Italy: An Overlooked Gymnastics Program

The title of this article may sound strange. Italy recently won a team medal at the 2019 World Championships and their new class of first year seniors is one of the most talked about quartets in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). How could any of that be described as being overlooked?

I use the term “overlooked” because the commentary regarding Italy often features an attitude that it was a strong class of juniors (that are now seniors) that have single-handedly propelled Italy onto the medal podium. What Italy did at the 2019 World Championships is now being invoked as a model for other countries to follow, most notably Romania.

What this commentary and the attention being paid to the Italian quartet misses is that Italy was already one of the most successful WAG programs of the last 15 years before they came along. Italy may not have been in the top tier with Russia, China, and the United States, but they were firmly in the next best tier. While everyone was watching Mustafina and Komova battle the Americans, the rise of Simone and the fall of Romania, Italy had quietly been chugging along. They had consistently been putting up strong results and gradually improving. That consistency paid off when a wonderful class of juniors came up the ranks and finally gave Italy the small boost it needed to go from a fringe outside medal contender to a genuine medal contender, and ultimately, a medal winner.

That’s not to say the quartet doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the credit. The four members of the Italian quartet not only have the same 2003 birth year, but were all born just 42 days apart. The group features Asia D’Amato, Alice D’Amato, Giorgia Villa, and Elisa Iorio. The quartet have been widely acclaimed for some time now. In this early 2017 article from The Couch Gymnast, all four of them were specifically cited by name. Virtually all of the other Gymternet blogs by that point had linked the four of them together as one group. That was where they became a famed quartet. Before then in 2016 a 12 year old Giorgia Villa was being touted as a child prodigy and was featured by the Olympic Channel. As part of their coverage of the 2016 Olympics Italian Elle did features on 2016 Olympians, but also selected the young Giorgia Villa for a photo essay to represent the future and road to Tokyo 2020.

Ultimately, the 2003 Italians would go down as one of the finest examples of a quartet in WAG history. They all came from extremely similar backgrounds, were linked together from an early age, witnessed a massive amount of hype as juniors, and then delivered on it with immediate success when they turned senior. But that is not the whole story when it comes to Italian WAG.

Prior to their arrival on the senior level in 2019 Italy was already having success. Since the introduction of open ended scoring in 2006, there have been 11 team competitions at the World Championships and Olympics. With 12 teams qualifying to the Olympics, Italy has found itself in the top 12 (8+4) on all 11 occasions when teams are ranked via the eight teams that qualified to team finals plus the four highest ranking teams that failed to qualify.

Only five other WAG programs have managed to do that. The first are the obvious ones, Russia, China, and the United States. The other two were Great Britain and Japan. The British won a medal at the 2015 World Championships while Japan finished fifth at the 2008 Olympics topped only by the “Big Four.” At the 2016 Olympics Japan was again the highest ranking non-power finishing fourth behind the United States, Russia, and China. By this point the “Big Four” was now a “Big Three” due to Romania’s fall from grace.

That was some pretty impressive company to be in and an accomplishment that didn’t get the recognition that it truly deserved. But there was one accomplishment that everyone did notice. In 2006 Vanessa Ferrari won the All-Around (AA) at the World Championships. It made Italy the only real example of a country in WAG history from outside the Big Four to win an AA title. The only other times it happened were Czechoslovakia back when they were considered a WAG power in the 1930s-1960s and Ukraine (a member of the Soviet Union) using a gymnast who turned senior right as the USSR fell.

Vanessa Ferrari

Ferrari’s win was historic and she has quietly continued her run of unprecedented success. Ferrari is currently 29 years old and while that may not seem all that unusual thanks to the recent success of Oksana Chusovitina, for an AA Champion it’s highly unusual. All-Around Champions tend to burn out rather quickly due to the heavy toll it takes on the human body to maintain a #1 ranking in the sport. Only a third of all AA Champions made it to a second Olympics.

Ferrari is looking to be the first ever AA Champion to make it to her fourth Olympics. Adding to Vanessa’s reputation for longevity, she also placed sixth in the AA at the 2014 World Championships. It was a remarkable result considering it came eight years after her 2006 win. Vanessa has quietly been one of the best examples of career-long pacing.

Italy’s success can be traced all the way back to the fall of the Berlin Wall. As communism fell in Europe western WAG programs raided Eastern Europe of many of its top coaches, choreographers, and former elite gymnasts. Italy established itself as one of the more popular destinations in Europe for former Eastern Bloc gymnasts. Maria Neculita a 1992 Olympian lives in Italy along with Angela Ghimpu who represented Romania at the 1994 Goodwill Games. Camelia Voinea a 1988 Olympian and Nadia Hatagan who made two Romanian World Championships teams in the 1990s have spent time there. There was also 1984 Olympian Laura Cutina who stopped in Italy before finally resettling in America. Another example is 3x Olympian (1964-1972) Mariana Krajcirova who competed for Czechoslovakia back when it was a WAG power.

The whereabouts of the well known elite gymnasts are easier to track due to their fame. Where famous elites go, we typically see the lesser known supporting cast of a WAG program not far behind them such as the coaches and choreographers. Most notably Mikhail Klimenko the coach of Elena Mukhina. He spent his final years coaching WAG in Italy.

Italian WAG is having success because Italian Olympics as a whole are having success. At the Summer Olympics Italy is almost always in the top ten of the medal standings. At the Winter Olympics Italy just won the right to host the 2026 Olympics. Italy will be only the third time a country has hosted two Winter Olympics in a 20 year window, but the first to do so under genuine circumstances. The other two examples (Switzerland 1948 and Austria 1976) were both selected as an emergency measure as the IOC didn’t have enough time to build new facilities, so they went with a city that had already hosted the Olympics and thus had preexisting facilities. It says a lot about how much trust and respect the IOC has for the Italian Olympic program that they were willing to give them another Olympics.

If Italian Olympic sports is firing on all cylinders, so has its gymnastics programs. Italian rhythmic gymnastics has won a medal at every World Championships since 2003. It even won a team medal at the 2012 Olympics. Two members of that 2012 Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team were born in Eastern Europe. Alexandra Agiurgiuculese was the highest ranking Italian rhythmic gymnast in the AA at the 2019 World Championships. She was born in Romania. All three of those gymnasts are examples of the dividends paying off after Italy spent decades attracting talent from Eastern Europe.

On the WAG side Italy has the City of Jesolo Trophy. The American WAG program is well known for keeping its top gymnasts at home and opting to develop them in domestic competition and/or international competitions on home soil. Jesolo is the rare exception to that trend. Italy has managed to pull off one of the more successful competitions of the last decade and a remarkable ability to attract foreign fields.

As a result Italian juniors get to gain experience against strong American, Russian, Brazilian, Japanese, and Canadian delegations on their home turf. Currently (December 2019) the Italian WAG team is in China training with the Chinese national team in an attempt to hone their skills, pick the brains of top foreign coaches, and learn what other programs are doing and adopt their tactics. Keeping all of this in check is Enrico Casella who has coached all four members of the 2003 quartet and Vanessa Ferrari. It seems Italy has both the athletic talent and the coaching talent to get the most out of these gymnasts.

The 2003 quartet are absolutely phenomenal. They are something special because of the way they rapidly rose up the ranks together. It has been one of the more joyful WAG storylines, and they still have many bright years ahead of them. They deserve all the praise they are currently receiving, but so does the rest of the Italian program. The quartet is having success because they were inserted into a winning environment where Italy knew how to manage a strong junior class and give them everything they needed to succeed.

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