Celebrating the Olympic Veterans

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We’ve officially done two months of Olympic coverage and things are only just winding down. Today I’m excited to celebrate the gymnasts who competed at their second, third, or even seventh (I’m looking at you, Chuso) Olympic Games while in Rio, consistently proving to be the best in their countries time and again.

Like those we wrote about a few weeks ago who made history by becoming the first-ever gymnasts to represent their countries at the Olympic Games, this list of 11 kickass women coming back to the Olympics in individual spots is just as incredible and inspirational. You’ve probably heard most of their names many, many times before, so sit back and enjoy hearing about how awesome they are yet again.

The most celebrated of the veterans is obviously Oksana Chusovitina, who was practically a household name this summer as she became one of 41 athletes in history to compete in seven or more Games in any sport. For gymnastics, forget it. Seven appearances smashes the hopes of anyone trying to break her record, because Chusovitina is a rare breed.

At 41, Chusovitina took your “gymnasts peak at 16!” argument, threw it off of the roof of the Empire State Building, and then back-flipped 102 stories down to crush it to death. Now representing Uzbekistan, the land in which she was born back when it was still part of the Soviet Union, Chusovitina had no team to use as a crutch to get to the Games. This year, it was all about her, and her only way in was competing the all-around at the test event this past April. Fans wondered if she could actually pull it off, as all-around appearances are rare for the Queen, but she passed with flying colors and even grabbed the test event silver medal on vault for fun on her way out.

In Rio, it wasn’t just Chusovitina’s age-defying badassery that turned heads. No, she also became known as one of two gymnasts competing what the media began calling “the death vault,” otherwise known as the Produnova. The handspring double tuck is the most difficult vault currently competed by women, rated at a 7.0 difficulty value and competed successfully by only five gymnasts in its history since Yelena Produnova introduced it in 1999.

Chusovitina stuck to her easier tsuk double and Rudi for qualifications, where she also performed a hit routine on beam for a 13.3. Her vault combo averaged a 15.166, a score that would’ve challenged for bronze had she repeated the two just as well in finals, but instead she opted to swap the Rudi for the Produnova in order to increase her difficulty with the medal on the line. In the past, she’d had mixed results with the vault, looking rough at worlds last year but actually hitting nicely at the world cup in Mersin just a month before Rio.

Unfortunately, at the Games she both landed poorly and then also bounded forward, somersaulting out of it. Her tsuk double was quite a bit stronger, but the damage was done with the Produnova, leaving her in seventh place with a 14.833. Still, she was less than half a point away from the medals even with the fall, showing just how close she was to getting on that podium. It was probably a disappointment for her to not reach it, and for someone who has medaled at the Games in the past, just making the final isn’t as satisfying as feeling the hardware around your neck.

But I don’t think anyone would deny that what she accomplished in Rio would be a huge feat for any gymnast, and for the 41-year-old who just can’t stop competing, it’s an even bigger one. It was once again a history-making Olympics for Chusovitina, as her seventh-place on vault was the highest Olympic finish for any woman from Uzbekistan since the country made its first Olympic appearance in 1996 (when, by the way, Chusovitina also set the record for the country’s best all-around finish, placing 10th in Atlanta when she was 21).

If anything, Chusovitina has inspired other gymnasts to keep pushing for Olympic glory past their “expiration dates.” In Rio, Brazil’s Daniele Hypolito joined Chusovitina to earn the distinction of becoming one of only two female gymnasts to reach five or more Olympic Games. Turning 32 last month, Hypolito made it to her first Olympics half a lifetime ago at Sydney 2000. Like Chusovitina, she’s gone nonstop ever since, representing Brazil in the sport for the entirety of her adult life.

For Hypolito, this year was extra special, as she got to reach this major accomplishment at home in Brazil with a full team by her side. Since ushering in the wave of Brazilian gymnastics excellence with her 20th place all-around finish in Sydney (the best finish at that time), Hypolito has been known more for her leadership than her gymnastics prowess. She was a key player for Brazil’s first full Olympic team at her second Games in 2004 — where she also placed 12th all-around — and then helped them reach the team finals in both 2008 and again this summer, in addition to guiding them every step along the way.

