Famous Mother and Daughter Duos in Gymnastics (Part I)

This specific topic has been covered numerous times before, but I wanted to do my own version of it specifically because there are numerous examples of mother/daughter gymnasts whose stories are not widely known. So rest assured that this isn’t going to be the same list you have seen many times before. I broke the following article up into two parts:

Part I: Covers the Elite/Olympic level examples.

Part II: Covers NCAA/Olympic examples, famous junior prospects, and miscellaneous cases.

So just how common is it for a mother and a daughter to both be an Olympic gymnast? There are only five occasions in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) of it happening. There are no instances in Olympic history where a mother and a daughter both have Olympic medals in WAG. But other family relationships such as mother/son, father/son, and father/daughter have bore greater amounts of success.

It was thanks to the OlyMadMen database and Bill Mallon that I was able to find information on some of the more obscure examples. I also included a few father/daughter examples in this series.

Viktoria and Vera

Vera Kolesnikova and Viktoria Komova

This is one of the best known examples in WAG history. Vera Kolesnikova was a member of the Soviet WAG program and served as a member of their 1985 World Championships team. Any gymnast who has such association with the Soviet program has instant credibility and athletic credentials that can not be questioned. Vera’s daughter Viktoria Komova was even better.

When Komova first appeared on the scene her athletic display at such a young age was more than enough to make her a widely known junior prospect. But when people realized who her mother was, it added to the legend that this was a gymnast destined for future greatness.

Komova would win two (All-Around) AA medals, one at the World Championships and another at the Olympics. The Vera/Viktoria combination is the most successful mother/daughter duo in WAG. Of all the gymnasts I found for this article, they are the only pair where both have won medals at the World Championships.

(From L to R) Grazyna Duda, Karina Tomanek, Anita Jokiel, Malgorzata Majza, & Jerzy Jokiel

Jerzy Jokiel/Dorota Horzonek and Anita Jokiel

During the 1950s Poland won Olympic medals in both men’s artistic gymnastics (MAG) and WAG. On the men’s side Jerzy Jokiel won a silver medal on floor during the 1952 Olympics. On the women’s side Dorota Horzonek was part of the Polish team in 1952. On her return to the Olympics in 1956 she won a bronze medal in team portable-apparatus, the little known 7th WAG event that was discontinued shortly afterwards.

During her second Olympics Dorota competed under the name of her husband, and fellow 1952 Olympian Jerzy Jokiel. Their daughter Anita Jokiel competed at the 1980 Olympics. Anita has the distinction of being born to parents who were both Olympic medalists in artistic gymnastics, but she never won a medal herself. At 13 years old Anita was the youngest gymnast in the entire competition. She was the last gymnast under the age of 14 to legally compete in gymnastics at the Olympics. Only one other 13-year old has appeared in an Olympics since then, Gina Gogean under a falsified age in 1992. Although Anita was 90 days younger and can still claim to be the youngest Olympic WAG since 1980.

With that detail in mind, Anita’s 18th place finish looks far more impressive. Anita was limited by Poland being the Eastern Bloc program that received the least amount of funding/support and frequently missed the Olympics. To this day Anita’s 18th place finish remains the highest position a Polish gymnast has placed in the standings from 1960-present.

Anita was WAG’s best chance to complete an Olympic medal trifecta where a mother/father/daughter all have Olympic medals. While this phenomenon never occurred in WAG, it did occur in men’s artistic gymnastics (MAG).

Toshiko Shirasu

Toshiko Shirasu/Nobuyuki Aihara and Yutaka Aihara

Technically this isn’t a mother/daughter combination, but this story was too fascinating not to tell. At the 1960 Olympics the Japanese team featured Nobuyuki Aihara on the MAG side and Toshiko Shirasu on the WAG side. The two gymnasts would eventually marry.

What makes this story different is that it is the WAG as opposed to the MAG who competed at a later date. Usually the opposite is true as WAGs skew younger and tend to retire before their male counterparts. But Toshiko Shirasu didn’t and she returned for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics where she won a bronze medal in the team competition. As a result she became one of the few gymnasts who wasn’t from the Eastern Bloc to win an Olympic medal in WAG during the Cold War.

