One notable trend regarding some of the most distinguished non-Olympians in the history of women’s artistic gymnastics is that they came very close to being 2x Olympians. It may seem like contradictory logic, how can someone who wasn’t good enough to qualify for any Olympic team be in the conversation for being a 2x Olympian? But there is a valid reason for it.
Other than the personal heartbreak of narrowly missing out on an Olympic team, the biggest drawback is that it sets the gymnast up to be terribly paced on her next Olympic attempt. Ideally a gymnast wants to “peak” towards the end of an Olympic quad. A gymnast who peaks right after the Olympics has to maintain a high level of performance for the entire duration of an Olympic quad.
By the time the Olympics come around again said gymnast has become worn out from spending three years as a top contender for the All-Around (AA) and is no longer competitive enough to make the Olympic team. This leaves gymnasts in a position where they were too young and inexperienced to make their first Olympic team only to be too old and dealing with fatigue by the time their second Olympics come around. It results in them narrowly missing out on two Olympic teams. I’ve come up with three examples of gymnasts who were affected by this trend.
Elena Mukhina is best known for her failed 1980 Olympic bid which ended in tragedy. What is not as well known were her Olympic prospects in 1976. In 1975 Mukhina was a virtual unknown in the Soviet system. Starting in 1976 she rapidly shot up the Soviet hierarchy and it became clear to Soviet officials that they had a juggernaut on their hands.
Mukhina’s name was included in the discussion over the 1976 Olympic team. However Soviet officials were reluctant to give a gymnast who was so new to the scene a spot on the Olympic team. By this time Mukhina had barely a few months of strong competitive results and virtually no international experience. It was a completely understandable omission.
Had Mukhina been given a few more months to erase these doubts, she could have made the team. A few more months would have effectively doubled her competitive resume and would have put a major dent in the argument that she was too new to the scene. Those few months could have been gained had the 1976 Olympics not been held at a time when the Olympics were pivoting from the Fall to the Summer. The 1976 Olympics were held six weeks earlier in the year than the 1972 Olympics and three months earlier in the year than the 1964 and 1968 Olympics.
Mukhina’s rapid rise from 1975 to 1976 was marked by a string of injuries. The absence of any one of those injuries also could have been the key difference maker regarding her 1976 Olympic prospects. The lack of injuries could have resulted in Mukhina rising up the ladder even faster and further make a case for her inclusion on the 1976 team.
A few months after the Olympics the Soviets would realize just how significant of a gymnast Mukhina would become. She won the 1976 Junior National Championships and was the top performing Soviet at both the 1977 European Championships and 1978 World Championships. From late 1976 to early 1979 Mukhina was the top gymnast in the Soviet program.
After showing nothing but improvement in 1976, 1977, and 1978, Mukhina would start declining as fatigue and injuries caught up with her in 1979. With the Olympics fast approaching, Soviet officials started to seriously consider the possibility of leaving Mukhina off the 1980 Olympic team. In the end it would be a decision the Soviets would never have to make. A life-shattering injury would make that decision for them. Her injury could have been avoided had Mukhina not been pushed so hard in the final year of her athletic career in an attempt to overcome injury and fatigue.
There is no gymnast who is a more blatant victim of this trend than Oksana Omelianchik. She has the distinction of being the Olympic alternate on two different occasions. Her first stint as an alternate came in 1984 as a member of the ill-fated team that missed the Olympics due to a boycott. Omelianchik had emerged as a junior in 1983 and was extremely raw/inexperienced by the time of the 1984 Olympics.
But in 1985 after a year of gaining experience/growth Omelianchik would emerge as a powerful force and won a share of the AA title at the World Championships that year. She won an AA Bronze at the 1986 World Cup. By the time of the 1987 World Championships Omelianchik had slipped to finishing fifth in the AA and off the podium.
