The history and evolution of Gymnastics over time from Olga Korbut to Simone Biles has been one that’s seen many changes. We’ll look at 8 female gymnasts who have made an indelible mark on the world of artistic gymnastics and changed the course of the beautiful sport forever.
Olga Korbut was 17 when she captivated the world with her daring acrobatics and raw displays of emotion in Munich during 1972. With this young woman ushering in an era dominated by lithe women, it came as a stark contrast to Vera Caslavska’s gymnastics or that of Latynina who won all around titles at the Olympics between 1956 and 1968. Though it might have seemed strange to see a teenager compete back in the day, those days are not foreign in today’s gymnastics world. There was an era of domination for decades by youngsters that started when Olga Korbut competed as a teenager.
Korbut was a gymnast that mesmerized audiences with daring performances both on and off the apparatus. Her backflip and “Korbut Flip” on the balance beam is something still seen in today’s women’s gymnastics events. Offstage, her tears of disappointment after botching an uneven bars routine resonated with fans – she bounced right back to win gold medals for the floor exercise and balance beam during the finals just days later.
Nadia Comaneci is an Olympic gymnast who eternally captured the world’s attention. Nadia Comaneci’s legacy is one of the most iconic in the game’s history.
Even before she performed in the games, people from around the globe would flock to see her perform on television and at exhibitions because they knew that Nadia could not be beaten. She is best known for scoring a perfect 10 which occurred during one of her first performances ever as well as being only 14 years old when it happened. At the Olympics, she won gold medals in three events including all-around competitions involving balance beam and uneven bars; silver medal in the team event; and bronze with her floor exercise performance. After Nadia’s success on the uneven bars with a perfect 10 that year, every other performance of this event is measured against hers.
The Romanian innovator acrobat who was a perfectionist like Korbut, also holds two elements named for her including one – straddled front salto on uneven bars- that can still be counted as an E under today’s rules.
Shannon Miller is undeniably the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history. Shannon Miller is a name that needs no introduction to any American sports fan with even an inkling of knowledge about Olympic athletes and their feats. She dominated the scene during her prime time of dominance with seven Olympic medals and nine World Championship medals- that’s more than any other American athlete at either the Olympics or Worlds ever had before (only three Americans have won five total).
Miller led Team USA to a bronze medal and then earned two silver medals, leading the team in both. Miller was part of “The Magnificent Seven,” which won the first-ever American Olympic gold medal for women’s gymnastics in the 1996 Atlanta Games. Olympian Shannon Miller is the only woman to be inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame. Twice! In 2006, she was named an individual athlete and in 2008 her team earned induction for their efforts on behalf of Team USA as well.
Gabby Douglas compiled a magical Olympic career, winning the individual and team all-around gold medal in London 2012. In doing so, she made history as the first American woman to win both individual and team gold medals in Women’s Gymnastics. Notably, Gabby also became the only African-American female gymnast ever to achieve this. Though she fell short during the finals of the individual events, there is one thing that everyone will remember about Gabby: how inspiring she is to other girls who want to be Olympians themselves, a true testament on why you should never give up, because anything can happen with perseverance.
Douglas’s success is inspiring generations of young girls and African-American women who will look up to her as a role model. While growing up, Douglas’ legacy will be all around them in their homes reminding them what it means to have this strength and focus.
In many ways, Svetlana Khorkina was the catalyst for change in women’s gymnastics.
When she started on her quest for all-around gold at the Olympics, everything seemed to go wrong: bad luck followed and she missed her bar routine, had an incorrectly set vault that led to Carly Patterson’s victory. But through it all, Sveta found ways of turning things around by being flexible. Taking into account her long legs and lean physique, Svetlana knew that she had to think outside the box and bend some rules when putting together those difficult moves.
Svetlana’s bar routine was so creative and unique that she dominated the event for nearly a decade. She won her last World title on the uneven bars in 2003, eight years after winning her first. Her style influenced many gymnasts to create routines like hers; some notable examples being two-time Olympic champion Aliya Mustafina from Russia. Khorkina went on to win seven Olympic medals, including back-to-back titles on the uneven bars. She excelled in international competitions and recorded 20 World Championship medals of her own.
Larissa Latynina is a two-time Olympic all-around champion (1956, 1960) and second on the list of most medals won in history (until Michael Phelps broke the record). She has nine golds, five silvers, and four bronzes. She is today the second most decorated Olympian of any sport with 18 medals to her name. Larissa Latynina was often praised for her graceful movements on the floor exercise. In 1956, 1960 and 1964, she won three gold medals, leaving a big impact in her field as one of the most successful Soviet athletes of the time.
She performed with a dancer’s erect posture and classic lines. Her personality commanded her body to be perfect during each routine while being beautiful as well. The Soviets dominated women’s gymnastics at that time, but none could compare with Latynina—she had no equal competitor on any Olympic stage! It is worth mentioning that it wasn’t just because of athleticism or skill, rather sheer hard work. Budding gymnastics can surely learn a lot from the likes of Larissa Latynina, who pushed the limits to make things happen.
As the first female gymnast to win gold in an open-ended scoring system, Nastia Liukin proved that artistry and technique could be combined for successful execution. The daughter of two Olympic champions, Liukin was destined for greatness. Starting from a young age and rising quickly through the ranks in America, she seemed poised to win medals at the Olympics. But fate had other plans:
A string of injuries kept her from competing at the world level to the best of her abilities. This even urged people to advise that she give up the pursuit of an all-around medal. But Liukin knew that much more training would be required before gold could be obtained and destiny fulfilled. When the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games came around, 19-year old Nastia had been training for years. She went on to compete in a fairytale competition and delivered her best when it counted most – withstanding American rival Shawn Johnson’s challenge as reigning World champion by winning the all-around gold medal.
In Beijing, Nastia won five medals: gold in all-around, silvers for team event and beam as well as bronze on the floor exercise. Her tally of 5 medals is tied with Mary Lou Retton’s and Shannon Miller’s medal count at one Olympic games – an impressive feat considering how many world-class athletes participate in these events each year.
Simone Biles had a blazing hot streak in the lead up to Rio’s Olympics. She took home three straight all-around titles from 2013-2015, which caused her to be dubbed as “the Queen of Gymnastics.” In addition, she was able to help Team USA take its second consecutive gold medal at the Olympic games. Following her amazing exploits at the international level, Simone took a one year break from gymnastics. Biles returned to competition in 2018 with a strong performance at the U.S Championships where she won all five gold medals available- a feat not accomplished since 1994 when Dominique Dawes swept them.
In the world championships two months later, Biles bagged medals in all six categories, most notably beating Morgan herd to grab her 4th world all-around title. Biles has quickly established herself as the most decorated female gymnast in World Championships history, and she is on pace to break all of Vitaly Scherbo’s records. Biles holds records for 14 World gold medals overall in her 4 appearances at the Worlds which are unsurpassed by any other woman. She will need three more to pass Vitaly Scherbo’s record with 23 total medals and if anyone can do it – it would be Simone.
The USA’s most decorated Olympic gymnast, Shannon Miller is the first to admit that she might not be able to keep up with Simone Biles’ medal count. Of course, Miller is remembered as the USA’s most decorated Olympic gymnast with seven medals, but she won’t have long to hold onto that distinction if Biles can pull off three in Tokyo.