On the men’s side Japanese MAG was a powerhouse program. Nobuyuki Aihara is a 4x Olympic medalist and if the family had a child who would win an Olympic medal, the family would complete the trifecta. Which is exactly what happened as their son Yutaka Aihara won a bronze medal in the men’s team competition at the 1992 Olympics. He also won a bronze on vault at the 1991 World Championships.

Hitomi Hatakeda

Yoshiaki Hatakeda and Hitomi Hatakeda

Again this isn’t a mother/daughter combination, but rather a father/daughter combination. One of Yutaka Aihara’s teammates on the 1992 Olympic team was Yoshiaki Hatakeda. Fans may recognize that name as his daughter is Hitomi Hatakeda, a current member of the Japanese WAG team. Hitomi Hatakeda has viable prospects to make the 2021 Olympic team for Tokyo. She competed at the 2020 American Cup.

Hana Ricna and Sandra Jessen/David Jessen

Czechoslovakia is no longer a country, but its WAG program was one of the most historic and influential in gymnastics history. Czechoslovakia produced a string of legendary WAGs in a lineage that goes all the way back to the 1930s. But it was Hana Ricna who was the final gymnast from the legendary program who was capable of contending for an AA title. Hana was formally named to two Olympic teams, but she missed her first Olympics due to the 1984 boycott. At the Alternate Olympics Hana Ricna finished second to Olga Mostepanova in the AA.

Ricna has two children who are gymnasts. The first is her son David Jessen who competes for the Stanford men’s gymnastics team. He also competed internationally for the Czech Republic, which is one of two successor states to Czechoslovakia. David competed in the 2016 Olympics and has an eponymous skill.

Ricna’s daughter also reached the elite level in WAG and competed at the 2019 World Championships for the Czech Republic. Like her brother, Sandra also competes for Stanford and is freshman on their women’s gymnastics team. There is much to admire when it comes to Hana Ricna. Besides her athletic prowess, she successfully raised two kids who have achieved the highest levels of excellence in both the classroom and the gym.

Silvia Mitova

Maya Blagoeva, Silvia Mitova and Jessica Hutchinson

There are all sorts of mother/father/daughter/son combinations, now I’m going to throw a grandmother into the mix. Maya Blagoeva competed for Bulgaria at the 1972 Olympics. While few fans are familiar with the career of Maya Blagoeva, many are familiar with her daughter, Silvia Mitova. She would be one of the better known gymnasts who participated in the 1992 Olympics.

The Maya/Silvia family gymnastics dynasty is further expanded when it is realized that Bulgaria’s 1992 Olympic coach was the husband and father of the two gymnasts. The family legacy is alive and well with Silvia’s daughter and Maya’s granddaughter Jessica Hutchinson having signed with the Denver Pioneers. It is an example of a family WAG connection that ranges from the elite level to the college level (NCAA).

The debut of Jessica Hutchinson in NCAA competition won’t just mark a WAG family dynasty spanning into its third generation, but the triumphant conclusion to one of the more noteworthy stories of 1990s gymnastics. During her career Silvia Mitova was one of the few WAGs who can truly be described as a fan favorite. However her athletic career ended in tragedy when she suffered a broken neck in a training accident one month following the 1992 Olympics.

The resulting accident left her paralyzed at just 16 years old, but an international effort raised funds to pay for Silvia’s medical expenses. It resulted in a seres of major surgeries taking place in both France and South Africa. First Mitova was able to regain the ability to walk. Then doctors were able to reverse most of the major side effects such as allowing her to regain feeling in her hands and a resolving a knob in her neck. Among those who came to Silvia’s assistance, a South Africa doctor who operated on her free of charge and allowed Mitova to stay in his house during her recovery period. His daughter was one of South Africa’s top elite gymnasts.

Mitova’s eventual full recovery was dubbed “Mitova’s Miracle” and made the cover of International Gymnast. It marked the transition of one of WAG’s most tragic stories into one of its greatest redemption stories. At a time when the future outlook of a 16 year old girl looked so bleak, to see her raise a daughter of her own who would also be a gymnast is the best way to write the next chapter of the Silvia Mitova story.

