Women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) has a long list of tragic names. For many of them, the unfortunate circumstances that brought their career to an end are what defines their legacy, with little attention being paid to who they were as athletes. This article is my attempt to correct that. To remind WAG fans that Julissa Gomez was more than just a gymnast who gave her life to the sport. Before her fateful accident she was a celebrated athlete with accomplishments that were worth remembering.
The 1976 Olympics are best known for being dominated by Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci. The success of Nadia would influence the career of Julissa Gomez in two ways. First, Nadia would serve as the idol for Julissa who was in her kindergarten years when Comaneci was at the height of her fame. Secondly, Nadia’s success is what made her coach Bela Karolyi a highly respected coach for the next three decades.
By the early 1980s Bela Karolyi had defected from Romania, crossed an ocean, and ended up in Houston, Texas which was not too far from Julissa who was from San Antonio, Texas. In 1983 at the age of 11, she came under the tutelage of Bela Karolyi who had a reputation for accepting young girls only if they could pass his rigorous entry standards. These tests proved to be easy for Julissa Gomez who would later say, “it wasn’t really as hard as I thought it would be.”
It would only take two years under Karolyi before Julissa Gomez would start achieving results that would give her a national ranking. In 1985 she finished 7th in the All-Around (AA) at the Junior National Championships. But what made Julissa Gomez noteworthy was not her athletic prowess, but her association with Bela Karolyi.
Bela Karolyi had coached the eventual AA Champion in both 1976 and 1984. As for the 1980 Olympics, as far as the Americans were concerned, that was unofficially a win for Bela as well. In the American gymnastics community, Bela Karolyi was seen as a mastermind coach who was all but guaranteed to produce the next “big thing.”
Unlike the American program in modern times which boasts more than a dozen clubs that are capable of producing a contender for an Olympic team, back in the 1980s the American club program was not as diverse. Its power structure was incredibly top heavy with only a select few clubs capable of producing Olympic contenders. At the 1984 U.S. National Championships, Tracee Talavera finished 8th in the AA. Every other gymnast in the top-9 was represented by either Bela Karolyi or SCATS.
For comparison, of the 14 highest ranking gymnasts at the 2016 U.S. Championships, they came from 13 different gyms. That is how far the American program has come in developing its club system since the 1980s and making it more competitive. Score For Score which is my favorite gymnastics website for advanced data analysis produced a whole article on this topic, including the above graphic. The above graphic demonstrates how little parity existed in the club system during Gomez’s era relative to modern times. As for what “HHI” means, the answer can be found in the linked article.
Under these circumstances, Bela Karolyi was quickly treated as if he were a god by the American gymnastics community and his power swelled. On the merits of simply who her coach was, any pupil of Bela Karolyi was going to be given instant credibility, as well as disproportionate coverage by the media. Like her training partners, Julissa Gomez was going to benefit greatly from this.
At the time it was her training partner Kristie Phillips who was the “big star” of the American program when Julissa Gomez’s career was starting to take off in 1985-1987. Over the course of her career Phillips would grace the cover of Sports Illustrated and was given “first billing” in a gymnastics documentary. It would all end in Kristie failing to make the Olympic team and she never won a medal in major international competition.
The story of Kristie Phillips would become a cautionary tale of the media being too quick to declare a gymnast “the next big thing,” and the consequences of overstating the ability of American gymnasts relative to Eastern Europe. All in an attempt to prematurely declare the country a first-rate WAG power which had the consequence of setting up gymnasts like Kristie Phillips to fail. But that was the future that was yet to come.
Back in 1986 Kristie Phillips was the AA Champion of the American Cup, the Jr. American Classic, and the Jr. National Championships. Kristie Phillips was the star of USA Gymnastics for the time being, now what the media needed was to find a strong #2 gymnast to complement her. To serve as her sidekick. To complement Kristie in the same way Teodora Ungureanu complemented Nadia. And the first gymnast to do it, was Julissa Gomez.
The 1986 Jr. American Classic (held in April) featuring Kristie Phillips taking the top prize. But coming up behind her was Julissa Gomez who finished 2nd in the AA. Gomez also won gold on vault and bars. If Julissa Gomez demonstrated rapid growth between 1983 and 1985, her growth between 1985 and the early parts of 1986 was even more staggering. The official magazine for the American gymnastics program published a profile of Julissa Gomez and stated the following:
That kind of growth in one year is similar to Olympians Mary Lou Retton, Kathy Johnson, and Julianne McNamara beginning speculation that Gomez might make some waves at the Championships of the USA and beyond.
