There has never been a gymnastics world championships quite like the event that unfolded at the weekend in Kitakyushu, a northern city on Kyushu Island in Japan. In a sport so intense that it is difficult for gymnasts to maintain their peak physical form and workload for extended periods, another major championship so soon after the Olympics forced many gymnasts to make a decision on their participation for an event that is usually the focal point of their year.
For most, the choice was simple: Simone Biles and her teammates are currently trawling across the United States on her gymnastics tour, some are simply back home relaxing with an eye on the future and others have retired after a gruelling four years. To some onlookers, this world championships carried little relevance due to its depleted field, an event without all of the best gymnasts in the world, but after a week of competition Rebeca Andrade indicated she could well be the leading all-around gymnast in the coming years.
Few athletes have enjoyed the type of breakout year the 22-year-old from just outside São Paulo has had. In Tokyo, she became Brazil’s first women’s Olympic medallist in gymnastics, winning silver in a thrilling all-around final, and then immediately became their first gold medallist, by winning the vault competition. In Kitakyushu, despite as a precautionary measuredeciding against not to competingtetaking the precaution of not competing in the floor exercise – a presentation that is now iconic in her country due to the use of the Brazilian funk song Baile de Favela – she is now also the vault world champion and a silver medallist on uneven bars.
In turn, her popularity has exploded. She now commands 2.4m followers on Instagram, one of the highest figures among gymnasts, and she spent her time after the Olympics mixing cautious training with intense promo. She is currently on the cover of Vogue in Brazil.
Even her historic, trailblazing successes don’t fully convey her rare talent and the significance of her arrival. She was not born into money like some of the gymnasts – as she looked to follow her dreams in the infancy of her career her mother often did not have enough money to take public transport to her gym.
Her perseverance has been the running theme throughout her life. It was essential when she was a child to remain motivated through circumstances that were far from ideal. It guided her through her extremely difficult, well-documented career obstacles as she found the strength to recover from three torn-ACL surgeries and to continue to execute the toughest vaults. That Brazil’s first Olympic women’s gymnastics medallist is black is also extremely significant, as evidenced by Daiane dos Santos, a former Brazilian world champion, weeping on television after Andrade’s victory.
“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,” said Andrade on Saturday. “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.”
She is a true all-around gymnast with the ability to thrive in all events while combining supreme power, technique and grace. She possesses arguably the best ‘Cheng’ vault in the world, a vault that only Biles and a select few other gymnasts use in competition.
She is smooth and elegant on uneven bars, powerful and expressive on the floor. It was only in Tokyo that Andrade debuted the Cheng, a game-changer for her in both the all-around and vault finals. While most other gymnasts, with the exception of Biles, fight to squeeze in all required twists, Andrade seems to have all the time in the world as she hangs in the air.
She got a vault gold medal in Kitakyushu, but even more notable was what she did on her second apparatus. Uneven bars has long been Andrade’s favourite event, where she is smooth and has great range on all skills, but she finally cleaned up certain pirouettes enough to generate an enormous 15.1 in qualifying. It is one of the biggest international scores of the year and half a point higher than the strong scores she has been registering over the past couple of years. Similar routines will only increase her scoring potential, and her chances of winning big all-around titles, in the coming years.
Andrade entered the uneven bars final with the opportunity to snatch a second gold, but she couldn’t quite grasp it. Instead she showed her intelligence and composure by thinking her way out of the routine after nearly making a mistake, rejigging it and doing enough to leave with a silver medal. After starting the summer without a single major medal in her possession, she now has four.
Back in Tokyo, as Andrade reckoned with her long-awaited success, one of her most striking attributes was her openness in front of the camera. She spent long periods in the media mixed zone explaining her trials while suggesting that those back home could use her success as inspiration. Now she stands as one of the towering athletes in her sport as attention slowly shifts towards the Olympics in Paris.