Note: This article has a Part I
2008: Shawn Johnson
The 2008 Olympics featured one of WAG’s most iconic showdowns when American teammates Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson battled each other for the (All-Around) AA title. Whereas this competition is often remembered for being a close battle between two evenly matched contestants, the margin of victory reveals otherwise. The AA results in 2009, 2012, 2014, 2017, 2021 Olympics, and 2021 World Championships all featured smaller margin of victories than the 2008 Olympics. Only Simone Biles and Aliya Mustafina have recorded larger margin of victories in the 21st century.
What the 2008 Olympics featured was giant swings where Shawn comfortably beat Nastia in the AA qualifications, only for Nastia to beat Shawn by a similar margin in AA Finals. How did such an unusual swing occur? Ironically, Shawn Johnson recorded the exact same score in AA Finals as she scored in AA Qualifications.
As for Nastia, she came in at nearly a full point higher in the AA Finals than what her qualification scores had been. The defining moment came on uneven bars where Liukin came in .700 points higher than her qualification score on that one apparatus alone. That was just how many points higher Liukin had scored between qualifications and finals. Compared to Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin had scored 1.375 points higher on the uneven bars.
At the 2004 Olympics a scoring controversy in men’s gymnastics forced FIG into hastily implementing a complete overhaul of its scoring system in time for the next Olympics. Implemented in 2006, this dramatic scoring overhaul which had so little testing time to perfect has dominated the discourse regarding Women Artistic Gymnastics’ (WAG) iconic 2008 AA battle.
The biggest drawback to the 2006-present era scoring rules is it can’t ensure all four events have parity with each other. This drawback unequivocally benefited gymnasts like Nastia Liukin whose best event was the uneven bars. But much of this benefit was offset by vaulters also having abnormally high scores in 2008. The median uneven bars score was 15.125 while the median vault score was 14.937 points.
It was on vault where Shawn Johnson ate away at much of Nastia Liukin’s lead, even while Nastia gave one of the best vaults of her career. Nastia beat Shawn on two events and tied with her on a third event. This particular stat line refutes the narrative of an unfair uneven bars score handing Nastia the win because that apparatus was overscored. The reason Shawn Johnson lost was not an unfair code or that she had faltered on the big stage. Shawn gave the exact same stellar performance she gave in AA qualifications. Nastia Liukin simply gave the performance of a lifetime.
Perhaps the two gymnasts both performing so well relative to their abilities is why we remember this AA Finals as one of WAG’s greatest and most memorable showdowns.
Conventional wisdom dictates that whoever wins the AA Finals gets all of the glory and little of the spotlight is shared with the 2nd place finisher. The 2008 Olympics was the exception to that trend as both Nastia and Shawn achieved celebrity status for themselves. First, they competed inside the competition hall of an Olympic Games, then they were pitted against each other by the Hollywood machine as agents from both camps tried to make their gymnast the more famous of the duo.
The result was the two former teammates going seven years without talking with each other and have only recently rekindled their friendship. The nature of the 2008 AA battle still remains one of WAG’s more intense moments. To this day gymnastics fans talk about it in terms of “Team-Nastia” and “Team-Shawn” while keeping the discussion open as to who should have been the winner.
One lasting legacy of that 2008 AA Final was another quirk created by the hastily created 2006 Code of Points and a decision it made that was later criticized as a mistake. The code featured abnormally high skill requirements resulting in some of the highest scores in WAG history. The gymnast who finished in last place at the 2008 Olympic AA Finals would have finished just behind #10 Jessica Gadirova at the 2021 Olympics.
This high scoring total likely played a factor in making leads between Johnson and Liukin swing like a football game. Something that is normal in other sports, but unusual by gymnastics standards. Nastia Liukin finished her career as one of WAG’s most accomplished gymnasts of the 21st century and is #19 on the all-time medal count in Group-1 competition.
Of the seven gymnasts on this list, four of them won an All-Around title at the World Championships, which Shawn Johnson did back in 2007. Both Nastia and Shawn are remembered for being legends of their era. But over the course of their respective careers Nastia won twice as many medals as Shawn. While the greatest gymnast of 2008 and who should have won this matchup is up for debate, Nastia is widely regarded as having the better career.
2012: Viktoria Komova
After a memorable 2008 Olympic AA battle, the 2012 Olympics produced yet another iconic showdown in AA Finals. For the only time in WAG history, a different gymnast won AA Qualifications and AA Finals in back-to-back Olympics.
Entering the 2012 Olympics the focus was on three gymnasts. The first was Jordyn Wieber, the reigning AA Champion from the most recent World Championships who missed AA Finals on country limits. The second gymnast was Aliya Mustafina, the most dominant gymnast of the era but was still recovering from a recent ACL tear 15 months prior. The last was Viktoria Komova, the only one who hadn’t yet won an AA title, but all eyes were on her.
Komova had made a name for herself by dominating the junior level which created a high reputation for Viktoria to live up to once she turned senior. Gymnastics fans adored Komova because her training/competition footage was so spectacular, it was widely felt she was one of the most talented athletes the sport had ever seen. If gymnastics fans treated Komova like gymnastics royalty, it was because she was gymnastics royalty.
