While watching Twitter react to Viktoria Listunova winning the All-Around (AA) at the 2021 European Championships, I noticed an interesting Tweet. It stated that Listunova is the first gymnast to win the AA at the European Championships in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) as a 1st-year senior since Nadia Comaneci in 1975.
Not only was the Tweet correct, but the real stat was even more impressive. Listunova wasn’t merely the first gymnast since Nadia to do it, they are the only two WAGs to have ever done it. Furthermore, the term “1st-year” senior also understates what Nadia and Listunova accomplished. Virtually every European AA Champion not only had previous experience at the senior level, but were already decorated gymnasts of some kind.
In other words, not only is every European Champion a returning senior, but even the returning seniors struggle to win this competition unless they are already an accomplished gymnast of some kind in senior level competition. Previously, the only exception to this trend was Nadia Comaneci. Until Viktoria Listunova came along.
I created four categories:
(A) Winning a medal in Group-1 Competition (World Championships/Olympics)
(B) Appearance in a Group-1 Competition (World Championships/Olympics)
(C) Appearance in an Olympic Games
(D) Winning a medal in an individual event (World Championships, European Championships, and Olympics)
I took all 35 European AA Champions in WAG and determined whether they accomplished any of these categories prior to winning their AA title at the European Championships. The results are below.
Your typical European AA Champion is almost always a highly decorated gymnast of some kind. 71% of them had already been to the Olympics, with that figure rising to 94% when the World Championships are counted as well. Nadia and Listunova are the only two gymnasts to have won the European Championships prior to their debut in Group-1 competition. Meanwhile 80% of European Champions had already won a medal at one of these competitions before winning the European title.
These four categories are supposed to be difficult for you average elite level gymnast, but the 35 European AA Champions have made easy work of them. 60% of them achieved all four categories and 77% achieved 3 of 4. Again, this is what they had accomplished prior to winning the European Championships.
Only two other gymnasts besides Nadia and Listunova had failed to win a medal of any kind at the European Championships, World Championships, and Olympics beforehand. But one of the two (Mirjana Bilic) was the direct byproduct of the 1963 boycott and shouldn’t really count. But even while counting her, that still leaves a staggering 89% medal rate for gymnasts before they become European All-Around Champions.
Before I can continue there is another asterisk that needs to be addressed. Elena Shushunova won the 1985 European Championships while failing to achieve any of the four categories, but this was only because of the 1984 boycott. In reality, by the time of her 1985 victory Elena Shushunova had already been named to an Olympic team, was guaranteed an Olympic medal in the team competition had she attended, and even won an AA medal at the Alternate Olympics. Hence the reason I did not count her as a legitimate example of a gymnast defying this trend.
Viktoria Listunova and Nadia Comaneci are the only two gymnasts to win the European AA title without having any previous experience in senior level competition. Inexperienced WAGs walloping the competitive field is such a common trend at the World Championships, it seems impossible that only two gymnasts have done it at the European Championships.
Elena Mukhina (1978), Olga Bicherova (1981), Natalia Yurchenko (1983), Aurelia Dobre (1987), Kim Zmeskal (1991), Vanessa Ferrari (2006), Shawn Johnson (2007), Aliya Mustafina (2010), Jordyn Wieber (2011), Simone Biles (2013), and Morgan Hurd (2017) all won the World Championships in the very first instance they attended that competition. All but two of them did so as first 1st-year seniors. There is also Natalia Kuchinskaya (1966), Maxi Gnauck (1979), Olga Mostepanova (1983), Carly Patterson (2003), Nastia Liukin (2005), and Viktoria Komova (2011) who were 1st-year seniors with memorable 2nd place finishes at the World Championships.
It is a very baffling trend. At face value it doesn’t make sense that there are two competitions, one featuring results where 1st-year seniors win at a staggering rate, the other where it is practically unheard of for a 1st-year senior to win. Even more so when on paper, the competition 1st-year seniors rarely win is supposed to be easier of the two because it doesn’t feature athletes from Asia and North America.
But the more I think about it, the more it starts to make sense. The reason 1st-year seniors don’t perform well at the European Championships is because it is significantly harder for them than the World Championships. Even with its stronger lineup of foreign athletes from the United States and China being considered.
