At the women’s team gymnastics competition of this year’s Pan American Championships, held in Rio de Janeiro in mid-July, the home squad showed out, beating the once-unbeatable United States by almost 2 points. It was the first time Brazil accomplished this feat since 1997, and it shocked the gymnastics world.
Well: It sort of shocked some individuals in the U.S.-focused gymnastics world, but it shouldn’t have—for several reasons. First, Brazil sent its “A” team (which included reigning Olympic and world vault gold medalist Rebeca Andrade and two-time Olympian Flavia Saraiva), while the U.S.—already in the midst of a long overdue reckoning that includes an overhaul of the national team’s coaching—sent several talented but green senior elites to accompany 2021 world bronze medalist Kayla DiCello. Absent were such veterans as Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, who have decided to balance a return to elite competition with successful careers in the NCAA.
But also: Brazil is awesome at gymnastics! Brazil has, in fact, been awesome at gymnastics for many years: The team has placed in the top 10 at numerous Olympics and World Championships, and until Simone Biles began competing, 2003 world floor exercise gold medalist Daiane dos Santos was the most incredible female tumbler the world had ever seen. (Like Biles, dos Santos has two difficult floor skills named after her. Unlike Biles, dos Santos spent much of her career competing under the Perfect 10 system, in which her absurd difficulty wasn’t even rewarded.) Shuffle over, futebol: The country with the world’s dopest flag should be famous for gymnastics!
It may not take long. As long as Andrade and Saraiva are healthy, Brazil looks poised to contend with the current post-Russia gymnastics powerhouses—China and the U.S., yes, but also the rest of the Tokyo Olympics’ top field, including Great Britain, Italy, and Japan. In fact, if Brazil wins a team medal in the team competition at 2022 Worlds (its current highest showing is fifth, in 2007), it will be the first nation from South America to do so. Brazil would, indeed, be the first nation to medal at Worlds from outside the usual suspects of the U.S., the former Eastern Bloc, Japan, China, and a hand-count of European wild cards. Hooray!
So, objectively, how good is Brazil now? Assuming their athletes are in not-quite peak condition this early in the year—and that the home-country advantage at Pan Ams bestowed a few tenths upon them—let’s look at how the medal-winning performances of Andrade, Saraiva, and co. compare to the A-team performances from other non-Russian players.
Andrade’s vault in the team final at Pan Ams was a double-twisting Yurchenko, a difficult exercise to be sure, but easier than the hardest vaults she can do. Because the field here lacked, say, a Jade Carey or a MyKayla Skinner (both of whom, along with Andrade, competed the top-tier Cheng and Amanar at the most recent Olympics), the reigning Tokyo vault gold medalist did not need to throw either of her more difficult skills, which are rough on the body on a good day and catastrophically injurious on a bad one.
Still, Andrade’s DTY was sky-high and breathtakingly clean, garnering a terrific 9.5 execution score that, when added to the DTY’s 5.0 difficulty rating, gave her a solid 14.5. This is already a good international score, but even more so given the dramatic across-the-board devaluation of vault difficulty for the 2024 quadrennium; the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) made this adjustment to remedy a perceived imbalance in scoring that favored teams with strong vaulters—disadvantaging those who excel on, say, bars or beam. Had Andrade competed either of her marquee vaults (which she can also do with 9.5 execution or thereabouts) at Pan Ams, the half-point or so she’d have gained in difficulty would have put her hovering around that magical 15. That keeps her squarely in “best in the world” range. Carey and Korea’s Yeo Seo-jeong remain the only perceptible threats to an uninjured Andrade on vault.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting with Andrade: In addition to pulling out the team competition’s best vault score, she also won the uneven bars final with a 14.967. Andrade did not compete in the individual uneven bars contest at last year’s Olympics, but had that exact score been transposed to Tokyo, it would have put her in silver-medal position behind Belgian legend Nina Derwael. Again, giant overpriced artisanal grain of Himalayan pink salt for the home-gym advantage Andrade enjoyed in an off year—but still! Her bar routine boasted an enviable 6.1 difficulty score, and her 8.867 execution mark was phenomenal for an event famous for its deductions. (The highest execution score in Tokyo, for example, was Derwael’s 8.5.)
