By Anna Rose Johnson
With Simone Biles’ impressive comeback last year and several more comebacks from major athletes in the works, we thought it would be fun to look back at a handful of the greatest comebacks in the history of women’s artistic gymnastics! We’re highlighting five celebrated athletes who took significant time off from the sport and then achieved stunning successes in their comebacks.
Certainly one of the most high profile comebacks in recent years, USA’s Alicia Sacramone was a staple on the international scene from 2005-2008, winning multiple medals at every World Championships during that time. A three-event specialist, Sacramone was a rare talent on vault, beam, and floor, but she ended up retiring after the 2008 Olympics, where she just missed a medal in a disappointing vault final. Taking 2009 off to explore other opportunities, Sacramone eventually returned to training and exploded back onto the gymnastics scene with a dominant performance at the 2010 U.S. Classic. From there, she went on to capture gold on vault at the 2010 World Championships—a medal she’d coveted for her entire career.
Particularly known for her talents on vault and floor exercise, Romania’s Sandra Izbaşa began her major international career at the 2006 World Championships, where she won the silver medal on balance beam and placed third in the all-around final. Building on this early success, Izbaşa helped her team to a bronze at 2007 Worlds and culminated the quadrennium with an unexpected gold on floor in Beijing—finishing ahead of floor favorites Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. Disaster struck in 2009, when she tore her Achilles tendon prior to Worlds and could not compete for a full year. After a somewhat unsuccessful performance at Worlds in 2010 and another injury in 2011, Izbaşa could have called it quits then and there. But the persistent Romanian returned to peak form just in time for the 2012 Olympics, where she surprised herself—and the rest of the world—by winning gold on vault ahead of 2011 World vault champion McKayla Maroney.
The name Catalina Ponor has become synonymous with Romanian gymnastics, and she’s left an indelible mark on her sport in much the same way that Nadia Comaneci and Lavinia Miloșovici did years before. Like Sacramone, Ponor was a three-event specialist, and she made her major debut at the 2003 World Championships in Anaheim. At that memorable competition, she won a trio of gold medals in the team, beam, and floor finals. She repeated this amazing feat the following year at the 2004 Olympic Games! But Ponor struggled after the Code of Points overhaul and retired in late 2007 due to injuries. Yet she couldn’t stay away from the sport she loved, and the 2012 Olympic Games were her incredible reward: she played an instrumental role in Romania’s team bronze, and she also won the floor exercise silver!
Long before she won gold in Atlanta ’96 as a member of the Magnificent Seven team, Dominique Dawes had stamped her name as a frontrunner on the international gymnastics scene. Leading the 1993 World Championships after three rotations, Dawes ended up placing fourth in the all-around final after a mistake on vault. She rebounded in event finals, however, where she won medals on bars and beam. Continuing to tumble her way to the medal podium, Dawes’s inclusion on the 1996 team was merely a confirmation of her brilliant success throughout the quad. After Atlanta, she turned her focus to professional sports and her education at the University of Maryland, but in early 2000, Dawes made the decision to try for the Sydney Olympics. Returning to remarkable form in a very short amount of time, Dawes once again proved her prowess on every event, helping the U.S. team to a bronze medal.
One of our favorite comeback stories ever is that of USA’s Chellsie Memmel. A superstar at the 2005 World Championships, Memmel not only won the all-around gold ahead of future Olympic champ Nastia Liukin, but she also snagged medals on bars and beam as well. But at the 2006 World Championships, Memmel sustained an injury during the team final, where she fought hard to ensure a medal for the U.S. in an extremely competitive field. She helped to save the silver medal for her country, but unfortunately, Memmel spent the next year in a long recovery phase. By early 2008, the focus had shifted to Liukin and Shawn Johnson, but Memmel produced breathtaking performances in the lead-up to Beijing, including an unforgettable floor routine at the Olympic Trials that earned her a standing ovation from the crowd. Despite an ankle injury during the Olympics, she contributed an important uneven bars routine in the team final, and they ultimately won a silver medal.
Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com