavik, where she also had to take on a job coaching in addition to working as a cashier at a pizzeria until she could find sponsors. Originally she had no plans to compete internationally for Iceland, but when the federation saw her scores in relation to the Icelandic girls’ scores, they brought her on to help them out. At worlds last year, she finished three points ahead of her teammates, earning the test event spot and then Iceland’s first gymnastics Olympic spot in history.

In Rio, Sazonova posted a 53.2 all-around after great work on all four routines, especially on bars — not surprising given her Russian blood. She enjoyed some time in Brazil after the games, and then just this week married Roman Belousov, a fellow ex-pat she met in Reyjkavik’s thriving Russian community. Now a full Icelandic citizen, Sazonova doesn’t plan on ever returning to her homeland, though she hasn’t yet decided what the future will hold for her in the sport.

Next on our list is Isabella Amado, who placed 44th in qualifications with a 52.832, another gymnast reaching the best score of her career right when it mattered the most. Amado was born in Panama, but moved to the United States when she was 14 in order to become a better competitor. Under the tutelage of Dena Walker and Gustavo Moure at Excalibur in Virginia, Amado began working as a level 9 and 10 gymnast in the U.S. Junior Olympic system before moving to the elite levels.

Her major break came with two world cup medals, including gold on beam, in Medellin at the end of 2014. From there, Amado kept getting better, picking up two more world cup medals in 2015 (floor silver in Varna and beam bronze in Osijek) before competing at world championships. Unfortunately, she had a fall on beam at worlds, and just missed the cut for the test event, though because Panama fit the criteria for the Olympic tripartite spot, Amado’s coaches applied for her and she made it to the Olympic Games in this way.

Now, Amado is attending her freshman year at Boise State University alongside fellow 2016 Olympian Courtney McGregor of New Zealand. She hopes to continue training her elite skills while competing in college, and would love a return visit to the Games in 2020.

Amado’s club teammate from Excalibur, Ariana Orrego, was coincidentally behind another country’s Olympic gymnastics debut, as she represents Peru internationally and was able to qualify to the Games thanks to her great performance at the test event. Like Amado, Orrego moved to the United States from her hometown of Lima, Peru with the goal of growing as a gymnast, competing as a level 10 to gain experience within the U.S. while representing Peru at the senior international level since 2014.

In Rio, Orrego had a mistake on bars, but hit her other routines well to finish 50th in qualifications with a 51.798. After a few days of vacation with her family in Peru, she’s back at Excalibur, training for the upcoming South American Championships in her hometown of Lima, bringing everything full-circle for the 17-year-old.

Toni-Ann Williams of Jamaica was 54th in the all-around in Rio, making a few uncharacteristic mistakes, but nonetheless having the time of her life to reach a 50.966, still one of her better elite scores despite not having the greatest day. Mistakes aside, she was always a light in what was a very serious arena, mocking the face she made when landing her double front beam dismount, having fun with the other girls in her rotation, and finishing her floor routine with fellow Jamaican Usain Bolt’s signature pose.

Born in Maryland, both of Williams’ parents are Jamaican, and so both she and her sister Maya decided to join Jamaica’s national team. Williams made her international debut at the 2011 World Championships when she was only 15, and while she didn’t meet the qualification requirements then, she made it her goal to come back stronger in the next quad, hoping age and experience would carry her to her goal. Last spring, she began competing in her freshman year for the University of California Berkeley’s gymnastics team, where she has been a standout performer since day one. With the help of her Cal coaches, Williams was able to also improve at the elite level, and she went to last year’s worlds with Justin Howell as her head coach.

Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic alternate Danusia Francis, who is also Jamaican, actually qualified a test event spot for the country, but the Jamaican federation opted to send Williams, as the two were close enough in terms of their scores, though Williams had more history with the country’s national program, having been an active contributor for going on six years. She had no problem qualifying at the test event, and the rest is history. Now she’ll finish up the remaining half of her NCAA career at Cal, and hopes to someday build a national training center in Jamaica as a thank you for all the country has done for her.

