To start this article, I want to compare and contrast two gymnasts who have very little in common, but have had remarkably similar experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. The two gymnasts in question are Nia Dennis and Angelina Melnikova. At first glance, it appears the two have hardly anything in common at all.
They come from different racial and geographic backgrounds, nor do they compete at the same level. One is a college level gymnast while the other is going to the Olympics for the second time. But what Nia and Angelina share in common, Covid-19 could not have come at the worst possible time for either of them.
In Spring of 2020 Nia’s floor routine was just beginning to take off in popularity and was on the verge of going viral in the same fashion as Katelyn Ohashi’s routine once did. But the cancellation of the 2020 college gymnastics season right as the postseason was about to start killed Nia’s momentum. Viral fame can be rare and for most gymnasts, they only get one opportunity for their likeness to catch fire.
At first, it seemed Dennis had missed her one and only opportunity to become the next Kateyln Ohashi. Missing out not only on the prestige of going viral, but the recognition and financial rewards of such fame. But then something happened.
When college gymnastics returned in the following season, Nia Dennis picked up right where she left off. It was as if Nia was too damn good for people not to notice her career. Whereas a viral floor routine in 2020 would have been a magical moment for Nia Dennis, in 2021 it was even more special.
As Nia’s career went on hiatus for a year, during that time the #BlackLiveMatters movement exploded in both popularity and acceptance. Whether it be 2020 or 2021, Nia Dennis’ viral floor routines were always going to be defined by themes of Black excellence and promoting Black culture.
But under the newfound political climate in the aftermath of George Floyd, Nia’s floor routine was able to ride a wave of additional momentum in 2021 to promote the important issues that have little to do with gymnastics that weren’t at the forefront in 2020. The downside of Covid-19 for Nia’s career is she had to wait a year before achieving widespread viral fame, if not nearly risked losing out on it entirely.
But the upside was that extra year created the political climate to empower the meaning, significance, and symbolism of her performance in a way that wasn’t possible before. Covid-19 gave Nia an even larger platform, allowed her to promote issues that weren’t as easily promotable the year prior, and even helped Nia gain her own independent identity. In 2021, few were willing to treat Nia as merely a Katelyn Ohashi 2.0, but rather someone who was so personally identifiable she could be introduced without needing to be linked to the gymnast who came before her.
In the end, the gymnast who appeared to be the biggest loser of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least at the college level, got though it while coming out ahead.
That’s the funny thing about gymnastics, sometimes the right mix of circumstances beyond your control combined with determination from the gymnasts themselves create these scenarios. Where a stroke of bad luck doesn’t knock a gymnast down, sometimes she gets right back up and even rises higher than where she was before.
In the past 18 months, that has been Angelina Melnikova’s career as well.
What made Covid-19 so devastating to Melnikova’s career is that despite being a 2016 Olympian and considered a highly rated gymnast throughout the bulk of her career, she had been plagued with failure. For most gymnasts there is no shame in losing, but for a highly acclaimed child prodigy and the leading gymnast of the #2 program in the women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG), it becomes noticeable when one doesn’t have success in the individual events.
But at the 2019 World Championships all of that changed when Melnikova won the first individual medals of her career at the Olympic/World Championships level (Group-1 Level). After four years of letdown in senior competition, it seemed Melnikova had finally hit her stride with the Olympics just eight months away.
But in an instant, all of that momentum and perfect timing was erased by a pandemic. It was always a given that Angelina Melnikova was going to be on the Russian Olympic team in 2021. But what wasn’t a given was whether Melnikova was going to rack up a significant medal haul.
At the 2016 Olympics Melnikova experienced heartbreak. She had entered the competition with high hopes only to falter on the big stage. At the time Melnikova was a 16 year old who was in her very first year at the senior level. Melnikova had fallen only to 22nd and could have found some sense of redemption for herself in the All-Around Finals.
