Next up in our 2021 series probably needs no introduction. Giulia Steingruber, 26, has been making history as Switzerland’s best gymnasts of all time, setting countless records and winning Olympic and world medals in her decade of senior competition.
As a junior, Steingruber wasn’t very well-known, at least not internationally. She finished 36th in the all-around at Euros in 2008, and over the next couple of years as she finished up her junior career and began competing as a senior, it wasn’t yet clear that she would have such an immense impact on the sport in her country.
Steingruber made her European and world championships debuts in 2010, though her difficulty was still far behind what many of the top seniors were competing, so she wasn’t a real standout at either meet. At Euros, she helped her team finish sixth, but missed out on any individual accolades, and at worlds, she finished 68th all-around in prelims.
At the time, the Swiss star was Ariella Käslin, the 2008 Olympic vault and all-around finalist who put her country on the map for gymnastics. Käslin became the European vault champion and all-around bronze medalist in 2009, and then grabbed silver on vault at worlds a few months later. Though she didn’t win any major medals in 2010, she was still clearly the leader for the Swiss team, finishing eighth all-around and fifth on vault at worlds and looking likely to qualify for her second Olympic Games the following year.
But 2011 marked the turning point in Steingruber’s career. With major upgrades – especially on vault, where she added a Rudi seemingly out of nowhere to follow in Käslin’s footsteps as a future vault queen – she began matching her older teammate as an all-arounder and a vaulter. The two finished back-to-back in the all-around standings just 0.35 apart at Euros that year, and both qualified into the vault final, where Steingruber finished sixth while Käslin picked up the bronze.
This medal would end up being Käslin’s last, as she shockingly retired from the sport just three months later, with only a year to go before the 2012 Games. She told the press that she simply found it difficult to find the motivation to keep training, and decided to go out on a high note, with her body and mind both healthy and happy with her accomplishments.
Just a year earlier, the news would have been fully devastating for the Swiss program, but with Steingruber now in a prime position to take the reins, she stepped up to the challenge. Steingruber went on to finish 16th in the all-around and fifth on vault at worlds that year, and over the next few months she would continue to rise as a major threat in the sport, winning vault bronze at Euros in 2012 before competing at her first Olympic Games, where she finished 14th in the all-around final and was a reserve for the vault final.
Steingruber continued building on her success going into the next quad, medaling on vault at Euros all four years (including three golds!) while also becoming the first Swiss gymnast to win the European all-around title in 2015. This was a big year for her in the all-around, as she’d also go on to win silver at the first-ever European Games that summer before placing fifth in the final at worlds that fall, which was the country’s top world all-around finish in history.
She also made the vault finals at worlds in 2013 (fourth place), 2014 (fifth place), and 2015 (seventh place), and though she injured her knee in the 2015 final, she still managed to return in time to compete at the test event in 2016, finishing first in the all-around and securing an individual spot for Switzerland at the Rio Games. She also won multiple world cup medals going into Rio before winning her third European vault title as well as the floor title at home in Bern, and she swept Switzerland’s national championships for the first time just a month prior to the Olympics.
In Rio, Steingruber was selected to be the flag bearer at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, becoming the first female gymnast to earn this honor for her country, and she had an exemplary performance at these games, placing 10th all-around and winning the bronze medal on vault, the first Olympic medal for a female Swiss gymnast in history.
Thankfully, Steingruber was able to take some time off after such a busy quad, and while people began to question whether she’d be ready in time for worlds in 2017 having not competed in over a year, she showed up to Swiss Championships to easily win the vault and all-around titles despite all of her time away, and by the time she got to Montreal, she was back to normal on vault, winning her first world medal by snagging the bronze.
In 2018, Steingruber competed a few times, winning world challenge cup titles on vault and floor in Koper, but at a friendly meet prior to Euros that summer, she tore her ACL and meniscus while also fracturing her tibia on floor, sadly ending her season.
With more than a year off between competitions for the second time this quad, Steingruber once again returned to nationals, nearly sweeping the competition with golds in the all-around and on every event but bars to show that she would absolutely be in contention to earn a spot at her third Olympic Games. She improved on her performance there at a friendly meet in the Netherlands a week later, and by the time she got to Stuttgart, she was more than ready to go.
At worlds, Steingruber finished 19th in qualifications, and second among the Olympic hopefuls not part of qualified teams, which easily secured a berth to the 2020 Olympic Games, the third of her career.
The news of the Tokyo Olympics getting postponed a year was announced on Steingruber’s 26th birthday, and while she recognized the necessity of this decision, she said on Instagram that she’s not sure if her body will be able to last another 16 months.
In addition to the Olympics next year, Switzerland will once again host European Championships, and the opportunity to compete in front of a home crowd one last time is also a tempting one. But with training shut down at the moment, with her history of injuries, and with a desire to move on to life after gymnastics (she’d love to work in the medical field or in psychology), it’s not going to be easy.
“It’s still too early to make a decision,” Steingruber said, and has not yet made up her mind about her future in the sport, but I think I speak for every gym fan when saying that I hope she can stay physically and mentally healthy enough get that one final year.
Article by Lauren Hopkins