We’re picking our 2021 Olympians series back up by sharing the story of Caitlin Rooskrantz, the 19-year-old who fought back from years of injuries to become the first Black woman to represent South Africa in gymnastics at the Olympic Games.
Caitlin’s parents put her in gymnastics when she was six, because – like most young gymnasts – she needed an outlet for all of her energy, she told New Frame. Family friends recommended gymnastics, which her parents had never considered, but they figured it might be safer for her to learn flips under the guidance of a coach rather than off the edge of her bed.
She began training at the Johannesburg Gymnastics Centre, where it quickly became clear that gymnastics would be more than just a part-time hobby for the girl with so much talent and passion. Caitlin was eight when she began getting serious about her commitment to the sport, and when her father passed away that same year, she was able to find healing in the work she did in the gym. Now a single parent, her mother had to make many sacrifices to give Caitlin every advantage in the sport. She gave up her full-time job as a nurse to work only part-time so she could drive her to practice twice a day, and moved her family to a smaller home to help make ends meet.
Caitlin and her mom, Veda, in 2014
After coming back from a knee injury that took her out of national-level competition when she was 11, Caitlin was able to make her national debut a year later in 2014, finishing fourth all-around in the espoir competition. As a junior in 2015, she managed a bronze all-around finish despite a “disastrous” competition on beam and a number of nagging ankle injuries. She would also go on to make her international debut that year, competing at the Top Gym Tournament in Belgium, where she finished ninth all-around, sixth on bars, and sixth on beam.
Finally, it seemed like things were looking up for Caitlin. In 2016, she was relatively healthy for the first time in years. In March, she finished 19th in a mixed senior and junior field at the Austrian Team Open, a warm-up for the African Championships in Algeria a few weeks later, where she won the bronze medal on floor, silver medals in the all-around and on beam, and gold on bars.
At nationals that summer, Caitlin continued her upward trajectory, posting a 13.0 or better on all four events to win the all-around with a 53.200 – a score that would have also landed the senior title by over a point – and she also won golds on vault, bars, and floor, while getting the silver on beam with a fall. She and her teammates traveled to Namibia in October for the Junior Commonwealth Championships, where she again impressed, this time getting all-around silver with a 51.950, as well as the silver on vault, and the bronze on bars.
The South African team in Namibia for the Junior Commonwealth Championships
Caitlin was riding high as she made her senior debut in 2017, competing at the Koper Challenge Cup, where she placed fifth in the bars final, just three tenths away from a podium that included Olympians Larisa Iordache, Ellie Black, and Flavia Saraiva. But just when she was seemingly unstoppable, Caitlin dislocated her knee, an injury that required surgery and resulted in her missing the rest of her first senior season.
The 2018 Commonwealth Games were a major goal for Caitlin on her journey to qualifying for the Olympics, and she worked tirelessly to come back from her knee injury in time to challenge for a spot on the team. She struggled a bit at her return to competition at the Doha World Cup in March of that year, and the South African federation declared her ‘medically unfit’ for the Games, a setback that became incredibly demotivating.
Still, she kept Tokyo on her mind, and she kept pushing. She focused on bars, and won the title at the African Championships in Namibia that May, followed by a bronze medal at the Africa Safari International in South Africa a couple months later. She was able to bring back vault and floor in time for nationals, where she won the senior all-around title over teammate Naveen Daries by half a tenth, in addition to getting the golds on bars and beam.
Caitlin winning gold at the 2018 African Championships
Caitlin’s nationals performance was good enough to essentially guarantee her a spot on the worlds team that fall. In Doha, she still wasn’t at 100%, but she was the best among the South African gymnasts who competed. Caitlin hit her Yurchenko full on vault, and though she had a few small errors on bars, it was overall a hit routine, with a clean Maloney to Pak, piked Jaeger, and unique front layout 1½ dismount. She also hit both beam and floor with just minor bobbles and mistakes, and she ended up finishing 59th out of 144 all-arounders with a score of 49.198, a promising result when considering what the threshold might be to qualify for the Olympics a year later.
