It was always going to be a heck of a bars final. This is, without a doubt, the deepest event final field in the woman’s events, meaning it could have gone any way among the top handful of women. But this was not the only reason why last night’s bars final was to be spectacular for gymnastics fans. It was also the way that so many gymnast’s stories would be rounded out by this particular final. Like the vault final was seen as Oksana Chusovitina’s swansong, the bars final had the capacity to be a hugely significant point in some of these gymnasts careers. It was the culmination of some incredible journeys in gymnastics. And this was particularly the case for the three magnificent gymnasts who graced the podium at the end of the bars final. If experience really is the teacher of all things, then every young gymnast working her way up the ranks can stand to learn a thing or two or three from these three women.
I said in my wrap of the all around that I am yet another Johnny-come-lately Mustafina fan. I have never warmed quickly to the gymnast who busts out of the junior ranks and immediately takes all. Ironically, in a sport notorious for its incredible difficulty, I seem to be lukewarm about things coming too easily. So, despite the fact that it was plainly evident that this young woman who captured the World crown in 2010 was one of the most interesting things to come to international gymnastics, I did not warm up straight away. Despite this tepid reaction, the thing that intrigued me back then, however, was the way in which she competed. Fierce, aloof and with disquieting calm she moved through her all around competition with the air of someone who could not lose. It was mesmerizing to watch. Where outrageous talent won’t get you, self-belief certainly will.
It was the memory of this that probably made her Europeans campaign earlier this year so brutal to watch. After a horrendous injury and what felt like an interminable recovery period, the gymnast who had been in such tranquil possession of her outstanding difficulty has disappeared and been replaced by someone older and wiser- wiser to the fact she was both fallible and breakable. It was hard to watch. These Olympics, however, have shown us, and perhaps her coaches, who seemed rather reticent in being hopeful about her coming Olympic performance, that this was a blip on the radar of a true competitive spirit. London has seen the return of that dangerous calm we saw in 2010. Few can muster it on call like Mustafina.
But we can be grateful for her injury, too, in some ways. Because it brought us new edges, new dimensions to Mustafina’s gymnastics. For one, her bars, which were already outstanding became even better for that forced time off her feet. One gets the feeling she could breeze through those complex transitions in her sleep. But the other, oft-commented upon new element of Mustafina in these Olympics is her obvious joy in her results. She does not seem to feel entitled to the win, in the way a young athlete who does not know losing tends to. Instead, there is a palpable sense of joy in her successes, both small and large. Her bronze in the all-around was greeted with the same air of delight as her gold last night.
The new career longevity we are seeing in gymnastics, partly thanks to great improvements in sports technology and medicine, practices that allow an athlete like Mustafina to return to the sport after such an injury and still be competitive, means that we get to watch these athletes mature into the sport, always bringing new shades to both their gymnastics and their personality. It is lovely to watch.
Ah, He Kexin. It was not so long ago that fans were debating whether it was worth the bother and the risk to bring He Kexin to London with the Chinese team. In fact, if the Chinese national program had been a little deeper than it is currently, one would have to wonder if we would have had the privilege of getting to see the young Chinese star defend her title on the podium last night. After 2009, when she repeated her Olympic performance to clinch the World Championships title, the career of He Kexin has been rocky to say the least. We have seen injury, falls, loss of form and the inevitable change in body shape all take their toll on the her career at times. In fact, unlike Tweddle, it feels as though the routine she won her silver with last night has changed less than everything else. But four years after that first triumph, He Kexin did the untold. She returned to her form of 2008 in the sense that she hit her routine at the precise times she has needed to on three different occasions. In the big picture of the last four years for He Kexin, this is immense. She should be so proud of this silver medal.
For Beth Tweddle this was the make it or break it moment. Tweddle has been a force in the World Championship realm, earning medals and titles on her pet events many times over the last decade. But the Olympic medal has eluded her. It was a galling loss in 2008 that saw Tweddle land in fourth place despite her thrilling bars routine and spectacular skill set. But it was this loss and the fact that her next Olympic outing would be on home turf that kept the fire in her belly, despite the relentless run of injury, the ever-growing international depth on her most likely medal apparatus and the fact that the British gymnastics national program itself is rapidly improving. But if Beth was well enough to be on that team, even for one event, then Beth Tweddle would be on that Olympic team- such was the debt she was owed. Before the term British gymnastics could be tied to a string of names like Smith, Keatings, Whelan, Tunney and more, Beth Tweddle basically was British gymnastics. Beth started the trend and became the tradition that followed her of good, strong gymnastics from a country that seemed to know its gymnastics better than it could actually do it. And the gratitude for this is played out in so many ways- in the money donated to keep an ice machine by her bed, in the misty-eyed, choke-throated commentary of the usually brisk and business like BBC team, in the words of admiration so quick to come to her team mates lips when asked about ‘our Beth’.
There is not a doubt in my mind that Beth Tweddle is less than satisfied with that bronze medal she won last night. Sure, on one hand she is probably totally rapt to finally win that Olympic medal- and in front of a British crowd no less. But the competitive fire that resides in a gymnast who willingly submits to the hard hours of training well into adulthood, the lack of social life, the operations, the constant media attention, the aforesaid ice machine by the bed for the sake of just one more Olympics, bronze and silver are not gold. But it is that very hunger that has made her so special in this sport and it is that drive and desire to always improve that has made her gymnastics so incredible. While some older gymnasts do not take the risk on the embattled body, settling for a maintenance of skills to vie for team spots and medals. Not so for Tweddle, who has continued to innovate and upgrade as if she were a fourteen-year-old hopeful. For every new young wunderkind that marches up the ranks with a special penchant or talent for bars or floor, there is another half twist, another connection Beth can add to her routine. And so she does. A fighter like that has only one thing on her mind- the win. But like Izbasa, Tweddle is not just the story of last night, she is the story of a dozen cumulated years of success and failure, of stagnancy and innovation, of limelight and loss. And like Chusovitina, the win is the very career itself. Last night’s medal was more for the British than Beth in some ways. But all those other medals, all those other moments are for her and for the fans who saw every moment along the way.
The three girls who lined up on the podium after the bars final know all about the gymnastics school of hard knocks. Between them every kind of adversity that can touch the life of a young gymnast has hit, and at times hit hard. This is what made this podium so, so special last night. Every medal was hard-fought in a battle that spanned not just the thirty seconds they swung for their life last night, but in the days, months and years that preceded this Olympic moment. Viva experience!
Article: Brigid McCarthy
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