This feat on the bars on its own was world-class, but it is supremely rare for an artistic gymnast in the 21st century to be that good at bars while also being that good at vault. It’s usually an either/or game—see, for example, Simone Biles’ quoted-to-death wish to take a chainsaw to the unevens. This combination of abilities is so rare because vault is a lower body–centered power event, where the gymnast essentially tries to destroy the apparatus, while the uneven bars are an upper body–centered rhythm event, where the apparatus essentially tries to destroy the gymnast. Seeing Andrade score close to 15 on bars—where her full-difficulty vaults will do the same, even with the new devalued Code—it is hard to question her status as a World gold medal contender, again.
And here’s the thing: Rebeca Andrade was not even the star of Pan Ams. That would be her teammate, Flavia Saraiva. Andrade, who at 23 years old has injured her ACL a horrific three times, did not compete in the vault, floor, or all-around finals. It was Saraiva who won the all-around—beating out American Lexi Zeiss (who is no slouch) by more than a point. Saraiva also won the balance beam final, and though her difficulty score of 5.8 was not Olympic-medal caliber (China’s prodigious Guan Chenchen pulled a near-unbelievable 6.6 in Tokyo), her execution score of 8.633 was very, very high. And her second-place floor routine lacked Jade Carey–level tumbling (no one but Carey can boast that) and featured a few minor landing blips, but it still displayed lovely execution in the air.
The upshot of these performances is that Brazil has a decent chance to medal at World Championships later this year in Liverpool. To win? Not super likely; the U.S. might not have Simone Biles right now, but with Carey, Chiles, Leanne Wong, and even Suni Lee planning returns to the elite field this year or next, Worlds without Russia is still probably the Americans’ to lose, and China is always formidable. (However: Saraiva’s Pan Am all-around still scored higher than Wong’s winning all-around performance at the recent U.S. Classic—but the Americans’ true potential this year won’t be on display until the U.S. Championships later this month.) But if Tokyo taught us anything, it is that gymnastics is full of surprises—and if Brazil’s gymnasts have the absolute meet of everyone’s life at Worlds, and all else remains equal, they have a definite fighting chance to contend with Japan, the U.K., Italy, and every other top team to get on that podium.
If that happens, the results for gymnastics could be transformative, over and above how overjoyed that would make most of the gymnastics fandom. The Brazilian squad is internationally beloved for their execution, grit, and sportsmanship, so it is possibly a result of that reputation—plus that aforementioned home-gym bump—that makes fans like me eager to proclaim Brazil a major player. But still: In a world minus Simone Biles and the entire country of Russia plus Rebeca Andrade? The numbers bear it out.
A potential Brazil world team medal would be most transformative, however, because it would send a clear message that the usual titans of the gymnastics-industrial complex—where the Eastern Bloc aesthetic dominated for more than a half-century, and only began to give way in the recent era of U.S. dominance that may now be receding—no longer have a chokehold on the sport. A medal-winning team from a continent where gymnastics—an expensive indoor endeavor—has often been infrastructurally and financially less feasible could potentially encourage more countries to invest in young athletes and programs. This in turn would cause the best possible use of the Russia-free era, furthering the sport around the world so that if and when that country is allowed to return to competition, they face a substantially more competitive global field.
Amid women’s gymnastics’ many calamities, atrocities, scandals, reckonings, restructurings, and seismic shifts—in the U.S. obviously, but almost all top programs have a history of repression or abuse in one way or another; if you think Eastern Bloc coaching methodology equaling gold medal dominance is a coincidence, you are mistaken—there is a stubborn glimmer of real change. And for once, that glimmer resides so far outside the usual dominant forces that it might just grow, all on its own, to a full-blown shine.