2019 was all about that ultimate goal. She spent some time training with the German national team, and then dealt with a foot injury about three months before worlds, coming back in August to compete only bars at nationals, again winning the title. She traveled to Hungary in September to compete bars and beam at the Szombathely Challenge Cup, and when she qualified fourth into the bars final, her coach told her that if she could clean up just a bit, she’d have a chance at bronze. Not only did Caitlin clean up, but with a few mistakes from others in the final, Caitlin ended up on the top of the podium, becoming the first South African to win gold at a world cup.
Caitlin winning gold in Szombathely
A win like that with just a month to go before Stuttgart was all the inspiration Caitlin needed. At worlds, she hit vault, an excellent bars set, and a floor routine that looked stronger compared to the previous year, adding in a double pike to open as well as a front tuck into her front full. Unfortunately, Caitlin had a fall on beam, on her flight series, and though her all-around score of 49.466 was was an improvement over the year prior, she ended up ranked 68th. Would it be enough to qualify to Tokyo?
Spoiler alert – yes! Her score ended up being about a point-and-a-half higher than the last to qualify, so she not only made it, but she qualified with room to spare. It was still a close call, though – while her score was safe compared to those from around the world attempting to make it, she came super close to missing out on the two-per-country rule, as she once again edged out her teammate, Naveen, by the smallest of margins. While Caitlin finished 68th with a 49.466, Naveen was in 70th place with a 49.399, again just about half a tenth behind just like at nationals a year earlier. Had Caitlin taken one more step on floor, or been one more handstand short on bars, Naveen – who in her own right is a phenomenal gymnast for South Africa, a three-time world championships competitor and a three-time national champion, winning the titles every year Caitlin didn’t – would have been the Olympian.
Teammates, friends, competitors – Naveen and Caitlin
Call it luck, call it fate, call it whatever you want, but Caitlin could hardly believe it when she saw her name printed on the FIG’s list of qualifiers a week after world championships ended. She was the third South African woman to qualify a berth to the Olympic Games for gymnastics, the first to qualify since 2004, the first to qualify outright through international competition (rather than through a continental quota), and the first Black woman to ever accomplish it, again making history for her country just like she did when she won gold in Szombathely.
When the COVID-19 lockdown took Caitlin out of the gym for four months – the longest she’d been out of the gym in her entire career – she felt like the setback was the hardest she’d ever been through, even among all of her injuries. “It was not only physically but mentally challenging,” she told the Olympic Channel. “To try and stay motivated, stay in the game, but also to stay physically fit, it’s hard for a gymnast to keep your fitness and training up when you’re not in the gym.”
Caitlin returned to the gym in July, and one of her sponsors, Sanlam, helped her cope with the setback by airing a live stream of her performing on bars on August 2, exactly when she would have been competing in Tokyo, something that helped with her motivation and gave her something to work for while she had no competitions to look forward to.
Caitlin’s “Olympic” routine in 2020
“2020 was supposed to be the biggest year of my career, but it ended up being the complete opposite of that,” Caitlin told the Rosebank Killarney Gazette. But she’s choosing to use the extra time as motivation to move forward and she’s excited to continue “preparing and upgrading” her routines for Tokyo this summer.
More than that, she’s also inspiring a generation of young South African girls with everything she’s accomplished in the sport. Coming from a gym with limited resources and dealing with injury after injury, many of which have threatened to end her career, Caitlin is “fueled by resilience,” according to her coach. But given the chance to train full-time in another wealthier country, Caitlin says she’d be tempted, but wouldn’t do it, because she’s doing this as much for her country as she is for herself.
“I believe I have a lot that I still need to do here in South Africa,” she said. “Not only for myself but for the sport. I believe that being an ambassador for the sport at this point, I can change a lot. I think at some point you start wondering if you should be selling the Olympic dream to the gymnasts that walk in here. There are gymnasts here who train six days a week, five hours a day, and you almost think, ‘Am I selling them a lie?’ So this has really made it achievable. Those little kids are very inspired, very motivated, and we’ve got huge talent coming up. For them, it’s massive.”
Article by Lauren Hopkins