I already talked about Hypolito and her team in depth in my recap of Brazil’s performance, so since this article is dedicated to the individual veterans, I won’t go further into how awesome she is. But five Games is a major milestone for a gymnast, and as far as I know, she hasn’t announced any official retirement plans yet meaning we could have yet another Chusovitina in our midst, as if one wasn’t enough of a blessing.

Four gymnasts made their third Olympic appearances, with Catalina Ponor the most prolific of the bunch. Competing on her own after Romania failed to qualify a full team to the Games for the first time in their history, Ponor came into the Games under a ton of pressure and social media hate from fans who were outspoken about wanting Larisa Iordache in her place.

Ponor spent a good deal of mental energy defending herself against the haters, and then later blamed the drama for causing her to not perform as well as she should have at the Games. With routines only on beam and floor, Ponor performed decently in qualifications, though not to the standard we’ve come to know with her, as she’s only spent a few months competing since the 2012 Games. She did make the beam final, but performed a lackluster routine there, dealing with wobbles and a lack of attention to detail throughout to place seventh with a 14.0.

It was unfortunate that Ponor didn’t have a better time in Rio, especially after nabbing the bronze medals on beam and floor at Euros. But it wasn’t her year, just as it wasn’t Romania’s year. Even the best of the best need rebuilding periods from time to time, and 2016 just happened to be Romania’s. Ponor will reportedly continue training with the hope of competing into her thirties, so hopefully she and her team can come back strong after this disappointment.

Jessica Lopez of Venezuela was another three-timer in Rio, and she had quite the opposite experience of Ponor with one of the best meets of her career. As one of only two Venezuelan women to represent her country on the Olympic stage, Lopez was the first to make an individual final when she reached it in the all-around four years ago. This August, she continued to set a high standard by not only placing seventh all-around, but also becoming the first from her country to reach an event final, qualifying on bars, her best event.

Competing in the fifth and last subdivision of the day, Lopez knew she’d made the bars final the second she saw her score. She broke down in happy tears after finally reaching this goal, and she went on to perform admirably in the final, placing sixth ahead of Gabby Douglas and Daria Spiridonova. At 30, she’s yet another one in this group who proves age is nothing but a number, and though the Venezuelan program is still only just getting off the ground, it’ll be hard to find anyone who can live up to Lopez’s impossibly high standard any time soon.

Vasiliki Millousi, age 32, is another one of the golden oldies to reach her third Games. Millousi actually saw a pretty sizable break from one Olympics to the next, competing in 2000 when she was just 16 and then not returning until four years ago. This year, Millousi was generally Greece’s strongest all-arounder, but scrapped all events but beam after qualifying to the Games. With beam her best event, Millousi had high hopes of making the final there, and focused on making it as perfect as possible.

Millousi traded her tricky double pike dismount for the easier gainer layout, and then worked on gaining difficulty through big skills and combinations. Unfortunately, her one shot in qualifications didn’t go according to plan, and she finished 57th on the event with a 13.2. Still, the final was a long shot even with a hit routine thanks to some tremendous international depth, and while she didn’t break any records in Rio, a third Games is accomplishment enough for anyone.

Our final third-timer is Sherine El Zeiny of Egypt, who kind of lucked her way in this year. The Dutch-born El Zeiny, who trains at the same gym as Eythora Thorsdottir, technically didn’t qualify into one of the African continent’s two spots, as Algeria’s Farah Boufadene and all three South Africans outperformed her at worlds in Glasgow. But when the South African Olympic Committee refused to allow any of their gymnasts to take the spot — which they considered a “pity spot” since it came through a representation rule rather than through test event berths — El Zeiny was next in line, more than happy to reach her third Games.

