Sports

The End of an Era of American Gymnastics

This year’s world championships showed just how much the international competition has suddenly changed.

Melnikova in her leotard with her arms splayed outward and behind her, her head turned to her right
Russia’s Angelina Melnikova in the women’s all-around final during the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at the Kitakyushu City Gymnasium in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka prefecture, in Japan, on Thursday. Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Do not let her ballerina bone structure and ethereal hair-halo fool you into thinking 21-year-old Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova is anything other than an absolute beast. Last Thursday, Melnikova returned to Japan—a scant two months after nabbing team gold and individual all-around bronze at the Tokyo Olympics—and hit great routines on all four events to claim the title of 2021 World All-Around Champion.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Melnikova’s triumphant clamber to the apex of the 2021 podium marks the first time a Russian (sorry, a Russian Gymnastics Federation representative; the nation you got to know this summer as the Russian Olympic Committee or ROC is still technically banned!) has occupied that particular space since the iconic Aliya Mustafina in 2010. But it also marks the first time an American gymnast hasn’t since Mustafina’s victory. Jordyn Wieber claimed the title in 2011, edging past Russian great Viktoria Komova by a razor-thin 0.033 margin; bespectacled hero of our hearts Morgan Hurd tumbled from relative obscurity to top the medal stand in 2017; and in literally every other year there was a Worlds between the end of the aughts and now, that title went to an American you’ve probably never heard of by the name of Simone Biles.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In fact, until Biles’ heroic withdrawal from several events in Tokyo suddenly turned those Games into a spirited contest—resulting in the well-deserved international superstardom of, among others, surprise gold medalists Rebeca Andrade, Suni Lee, and Jade Carey, as well as the ROC’s dramatic team victory—the U.S. gymnastics program was considered unstoppable by just about everyone. Just about everyone, that is, but head Russian women’s coach Valentina Rodionenko, whose scathing comments about the American squad in early 2021 turned out to be prescient, if lacking nuance in favor of good old Boris-and-Natasha–level trash talk. (It’s worth pointing out here that regardless of Rodionenko’s comments, the mood in Tokyo’s Ariake Arena between the alleged death-rivals was sweet.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

And so, with Russia’s Olympic gold fresh in the mind, when Melnikova nudged aside rising American stars Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello (the latter of whom won bronze despite a fall!), the first question seeping out of the mouths of a USA-centric casual gymnastics fandom is probably: What happened? Is the U.S. program doomed now? Was that it?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Well, it’s complicated. And the many reasons it’s complicated sketch out a fascinating picture of a future in which American gymnastics is, indeed, not entirely about winning big international meets. (Although, to be fair, it is highly probable that starting next year, American gymnasts may resume winning big international meets, albeit not by Biles-level margins.)

So, first of all, let me be Lake Baikal–clear: Wong and DiCello did not lose the World Championship—winning a silver and bronze medal is not “losing,” though it is true that Melnikova won, yes. And she won because she is, at present, the best. Had Brazil’s Andrade or Japan’s Mai Murakami chosen to compete in the all-around contest at these Championships, that might not have been the case. Either or both could have knocked Wong and DiCello off the podium altogether, too. But they didn’t compete in the all-around, and Melnikova did, beautifully.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Hardcore U.S. gym stans may argue that Melnikova’s difficulty isn’t as high as gymnastics difficulty has been in recent years. She doesn’t, for example, compete the treacherous two-and-a-half-twisting Amanar vault once ubiquitous in the U.S. program. (In fact, the only gymnast in the 2021 vault field who can compete the Amanar is Andrade—and she didn’t throw one in qualifying.) And, OK, fine, Melnikova’s stellar opening tumbling pass on floor exercise (a full-twisting double layout) is an “H”-level skill (worth 0.8 in difficulty), unlike, say, Carey’s laid-out double double (a more difficult “I,” worth 0.9) or the triple-twisting Biles II (“J,” 1.0). However—the Russian’s minor issues on the dastardly wolf turn aside—Melnikova’s form on floor was breathtaking; her 8.333 execution score even with that turn’s pirouette weirdness is quite impressive for that notoriously low-scoring event. (For comparison, Carey’s Olympic gold-medal routine went 8.033 execution with zero big mistakes.) Melnikova’s difficulty, whilst not Biles-level, is still astronomical, and she hit all four of her routines.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Second of all, Wong and DiCello (both Tokyo alternates) were anything but slouches in their senior Worlds debuts. Wong performed gorgeously, and was within three-tenths of Melnikova’s score; had the Russian made just two more minor mistakes—we’re talking slightly bent knees or small landing steps!—the podium would have looked different.

Advertisement

Furthermore, DiCello gracing the medal stand even counting a fall is the kind of thing a certain GOAT used to do. These two inexperienced American gymnasts came to their first Worlds under tremendous pressure and outperformed many seasoned gym-watchers’ expectations (including, I readily admit, this one, who did not take for granted any Stars and Stripes on the podium at all).

