Gymnasts Who Swept a Competition

The concept of this article is rather simple. I am going to recap the gymnasts in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) who have swept a major gymnastics competition (Olympics/World Championships) by winning a medal on all five of the individual events.

I also wrote a follow up article where I listed the gymnasts who recorded a a near-sweep (4 individual medals + a 4th place finish).

Simone Biles: 2018 World Championships

Simone Biles is the textbook example of a three-event All-Arounder. During her career Simone has dominated the vault, beam, and floor, but her bars has traditionally lagged behind. This wasn’t the case at the 2018 World Championships when Simone won the only bars medal of her career resulting in a sweep.

It was the first sweep in 30 years since Daniela Silivas last did it at the 1988 Olympics. In modern times the sweep is so difficult that no one else has completed even a near-sweep (4 individual medals + a 4th place finish). The only near-sweep since the 1988 Olympics was Simone Biles at the 2013 World Championships. Simone won the All-Around (AA), won medals on her three best events in Event Finals (EF), and finished in fourth place on the uneven bars. It was the only fourth place finish of her career.

Daniela Silivas: 1988 Olympics

Daniela Silivas had to settle for a silver medal in the 1988 Olympic AA after losing out to Elena Shushunova. Not only did Silivas lose by a narrow margin, but she had lost the AA under carry-over scoring. Carry-over scoring was abolished in 1989 and had it been abolished just one year earlier, Silivas would have won the 1988 Olympic AA.

Silivas would have her revenge in EF when she won three gold medals. Daniela became one of just seven gymnasts to have won three gold medals in the individual events at a single Olympics. (1) Silivas would be the last gymnast to do it until the arrival of Simone Biles who accomplished the same feat at the 2016 Olympics.

Like Simone, Daniela was a great three-event All-Arounder who was a heavy medal threat on her three best events, but lagged behind on her weakest apparatus. For Silivas her weakness was vault. But at the 1988 Olympics the stars would align to give Daniela the bump she needed to finally win that elusive vault medal.

Silivas tied for fourth in qualifying alongside Natalia Laschenova. But Laschenova would be eliminated on country limits. With only three gymnasts ahead of her, if just one of them performed poorly, Daniela would have an opening. It ended up being the heavy gold medal favorite Elena Shushunova who fell on her second vault resulting in a last place finish. Daniela had one final piece of luck when after recording the fourth highest score in event finals, carry-over scoring moved her ahead of Brandy Johnson to win the bronze medal.

Carry-over scoring had cost Daniela Silivas an Olympic AA gold, but it also gave her a bronze on vault and the resulting sweep to go with it. It was the only time Daniela won a vault medal in her career at a Group-1 Competition (World Championships or Olympics). In one competition Silivas reached two major milestones and in both cases they wouldn’t be repeated in WAG history until Simone Biles came along.

Elena Shushunova: 1987 World Championships

What kind of gymnast does it take to beat a Daniela Silivas in her prime? Let me introduce you to Elena Shushunova. Like Silivas, Shushunova also has the distinction of sweeping a competition while losing the AA. For Elena Shushunova this happened at the 1987 World Championships. Shushunova’s exploits were as legendary as Daniela’s. Their rivalry was one of the best duels between two legendary and evenly matched gymnasts in WAG history.

Ludmilla Turischeva: 1974 World Championships

The 1970s are best known for Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut. But it was Ludmilla Turischeva who won more medals than either of them. Turischeva won the 1974 AA, won three individual gold medals as Silivas had done, and also completed a sweep. But there was a catch…

Olga Korbut: 1974 World Championships

At the 1974 World Championships not one, but two gymnasts recorded a sweep. It is the only time in WAG history that two gymnasts did it in the same Group-1 Competition. The dual dominance of Turischeva and Korbut was staggering. Of the ten individual medals the two Soviets won, only one of them was a bronze. If not for Annelore Zinke, Korbut and Turischeva would have taken every gold and silver medal available in the individual events.

I did a biography on Annelore Zinke which can be found here.

Whereas Turischeva recorded more gold medals, Korbut won a silver or better on every event. Olga Korbut is one of just four gymnasts to have ever done this in a single competition at the Group-1 level. (2) It is rare for two quality gymnasts to compete against each other in their prime as Korbut and Turischeva had done in 1974.

But it is even rarer when it occurs between two gymnasts who are also teammates and have to train alongside their direct rival. The 1974 World Championships is an example of Soviet WAG at its best, but also provides insight on why so much resentment exists between Korbut and Turischeva.