In the buildup to the 1988 Olympics her diminishing results continued with first a fourth place finish and then an eighth place finish at the two major Soviet domestic competitions that were held ahead of the Olympics. The slide was enough to demote her to the position of Olympic alternate for a second time.
Had things gone only slightly better for her in 1984 and 1988, she would have been formally named to two Olympic teams.
There isn’t another example of a gymnast that had worse luck with age limits than Vanessa Atler. Entering the 1996 Olympics Dominique Moceanu was the gymnast the media had pegged as the one to watch. Moceanu even had international experience under her belt thanks to her participation at the 1995 World Championships.
But one of the lesser known details about Moceanu and Atler, they were born only four and a half months apart. Atler missed the 1996 Olympic age limit by just six weeks. Things got even worse for her as the 1996 Olympics was the last time 14 year olds could compete at the senior level. Starting in 1997 the age limit would be raised. This again caused Atler to miss a major competition as the rule change rendered her ineligible for the 1997 World Championships.
Atler was finally age eligible for the 1998 season, only for 1998 to be the one time from 1991-present where there was neither a World Championships or Olympics were held that year. This is spite of there being a World Championships held alongside the Olympics in both 1992 and 1996. Atler would finally make her debut in one of the two major international competitions at the 1999 World Championships. Missing a cutoff by six weeks would ultimately cost Atler four years from Moceanu’s 1995 World Championship debut to Atler making her debut in 1999.
Atler built a name for herself in the non-traditional international competitions as well as making her mark in domestic competition. By the time the 1999 World Championships came around Atler had spent the year dealing with injuries and fatigue. Not at full health, Atler can be described as not truly a full participant at the 1999 World Championships.
At the 2000 Olympic Trials Atler gave one of the worst performances in domestic competition of her career. It was an atrocious performance by Atler standards, but even a bad Atler was still good enough to just barely make the Olympic team. The selection committee felt differently and in one of the most controversial moments in the history of American gymnastics, she was left off the team.
It appeared that her recent decline and injury history outweighed Atler’s brilliance in the earlier parts of the quad as well as the raw athletic talent that dictated she still had potential. Others would take a more cynical take on her omission blaming less the athletic considerations and more on internal politics.
But what if Atler had been born six weeks earlier? She could have been in contention for the 1996 Olympics. With seven team spots available instead of the usual six, she certainty would have had a chance. As the 1996 Junior National Champion she had decent results to justify it. Nor was she raw having finished second at the 1995 Junior National Championships. In 1995 Atler had beaten both Elena Produnova and Viktoria Karpenko in international competition. They were both significantly older than Atler and age eligible for the 1996 Olympics.
The doubts about Atler in 1996 can be erased with her strong performance in 1997 that culminated in winning the National Championship that year. For Atler, if you take away those six weeks you have a gymnast with the results and talent to justify her inclusion on the 1996 Olympic team. It was a team with the most spots available in modern history. This is all happening while being at the height of the “little girl” era where young gymnasts such as Atler and Moceanu were all the rage. It wasn’t only commonplace to add ultra-young gymnasts to Olympic/World Championship teams, at times those types of gymnasts were favored over athletes who weren’t as small or young.
In an alternate history where Atler was a 1996 Olympian, how would her performance at the 2000 Olympic Trials have been received? With the clout and star power of a returning Olympian and a member of the famed Magnificent-7, would the selection committee have ever dared to leave her off the team with those same results? Perhaps her hypothetical 1996 Olympic star power makes the difference in getting Atler on the 2000 Olympic team. That’s the difference Atler missing the age limit by six weeks might have made.
These are the examples I have come up with. There are also examples of gymnasts who defied this trend, most notably Elena Shushunova. She was named to Olympic teams at the very beginning and very end of her senior career. It is a testament to Shushunova’s immense talent that she managed to pull off such a feat. Another example is Peng Peng Lee who missed the 2008 Olympics due to her age and dealt with injuries in 2012 and 2016.