The Returning Olympians At Rio – Part 1

Hong Un Jong (PRK)

The surprise winner of Olympic Gold on vault in Beijing was the first individual qualified to the Rio Olympics as her silver in Glasgow secured her berth to the Olympic Games.

Hong’s journey to Rio has been a difficult one, after stealing the spotlight in Beijing 2008, Hong attended the 2009 Worlds as favorite for the World Vault Title but fell on her two vaults and finished 5th. At the time it was thought as the most embarrassing thing that could happen to Hong, as she had crashed both her vaults while being the reigning Olympic Champion however a year later the disappointment of London would be nothing compared to what it was to come.

On the eve of the 2010 World Championships Hong’s supposedly older sister was discovered to actually being her twin sister, which didn’t surprise many since the girls looked so much alike that it was difficult to tell them apart. The fact that the gymnasts were twins meant that her sister, Hong Su Jong, had competed at the Athens Olympics while being underage as they were both born in 1989 opposed to Hong Su Jong’s original birthdate of 1985.

The FIG’s resolution to ban North Korea for two full years from October 2010 till October 2012 from any international competition made many wonder if the artistic gymnastics program could survive two years of complete inactivity. But when they were allowed to re-emerge into the international scene, Hong was looking better than ever as if the scandal and those two years had not affected her at all.

Hong remerged at the Asian Games in November 2012 where she won gold on vault and repeated the result in 2014. At the World Championships she has medalled at every one of them and now has a collection of gold (2014), silver (2015) and bronze (2013). She’s a strong candidate for the vault podium which, if she could reach, would be particularly historic given the country’s age controversy scandal and the fact that she could repeat the win 8 years after originally claiming her first title.

Phan Thi Ha Thanh (VIE)

The day before her 16th birthday, Phan earned a direct berth into the London Olympics with her historic bronze for Vietnam on vault at the 2011 World Championship. She was third reserve for the Olympic Vault Final and was present at the 2013 and 2014 World Championships vault finals. Phan, who won silver on beam at the 2014 Asian Games, qualified for her second Olympics at the Test Event with a score of 52.700

Jessica López (VEN)

Jessica López, who has long lived and trained in the United States, attended her first Olympics in Beijing 2008 where she finished 43rd in the qualification round. Since then she has only improved and has collected several medals at different major international championships.

Her repertoire includes 10 Central American Games medals as well as high placements in the all-around final at the 2010 and 2014 World Championships where she placed 10th and 8th, respectively. At the London Olympics she finished 18th and in Rio 2016, at age 30, Jessica will aim to improve her London 2012 result.

Ana Sofía Gómez Porras (GUA)

The Guatemalan prodigy rose to prominence at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games because of her beam routine, which included a back handspring with a full twist, a skill typically performed by Romanian gymnasts, and despite her youth and inexperience she performed it with a perfect landing.

The 2011 PanAmerican Games were her competition as she was the silver medallist in the all-around and won the beam title. Ana Sofia, who is coached by Romanian Adrian Boboc who recuited her in 2005, is a talented all-arounder that has a double twisting Yurchenko, a stable bars routine, a high difficulty beam set and a floor exercise that earned her bronze at the 2015 PanAmerican Championships.

At the London Olympics she finished 22nd becoming the second gymnast from Guatemala to reach an Olympic all-around final, in 1992 Luisa Portocarrero finished in 18th place. Ana Sofia trained for several weeks in Tijuana, Mexico in preparation for the Test Event where she finished in 8th place in the all-around with a score of 55.498.

In Rio 2016 she will aim to make history for her country by becoming the first gymnast to reach two Olympic all-around finals. She will also try to place as high as possible in her strongest event, the beam; in London 2012 she finished in 19th place.

Giulia Steingruber (SUI)

Switzerland has earned an individual berth for the Rio Olympics that can be appointed to any gymnast the Swiss Federation decides however it is almost a given that it will go to Giulia Steingruber who has been their most successful gymnast in the last four years.

In London 2012 Giulia finished 14th in the all-around and was the first reserve for the vault final. Since then she has reached all three World All-Around Finals, with a historic fifth place finish in 2015, and all three World Vault Finals with a high fourth place finish in 2013; she also qualified to the World Floor final in 2013 and 2015 having to withdraw from it in 2015 as she sustained a knee injury during the vault final.

