During the 2020 American Cup while French gymnast Lorette Charpy was performing on the uneven bars she clipped her foot on the low bar. While this isn’t an unusual situation in gymnastics, the event instantly looked out of place. It is more common to see a gymnast clip her toe while swinging from a direction facing downwards. Charpy had done it from a backwards direction and had clipped her whole heel in the process.
The replay made it very clear what had happened.
Charpy hadn’t made a mistake or broken form, an equipment malfunction caused the bars to move closer together. In essence, Charpy’s foot was in the right place but the low bar was not.
How Charpy responded to this particular incident is a good example of the difficultly gymnasts face in a competition when something goes wrong. It was up to event officials to decide how to proceed and the decision was made to let Charpy redo her routine. While watching this unfold I first gasped that she had clipped the bar, then breathed a sigh of relief when it was realized an equipment malfunction had occurred and Charpy would likely get a redo. Only to gasp again when I realized Charpy was going to perform her second chance routine immediately.
It didn’t seem all that fair to Charpy. She had just whacked her foot on the low bar and most likely had some lingering pain in that area of her body. But my main concern was that she had no time to calm herself down and collect her nerves. Gymnastics is a sport where mental composure is critical. One bad routine can ruin a competition and Charpy had just experienced a pendulum of emotions by having her competition prospects put in serious jeopardy only to be then given a full reprieve.
There was another psychological component at play as well. Charpy had done that uneven bars routine countless times in her career. It is easy for a gymnast to let a fall unravel her nerves. But when a gymnast falls it is because she did something wrong and knows the specific mistake that needs to be corrected. Charpy didn’t have that luxury. Charpy fell through no fault of her own and had to resist the urge to not make corrections to her routine as she tried again.
Despite dealing with all of that, Charpy puts together a decent routine. It didn’t become the highest scoring routine of the night, but it was commendable given the circumstances. It is a great example of an athlete persevering in a situation that was difficult mentally, but also involved dealing with a little bit of physical pain as well.
It is also an example of great coaching. Coaches frequently talk about training their athletes in a way in which they were prepared for any situation. The Charpy bars malfunction is the textbook example of the unexpected happening that coaches try to prepare their athletes for.
It is rare for an athlete to experience an equipment malfunction. It is rare for an athlete to be given a full reprieve after a fall. It is rare for a gymnast to be granted a redo on the spot without getting some time to sort herself out. Lorette Charpy had all three of those things happen to her in a six minute window and at no point did she lose her composure.
The coach gets credit but it ultimately came down to Charpy carrying out what her coach had taught her. One of the hardest parts of gymnastics is the mental composure. Charpy has built a career on dealing with the waiting game that makes the sport challenging. Having to wait her turn in a rotation, having the anxiety and mental pressure build as it gets closer and closer to her turn. Only to suddenly be told to perform a routine two consecutive times.
The irony here is gymnasts are required to know and memorize a lengthy list of rules some of which are as mundane as where a gymnast can and can not walk. They have to be prepared to follow procedure and routine, but also have to be prepared to deal with a situation where that all goes out the window.
It is no surprise Charpy managed to overcome this situation. It is reminiscent of an incident from 2018 involving the same apparatus. In a training accident she suffered “multiple fractures to her face” that required surgery. In spite of that injury Charpy competed at the 2018 World Championships two months later. Her 16th place finish in the All-Around was one of the best performances of her career. It can not be overstated just how tough she is. And the same can be said for all of her rivals.
When fans watch the sport they are most impressed with the difficult and dangerous looking acrobatic elements that are being performed. But behind it all are other examples of things that add to the difficulty of the sport that are not as easy for the fans to see. The difficult mental situations the athletes go through as well as the high injury rate are not as widely known.
At the 2020 American Cup Charpy was only a few months past her 18th birthday. Back in 2018 when she was injured she was just 16 years old. The young ages of these athletes makes it easy for the media to present them in a way where they are seen as comparable to your typical teenager. But behind the giggling school girl persona the media likes to promote, they are killer athletes who revel in the difficulty of the sport and treat experiences with a brutal injury as a point of pride.
That’s how Lorette Charpy viewed her injury as she posted pictures of her face to Instagram for the world to see. Charpy’s performance at the 2020 American Cup, her social media persona, and her strong showing at the 2018 World Championship in spite of a recent injury makes her a great example of the physical toughness and mental strength gymnasts have.