A lot of these have been written and talked about before, but here are my top 16 gymnastics moments of the year. Did I miss any on your list? Please leave a comment below.
16. Hamilton Sabot’s Joy. The smooth Frenchman lit up the North Greenwich Arena with his joy at winning Olympic bronze on parallel bars after the performance of a lifetime. Sabot, who went up second in the final, was not really expected to medal, but in the moment he performed a superb clean set (I think of it as liquid parallel bars) that only two of the other seven competitors could better.
15. Gold to the Boy From the Greenhouse. It wasn’t until after he’d won the Olympic gold medal on vault that the world (and his coach) learned that Korea’s Yang Hak Seon and his parents had been living in poverty in a converted greenhouse made of PVC pipes, or that he’d grown up in a shantytown or that, at 17, he’d been supporting his family with his national team salary.
14. The Brazilian Women’s Reaction to Qualifying a Team to London. If you ever wondered what unfettered joy looks like, it’s here.
13. Jordan Jovtchev’s Grit. Most athletes don’t opt to march in opening ceremonies because a) they’re leg athletes and walking in opening ceremonies requires lining up outside the stadium and standing for several hours before they actually go in or b) They have to compete the next morning. Both applied to Jovtchev, but the night before the Olympic prelims, he stood in for several hours to carry the Bulgarian flag in his sixth Olympics. His presence in London was supposed to be the footnote of a great career. Nobody kidded themselves — Bulgaria’s best ever was far more competitive 10 years ago. Yet he did all-around at the London Test Event and earned his spot at his sixth Olympic Games doing what he’s done since the mid-90s: clean, solid gymnastics. He did it again in prelims, earning himself a spot in event finals and writing an unforgettable story.
12. A Portrait of Perfection. Say what you like about Viktoria Komova’s demeanor off the podium — her floor routine from the Olympic all-around finals was as close as anyone has come to perfection on floor this quad. No, artistically it wasn’t a palatable routine, and that’s on Russia’s choreographers, who (mis)chose the Queen/Amy Winehouse blend she danced to at the Olympics. But Komova tumbled and performed her heart out, giving one of the quad’s more memorable performances and showing that amidst all the little hops and steps we see on floor these days, perfection is possible.
11. Philipp Boy Walking Away. No, not from the sport. The image in my mind is Boy limping off the floor podium in London after hitting a full difficulty set in team prelims for the German men. His efforts were in vain — the Germans made team finals, but medalling was never really expected. The disappointment was sharper for Boy — as the two-time World all-around silver medallist, he was expected to exit London with at least one Olympic medal of his own. Boy never complained. He just kept doing routines. And hitting them.
10. A Moment for Krisztian Berki. Even among the gymnastics-obsessed it’s difficult to find someone who loves pommel horse more than, say, uneven bars. Maybe that’s why there was little outcry when Hungary’s Krisztian Berki, whom those who do pay attention to horse have called the best ever to do the event, was overlooked for a wildcard spot to the 2008 Olympic Games on the grounds that he was European, and Europeans were overrepresented in the sport. (Honestly, you’d think this was rhythmic gymnastics or something.) So how gratifying to see Berki win the gold medal on his marquee (indeed, his only event) after waiting four years for another opportunity.
9. Canada in the Top Five. Few would have projected the deep, talented Canadian women’s team in the top five at the Olympics. The Canadians looked great all quad, in fact, scooping up numerous World Cup medals and posting respectable numbers in every competition they entered. Why didn’t we see it earlier? Lack of precedent, perhaps. Four years after qualifying only two athletes to the Games in women’s gymnastics, Canada put together the most consistent, talented team in memory, and they delivered not only with their top five placement but in qualifying two athletes for vault finals and one to the all-around final. They also left three Olympics-worthy athletes at home in Peng-Peng Lee (ACL tear), Jessica Savona and Mikaela Gerber.
8. China Dominates Beam in London. This was a scenario we’d been waiting for for years. Quads. Decades, even. At some point, Tim Daggett said that when the Chinese finally capture consistency, they would be utterly dominant. This was the case in 2012. Props to both Deng Linlin and Sui Lu for hanging on in the strikingly competitive atmosphere of the Chinese team for another four long years, and looking their very best for the biggest event of them all.
7. Aly Raisman’s Gold on Floor. It was just such a dominating performance. That’s a rare thing these days too. I won’t go so far as to say that Raisman’s “Hava Nagila” is one of the great artistic routines or anything like that, but her mastery of this event is uncanny, and the routine she delivered in event finals after all the excitement of team and all the disappointment of the individual all-around was remarkable. She made you respect the routine, and she didn’t just win due to her start value. She won because she did it so well. And didn’t you just love how she mouthed “Wow” as she saluted?
6. McKayla Maroney’s Vault. That vault. You know the one. So much has already been written about it that there’s nothing to add. The expression of the judge off to the side really said it all.
5. Kristian Thomas’s Vault. Every bit as good as McKayla’s, yet not enough has been written about it. Thomas’s stuck Yurchenko double pike in team finals was the men’s version of McKayla’s — technically precise and perfectly landed — and it electrified the British team halfway through their competition. They finished with an outstanding bronze, an incredible achievement for a country that won its first Olympic medal in gymnastics in a century only four short years ago.
4. Gold for the Flying Dutchman, Finally. In some ways this was the quad of not-so-fairy tale endings. The competition would unfold, there would be storybook performances by this or that favorite and we would wait with baited breath for the score that would give the prince or princess of the meet the victory — and alas, things would turn out just a little differently than anticipated. That’s gymnastics. Epke Zonderland had his moment of this at the 2010 World Championships, in his country, with the crown prince of the nation in the audience specifically to see his final. But all’s well that ends well — after silvers at the World Championships in 2010 and 2011, Zonderland got his well-deserved gold in London in one of the best Olympic high bar finals ever. For him, it was a fairy tale ending after all.
3. Aliya’s Redemption. The most decorated gymnast (and most decorated Russian athlete) of the Games settled once and for all the question of whether it’s possible to come back after an ACL tear. And Aliya Mustafina did it with such determination and style. So much style.
2. Kohei the King. Superman. Whatever. He was about as close as you can come to perfection for the entire quadrennium, but only in London, with his ninth place finish in all-around prelims, did Kohei Uchimura begin to seem human. Which made his meteoric comeback in all-around finals that much more exciting and special.
1. Gabby the Great. By winning the 2012 Olympic all-around title, Gabrielle Douglas did more than just prove the naysayers who had doubted her for a year wrong — she became an inspiration to millions of young girls around the globe. She implicitly proved (and more explicitly said later on) that it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white (or anything in between), rich or poor, grew up in a mansion or spent time living in a van, you too can become an Olympic champion in gymnastics. What a powerful message to spur a new generation of dreamers. No doubt the 2020 Olympic champion was watching these Games and wondering whether it could all come true for her. The answer, of course, is that it will.
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