Five famous female gymnasts who revolutionized the sport
Tickets to the artistic gymnastics competition are some of the hottest at any Olympic Games.
At Tokyo 2020, billions around the world will tune in to watch the top gymnasts on the planet, including arguably the greatest female of all time, displaying their physical and technical brilliance in pursuit of a gold medal and with a special place in history guaranteed for any athlete who innovates and breaks records on the biggest stage.
Here are five women who have done exactly that in gymnastics.
Olga Korbut, a new era in women’s artistic gymnastics
At the Munich 1972 Olympic Games, 17-year-old Olga Korbut captivated the world with her daring acrobatics and her raw displays of emotion. Korbut ushered in an era of gymnastics dominated by young, lithe women. It came in stark contrast to the gymnastics of Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union’s Larisa Latynina, who won the all-around titles at the 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games. Both made their Olympic debuts in their 20s.
While competing into the late teenage years and early twenties – not to mention Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina who has competed into her forties – is commonplace again today, Korbut marks the beginning of an age of gymnastics dominated for decades by youngsters.
She also brought a performance value that was mesmerizing both on and off the apparatus. Her back flip and Korbut flip on the balance beam were daring at the time and are elements still used in women’s gymnastics today. Off the events, Korbut’s tears of disappointment after a botched uneven bars routine cost her any chance at the all-around gold medal drew fans in. She bounced back during the apparatus finals a few days later, winning the gold medals in the balance beam and floor exercise finals.
Nadia Comaneci, the first perfect 10
Best known for being the first woman to score a perfect 10.0 in Olympic competition, Nadia Comaneci’s legacy extends beyond making the three digit scoreboards of Montreal 1976 obsolete. (Comaneci’s perfect mark was famously displayed as a 1.00 at the Olympic Games in Montreal.)
Comaneci’s perfect score opened the flood gates. After earning her first 10.0 on the uneven bars, she went on to score six more before the Games were over. The Soviet Union’s Nellie Kim also scored two 10.0s in Montreal.
Before the International Gymnastics Federation changed the code of points in 2006 to an open ended system, 41 perfect scores were recorded in Olympic women’s artistic gymnastics competition.
But Comaneci, much like Korbut, was also an innovator acrobatically. She has two elements named for her, including one – a straddled front salto on the uneven bars – that still carries an E value under the current set of rules.
Svetlana Khorkina, a unique path to success
Though bad luck seemed to follow her quest for all-around gold at the Olympics – a missed bar routine, an incorrectly set vault, a surging Carly Patterson – Svetlana Khorkina’s revolutionary style forever changed gymnastics.
Khorkina’s long legs and lean physique meant she had to think outside the box when putting together her routines.
The Russian's creativity resulted in eight named elements in the code of points. Two vaults. Three maneuvers on the uneven bars. Two elements on the balance beam. And one jump on the floor exercise.
Her unique style on the uneven bars helped her dominate the event for nearly a decade. She won her last World title on the event in 2003, eight years after winning her first. The way she floated back and forth between the bars heavily influenced the direction of the uneven bars, perhaps most notably in two-time Olympic uneven bars champion and compatriot Aliya Mustafina.
Khorkina won seven Olympic medals, including back-to-back titles on the uneven bars. She won World and European medals on all four events and in the all-around. Her 20 World Championship medals is equaled only by Simone Biles.
Nastia Liukin, combining difficulty and execution in open ended scoring
The first woman to win the Olympics in the era of the open ended scoring system, Nastia Liukin, proved that artistry and execution could still be combined to achieve success in a set of rules focused on amassing difficulty.
For Liukin, the daughter of Olympic champion Valeri Liukin and rhythmic gymnastics World champion Anna Liukin (nee-Kotchneva), at times Olympic gold seemed like destiny. She was a prodigy, rising rapidly through the U.S. junior ranks. Though too young to compete at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Liukin’s scores at the 2004 U.S. Championships would have ranked her third in the senior competition.
But despite her early success, a major international all-around title eluded Liukin. In 2005, she missed out on the World title to teammate Chellsie Memmel by .001. In 2006 and 2007, injuries kept Liukin from full strength at the Worlds, causing some to suggest she stop training in the all-around.
Undeterred, the then 19-year-old Liukin persevered through to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. In a fairytale competition, Liukin delivered her best when it counted most, holding off American rival and reigning World champion Shawn Johnson. In her trademark pink leotard, Liukin became the third U.S. woman to win the Olympic all-around gold medal. She went on to win medals in three of the four individual apparatus finals.
Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time
Simone Biles dominated women’s gymnastics in the lead up to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, winning three straight World all-around titles – a first by a woman – from 2013-2015. She followed those wins by taking the all-around gold medal in Rio. With teammates Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, and Madison Kocian, she helped Team USA win its second-straight team gold medal at the Games. All-in-all, she left Rio with four gold medals and a bronze, as well as superstar status.
After a year away from the sport, Biles returned to competition in 2018.
And it looked like no time had passed. At just her second competition back, the U.S. Championships, Biles won all five available gold medals. That feat hadn’t been accomplished in more than a decade since Dominique Dawes swept the U.S. nationals in 1994.
Two months later at the World Championships, she walked away with medals in all six categories, unseating teammate Morgan Hurd to win her fourth World all-around title. In four appearances at the Worlds, Biles holds the records for most World gold medals at 14 and is tied for most medals overall by a female gymnast with Khorkina at 20. In 2019, she’ll need three medals to pass Vitaly Scherbo’s overall record (23), and has in her locker a set of moves that no other female has ever performed in competition.
Though Shannon Miller remains the USA’s most decorated Olympic gymnast with seven, Biles needs only to collect three medals in Tokyo to add that superlative to her resume.