The magazine also noted:
…and this in her first year competing elite.
At the time the Karolyi-machine was as powerful as it had ever been. Kristie Phillips (1st), Julissa Gomez (2nd), Robin Carter (3rd), and Phoebe Mills (4th) had taken the top-4 spots. All of them were coached by Bela Karolyi.
In April of 1986 Julissa Gomez had made a name for herself after finishing 2nd to Kristie Phillips. But only two months later in June, things would be different. Between the 1986 Jr. American Classic and the 1986 Jr. National Championships, the top-4 would be virtually identical. The only difference, Julissa Gomez fell from 2nd to 4th while Phoebe Mills jumped from 4th to 2nd. The two gymnasts had effectively switched places.
And like clockwork, the competition reports all but entirely abandoned their coverage of Julissa Gomez, and pivoted their coverage towards Phoebe Mills as the sidekick to Kristie Phillips. Julissa Gomez had been surpassed, and in time Phoebe would surpass Kristie Phillips as well. Julissa’s star was beginning to fade, but there was still work to be done.
Julissa Gomez had finished 4th at the 1986 Jr. National Championships, coming up behind her was none other than Christy Henrich who had placed 5th at this very competition. Readers may interpret this result as poetic, others will see it as tragic, or perhaps a combination of both. But Julissa Gomez and Christy Henrich do share a listing next to each other on one official score sheet.
As a reward for their performance at the Jr. National Championships, two days later 12 American gymnasts were sent to Canada to compete in the Canadian Classic. The American gymnasts were divided into an A-Team and a B-Team. The six members who had been named to the A-Team were Christy Henrich, Julissa Gomez, Robin Carter, Lisa Panzironi, Phoebe Mills, and Kristie Phillips.
Once again Phillips and Mills repeated their 1-2 finish, however Julissa Gomez slid all the way down to 15th in the AA. The 1986 Canadian Classic was noteworthy because it was an early indication of Gomez’s impending decline, but it also represented a competition where she competed as a direct teammate to Christy Henrich. But Gomez would rebound, if even for a little bit. A few months later in November, USA Gymnastics decided to send virtually the same delegation to face the Chinese team in a dual meet. Once again Mills, Phillips, Henrich, and Gomez had all been named to the team.
The cycle largely repeated itself, Phoebe Mills and Kristie Phillips went 1-2, only this time it was Phoebe who had prevailed over Kristie. Julissa Gomez was the third highest ranking American with a 5th place finish, but as usual, only the #1 and #2 seemed to get any significant amount of coverage. After the Team/All-Around on the first day, on the second day Gomez recorded a 2nd place finish on the uneven bars, competing alongside her was Christy Henrich who had also qualified to the uneven bars finals.
Mary Lou Retton’s victory at the 1984 Olympics didn’t just mark a turning point for USA Gymnastics, it also marked a major change in Bela Karolyi’s coaching philosophy. Following the 1984 Olympics, the number of promising gymnasts from all over the country willing to upend their lives and move to Bela’s gym greatly increased. However, Bela Karolyi understood that if he took on too-many gymnasts at a single time, his resources would be stretched too thin.
Bela always seemed to strive towards the goal of producing four amazing gymnasts. Any more than that, he wouldn’t have enough time to give each one the proper one on one coaching she needed to find success. Karolyi wouldn’t settle for any less than that as he wanted an overwhelming presence at the top of the National Team. To achieve his goal Bela would adopt one of two tactics.
One tactic would be to start with a large group of gymnasts at the beginning of an Olympic quad, sometimes boasting as many as a dozen of the most promising junior prospects in the country. But by the time the Olympics were approaching, he had slowly whittled the group down to just four gymnasts, and that is who he would focus on for the rest of the quad. Other times he would start a quad with four gymnasts, and maintain that number throughout the quad. But he would constantly be kicking out an old gymnast and replacing her with a new gymnast. And by the time the Olympics came around, his quartet would be almost completely different than what he had been working with just a few years earlier.
As a result, Bela Karoyli shifted to a more attritional style of coaching where he was frequently purging gymnasts out of his ranks. Those who couldn’t keep up with the conditioning, those who couldn’t develop skills as fast as his top-4, and those who couldn’t handle the pressure weren’t going to last. Bela Karolyi revealed in bringing up gymnasts side by side, and the inner-rivalries that would create. The will to beat their teammates would only serve to motivate each gymnast to strive harder. In 1986, Bela said the following:
Now these four strong kids, Kristie, Phoebe, Julissa, and Robin, are all watching each other like hawks. They are friends now, but come time for competition, they will eat each other up.