But under one of the most controversial rules at the Olympics, and a rule that has only been present in Olympic WAG since 2004, Melnikova was eliminated on 2-per country limits. The rule dictates that no more than two gymnasts from the same country can advance to the All-Around Final.
To add insult to injury, photographers pounced on Angelina Melnikova as she experienced the lowest moment of her gymnastics career, if not her entire life. Photos of a sobbing, distressed, and tearful eyed Melnikova were amongst the most widely circulated pictures of 2016 Olympic WAG qualifications.
As of the writing of this article, the 2021 Olympics are just one day away from beginning and the 2016 photos of Melnikova in tears remain the top photo result when you Google her name.
Melnikova demonstrated improvement at both the 2017 and 2018 World Championships, but still she had failed to medal in the individual events. It wasn’t until the 2019 World Championships and her 4th major appearance at the Group-1 level that success finally came.
The 2020 Olympics was supposed to be Angelina’s great redemption arc. The gymnast whose previous Olympic experience had been one of heartbreak and letdown was getting hot at the right time. Physically, Melnikova was the best she had ever been. More importantly, her mental game was also as strong as ever.
But then came the dreaded one year wait. The 365 days where a gymnast has to maintain her mental composure, muscle memory, physical fitness, conditioning and so much more. They were 365 days of added work, but each day representing the threat of maybe that will be the day a gymnast gets injured, or loses her competitive edge relative to her rivals.
Every gymnast had to deal with the 365 day dilemma. But Angelina Melnikova’s Covid-19 pandemic experience gave her one additional burden that none of her international rivals had to carry:
If fans were sadden at all the momentum Melnikova lost when the 2020 Olympics were delayed into 2021, it was because conventional wisdom at the time dictated that the 2020 Olympics would be the final year Melnikova had a viable shot at an individual medal. There were two reasons for this.
The first was that the natural life-cycle of the sport is that Olympic veterans tend to regress and get replaced by their younger counterparts. But the more pressing issue was Vladislava Urazova and Viktoria Listunova, the pair of Russian juniors who were the best example of a “can’t miss” junior prospect Europe had seen in a decade. In her very first senior competition Listunova matched a feat that had previously been held only by Nadia Comaneci.
Many promising juniors don’t pan out, but Urazova and Listunova are proven winners. They were also the type of juniors who could turn senior and immediately dominate the standings in their very first competition. And Russia had two of them.
But only Vladislava Urazova was slated to turn senior in time for the 2020 Olympics. This meant that Urazova was a threat to Melnikova, but was largely limited to demoting Melnikova down a single spot in the standings. Perhaps Melnikova wins a bronze medal rather than a silver medal.
But in 2021 Listunova would join Urazova, and it was at this point many thought Melnikova’s time as Russia’s top gymnast was over. How could the elder Melnikova compete with the two young phenoms? More importantly, whereas Urazova could hamper Melnikova’s career, under 2-per country limits the combination of both Listunova and Urazova could completely derail Melnikova’s career. Potentially eliminating Melnikova from every individual event at the 2021 Olympics. Potentially creating a scenario where Melnikova performs significantly better in 2021 than she did in 2016, but in both instances her Olympics was over after the team event ended.
This is what made Covid-19 so devastating for Melnikova and threatened her career perhaps more than any other gymnast. In a year Melnikova went from the gymnast who was one of the very few locks for an All-Around finals to a gymnast most at risk of being eliminated on country limits.
Not only would this be heartbreaking for Melnikova, she would go down in women’s gymnastics history as the first iconic gymnast to have her career completely ruined by country limits. While many may want to bestow this title on Jordyn Wieber, I’d argue what makes Melnikova unique is that she was truly a staple of women’s gymnastics for an entire Olympic quad.
Melnikova has been unquestioned leader of a top program, a 2x Olympian, competed in five consecutive Group-1 competitions, and all of it would potentially culminate in having never appeared in Olympic All-Around Finals. Under the most depressing nightmare scenario, Melnikova’s career could end with her having never appeared in any of the five individual events at the Olympics.
