In this two part series I am paying tribute to gymnasts who endured one of the cruelest experiences in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). Throughout WAG history there have been numerous instances of a “near-Olympic” team. Meaning, there were teams at the World Championships which were nearly identical to a future Olympic team, but with one exception.
That “one exception” meaning that for a single gymnast, she endured the embarrassment of being the only person not invited back. Realizing she’s not an Olympian, but every one of her teammates have that honor. Dealing with the mental hardship of coming to terms that all the gymnasts you were once on equal footing with were elevated to the Olympic stage, but you yourself were not.
While this phenomenon may sound like a rarity, it is actually extremely common.
Below are 21 examples of this trend occurring in WAG history. I took the results from my data which only cover select teams in select eras. Meaning, these 21 examples are only a portion of the overall total number of gymnasts who have been impacted by this trend.
Part I of this series covers 1972-1996
Part II of this series covers 2000-2021
Marianne Noack (East Germany 1970)
This is the only example I could find from the “old schedule” where there was no World Championships in a pre-Olympic year. Instead, 1970 would be the last Worlds lineup prior to the Olympics.
Marianne Noack of East Germany is one of just three Olympic gymnasts on this list. She was a 1968 Olympian and follows a pattern that will be repeated numerous times in the future. An established veteran being cast aside to make room for a younger member of the national team.
Natalia Tereschenko (Soviet Union 1979)
For those who don’t know the finer details of Natalia Tereschenko’s career, you are in for a treat. Natalia Tereschenko shared the same coach as Olesia Dudnik. I’d argue that not only was Tereschenko virtually the exact same gymnast as Olesia Dudnik, but it was Tereschenko who is the very reason Dudnik’s career was famed for its excessive difficulty.
Whereas most Soviet WAGs came from massive cities averaging around a million people, Tereschenko came from one of the most isolated regions of the USSR. Her town with a population that was barely 10,000 people was accessible only by a single unpaved road that was 100 miles long. Faced with this extreme isolation which made it difficult to track the progress of her rivals, Tereschenko focused on having twice as much difficulty as everyone else. The way Tereschenko saw it, if she couldn’t see what her rivals were doing, she was going to think to herself “what is the most difficult thing they would do” and then try to find something harder.
Natalia Tereschenko’s downfall was that she always happened to peak in the wrong years. The 1979 World Championships would be her only appearance at the Olympic/World Championships level. The athlete who took her spot in the lineup was Elena Davydova, she would win the All-Around (AA) at the 1980 Olympics. As for Natalia Tereschenko, her consolation prize was being one of the very few non-Americans to win the American Cup.
Note: I wrote a whole article about Tereschenko and all her crazy exploits which can be found here.
Marilena Vladarau (Romania 1979)
The 1979 World Championships team is one of the most iconic lineups in Romanian WAG due to its upset of the Soviet program. For a lineup that “worked” the Romanians still felt they could do better with Marilena Vladarau being left off the team in favor of Cristina Grigoras.
Marilena Vladarau served Romania at both the 1978 and 1979 World Championships but would never be an Olympian. The gymnast who replaced her was Cristina Grigoras who would go on to become a 2x Olympian (1980 & 1984). Grigoras was one of just three Romanian gymnasts to appear in multiple Olympics from 1972-1988.
Despite competing in only two World Championships, Vladarau had a well-rounded career. She competed against the likes of Natalia Yurchenko, Olga Mostepanova and even Elfi Schlegel in non-major competition. Marilena competed into 1981 before retiring. For more information on Vladarau make sure to check out gymn-forum and her interview in Karen Louis Hollis’ book series.
Regina Grabolle (East Germany 1979)
East Germany is the third country from the 1979 World Championships that changed just one gymnast in their lineup heading into the 1980 Olympics.
The teams who finished 1st, 2nd, and 3rd could theoretically have fielded as many as 36 different gymnasts between these two competitions, but ended up using just 21 instead. This was just three off from the absolute minimum of 18 gymnasts. If ever there was a time where programs simply weren’t changing their lineup, 1979-1980 was it.
Syrta Kopfli (Switzerland 1983)
During the early 1980s Swiss WAG rapidly replaced the bulk of its lineup. Just two gymnasts from their 1981 World Championships returned for the 1983 World Championships. The first was Romi Kessler who was Switzerland’s greatest gymnast of the pre-2000s, and at the time, arguably the strongest gymnast in all of Western Europe. The other was Syrta Kopfli who managed to return for 1983, but not the 1984 Olympics.
Ecaterina Szabo (Romania 1987)
Just like the 1979 Romanian team that achieved something of an immortal status within gymnastics history for famously upsetting the Soviets, so did the 1987 Romanian lineup. Yet the 1987 lineup is seemingly more legendary due to being such a well rounded team. But as had happened eight years prior, one member would not return for the Olympics.
It ended up being Ecaterina Szabo who is one of three gymnasts on this list who was an Olympian, returned to WAG in the next quad, only to miss making a second Olympic lineup by just one year. Szabo is a Hall of Fame gymnast and one of the most successful WAGs of the 1980s.
