Pop question time: What city has produced the most Olympic medalists in women’s gymnastics?
The answer is not Plano, Texas or Moscow, Russia. In fact, it’s a city so small it is often described as a town instead. It is a place by the name of Pavia that back in 1928 had a population that was only around 50,000 people. But when women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) made its debut at the 1928 Olympics, all 12 members of the Italian team came from Pavia.
Among them was a 12 year old by the name of Carla Marangoni. But Carla wasn’t the youngest member of the Italian team. She was actually the third youngest member. The 1928 Italian team is not remembered for the fact that the entire team came from a single city, but for being by far the youngest team in WAG history. The average age of the team was only 13 years old. The team of literal children would end up winning the silver medal in the team competition.
There’s not much to say about Carla as an athlete. At the 1928 Olympics WAG didn’t have any individual events and was based around group exercises. Not that such a distinction matters as media coverage of WAG hardly went in-depth enough to cover individual athletes. But Carla does have the distinction of being the sixth youngest medalist in Olympic history.
For Olympians who competed in an era of WAG where only the teams were covered and little is said about the athletes on an individual basis, it is how those athletes live their lives after the Olympics end that allows them to establish a legacy. And no one on that team lived quite the life that Carla did.
After the Olympics and the resulting victory tours had died down, Carla found herself without a future in the sport. Athletic opportunities for women were limited and to make matters worse, WAG was not included in the following Olympics. Carla would return to Pavia where she took a job as an accountant and also worked for the Pavia Department of Transportation. Carla has the distinction of being one of the first women in Italy to have a driver’s license. She also has a passion for the water and was also amongst the first women in Italy to obtain a boating license.
When Carla reached her 100th birthday she started receiving widespread recognition for her story. Carla would frequently grant interviews describing herself as the “beautiful blonde” in team pictures. She would talk about her experiences during World War II recalling the German occupation of her city. Carla would cite one story where she attempted to give water to a captured Italian partisan.
She never married and would frequently quirk “but by my choice” and would point out that lacking a husband opened up opportunities that wouldn’t have been unavailable to her in married life. One common theme in interviews is her being surrounded by a loving family of nephews and nieces.
It doesn’t matter that Carla competed in literally the earliest era of WAG. She still displayed the attitude of a modern Olympian. Her wit and sarcasm is reminiscent of WAG greats such as Chusovitina and Latynina. The same can be said for her passion for life. And of course the passion for an active lifestyle.
She expressed joy in following the Italian WAG team and watched all the recent Olympic games. She also insisted on a daily exercise regimen. In the final days of Carla’s life when she was bedridden, Carla was quoted as saying, “I have to get up and get back in shape. I need some exercise.”
But she was also willing to be blunt about certain things. Carla openly expressed shame for the 1928 Italian team meeting with Benito Mussolini. If there are two lessons to be learned from the 1928 Italian team, it’s that from its inception WAG has always had child athletes and authoritarian regimes have always used them as tools for propaganda purposes.
It wasn’t until the final years of her life when Carla was giving interviews that she learned (from journalists) about the tragic fate of the Dutch gymnasts that had beaten her. Carla would also critique the sport for the physical toll it took on her body and conveyed concern over how much worse the strain, stress, and pressure must be for modern gymnasts. As for what happened to her medal, she lost track of it somewhere along the way in her long life.
Carla died in January of 2018 at the age of 102. She would be the last surviving athlete of the 1928 Olympics and also has the distinction of outliving every 1932 Olympian as well. She passed away in the same place she spent her whole life, Pavia.