El Zeiny, 25, was the first gymnast to represent Egypt at the Olympics back in 2008 when she was 17. This year, she reached both her personal best as well as the country’s record-best finish as she qualified with a 53.232 to finish 39th. It was an incredible day for El Zeiny, who was especially phenomenal on bars, where she earned a 14.133 with what was probably her best routine ever. El Zeiny has plans to continue competing in the future with the hope of keeping her good luck going for even more Olympics to come.

Giulia Steingruber was the most successful of the double Olympians, winning her first worlds or Olympic-level medal with a bronze on vault. Steingruber’s competition was an interesting one, riddled with ups and downs throughout, though the medal certainly put a shine on the whole experience, especially as it marked the first time a Swiss woman won an Olympic medal in women’s gymnastics.

Leading up to the Games, Steingruber had been training a handspring layout double full, and she would have been the first gymnast to compete it had she attempted it in Rio. In training, it looked good, albeit nowhere near as clean as her Rudi, though it would’ve added about half a point to her difficulty, a huge amount given that the gymnasts who placed third through eighth in the final were all within a five-tenth margin. She played it safe in prelims, and then also decided to play it safe in finals, opting for her strong technique and consistent Rudi over debuting a skill at the biggest meet of her life. As others who took risks fell and finished off the podium, Steingruber did exactly what she needed to do to get the bronze, making it one of the best decisions of her career.

Beyond vault, beam was Steingruber’s Achilles’ Heel during her time in Rio, limiting her in both qualifications and the all-around. In the latter, the 22-year-old could have taken advantage of some mistakes to come in for the bronze had she hit beam, so that definitely had to sting, but even so she can’t be mad with a 10th place finish.

The real bummer was the floor final, however. All season long, Steingruber consistently showed routines that would’ve made her an Olympic medal contender, with no major falls this year, the European floor title, and scores above 14.7 in ten routines leading up to the Games. She did well here in qualifications and in the all-around, but shockingly, she under-rotated her double double, putting her hands down and going out-of-bounds before continuing with a fall on her full-in to earn just an 11.8. Chalk it up to an exhausting week, but everyone makes mistakes sometimes and Steingruber’s came at the tail end of a history-making Games and she seemed to brush it off without any major scarring.

So I talked about Steingruber’s smart decision to play it safe in the vault final, and on the other end of things was Hong Un Jong’s decision to finally debut her triple-twisting Yurchenko, a vault she’s been training for about a decade and originally hoped to show in Beijing eight years ago. The North Korean usually competes the Amanar and Cheng combination, one that earned her gold medals in Beijing as well as at 2014 worlds, and one that saw Simone Biles and Maria Paseka take the top two spots on the podium this summer.

Had she hit the triple, Hong’s difficulty would’ve catapulted her over Biles, whose execution on her Amanar and Cheng is second to none. With the same vaults as Biles, Hong wouldn’t have outscored her in the final, and so the triple was a necessary risk to take her from silver or bronze back to the biggest prize. In training, she was landing the vault with pretty big pushes off the table from her coach, but then went for the tired and true Amanar in prelims because it would guarantee her a spot in the final.

When it counted, she went for the big guns, but unfortunately couldn’t hold onto the landing and ended up both under-rotating and falling, receiving the difficulty for the Amanar instead of the triple and taking a nearly two-point hit in the execution for a 14.4, over a point and a half behind Biles’ Amanar. Her Cheng scored about as well as usual, but her average of 14.9 kept her about three tenths away from the podium for sixth place.

As much as I loved Steingruber opting for clean and safe over risky and messy, I also have to hand it to Hong for being a risk-taker. She knew what was at stake, she knew Biles would be almost impossible to beat, and she went with the only combination that would make a win possible, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, her best didn’t happen and after all these years of submitting it, she still didn’t get the triple named for her. However, it was a big first step in this vault finally coming to fruition. It won’t happen if no one ever tries, and Hong tried, even if it didn’t work out. In her second Olympics, the 27-year-old was all guts, and I have so much respect for her. In a way, she and Steingruber both won, with Steingruber getting the actual medal but Hong getting the kickass innovator award.