As the gymnast whose Olympic selection was surrounded by controversy causing the people of Trinidad & Tobago to all but hate her, Marisa Dick has tried so hard to keep her focus on the sport. Canadian by birth, Dick is another one whose family background allows her to compete outside of where she lives and trains. The Trinidadians would’ve liked to have sent the native-born Thema Williams to qualify an Olympic spot, but when the federation worried that an injury and lack of preparation wouldn’t be enough to meet the requirements, they quickly flew Dick to Rio in a decision that stunned both the islands and the gymnastics community.

Despite little time to prepare, Dick had a phenomenal day at the test event, and though she suffered a fall on bars at the Olympic Games to place 55th with a 50.832, she came out of the Games a winner after getting a second skill named for her in the code of points. At worlds last year, she performed a switch leap split mount, and in Rio she upped the ante by adding a half twist, making the Dick II a real actual thing we get to say in relation to gymnastics.

Ellis O’Reilly‘s name sounds like she must be nothing but Irish, but in fact, the 18-year-old was born in London, where she continues to live and train at the Europa Gymnastics Centre. O’Reilly has formerly represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but as a senior international elite, her allegiance has been to Ireland, representing the country at worlds in both 2014 and 2015 before earning a spot at the Olympic Games at this year’s test event.

Ireland is relatively new to the international gymnastics mix, and attempted to qualify a gymnast to the Games in 2012, though at that stage they didn’t have anyone quite able to make it happen. In Glasgow last year, O’Reilly was one of the final gymnasts to qualify to the test event, and the three-time national all-around champion finished 57th in Rio this August, earning a 47.932, a bit lower than her potential as she’s dealt with bulging discs in her back all season but in no way was going to give up her Olympic spot for that.

Finally, we have Farah Boufadene, who represented France for the majority of her career including internationally as a junior, but then changed her nationality so she could represent Algeria at the beginning of her senior career in 2015. Boufadene made great strides for Algeria, and the country gave her a scholarship that allowed her to train at Gym-Richelieu in Quebec and then at a gym in Denver leading up to the Games.

Boufadene qualified to the test event and planned on competing there despite earning an automatic Olympic spot due to the continental representation rule. As the top finisher from Africa at worlds in 2015, Boufadene secured a spot early on, and so a back injury on vault suffered at the African Championships this March caused a setback that led her to skip the test event, but it didn’t hold her back from representing her country at the Games.

Unfortunately, Boufadene didn’t have an ideal competition in Rio, likely thanks to the lack of training and competitive experience she’s had in 2016 due to the injury (aside from African Championships, where she only competed on beam before getting injured, she didn’t compete at all this year). She placed 59th in Rio with a 46.433, finishing last among all those who competed four events.

“Without wanting to hide behind excuses, I didn’t have the preparation I should’ve had [leading up to the Olympics], and thus, my level of gymnastics declined,” Boufadene said following the Games. “I started with my head high and ended with my head high, but this isn’t over. I will continue to fight for what I love. I’m gonna go rebuild myself, and I promise you I’ll come back stronger. No matter what the obstacles, I will sweep everything in my path.”

Congratulations to all nine of these fearless women who made history in their countries whether they were born there, have a connection through blood, or adopted them as their own. Every gymnastics program has to start somewhere, and if anything, these Olympic appearances will lead to a huge boom of interest for the sport that will someday lead to even bigger and better things for each of these young programs.

Article by Lauren Hopkins


6 thoughts on “The Stories of the Olympic Pioneers

  1. Interesting and Great article! Just one little thing I want to point out…
    ” Karmakar, who went on to win the Asian Games bronze in 2015″
    Dipa was fourth in the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea and was third in the 2015 Asian Championships in Japan


  2. Lucky you to watch every routine!! Did you record every session or is it available online? Thanks for highlighting these pioneer gymnasts. I think their progress is amazing. It is definitely hard to imagine their situations when here in the US we have EASY access to excellent training everywhere!


  3. Pingback: Celebrating the Olympic Veterans | The Gymternet

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