For a time Julissa Gomez thrived in this environment, but that wouldn’t last forever. Eventually, she became another one of the many gymnasts who parted ways with Bela Karolyi. This doesn’t reflect poorly on Gomez. For a gymnast who first came to Bela Karolyi in 1983, Julissa Gomez had actually lasted longer than most. By the time the 1988 Olympics came around, Phoebe Mills was the only member of the original quartet who had stayed with Karolyi throughout the entirety of the next two years.
Julissa Gomez would eventually make her way to GAGE. She never lost faith in her Olympic dreams and continued to press ahead even after leaving Bela’s gym.
There is much to celebrate in the career of Julissa Gomez. Her rapid rise up the junior ranks, her brief moment in the limelight as a pupil of Bela Karolyi, her perseverance to carry-on in an attempt to achieve her Olympic dreams even after switching gyms. But this story must end, no matter how painful that conclusion will be. While competing in Japan at the 1988 World Sports Fair, Julissa Gomez sustained an injury which left her paralyzed from the neck-down at the age of 15. Two weeks later, a mishap at the hospital involving her oxygen supply being disconnected caused Julissa to slip into a permanent coma. She never recovered and her body succumbed three years later, marking her official death at the age of 18.
Julissa Gomez’s death made her an immortalized figure in the gymnastics community. But when Christy Henrich passed away a few years later, they both became immortalized and forever intertwined. In rapid succession, the sport had lost two gymnasts from the same era, but who also had membership to the same club (GAGE). It would be impossible to talk about one without invoking their shared connections.
That is the part of Julissa Gomez’s career that most people remember. Her time as a Karolyi gymnast is often glossed over. But before Julissa Gomez’s role as a GAGE gymnast was analyzed in great detail, there was much to say about her role as a Karolyi gymnast. Julissa Gomez was one of the best examples demonstrating how the media changed its behavior when it covered the pupils of Bela Karolyi. His pupils were quick to gain recognition, but it also meant they carried the additional load of heavy pressure and high expectations.
This trend was on full display at the 1986 U.S. Olympic Festival where of the 15 routines that had been included in the television broadcast, 8 of them (53%) were the routines of Julissa Gomez, Phoebe Mills, and Kristie Phillips. All three of them were Karolyi-trained gymnasts. Only one other gymnast had multiple routines featured in the television broadcast. And that had been Kelly Garrison, the most experienced gymnast in the competition and the highest ranking member from the 1985 World Championships team who was in attendance.
Whereas it was justified for Phoebe Mills and Kristie Phillips to be granted such coverage due to their 1-2 finish, Julissa Gomez had finished 22nd in the competition including a fall on beam during the first rotation. Despite that, television producers had continued to promote Gomez more frequently than the other gymnasts in the competition. Karolyi gymnasts may have received favorable media treatment, but they were the very same gymnasts who dealt with Bela’s well-known reputation of working his gymnasts harder than just about anyone else. If Julissa benefited from media bias, she deserved it.
Back in 1985 a Florida newspaper had used Julissa Gomez to comment on the unique status of Karolyi gymnasts. It was titled “Being ‘Karolyi Girl’ Sets a Gymnast Apart” and even included a sentence where it said, being coached by Bela “can be a curse as well as a blessing.” The article features a quote from a 12 year old Julissa Gomez speaking about Bela.
There are times we want him all to ourselves. There are so many people who want to be coached by him because he’s the best coach. Sometimes I feel people are jealous of us because he is our coach. We do feel the pressure. He is like a teddy bear. When we do really good, he is happy, but if we don’t, he gets in a bad mood.
Even though it was her contemporary Christy Henrich who had more success as a gymnast and received more assignments in international competition, it is actually Julissa Gomez whose career was documented in greater detail. The photo galleries of Julissa Gomez are significantly larger, and finding quotes during her athletic career tends to be easier. She talked about school:
I make straight A’s. I guess I was just born that way.
She talked about her favorite gymnasts:
I like Baraksanova. I like the way she dances, if I work really hard, I can probably be just as good.
These are the quotes left behind by a gymnast who at the height of her career, had generated a significant amount of attention for herself. Julissa did it based on the merits of her own work. I wrote this article while using only primary sources that predate her 1988 injury. I specifically avoided Little Girls in Pretty Boxes and other contemporary sources that reflect the attention Julissa received only in direct response to her career ending in tragedy. The story of Julissa Gomez’s tragic downfall should not erase the story of everything she had accomplished beforehand. This was a gymnast worth remembering even without a tragedy associated with her name.