The first major obstacle for 1st-year seniors who are seeking to win a European AA title is just getting to the European Championships. Team delegations sent to the European Championship are almost always smaller than their World Championships and Olympic counterparts. Whereas Group-1 competitions have varied from fields of 5-6 per team throughout WAG history, the European Championship delegation size has varied from 3-4.
Furthermore, unlike the World Championships and Olympics which adopted 2-per country limits in the early 2000s, the European Championships have had 2-per country limits for the bulk of its history. Only 30% of European AA Champions competed under 3-per country. The smaller team size coupled with tougher country limits has made it harder for 1st-year seniors to make an appearance because you can’t simply be a strong supporting member of the national program. You have to convince your coaches you are one of its leading gymnasts in order to be selected for the European Championships, and then deliver on that promise in qualifying.
But the major factor is the mental aspect.
Coaches know how to teach gymnasts new skills. The coaches who taught Viktoria Listunova all of her skills were borrowing from the past using previously learned methods and proven techniques. Previous experience gave them the blueprint on how to train a gymnast as effectively as possible, and what’s the best way to approach a formidable task. When it comes to the physical attributes of coaching, the difference between each gymnast matters little, coaches know what to do from the start because they have done it before.
But coaches have absolutely no idea what to do when it comes to the mental preparation of their pupil. Every gymnast has a different mind and thus different needs. This isn’t something a coach can figure out inside the gym, it can only be established in a high pressure environment such as a major senior level competition. Through a series a trial and error a coach will figure out how his or her current gymnast performs best in a major competition.
Gymnasts spend a lot of time twisting in the air and swinging from the bars in major competitions. But they spend even more time sitting around doing nothing as they wait for their turn. During this downtime coaches have to figure out how to manage their gymnast in between her routines. Some gymnasts perform well when the coach gives her words of encouragement. Others get apprehensive over such pep talks and are better off being left alone.
These tiny moments are often what make or break competitions, especially for young and inexperienced gymnasts. Gymnasts take cues from their coaches and often it can be as simple as a gymnast seeing her coach appearing too excited for her to become mentally unraveled. This actually happened at the 2021 European Championships when Viktoria Listunova inexplicably had a disastrous performance in Floor Finals.
Valentina Rodionenko explained this by stating:
And it’s our mistake as coaches. We shouldn’t have brought them to warm up four hours in advance.
Mistakes like these are usually quite common for a gymnast of Viktoria Listunova’s profile. Numerous gymnasts have this one weird result from early in their careers where they suffer an inexplicable loss. Most of the time they end up botching an entire competition with a corresponding coaching interview stating something along the lines of what Valentina Rodionenko said above. The routines were there and in winning form, but the coach mismanaged the gymnast by doing something which negatively impacted her mental concentration.
Whereas the World Championships are traditionally held at the end of the year, the European Championships are usually held early in the year with a 6-9 month gap in between these two competitions on the gymnastics calendar. That 6-9 month gap makes a crucial difference in the development of a 1st-year senior. The European Championships are held in a time of the year when 1st-year seniors are making adjustments as they transition from the junior to the senior level. It is also the period where the last remaining problems are identified and corrected.
At the European Championships 1st-year seniors enter the competition at a point in their careers where the final kinks in the engine are still being worked out. But by the time the World Championships come around they are well oiled machines where everything is running smoothly.
Maxi Gnauck finished in a 3-way tie for 6th place at the 1979 European Championships as a 1st-year senior. But at the 1979 World Championships she finished 2nd in the AA. It was the first of four consecutive AA medals in high level competition spanning into 1981 before an injury ended her medal streak.
Olga Bicherova is an even more extreme example. She finished 23rd at the 1981 European Championships only to win the 1981 World Championships later in the year while allegedly being just 13 years old. Bicherova then proceeded to win AA gold medals at the next two major WAG competitions (1982 World Cup and 1983 European Championships). The three consecutive AA titles would go down as one of WAG’s most impressive win streaks.
It is hard to overcome a complete lack of experience to win a European AA title. Which is why Nadia Comaneci was the only gymnast to do it. It speaks volumes as to just how historic that 1975 win was and provides further context as to why Nadia’s victory sent so many shockwaves throughout the sport. It was only possible because Nadia’s physical and mental attributes were amongst the strongest WAG had ever seen.
For 45 years Nadia Comaneci was the only gymnast who could say this, now she is joined by Viktoria Listunova.