By 1987 Ecaterina’s career was already legendary enough, but her appearance in the famed Rotterdam lineup capped a remarkable career and allowed Szabo to leave the sport on a high note. Outside of a second Olympic appearance, there was no better way for a legend to leave the competition hall for the final time.
Natalia Kalinina (Soviet Union 1991)
Replaced With: Elena Grudneva
This remains one of the most controversial team selections in Olympic history. The Soviets brought back virtually the exact same team from the 1991 World Championships where they competed under the Soviet flag, (for the final time) for the 1992 Olympic team where they competed under the Olympic flag.
The lone change up was exchanging Ukrainian gymnast Natalia Kalinina for Russian gymnast Elena Grudneva. At the 1992 CIS (ex-Soviet) Championships Kalinina beat Grudneva, but at the 1992 CIS Cup the reverse happened, with Grudneva beating out Kalinina.
Kalinina had more experience and considerable success in the past whereas Grudneva was largely inexperienced. But Kalinina had been experiencing regression in the previous years whereas Grudneva had not. In the end the final spot in the starting lineup went to Grudneva while Kalinina wasn’t even given a spot as an alternate.
But the ethnic background of the gymnasts involved led to speculation that politics had influenced the way this team was decided. At the 1992 CIS Championships four Ukrainian gymnasts placed 8th or higher whereas Russia had found itself without a single gymnast in the top-8. But the 9th-12th spots were all Russian gymnasts. Resulting in a situation where the team appeared to have “too many” Ukrainians and not enough Russians.
Elena Grudneva competed at the 1992 Olympics, won a gold medal and made only a very brief appearance in 1993 before leaving the sport. Natalia Kalinina competed all the way until 1995 refusing to give up even as Ukraine opted not to award her a spot in a World Championships lineup in three straight years.
Eugenia Popa (Romania 1991)
The story of Eugenia Popa is that of a gymnast who represented Romania in two consecutive World Championships. But by the time the Olympics came around she was the oldest gymnast in the program and one of its most experienced athletes. Naturally, this made Eugenia the ideal candidate to be removed and replaced with a younger gymnast. And not just anyone, but Gina Gogean.
I highly recommend you read her profile page to get a sense of just how statistically impressive Gina Gogean’s career actually was. As for Eugenia Popa, she joins Natalia Tereschenko and Elena Davydova as an example where a WAG’s Olympic heartbreak ended up being the catalyst helping to jumpstart the career of a future legend.
But unlike the Davydova/Tereschenko dynamic where Tereschenko was simply lucky that Elena Davydova was unavailable to compete in 1979, the Eugenia Popa/Gina Gogean dynamic is different. Gina was actually underage during the 1992 Olympics and shouldn’t have been there at all.
By her own admission, Eugenia Popa was aware of this fact and had to attend the Olympics as Romania’s alternate knowing full well that her status as an Olympian was being stolen from her. Eugenia Popa is perhaps the gymnast who lost out the most as the result of an age falsification scandal, and yet she will consistently reiterate that she shows no ill-will towards Gina Gogean.
Eugenia Popa is one of the few gymnasts on this list to formally be named an Olympic alternate. But there would be no Olympics for Eugenia Popa. Despite the letdown, Eugenia weighed her options knowing she loved the sport and wanted to continue, but also realized the formidable task ahead of her as her body was demonstrating signs that it could no longer handle the load of an Olympic-caliber training schedule. Helping sway her towards retirement, due to her advanced age Romanian coaches had actively discouraged her from continuing her career after the 1992 Olympics.
Yulia Sobko (Belarus 1995)
This is another of the many heartbreaking examples in WAG history. On paper, Yulia Sobko appeared in just a single competition, the 1995 World Championships. But her career represented much more than that. Given her 1980 birth year, Sobko was amongst the very first generation of gymnasts to come of age in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but just old enough to be one of the last byproducts of the old Soviet system.
Despite her lone appearance at the World Championships, Yulia Sobko was a regular attendee at some of Belarus’ most important competitions. She represented Belarus at the Junior European Championships as well as its iconic tri-meets with the United States and China. She was truly a staple of Belarus during the 1990s and provided badly needed depth for a program that was very top heavy, (Boginskaya & Piskun) but desperately needed strong gymnasts to complement its top stars.
Despite her lone appearance at the World Championships, Yulia Sobko had a rather long career putting up results from 1993-1999, a lengthy timeline given these results were from a gymnast who has just one career appearance at the World Championships/Olympic level.
Laetitia Begue (France 1995)
The 1996 French Olympic team is rather interesting. Very few Olympic lineups ever accounted for so many appearances at the Olympics/World Championships level. Isabelle Severino, Elvire Teza, and Ludivine Furnon account for 20 total appearances just between the three of them. Meanwhile Cecile Canqueteau-Landi had four appearances of her own.
Laetitia Begue was something of an outlier for the French program appearing in just a single major competition in an era defined by the recurring presence of French icons. Her replacement was Emilie Volle who would go on to regularly appear in the French lineup for the next four years.