The premise of this article is going to be short and simple. There were two gymnasts at the 2021 World Championships who accomplished a significant milestone for their respective country in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). In both cases they became the third such gymnast to do so and hence forth are part of an exclusive trio. The gymnasts in question are Angelina Melnikova of Russia and Urara Ashikawa of Japan.
In the case of Melnikova, she became the third Russian gymnast to win an All-Around title.
Svetlana Khorkina (1997, 2001, & 2003)
Aliya Mustafina (2010)
Angelina Melnikova (2021)
In the case of Ashikawa, she became the third Japanese gymnast to win a gold medal.
Keiko Ikeda (1954)
Mai Murakami (2017 & 2021)
Urara Ashikawa (2021)
What I love about these two separate trios is how symbolically comparable they are. In the case of Keiko Ikeda and Svetlana Khorkina who are the first member of each trio, they effectively founded their national WAG programs. Prior to Keiko Ikeda, Japanese WAG had never participated in the Olympics. When Keiko won the gold medal on balance beam at the 1954 World Championships, as far as I can tell there is no evidence of Japanese WAG ever competing in a major event prior to then.
Whereas it is often stated that Russian WAG is a continuation of Soviet WAG, I’m personally against such a comparison. Modern day Russia accounted for only 50% of the Soviet population and such a viewpoint ignores the contributions of Central-Asia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine which were vital to many of the medals Soviet WAG won. It also ignores just how much progress Russia had to make in order to achieve medal winning results in the mid-1990s after finding itself being outperformed by its fellow Soviet Republics in the 1989-1992 Olympic quad.
Svetlana Khorkina turned senior in 1994, one year after Russia made its World Championships debut in 1993. Svetlana’s mark of five All-Around medals (3 gold), and 27 total medals which included medals from three different Olympics made her one of the most successful gymnasts in the history of the sport. And like Keiko, it occurred within the context of a newly emergent WAG program.
And then there are the second gymnasts in the two respective trios, the gymnasts who are widely seen as synonymous with the first due to their large medal counts, Aliya Mustafina and Mai Murakami. In both cases the two gymnasts in question led the revitalization of their program. In a disappointing Olympic quad where Russia failed to win a single medal in WAG at the 2008 Olympics, two years later Mustafina crashed onto the scene and led Russia to its first team championship in program history. Aliya would be the lone All-Around Champion from 2007 to 2020 who wasn’t an American gymnast.
While Japanese WAG had demonstrated steady improvement in the years shortly before the arrival of Mai Murakami, she would be the gymnast who gave Japanese WAG its first gold medal in 63 years. Murakami also won medals in at least two different competitions as well as won a minimum of three medals or more in her career. These were accomplishments that no Japanese gymnast had achieved since the 1960s.
If Mustafina pulled Russia out of a bad Olympic quad, Mai pulled Japan out of four decades of obscurity. In the case of both Mustafina and Murakami, their respective programs remain relevant to this day. Which brings me to my final two gymnasts, Angelina Melnikova and Urara Ashikawa.
In the case of both the Russian and Japanese trios, the final two gymnasts have an age gap with the middle gymnast. For Russia, it is Mustafina who is six years older than Melnikova while for Japan, Mai is seven years older than Urara. These age gaps make Mai and Mustafina the longtime role models and idols of Melnikova and Urara back when they were young aspiring juniors. But they were still close enough to each other in age where they frequently served as teammates and attended the same training camps.
But the other major similarity I see is that Ashikawa and Melnikova are empowered by the other gymnasts in these trios. Urara and Angelina are incredible gymnasts, but Urara can’t be described as equal in accomplishment to Mai and Keiko. Nor can Melnikova when her medal count is directly compared to Mustafina and Khorkina.
But that doesn’t matter as Melnikova’s legacy is still empowered since she accomplished something so impressive, only the legendary Svetlana Khorkina and Aliya Mustafina can say they have done the same among Russian gymnasts. The same can be said for Urara Ashikawa who despite having only one career medal, has reached a benchmark that puts her alongside Mai and Keiko, the two gymnasts who represent the highest standards of excellence in Japanese WAG.
Whereas most readers are familiar with the careers of Khrokina, Mustafina, and Murakami, because Keiko Ikeda competed in the 1950s most gymnastics fans aren’t widely familiar with just how much of a legend she is. To sum up the career of Keiko Ikeda, in the past I’ve talked about how at the height of its dominance, the Eastern Bloc was winning 99% of available medals. Keiko Ikeda is the gymnast responsible for the remaining 1%.
In her career Keiko Ikeda won eight medals at the World Championships, despite competing in an era where the World Championships were held only once every four years. Take her medal count and multiple it by three (18) and that would be a more accurate representation of how successful Keiko Ikeda was compared to the modern era. Under the 1950-1974 World Championships format, only four gymnasts have more medals at the World Championships than Keiko Ikeda.
As for Angelina Melnikova and Urara Ashikawa, both gymnasts accomplished history for their programs, even if they did so in different ways. For Russia, winning an All-Around gold medal was a historic accomplishment. For Japan it was simply winning any gold medal at all. But in both cases they joined an exclusive club within their respective programs. Their legacy has become empowered due to that association with the two icons of Japanese WAG, and the two icons of Russian WAG.
Beyond the gold medals they won at the 2021 World Championships, that mark which will empower their legacy was the additional accomplishment Angelina Melnikova and Urara Ashikawa achieved in Kitakyushu.