Viktoria’s mother had been a famed Soviet gymnast and if people were emphasizing the parental connection in 2012, it was because Nastia Liukin had also been the daughter of a famous Soviet gymnast and had been victorious at the most recent Olympics. Viktoria Komova had only narrowly lost out on the 2011 AA gold medal by the smallest margin of victory of any AA Finals from 2006-present. Before London, gymnastics fans saw her 2011 AA Silver medal as validation that if Komova was that close to such a championship in her very first year, she would certainly win an AA gold medal in the near future.
The 2012 Olympic AA would be very much like the 2008 Olympic AA. The two top contenders appeared evenly matched on beam and floor, while vault broke in favor of one gymnast whereas bars broke in favor of the other gymnast. But unlike the 2008 Olympic AA, this battle is remembered for a single climatic moment where a gymnast cost herself the gold medal.
It came when it was Viktoria Komova’s turn to perform on vault, she took a giant step to the left, and then uncharacteristically took a couple more steps. Not stopping to salute the judges until she was completely off the mat. Perplexing gymnastics fans as they asked why Komova didn’t do more to stop her momentum after the first step.
Komova’s imperfect landing would be the difference maker of the 2012 AA Finals. Komova’s agony became Gabby’s glory and the moment determined the fate of both gymnasts. For Gabby Douglas, she would become a gymnastics darling. For Komova, the 2012 AA Finals and more specifically her 2012 AA vault would become one of the most symbolic moments of her career. Despite the flawed landing, even with said miscue Komova had still kept the score relatively close with Douglas.
Her 2012 vault symbolizes just how close Komova came to being an Olympic AA Champion. The thin margin of defeat even while counting an error is an example of the raw physical talent gymnastics fans saw in Viktoria Komova that wasn’t adequately reflected in her career medal count. Komova’s miscue in the most critical moment of her career would later be seen as part of a pattern where she struggled in the big moments” Viktoria is remembered as a gymnast who could have won so many more medals had she simply maintained mental composure in the stressing moments of All-Around and Apparatus Finals. Continuing the theme of a gymnast who was legendary for the raw physical talent she possessed, that her medal count simply did not reflect.
Both Komova and Douglas would return for the 2013-2016 Olympic quad. Injuries would prevent Komova from appearing in the 2016 Olympics, nor did she even medal again in an AA Finals. Gabby Douglas would win an AA silver medal at the 2015 World Championships as well as becoming a 2016 Olympian. Between Viktoria and Gabby, it is Gabby who has the extra Olympics, the more recent AA medal, and the fame that came with being the 2012 Olympic AA Champion.
By most metrics, Gabby seemed to get the last laugh over Komova. But in my “points” ranking, it is Viktoria Komova who has a significantly higher score than Gabby. Komova is actually the #3 ranked gymnast the 2010s after Simone Biles and Aliya Mustafina. Gabby may be the more famous gymnast because of her Olympic AA title. But within the gymnastics fanbase there are many who consider Komova the greater of the two gymnasts when comparing their overall body of work.
But Viktoria never won an All-Around title and 2012 would be the second year in a row she nearly won the title that eluded Komova throughout her entire career.
2021: Simone Biles
Of all the gymnasts who have won the qualifications stage of the Olympic All-Around, all but two of them fared no worse than an AA silver medal. In a weird twist of irony, the only two who didn’t win gold or silver are Svetlana Khorkina and Simone Biles, the two most decorated gymnasts in World Championships history. But unlike the six other gymnasts on this list, Simone Biles is the only one who never even made it to the AA Finals.
In a story that would be the talk of the 2021 Olympics, and something that only time will tell as to just how long this event will remain in the popular memory of sports history, Simone Biles withdrew from 5 of 6 Olympic events including AA Finals. The reason, Biles had become stricken with a mental phenomenon that is well known inside the gymnastics community, but never before talked about outside of it called “The Twisties.”
It causes gymnasts or anyone who performs acrobatic elements in the air to suddenly lose the muscle memory and air awareness that they had spent years developing. Preventing high caliber gymnasts such as Simone Biles from performing their stunts safely. With this in mind, and not wanting to let her team down with further falls, Simone withdrew from all but one event at the 2021 Olympics.
The moment became one of WAG’s most dramatic turn of events it had ever experienced. Only Khorkina’s misfortune on the 2000 Olympic vault compares where such a heavy AA favorite found herself knocked completely out of the competition. The strange twist of fate is gymnasts who win AA Qualifications either don’t fall below silver, or get knocked out of the top-10. Middle ground such as “only” a bronze medal has yet to occur in All-Around competition.
But of all the other gymnasts on this list, Simone Biles is the only one with an Olympic AA title, which she had won previously at the 2016 Olympics. When Simone withdrew from the 2021 AA Finals, she gave up the chance to become the first back-to-back Olympic AA Champion since Vera Caslavska in the 1960s.
But Simone gained something far greater. At Tokyo-2021 Simone displayed courage, integrity, and bravery that is unparalleled in sports history. There will always be another gold medalist, but rarely will there ever be such a comparable moment where Simone taught us that the personal well-being of an athlete always comes first. That it is okay to say “I need a break” regardless of how big the moment is. And no matter how many people are expecting you to do something, that doesn’t mean you can’t say “no.”
Even if it entails saying it to millions of people, including your longtime supporters and even the children who call you their role model. Simone decided she was going to redefine what being a role model is, and winning a medal is not the epitome of it. But teaching us what is actually important in life, and that a gold medal is not at the top of the list.