Rebeca Andrade was 13 years old when she first debuted her Amanar, one of the hardest vaults in women’s gymnastics. Between her age and background from a non-traditional gymnastics country, it was immediately striking. But even more notable was just how good it was. Andrade soared high above the vaulting table, her legs were squeezed tightly together and she seemed to have endless time to complete its 2½ twists. Those early vaults proved a small glimpse into one of the most talented gymnasts of her generation.
It has taken eight years for the Brazilian to finally reach a status in the sport that so many hoped she would one day attain, but one of the most uplifting stories of the Tokyo Olympics has been the sight of her finally doing so. After winning a silver medal in the women’s all-around final, on Sunday Andrade became an Olympic champion in her own right by winning the vault competition.
Andrade, 22, is now Brazil’s first Olympic champion in women’s gymnastics and she won the gold medal after scoring an average of 15.083 from two extremely difficult vaults: a wonderful Cheng that she debuted in Tokyo, and the Amanar that she had not attempted in competition for some years. Both were executed with imperfect landings, but her supreme amplitude, technique and form were enough for her to win. MyKayla Skinner, who replaced Simone Biles, her teammate, closed off her career with a silver medal while Yeo Seojeong of South Korea won bronze.
In the eight years since Andrade slowly emerged, gymnastics has not always been kind to her. After becoming a senior in 2015, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament while training a vault and over the following years she tore her ACL two more times. After each lengthy layoff, she would return and her swift progress would only underline her talent, but each time she appeared to be on the cusp of excellence she would face another major setback.
The most recent ACL tear came in 2019, forcing Andrade to miss the world championships, which was also an Olympic qualifying event. In the absence of their best gymnast, Brazil failed to qualify a team for Tokyo. After returning to competition weeks before the pandemic struck, in June Andrade participated in the final qualifying event at the Pan American Games in Rio. Fortunately for Andrade, the event went ahead despite some doubt over its viability as Covid-19 rages in Brazil. She won the all-around competition and with it her spot in Tokyo.
Andrade arrived in Tokyo with many months of preparation behind her, and she has been sublime. Even though erratic landings on the floor exercise kept her from an all-around gold medal, she is clearly the most complete gymnast in Tokyo in the absence of Biles. Andrade is dynamic on vault, smooth on uneven bars and she combines big tumbling with boundless charisma on the floor. Her combination of power, technique, amplitude and charisma is about all an all-around gymnast could need.
None of those qualities are new. To some she has long been the second most talented gymnast of her generation behind Biles. What her time in Tokyo has rather underlined is that her talent is paired with a level of resilience and tenacity that has guided her through so many setbacks and allowed her to not only come out the other side, but to soar now that she finally has.
In the uneven bars final, the two-time world champion Nina Derwael of Belgium became Olympic champion on the apparatus. The all-around gold medallist Sunisa Lee, her biggest competition, missed vital connections in her routine but remained solid enough to secure a bronze medal. Anastasia Ilyankova of the Russian Olympic Committee won the silver medal.