By Gina Pongetti Angeletti with Christy Sandmaier
Photos by Grace Chiu and Ricardo Bufolin
It wasn’t part of the plan, that’s for sure.
Given the the untimely knee injury and subsequent absence of Jade Barbosa following an awkward landing on vault, Brazil counted scores in qualifications they just couldn’t have foreseen and just simply couldn’t overcome. Barbosa was visibly in pain saluting and stepping away from the podium and as Brazil advanced to the uneven bars, she donned her grips, conversing with coaches and medical staff about her desire to perform her routine. In the end, the safety of the athlete and the risk that would have ensued trumped her in-the-moment belief in herself and passion for the sport.
Of course, the stakes were high knowing Brazil’s team performance in qualifications was their determining factor for Tokyo. Furthermore, without injured powerhouse teammate Rebecca Andrade on the floor, the pressure was on more than ever. But it was not to be—a 14th-place finish left them 1.425 points behind 12th-place Spain, with Australia missing the cut by just one place.
But the story isn’t over.
A 54.932 earned fan-favorite Flavia Saraiva 11th place in women’s all-around prelims, qualifying her for finals—where she ultimately placed seventh. Saraiva also secured the first of 20 individual all-around spots for Tokyo. In floor finals, she finished just off the podium in fourth, but had us smiling throughout with her captivating performance and personality.
It was bittersweet for Saraiva and certainly not the momentum the women’s team and the overall program had hoped for after their 2016 Olympic success.
In Rio, we remember the arenas filled with screaming and smiling fans from across the world, but most notable was the Brazilian presence. Olympic exposure often translates to a post-Games boost in enrollment in local clubs, resulting in a long-term positive effect for the sport. What remains to be seen is what impact these results will have on the future. Sometimes from the greatest adversity comes the greatest motivation and results.
Barbosa, on the international scene since 2006, has had a history of injuries in recent years. She missed the 2013 Worlds because of a torn Achilles. In 2015, knee surgery kept her out of competition. Most devastating though, was the ankle injury which occurred mid-floor routine during the Rio all-around finals, keeping her from the rest of the competition.
Twenty year-old teammate Rebeca Andrade, also a Rio 2016 Olympian, tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her knee in 2015, and re-injured it at the 2017 Worlds in Montreal. Earlier this year at the Brazilian National Championships, she injured it again. Andrade was notably missing from Worlds as she continues her rehab, and Barbosa assumed leadership on and off the floor for her team.
Of note, Andrade is currently sitting in seventh position for the nominative Olympic qualifying spot for vault with 30 points, while American Jade Carey is leading with 85. Similarly, Andrade sits 10th on bars with 25 points, and seventh on balance beam with 30. Because there are four World Cup events left to acquire points, the possibility is still open for Saraiva to gain a teammate in Tokyo.
Andrade’s slew of injuries doesn’t appear to concern her. As quoted on her Instagram account, “This is normal when the sport you practice requires a lot of your body. I was ready for everything. I am strong and confident that everything will work and the best is yet to come.”
The concern, however, is the loss of momentum in a country that gave of itself for an Olympic Games and where the sport of gymnastics took a huge international spotlight because of the rise to success of the Brazilian men and women. Of Brazil’s performance, U.S. National Team High Performance Team Coordinator Tom Forster stated, “I feel really bad for them. They work really hard. I know they’ve really put a lot into it, so I’m really sad for them.”
In terms of coaching and coordination, the connection to the United States in Stuttgart was quite pervasive. Liang Chow, who coached Shawn Johnson and Gabby Douglas, was on site as the head coach of the women’s team from China, a position officially announced in June 2018. Mihai Brestyan, notably Aly Raisman’s personal coach, was hired as Women’s Artistic Gymnastics National Coach for Australia following the Rio Olympics. Just this week, Gymnastics Australia announced that they and Brestyan have mutually agreed to finish Brestyan’s contract in November after two and a half years working together.
World and Olympic Champion Nastia Liukin’s father Valeri, also the former National Team Coordinator for the United States, has worked with the Brazilian team over the last year. He still resides in the U.S., and travels back and forth to Brazil each month to coach, manage, and organize National Team camps. His presence in Brazil is to bring organization, overall conditioning, and a long-term plan that can be sustained for current elite athletes, and for the cultivation and creation of the next generation. It is hard to say whether a year’s worth of time is enough for him to have made a difference, but coming into Stuttgart, and even throughout podium training, the Brazilian women looked energized, dynamic and ready.
So while Brazil had hoped for more in Stuttgart, there were shining moments, too. Along with Saraiva’s qualification to Tokyo, the Brazilian men’s team qualified a full team to the Games in 10th. And, in the last moment of the meet, the last event of the entire Championships—and one of the most exciting and emotional—Artur Nory Mariano captured the gold medal on high bar. “It’s because I love gymnastics and I love the feeling,” he says of the sport. “I love to compete so it makes me feel good. That’s why I’m always smiling.”
With stars like Nory and Saraiva, who have a huge fan base in the country, and perhaps a little fire for team success reignited, the sport is still poised for a great future.