Silvia and her Father/Coach

Carrie Pickles and Jill Pollard

This mother/daughter duo goes all the way back to the very first time WAG was an Olympic event, 1928. Carrie Pickles was a member of the British team that won bronze in the team competition which was the lone WAG event in these Olympic Games as individual events were not contested prior to 1952. Carrie Pickles later served as a coach of the 1948 British WAG team. She had two daughters (Jill and Jan), both of which were gymnasts. I could not find any information on the details of Jan’s career, but Jill was a member of Great Britain’s 1960 Olympic team.

Irene Abel

Irene Abel and Katja Abel

Irene Abel competed at the 1972 Olympics for East Germany as well as the 1974 World Championships. Her daughter Katja Abel competed for Germany and represented the country at the 2008 Olympics. Katja’s career was marked by numerous injuries that prevented her from attending the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. The most notorious of her injuries featured a freak accident in which Katja fell from the uneven bars and broke both of her forearms.

The incident was particularly noteworthy as it was virtually identical to what had happened to Annelore Zinke. In what can be described as two of the most infamous training accidents in German WAG history, Irene Abel was the teammate (1974) of one gymnast and the mother of the other. Unlike Annelore Zinke, Katja was able to make a successful comeback and maintained a strong WAG career even after her accident.

Risa Sugawara

Takako Hasegawa and Risa Sugawara

This is the fifth and final example in this article of a mother and daughter in WAG who both appeared in an Olympic Games. Takako Hasegawa competed for Japan at the 1972 Olympics. Her daughter Risa Sugawara competed at the 1996 Olympics.

Andrea Bieger and Jana Bieger

There are two high-profile cases of an Olympic WAG having her daughter serve as an Olympic alternate, but is not technically an Olympian. Ironically, in both cases the two alternates competed in the same era, were members of the American program, but their mothers were not.

The first is Andrea Bieger who competed for West Germany at the 1976 Olympics. Her daughter Jana Bieger won the AA silver medal at the 2006 World Championships. Because Andrea Bieger finished 12th in the 1976 All-Around, this is probably the second strongest mother/daughter combination when they are measured based on performance in the AA.

Like the mother in the next example, Andrea Bieger is a 1x Olympian who should have been a 2x Olympian if not for the 1980 Olympic boycott.

Wu Jiani

Wu Jiani and Anna Li/Andrea Li

Anna Li was an alternate on the 2012 American Olympic team. Both of her parents won medals for China at the 1984 Olympics. There is also a second daughter involved as Andrea Li has found success just shy of the Olympic level. Andrea competed in the Nastia Liukin Cup and is on the verge of starting her NCAA career with the University of California. Their mother Wu Jiani was a staple of the Chinese team. Whereas Ma Yanhong was the most iconic Chinese gymnast from the late 1970s through the 1984 Olympics, Wu Jiani was China’s second most successful gymnast but her accomplishments were largely overshadowed by her more famous teammate.

In her time Wu Jiani was a fascinating gymnast, but gymnastics fans will be reluctant go out of their way to prop up her legacy. Both Wu Jiani and Anna Li have been linked to allegations of coaching abuse. It is a heartbreaking situation for the kids who (allegedly) suffered at their hands, and for Anna Li as she was born into a coaching family where these tactics were likely taught to her as acceptable behavior. In the case of Wu Jiani, she competed in her first official Olympics at the age of 18, but was a member of the 1980 boycott Olympic team when she was only 14 years old. It can only be imagined just how young Wu Jiani was when these coaching tactics were first instilled on her.

Abuse allegations are always heartbreaking. But when the culprit is a former high-caliber athlete who had success at a young age, it adds a level of cruelty to the situation. The most likely scenario is the coach is training gymnasts in the same abusive manner that she was once subjected to. This was intended as a fun article about mothers passing their gymnastics legacies on to their daughters and watching their children experience the same fulfillment in the sport that they did. But in the case of Anna Li/Wu Jiani, the things that were passed down from one generation to the next was allegations of behavior/tactics that caused harm on numerous gymnasts and repeated a cycle of abuse that the sport is trying to break.

Wu Jiani holding Anna Li on a balance beam

Link to Part II


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