Giulia had the highest all-around score at the Test Event with a 57.607 and she will aim for three finals at the upcoming Olympics in Rio: all-around, vault and floor. But for now, Giulia who has won a total of 7 European medals, including all-around gold in 2015, is ready to lead her team at the European Championships set to take place in home-soil, Bern, in early June.

Larissa Iordache or Catalina Ponor (ROU)

Sadly April 17th marked the end of an era for Romanian gymnastics as they failed to qualify a full team to the Olympics and they are now entitled to only one spot. The Romanian Federation has already announced it will go to either Larissa Iordache or Catalina Ponor.

Larissa Iordache is the strong favourite as she has been the only World medallist Romania has had in four years, collecting two medals in the all-around and two on floor. A strong favourite in London 2012 Larissa was injured shortly before the start of Games and therefore could not perform to her full potential finishing in a disappointing 9th place in the all-around and 6th on beam.

Rio is meant to be her second chance and she could easily reach the all-around, beam and floor finals but a broken finger forced her to miss the Test Event and she has now underwent a second operation. By now Larissa has lost too much training time which is making the scale tilt towards Catalina Ponor, the veteran that saw Romania fill with glory at the 2004 Olympics.

Catalina was a huge part of Romania’s success in Athens as she contributed with the highest beam and floor scores in the team final and then went on to win gold on both of them at the event finals.  After retiring in 2007 Catalina made a comeback, praised as amazing, for the London Olympics where she earned silver on Floor and team Bronze as well as finishing fourth on beam due to a tie breaking rule.

Today at 28 years old, Catalina looks as fit as she was a decade ago and if elected to represent her country in Rio, she could aim to two finals, beam and floor, as Catalina has never competed all-around in her career.

Vasiliki Millousi (GRE)

Greece can decide between Argyro Afrati or Vasiliki Millousi as their representative for the upcoming Olympics, however it is Vasiliki who is the heavy favourite for the spot. Vassiliki is a veteran from the 2000 Sydney Games, yes from back when the millennium was actually new.

At the time Vasiliki was only 18 years old and finished 55th in the all-around qualification round. Afterwards she retired for a long period of time and was not present at the Athens 2004 or Beijing 2008 Games.

The elegant Greek gymnast resurged in 2009 who in the qualification round of the European Championships surprised by entering in first place to the beam final, a fall left her in seventh in the actual final  but a few months later she went on to win gold on beam at the 2009 Mediterranean Games.

Since then Vasiliki’s name has become synonym of beam beauty with enough difficulty to win plenty of medals in the World Cup Circuit as well as being a finalist at the 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015 European Championships.

At the London Olympics Vassiliki finished 34th in the all-around in the qualification round as well as placing 18th in the balance beam, her strongest event. At age 32, Vassiliki will hope to attend her third and last Olympics expecting to improve both results. 

Oksana Chusovitina (UZB)

At the 1990 Goodwill Games new senior, Oksana Chusovitina, won gold on vault without knowing that the achievement would be the beginning of a career that would expand for 26 years. At the 1991 World Championships Oksana took the title on Floor representing the soon-to-be extinct Soviet Union and in Barcelona 1992, as part of the Unified Team, she contributed to the last Team Title won by Soviet gymnasts. Standing with her in the podium was Svetlana Boginskaya without knowing that two decades later she would be her personal coach.

By the time Sydney rolled around, she attended her third Olympics as a married woman and mother of a baby boy. Two years later a mother’s worst fear came true as her son was diagnosed with leukemia; seeking help for her son she went to Germany where he received treatment and where she trained and acquired citizenship. Representing Germany she attended her fifth Olympics in Beijing 2008 where, at age 33, she finished 9th in the all-around and won silver on vault.

Oksana has seen the sport evolve in over two decades, she started her senior career at a time where a perfect 10 was still possible, saw the new vaulting table appear with the start of the millennium and the 10 scoring system come to an end in 2006; all of these while representing 3 different countries. At last year’s World Championships, 40-year-old Oksana surprised by competing the Produnova vault, because you know 40 is the perfect age to learn the most difficult vault in the code.

Oksana secured her spot for her 7th Olympics at the Test Event with a total of 52.465. In Rio she will be aiming for the vault final while competing alongside gymnasts that are younger than her own son.

RELATED ARTICLES:

The Returning Olympians – Part 2

Ana Sofía Gómez Interview: “Adrian Boboc recruited me in 2005”

Rio in Review: How Did The Returning Olympians Do?

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