What we learned from the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships 2021

The event in Kitakyushu - a first in an Olympic year since 1996 - showed a glimpse of what's to come in the sport in the years ahead

By Scott Bregman
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

The 2021 artistic gymnastics season has come to an end.

With medals decided at both the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and last week's World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Kitakyushu, Japan, it's been a thrilling year of ups-and-downs, high and lows, heartbreak and triumph.

Here's a look back at what we learned from the action from the world championships - and don't despair, we'll do it all again in 12 months time at the 2022 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Liverpool (29 October to 6 November)!

Olympic champions Melnikova, Andrade shine

Tokyo 2020 gold medallist Angelina Melnikova and Rebeca Andrade have had a busy 2021 season.

After winning gold at this year's Olympic Games, Melnikova (team) and Andrade (vault) have both been enjoying the spoils of their success. Yet, both were able to – with minimal training time – keep their form and claim another historic title.

For Melnikova, her world all-around victory was the first by a non-American since 2010 when Aliya Mustafina took the title.

"I feel like I made history," Melnikova said of ending the American stranglehold on the event. "I feel very tired. I feel exhausted. I had only one month to prepare for this competition. And I thought I can't do my old routines. I was really surprised about my routines. I did all I wanted."

Andrade’s gold on the vault was a dream realized and came after injuries kept her out of the 2017 and 2019 worlds.

"Many people didn't believe in me when I got injured. Today, I'm here to show the world that everything is possible if you chase what you really want," she continued. "You can do it if you have people who believe in you. I had all the support, physical and emotional, so I could come back, that was really important."

Future of men’s gymnastics is bright

The men’s all-around final was one of the most compelling events in Kitakyushu. The gold and silver medals went right down to the wire.

With just .017 separating champion Zhang Boheng of China and Japan’s Hashimoto Daiki, the Olympic champion, the future looks bright for men’s gymnastics internationally.

Hashimoto, 20, missed out on a chance to become the sport’s youngest world all-around champion ever. But knows the two will likely face off in future finals, something he and Zhang both said they’re looking forward to.

"It means we have more possibility because we may compete for many years," said Zhang, 21. "It's good for gymnastics."

Spreading the wealth

With many athletes who claimed medals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 choosing to sit these championships out, other athletes capitalized.

Italy (4) won the third most medals in the overall standings, behind traditional powerhouses China and Japan (8 each), and Nichola Bartolini’s gold medal on floor was a first for the nation. The last Italian man to claim gold at the world championships came in 1997.

Other historic feats came from Team USA’s Stephen Nedoroscik who won the U.S.’s first-ever title on the event, and Carlos Yulo’s gold on the vault was a first for the Philippines.

Japanese legends enjoy home crowd

Two of Japan’s greatest gymnasts ever - Uchimura Kohei and Murakami Mai, took part in Kitakyushu, enjoying home-country fans after none were allowed at Tokyo 2020 in 2021 as a COVID-19 countermeasure.

For Uchimura, who finished sixth in the horizontal bar final, it was a story of redemption. The two-time Olympic all-around champion has struggled with injuries in his post-Rio 2016 career. At one point, he thought about stepping away from the sport but instead chose to focus only on the high bar.

He qualified to the Tokyo Olympics, but crashed out early, missing a pirouetting element in the qualifying round and not making the final.

Uchimura got redemption in front of his hometown crowd in Kitakyushu.

He’s left the door open for more gymnastics in his future.

"This meet just finished so it’s difficult for me to say one way or another, right here right now", he told Olympics.com. "What I do know is that I was reminded once again how tough and fun gymnastics is at the same time - to stick the landing in front of a crowd and appreciate what the sport is all about.

"I can’t just say right here right now, ‘Oh I gave it everything I have, I’m quitting’. I think I need time to think by myself and see what I really want to do from here.”

After winning her second world title on the floor exercise, Murakami announced she would retire from the sport, having had a sendoff she could only have dreamed of.

"Thank you everyone. I am retiring as of today,” Murakami said. "I hope I was able to give you one last joy. I cannot describe how grateful I am. I've managed to come this far and I owe it to all of you.”

A time of transition for Team USA’s women

The U.S. women came away with three medals, but Kitakyushu marked the first time the once totally dominate American women failed to take the all-around gold medal at world or Olympic competition in a decade. It’s their first worlds without a gold medal since 2006 and their smallest medal tally since 2002.

Their team silver medal at the recent Tokyo Olympics was the first time they had not won the gold medal at a global event since the 2010 worlds.

The future of the U.S. program is very much in flux, with four-time Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles unsure of her future in the sport.

“I'm trying to take it one step at a time. I really feel like I haven't fully got to process Tokyo yet. So, once I fully understand and process that, I'm sure it'll lead me towards which direction I want to go towards,” she told Olympics.com late last month.

“In the back of my head, it's like, ‘Yeah, I'm going to do it’ but then my body and everything else tells me no,” Biles continued. “I have to gauge it. I'm not sure yet.”

If Biles decides to hang up her grips, the U.S. may find itself lacking in depth. The nation, which has had a seemingly endless talent pipeline in recent memory, had a somewhat depleted junior field at the U.S. championships earlier this year. In 2013 and 2017, 29 and 28, respectively, competitors competed in the all-around both days of competition, while in 2021, the number was just 13.

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