Let’s be honest, the best part of the Summer Olympics is the gymnastics. Ok, maybe that’s just me, but, to me, it’s such an incredible sport. The dedication involved in becoming a star gymnast is unbelievably taxing. Combine that with the tiny, tiny chance that you might get to compete in the Olympics—talk about having all of your eggs in one basket.
Here’s the basic gist of what it takes:
- Start young, really young. The minimum age to compete in international competitions is 16, but even then you only have a few windows before your competition window closes.
Grueling training hours.
- Each of the 2012 US Olympic gymnasts trained 30+ hours a week. That’s more time than most adults spend at work and it certainly requires more dedication.
- Should you have the skills, technical training, God-given height, and pure determination, only five women are selected for the team each Olympics—save the backups. The involves very specific qualifications including being one of the best “all-arounders,” meaning you have to earn the highest total points in Olympic qualifying competitions.
1. Kerri Strug
If Kerri Strug doesn’t come to mind immediately when you think about Olympic gymnasts, there’s something wrong with you. As a member of the Magnificent Seven, Strug is best remember for performing the vault at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 with an injured ankle. As the last woman on the team to perform the vault and performing under the immense pressure of the potential loss to the Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian teams, Strug badly injured her ankle between her two attempts. In order to clinch the gold, Strug needed to land a second vault on her feet. In what is one of the most inspiring feats in Olympic history, Strug landed the vault on both feet and instantly collapsed, needed her coach to carry her to the winning platform.
2. Olga Korbut
The originator of the “Korbut flip” (see last name), made her debut at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The young Soviet won three gold medals and pulled off a move on the balance beam never seen before in an international competition: a backward flip. However, the highlight of her performance, and what’s now known as the “Korbut flip,” was a standing backward somersault into a swingdown, in which she managed to propel herself backwards, clasping the bar behind her to continue her routine.
3. Gabby Douglas
Gabby Douglas’ performance at the 2012 Olympics will literally go down in history in the best way: she is the first American to win both the individual and team all-around gold medal and she became the first African-American to will the all-around gold. As a member of the “Fierce Five” (along with McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross, and Jordyn Wieber), Douglas was the only gymnast on the team to compete in vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor. Strangely, Douglas also happens to be the first ever all-around champion to fail to medal in an individual event.
4. Nadia Comăneci
In the 1976 Olympics, Nadia Comăneci, who was just 14-years-old, scored a perfect 10.00 on the uneven bars. To put that into a little perspective, the Olympics scoreboard manufacturer was told that four digits were not necessary for scoring because “a perfect 10.0 was not possible.” Along with her perfect 10, Comăneci stood short at the podium with winning gold in all-around, gold on balance beam, silver in the team competition, bronze on floor, and gold (duh) on the uneven bars. In 1980, Comăneci won the gold again on the balance beam, on floor, and took home the silver in the team competition and all-around.
5. Mary Lou Retton
At just 16-years-old, Mary Lou Retton became the first American (male or female) to win the gold medal in gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics. With surprisingly minimal international competition experience, Retton received perfect 10s for her epic performance on vault.
6. Dominique Dawes
Following aforementioned Kerri Strug’s unbelievable performance and subsequent injury, Dominique Dawes stepped in as an alternate in the floor event at the 1996 Olympics. Dawes finished third that year, but became the first African-American gymnast to win an individual Olympic medal. She didn’t disappoint at the following Summer olympics either—Dawes became the first US gymnast to win three team Olympic medals.
7. Shannon Miller
The one thing this Southern star didn’t have by the 1996 Summer Games was an individual gold medal. Miller took home the silver in all-around and on beam in 1992, but it was the subsequent Olympics that ensured her chapter in the history books. Shannon Miller’s elegant balance beam routine made her the first ever American woman to win an individual gold at a fully-attended Summer Olympics. Oh, this also made her the most accomplished—male or female—gymnast in Olympic history.
8. Carly Patterson
The 2003 runner-up at the Gymnastics World Championship proved to be the woman to beat at the Athens Olympics. The world stopped during her signature beam performance, where she received at score of 9.775—and a Silver Medal—for her tucked Arabian double front dismount. The near perfect routine, complete with a gorgeous dismount, vaulted Carly Patterson into one of the biggest stars.
9. McKayla Maroney
Even though McKayla Maroney aggravated a previous break in her big toe, nothing would stop this member of the “Fierce Five” from competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
In the team final, Maroney’s vault contributed 16.233 points to the American team, making it the team’s highest score in the competition—as well as vaulting with an execution average of 9.733, the highest score at an Olympics or world championship under the new women’s gymnastics scoring system.
In her vault final, Maroney cinched the silver medal with a score of 15.083. She performed an Amanar, one of the hardest vaults consisting of two and a half twists in the backward salto. The move is so difficult that its score, a 6.3, is a hefty 0.4 points higher than the much more common double-twisting Yurckenko.
10. Shawn Johnson
In the 2008 Summer Olympics, Shawn Johnson represented the United States in all four events. This Olympics marked the first time that the US Women’s Gymnastics team took both the gold and silver (Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, respectively) medals in the individual all-around competition.
Johnson’s gymnastic trademarks were her consistency to provide powerful and extremely difficult performances on bar. Shawn Johnson entered the record book to be the first American to compete a two and a half twisting yurchenko vault (the famous Amanar), which is still marked as one of the hardest vaults in the world.