Vera Caslavska: 1968 Olympics

Vera Caslavska completed a sweep at the 1968 Olympics and as incredible of an accomplishment as that is, it pales in comparison to her other exploits in Mexico City. Caslavska joins Olga Korbut as one of only four gymnast to have won a silver or better on every single individual event. But her four gold medals in the individual events makes Vera Caslavska the only WAG to have ever won that many in a single Olympics.

In Data Crunch #2.2 Vera Caslavska had the highest margin of victory (MOV) of any AA champion in the scoring systems that existed from 1952-2005. It wouldn’t be until 2016 that another gymnast would surpass Caslavska’s mark. Once again the culprit would be Simone Biles. But one thing to note, Simone competes in an open-ended scoring system that inflates MOV results. Caslavska competed in a closed-scoring system that made it difficult to build up a large MOV. But even with a change to the scoring system, the fact that so far Simone has been the only gymnast capable of surpassing Caslavska’s mark under the new rules is a testament to the talent of both gymnasts.

For as good as Caslavska was at Mexico City, she was probably better than the results indicate. It is widely believed that Soviet judging shenanigans prevented Caslavska from winning gold on beam. Had she won gold in that event she would have done so on every individual event and recorded a perfect competition. Caslavska would instead have to settle for “only” a sweep.

Natalia Kuchinskaya: 1966 World Championships

Why didn’t Vera Caslavska sweep in 1966? The presence of Natalia Kuchinskaya had something to do with it. Kuchinskaya is another example of a gymnast recording a sweep only to finish second in the AA. In modern times Kuchinskaya is known only by serious WAG history buffs. But back in the 1960s Kuchinskaya was more famous than even Caslavska, a fact Caslavska herself acknowledged.

Kuchinskaya crashed onto the gymnastics scene as part of a wave of young gymnasts overtaking the sport in the mid 1960s and caused the average age of WAG to plummet. Women’s gymnastics immediately learned a lesson that had already been established in other sports. That young athletes are significantly more popular than their older counterparts.

As the most successful member of this new generation of young gymnasts, the spotlight went to Kuchinskaya. Whereas Olga Korbut is known for being the first WAG to achieve massive amounts of fame, Natalia Kuchinskaya was the first WAG to achieve any kind of significant fame at all. If Korbut was WAG’s first superstar, Kuchinskaya was WAG’s first star.

Prior to the 1966 World Championships Kuchinskaya’s only experience in international competition had come at the junior level. She hadn’t even been to a European Championships prior to her debut. That didn’t seem to matter to Kuchinskaya who recorded a sweep in her very first major competition. Ironically, Kuchinskaya’s results in 1966 were identical to the 1988 Olympic performance of Daniela Silivas. They both went silver in the team competition, silver in the AA, bronze on vault, then won three gold medals on bars, beam, and floor.

Kuchinskaya’s appearance at the 1966 World Championships is not just one of the most dominant performances in WAG history, but marked the birth of WAG’s first star and kick started a new era of gymnastics. But Kuchinskaya had other plans opting to abruptly retire at the height of her career following the 1968 Olympics. Kuchinskaya would later acknowledge she had lost her passion for the sport. At the time it was a shock within the gymnastics community, but the sport quickly moved on.

Within a few years a new generation of WAG superstars would emerge. Names such as Turischeva, Korbut, and Nadia Comaneci made people quickly forget the legend of Kuchinskaya. But the sport itself never did. Kuchinskaya was inducted into the Hall of Fame despite having one of the shortest careers of any inductee. Minot Simons II who is arguably the best historian in women’s gymnastics started his series on gymnastics history with the 1966 World Championships not because of Vera Caslavska, but because of Natalia Kuchinskaya who he considered to be more significant to the development of the sport.

Larissa Latynina: 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964

No other gymnast in WAG history has swept a competition on more than one occasion. Latynina did it four times. Her sweep at the 1958 World Championships was particularly dominant. In the five individual events Latynina won four gold medals and one silver medal, the same mark as Caslavska’s 1968 Olympic performance. Latynina was the only gymnast to do it in a World Championships while Caslavska was the only gymnast to do in an Olympic Games. Statistically, these are the two most dominant performances in WAG history. They are the only two instances of a gymnast hitting the 14 point benchmark as explained in Data Crunch #4.1.

But the most impressive aspect of Latynina’s performance at the 1958 World Championships which statistically is one of the most dominant showings in WAG history, she did it while four months pregnant. Latynina’s final sweep came at the 1964 Olympics where she lost the AA to Caslavska. She joins Kuchinskaya, Korbut, Shushunova and Silivas as the five gymnasts who lost the AA but swept a competition.

