Going into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, while the US Women’s’ Gymnastics team is again expected to be a very strong one much of the attention of the media is likely to focus on a single member; 19 year old Simone Biles.
And to be fair, Biles deserves all of the buzz that is currently following her around as she almost inevitably heads to her first Olympics. Her competition pedigree is fantastic, she’s a three-time World all-around champion (2013-15), a three-time United States national all-around champion (2013-15), three-time world floor champion (2013-15), two-time world balance beam champion (2014, 2015) and the first woman to win three consecutive world all-around titles. Her routines are uniquely buoyant and exciting and she carries herself with a humility that is a little unexpected in a field as competitive as Artistic Gymnastics.
So no one will be surprised if she makes a great many waves – and maybe even breaks more records – in Rio. And indeed right now everyone is expecting her to. And if, and when she does, she’ll be in some impressive company. A number of other young gymnasts have managed to live up to – and exceed – the standards expected of them by a tough public and even tougher media. Most of us, including many young gymnasts, are more than aware of the legacies of the Furious Five and their performances at the 2012 Olympics but were you aware of the pressure these three stellar young Olympiads from the past were also under a great deal of media pressure when they went to their first Olympics?
Not only is Sawao Kato one of the most successful Olympic gymnasts of all time he is one of the most decorated Olympians in general, having won twelve Olympic medals, including eight gold, during a professional career the spanned 1968 to 1977. He is still one of only ten athletes to have won eight or more Olympic gold medals in any sport.
Kato’s first Olympics, in 1968 in Mexico, may have personally been his toughest however as he was competing in the shadows of his already successful and very popular older brother Takeshi. Together they helped the Japanese team bring home the team gold but it was the younger, self-admitted ‘shy boy’ Kato who grabbed individual gold, in the all-around competition and on the floor. And all at the age of just 19 years old, with his big brother cheering him on all the way.
Sawao went on to become the most popular Japanese athlete, outside of baseball, in history and now, even at 70, he continues to teach, serving as a professor emeritus of Health and Physical Education at the University of Tsukuba.
Just as the ladies of the FF helped to popularize gymnastics in general for girls in the US in the ‘Noughty Tens, the striking, All American blond Bart Conner inspired a generation – and beyond – of young men to take up the sport in the 1980s.
At the time men’s gymnastics had long been dominated by the Eastern European teams, but thanks to Conner, and fellow US star Kurt Thomas, the US men’s teams that competed at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics were some of the most promising in years and their 1984 gold medal winning performance – and Conner’s individual gold on the parallel bars – is now the stuff of legend.
But all of this is not the most inspiring thing about Conner. As a child he was told, in no uncertain terms, that he was totally unsuited for competitive gymnastics. He was, coaches said, too short, too injury prone and too poor at tumbling to be all that good. According to his former teammates and coaches though, his determination, dedication and originality made up for all of that and he has the medals and accolades to back it up! After his retirement Conner continued his commitment to gymnastics education for all via the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, which he operates with his wife of over twenty years, a certain Romanian gymnast named Nadia Comăneci.
As we just mentioned, Nadia Comăneci and Bart Conner have been married and working as a team for over 20 years. And although she is four years younger than her hubby, by the time he competed in his first Olympics she was already a legend, even though it was her first Olympics as well.
Born into relative poverty in Onești, Romania, Nadia’s fate was sealed when the legendary Béla Károlyi was on a scouting trip looking for students for his new experimental gymnastics school. He spotted Nadia doing cartwheels with a friend in her schoolyard and then spent days convincing her to become one of the first pupils (the friend, Viorica Dumitru, went on to be one of Romania’s top ballerinas)
By the time the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal came around, the world was already more than aware of just who Nadia Comăneci was, even though she was just 14. The year before she had taken the 1975 European Championships in Skien, Norway, by storm winning the all-around and gold medals on every event but the floor exercise, in which she placed second. She had been named the United Press International’s “Female Athlete of the Year” for 1975, so the pressure to perform big in Canada was huge.
And perform she did, famously becoming the first gymnast to score a perfect ten, via her routine on the parallel bars. In fact she scored six more of them as well, en route to capturing the all-around, beam, and bars titles, and a bronze medal on the floor exercise.
Nadia’s Olympic career was cut short when she defected to the United States in 1984 after having been forbidden to compete in the Olympics that year because of the fears she would defect, following in the footsteps of Béla and Márta Károlyi. Once in the US though she reconnected with the boy she had first met in 1976, Bart Conner. Oddly enough though she is still enough of a national heroine in Romania that she and Bart were invited back to Bucharest to be married in the former presidential palace and their wedding was televised live!
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