Still, the question remaineth begged: The U.S. still has the alleged deepest gymnastics program in the world—so why was the 2021 Worlds field so green? Where was anyone from Tokyo, or anyone else who narrowly missed out on the Games?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Well, this is where things get interesting, and different from any quadrennial preceding: For the first time in American gymnastics history, the answer is: They were having fun and making money doing gymnastics, two things that presence on the U.S. national team has, with rare exceptions, traditionally precluded. Suni Lee is currently balancing (on five-inch heels) a successful run on Dancing With the Stars with first-year courses at Auburn University, where she will be War Eagling in burnt orange and navy come January. Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles, and Jade Carey—along with a massive roster of gymnastics royalty from MyKayla Skinner and Katelyn Ohashi to Laurie Hernandez and Chellsie Memmel—are currently crisscrossing the country with Biles’ Gold Over America Tour, rocking out under spotlights to a blaring BTS soundtrack and, presumably, depositing checks.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

So what about Worlds 2022? I don’t think so: When the tour’s complete, McCallum, Chiles, Carey, and Co. will join Lee, Kara Eaker, Emma Malabuyo, Riley McCusker, and innumerable other former U.S. National Team members in the NCAA, where they will practice at a capped 20 hours per week (elites usually train about 35-40), obliterate lower-difficulty routines, and celebrate maniacally with their teammates in front of apoplectic (hopefully vaccinated) capacity crowds. And—here’s the important part—thanks to the change in the NCAA’s name-image-likeness rules, they can do the whole thing drowning in #sponcon money.

Advertisement

Women’s artistic gymnastics in the U.S. has come a long way since the days of amateur-only participation, but even today, most elite-level gymnasts lose money on everything from club tuition to the extravagantly bedazzled custom-made leotards they usually only get to wear once. Furthermore, even under director Tom Forster’s kinder, gentler (or at any rate not outwardly abusive) national team program, “fun” is not foremost: “Camps” are still high on stress and managed nutrition but low on singalongs and s’mores, and the pressure of international competition during an ongoing pandemic remains intense. So if you’re one of those gymnasts, and you don’t have to do it—why do it, if you don’t really, really want to?

Advertisement

With viral NCAA sensations such as Ohashi, Nia Dennis, and Margzetta Frazier heightening non-elite gymnastics’ visibility and publicizing college, not the Olympics, as the real goal of most serious competitive gymnasts (which it is)—combined with Biles’ groundbreaking prioritizing of her health and life in Tokyo, which resulted in a near-universal outpouring of support from anyone who isn’t a twerp—many American gymnasts may well be discovering they don’t need a punishing, lengthy international career under the auspices of an organization that has, even now, yet to right its considerable wrongs. Following Biles’ example, many may simply, very reasonably, nope out.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Still, these attractive alternatives aside, the U.S. pipeline of stellar juniors set to come of age before 2024 is stacked as always. Furthermore, some Tokyo competitors, such as Lee (and even, yes, Biles as an event specialist) have not ruled Paris out. It remains to be seen what kind of senior program will spring forth from the ashes of the abusive dynasty that prioritized medals over young women—but, just given the sport’s popularity with young girls, and the world-caliber clubs on American soil, the U.S. will absolutely keep winning medals—though without Biles, the color of those medals is TBD. And this is largely due to both rising and senior talent in the international field, from the magnificence of Andrade to the shocking Tokyo bronze from Great Britain, from a vault field that currently includes gymnasts from Egypt and Israel to China (otherworldly on balance beam) and, last but the polar opposite of least, Russia.

Advertisement

The ROC’s Olympic win wasn’t a fluke. They bested a Biles-less U.S. by 3 points. There’s no Russian NCAA to tempt Melnikova with money and fun (indeed, Russian Olympic gold medalists get mad rubles for life!), and her Worlds teammate Vladislava Urazova, as well as Tokyo teammates Viktoria Listunova and Lilia Akhaimova, are young, hungry, very good, and likely to remain that way. So, yes, while the U.S. is still formidable (two athletes on a Worlds podium!), to an extent we have not seen in more than a decade, these Worlds solidified a sense born in Tokyo that women’s artistic gymnastics is no longer the Americans’ world that everyone else just lives in. Indeed, without Biles, it may never be again.

Advertisement
Advertisement

How the American gymnastics program will forge its post-Biles, post-Karolyi legacy remains to be seen. The World Championships directly after an Olympics are notoriously low-key, even when competitors are given an entire year to train, rather than the mere months of our COVID-weird 2021. We won’t see the true state of the world-field affairs until at least this time next year (and if the pandemic is still hanging on to this extent, possibly not even then). All that’s certain right now is this: Angelina Melnikova, the best gymnast in the world, is not an American—and the American gymnasts, between their college fun and multitudinous paid engagements, are cheering for her as hard as anyone.

Advertisement