When it came to Jordyn Wieber, country limits ruined the career of a gymnast over a single bad day. For Angelina Melnikova, country limits decimated the entire Olympic career of a gymnast who had been around for five years. But this is merely what “could” happen, and the most remarkable component of this story. Melnikova is giving us every reason to assume that this will stay a “what could have been” scenario.
Whereas fans were celebrating Melnikova’s breakout performance at the 2019 World Championships, it was her stronger than usual performance at the 2019 European Championships that was the real game changer. Before then Melnikova had never experienced a great competition at the senior level. Ever since the 2019 European Championships, Melnikova has never experienced a bad competition.
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Between the European Championships, World Championships, and Olympics, Melnikova has won 12 individual medals while competing in 9 total competitions. But nine of those medals came in her last three competitions. Meaning, 66% of Melnikova’s medal haul has come in the most recent (last) 33% of her career. And when the full data is laid out, Melnikova’s growth becomes even more apparent.
I’ve studied the careers of 100s of gymnasts and Melnikova’s is as unusual as it gets. While there are numerous cases of gymnasts who experienced an explosion of success for the first time in their 20s, you typically see that with gymnasts who were passed over in Group-1 lineups during their teenage years and spent the early part of their senior careers bouncing around the domestic circuit. Not a former child prodigy who went to the Olympics at 16 years old.
And of all the senior age gymnasts who caught fire 5 or 6 years after their Olympic debut, very few of them have a profile remotely close to Angelina Melnikova. Most were one-event or two-event specialists who weren’t a significant threat for an All-Around medal. Nothing in-line with Melnikova who has medaled in 4 of 5 individual events and spent the bulk of her career dealing with hype that she was a favorite for an All-Around podium.
Angelina Melnikova herself has stated that she can feel it in her body that she is a different gymnast. In Angelina’s own words, she can feel its improvement and growing strength. And despite her status as a seasoned veteran of the sport, a title that is well earned for someone who first competed at the Olympics five years ago, Melnikova is still young.
In a previous data analysis I discovered that during the 2016 Olympics, the older a gymnast was, the worse her performance in the All-Around was likely to be. But that was only true for gymnasts 22 years or older. As a gymnast who was only 16 at the 2016 Olympics, Melnikova was slated to turn 20 at the Tokyo Olympics on their intended start date in 2020, and will be 21 years old when they are actually held.
The data is actually on Melnikova’s side and reflects she is at the exact age where WAG All-Arounders typically peak in performance. So whereas the Covid-19 Pandemic represented a loss of momentum for every gymnast, for Melnikova she used those 365 extra days to get even better. For a gymnast who was on such an extreme upward trajectory in 2019, Melnikova was in a better position to use those extra 365 days more effectively than anyone else.
For Angelina Melnikova, it was 365 days to get stronger.
Where so much of the narrative in 2019 foresaw Urazova and Listunova as the gymnasts who will carry the future of Russian WAG, Melnikova has staked her claim that she is every bit a part of the future for the time being. If Russia wasn’t lucky enough that Urazova and Listunova were two highly renowned junior prospects who appeared at the exact same time, they were gifted Angelina Melnikova. She is the rare example of a veteran gymnast who is only getting better with time.
Combined with Covid-19, the current year has given as a three-way rivalry between a trio of teammates, with country limits dictating one of them must be the odd-person out. In two major domestic competitions it was Melnikova who finished 3rd. But at the 2021 European Championships Melnikova actually won the qualifying round, and in doing so eliminated Valdislava Urazova on country limits.
Even though Listunova won the All-Around finals at this competition, Melnikova proved that she wasn’t going to let a pair of younger gymnasts rise to the top of Russian WAG unchallenged. If we have learned one thing about Russia in 2021, Urazova and Listunova are the real deal. But Angelina Melnikova will not go down without a fight.