In Latynina’s era the World Championships were held once every four years. Latynina’s sweeps were all consecutive and she holds a seven year streak of winning a medal on every event at the Group-1 level. But Latynina could have added one more sweep to her total. At her very first Olympics in 1956 Latynina recorded a near-sweep having medaled on four individual events, but finished in fourth place on the beam. It was the only time she failed to medal at the Olympics and prevents Latynina from being able to say she never failed to medal at the Olympics. But it also costed her an Olympic record.

Maria Gorokhovskaya: 1952 Olympics

At the 1952 Olympics Maria Gorokhovskaya won seven Olympic medals. It was only possible for a WAG to do this at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics because there was a second team event back then. Both Maria and Latynina were Soviet gymnasts and winning a medal in the team events goes without saying. The 1956 Olympics was Latynina’s one and only opportunity to win seven medals in a single Olympics, she blew it. But Maria didn’t when she was presented with the same opportunity in 1952.

The seven medals Maria won in a single Olympics is a record among female athletes across all sports. It can be described as an unbreakable record. Whereas male swimmers have the versatility to win seven Olympic medals, female swimmers tend to max out at only five medals in a single Olympics. Only on two occasions has a woman won six. Maria’s record still stands 68 years later. A rule change starting in 2020 allowing mixed-gender events in swimming will give future women the extra event needed if they finally want to match Maria’s record.

As for Maria’s sweep, she won silver or better on every individual event being one of just four gymnasts to have accomplished such a feat. Gorokhovskaya has a fascinating life story having been present at one of the most brutal battles of World War II. She was also secretly Jewish at a time when anti-Jewish stigma within the Soviet Union was notoriously bad and the USSR had even witnessed the execution of prominent Jewish citizens.

Link to: Maria Gorokhovskaya’s Biography

Helena Rakoczy: 1950 World Championships

In the aftermath of World War II the 1950 World Championships had one of the weakest fields in gymnastics history. It was even more depleted than the 1984 Olympics. Helena Rakoczy was a top gymnast from this era who is rightfully in the Hall of Fame. As the only high caliber gymnast in attendance, Helena wrecked absolute havoc on the rest of the field. Rakoczy medaled on all five individual events, four of which were gold.

In the process she became one of just five WAGs to have won four gold medals in a single competition on individual events. (3) Helena recorded a 13 point competition making it the third most dominant performance in WAG history after Latynina-1958 and Caslavska-1968.

You may have noticed my coy behavior when I discussed MOV in regards to Simone and Vera Caslavska. I stated Caslavska holds the record in her scoring era while noting Simone passed Caslavska’s mark. That is because neither gymnast holds the MOV record. It is actually Helena Rakoczy at the 1950 World Championships. Rakoczy not only benefited from a weak field, but was the last AA champion to compete under pre-1952 scoring. Both factors combining produced an astronomically high 2.316 MOV.

Vlasta Dekanova: 1938 World Championships

This isn’t an official sweep due to incomplete information available. Vlasta Dekanova was the undisputed top WAG prior to World War II. She won back to back AA titles at the 1934 and 1938 World Championships. While information on the gold, silver, and bronze winners in the AA is “rock solid,” information on the EF results is a bit fuzzy.

There is no EF information available for 1934, but there is information regarding the 1938 winners. But because there is only information on the winners, the silver and bronze winners aren’t widely known. Various lists of EF winners has some contradictions, but the consensus indicates Vlasta Dekanova won three EF gold medals. In its writeup of the 2019 World Championships, FIG listed Simone Biles as having matched Vlasta Dekanova’s mark of three EF gold medals plus two more in the team and AA competitions.

It is on floor where silver and bronze medal results aren’t available that it is possible Dekanova may have completed a sweep. But for someone who won three gold medals in EF, it is very likely she won a medal of some kind.

Notes:
(1) Seven gymnasts have done this: Vera Caslavska, Simone Biles, Agnes Keleti, Daniela Silivas, Ecaterina Szabo, Larissa Latynina, & Nadia Comaneci
(2) Four gymnasts have done this: Maria Gorokhovskaya (1952), Larissa Latynina (1958), Vera Caslavska (1968), & Olga Korbut (1974)
(3) Five gymnasts have done this: Simone Biles, Vera Caslavska, Larissa Latynina, Vlasta Dekanova, & Helena Rakoczy

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