Like Ponor, Larrissa Miller was missing her teammates by her side after Australia didn’t make it through at the test event, and as with the situation in Romania, the competition was stiff for the individual spot. With Miller, Emily Little, and Lauren Mitchell the frontrunners, all would have been somewhat equally able to make finals. The decision was of course controversial because you could have justified any of Australia’s best, but Miller ended up making it for her bars and floor prowess.

In Rio, she actually had a great bars routine in qualifications, but the field was bananas and it was nearly impossible to break in. On floor, she went for broke, upping her difficulty to again hope for a spot in the event finals, but a fall on her last pass got her only a 12.733, a disappointing end to her campaign. “I guess I can be proud that I went for the full difficulty,” Miller said. “Even if I didn’t get it, I left everything out there.” In addition to her Olympic performance this year, Miller has acted as team leader in what was a tough season, so even though Rio wasn’t the best meet for her, she made it through a killer year with a lot to be proud of.

Phan Thi Ha Thanh was the first Vietnamese gymnast to qualify for the Olympic Games back in 2012, an experience she earned by medaling on vault in 2011. At 24, Phan is the hardest-working gymnast her coach has ever seen, so it was no surprise to see her qualify to her second Games even though injuries have held her back in the latter half of this quad.

Downgrading her second vault from the Rudi took her difficulty down by over a point, meaning Phan could no longer be a finals contender there despite her clean work in qualifications. She placed 17th averaging a 14.233, and then also earned a 13.8 on beam, also a typically strong event for her though not quite up to her standards.

One of my personal favorites, Ana Sofia Gomez of Guatemala was hoping to repeat an all-around finals berth in Rio, but she unfortunately came up a few tenths short after a rough performance, with mistakes on beam and floor. Ending up the third reserve, Gomez — who was given the honor of carrying the flag during the Opening Ceremony — actually got a lot of criticism from Guatemalan fans who expected more from her. But Gomez, classy as ever, walked away proud of what she accomplished and immediately after the Games, started getting to work on the next quad.

Finally, Simona Castro of Chile returned after making her — and her country’s — debut four years ago. Castro, 27, has represented Chile internationally since 2001, and for four years, divided her time between elite and NCAA, where she competed for Denver beginning in 2009. In Rio, she put up one of her strongest performances ever on beam and also did great work on vault and bars, though she unfortunately had a fall on floor, which is typically one of her best events (she won the world cup bronze there in Sao Paulo back in May).

In the end, Castro placed 52nd in qualifications, a little bit behind her 43rd place finish in 2012. But like everyone else on this list, any mistakes in Rio don’t come close to dulling her status as a repeat Olympian. She and the others on this list are sports legends in their own countries and beyond. Though this post focuses on the individuals, the same can be said for gymnasts who made return appearances on full teams. Making the Olympic Games once is nearly impossible for most athletes, and yet this year so many brilliantly talented gymnasts made it happen. Congrats to all those who refuse to give up!

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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6 thoughts on “Celebrating the Olympic Veterans

    • As I said in the last paragraph, these were gymnasts from individual countries not there with full teams. Many teams had Olympians with more than one Games in their history – Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman for the US, Aliya Mustafina and Maria Paseka for Russia, Asuka Teramoto for Japan, and so on, and so on, and so on. But I already talked about all of these gymnasts in separate posts about their specific teams, so I kept this list about those there as individuals.

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      • It is a little confusing because you included Daniele Hypolito…but you also mentioned she was just a special inclusion due to her fifth Olympics. Nice article!

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        • Yeah, I brought her up in context with Chuso because Chuso was the first person to set the whole “five Olympics” record for a gymnast and Hypolito is the second person to do it after Chuso, so I wanted to highlight how Chuso is now starting to be joined by others!

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