The Unprecedented Longevity of Vanessa Ferrari

When it comes to describing the greatest feat of longevity in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG), Oksana Chusovitina is generally regarded as the ultimate example of what a veteran gymnast can do. But in the very same Olympics that Chusovitina recorded her 8th Olympic appearance, Vanessa Ferrari recorded her 4th Olympic appearance in a career that is quickly becoming equally impressive as what Oksana has accomplished.

At first glance it may sound ludicrous to label Ferrari as equal to Chusovitina in this regard, and when looking purely at number of Olympic appearances (8 vs 4) Chusovitina has doubled Ferrari in accomplishment. But what makes Vanessa Ferrari so special and unique is she has achieved longevity as an All-Around (AA) Champion.

Oksana Chusovitina has spent the bulk of her career competing as a specialist where she can compete on a smaller number of events. This limits the wear and tear on a gymnast’s body and the creation of the specialist role in the mid-1990s is a key reason as to why WAG has seen an increase in the average age of its athletes in recent decades.

Vanessa Ferrari is the polar opposite of Chusovitina in that she has spent the bulk of her career competing as an All-Arounder. Gymnasts who train as All-Arounders need to maintain top-form on four different events and effectively have 4x the burden/commitment as a 1-event specialist. But Vanessa isn’t just any All-Arounder, she won the AA gold medal in the very first year of her senior career (2006).

The AA is the most coveted and prestigious event to win in WAG. Part of what makes it such a legendary accomplishment is a gymnast needs to learn, train, and maintain a highly-competitive routine on all four events, concurrently. The grind, wear, and tear on the human body to do it is so rigorous, that a gymnast will exhaust her entire career just to win a gold medal in this one event.

To demonstrate this, I want to look at the years 1976-2012. The reason I selected this timeline is because Nadia Comaneci in 1976 was where the AA pivoted to an event dominated by younger gymnasts and her breakout success is widely seen as the beginning of a new era in WAG history. While 2012 is the last example of an AA Champion who is unequivocally retired and has been so for some time (Gabby Douglas).

Next, I will use a WAG’s final appearance in a Group-1 competition (World Championships and/or Olympics) as the benchmark to measure when a particular gymnast competed in her last major event. From 1976-2012 there were 32 AA gold medals rewarded, and of those 32 gold medals, the overwhelming majority of them went to gymnasts who would soon leave high-level competition.

(A) 31% of the medals went to a gymnast who never returned to Group-1 Competition

(B) 53% of the medals went to a gymnast who competed for one additional year (or less) which means the median career length after winning an AA medal is only a single year.

(C) 69% of the medals went to a gymnast who stayed for only two additional years (or less)

(D) 81% of the medals went to a gymnast who competed for only an additional three years (or less) which is the same duration of time as a single Olympic quad.

To be a gold medal favorite for the All-Around follows a mentality much like high-level autoracing, where cars are no longer usable after only a small number of races. Because one competition takes such a destructive toll on all the parts of the car, the car is treated as a throwaway piece and something that must be broken in order to win. But gymnasts aren’t machines, they are very much human.

By winning the AA in her very first year, Vanessa Ferrari had the profile of a gymnast who was expected to have an incredibly short career. Instead Ferrari is currently enjoying one of the longest careers of any gymnast ever.

Prior to Gabby Doulas (2012) and Simone Biles (2016), no Olympic AA Champion had returned to the following Olympics since 1980. The recent success of gymnasts such as Aliya Mustafina, Simone, Gabby, and Vanessa make us forget just how rare it once was for an All-Arounder to achieve longevity. Even more so in the era Ferrari first came of age. Gabby, Aliya, and Simone have redefined the typical career length of an AA Champion. But it is Vanessa who has been doing it longer than any of them, while also being the first to demonstrate the new direction the sport was taking where winning the AA didn’t mean your career had to fade away along with it.

Competing 15 years after her AA gold medal, Vanessa Ferrari already has the longest post-AA Championship career of any gymnast. In the 49 year period from 1960-2009, Vanessa Ferrari has enjoyed greater longevity than the gymnasts with the 2nd and 3rd most longevity who combine for 14 years of Group-1 appearances following their AA Championships. The two gymnasts being Svetlana Khorkina and Svetlana Boginskaya.

If these stats seem impressive to you, buckle in because this is only the tip of the iceberg of all the statistics associated with Vanessa Ferrari on the topic of achieving longevity milestones. In my previous paragraph, I merely established how hard it is just to win the AA and remain in the sport. Ferrari won the AA, defied the trend stating that AA Champions ought to retire, and then continued competing not as a specialist, but as an All-Arounder.

While there have been numerous examples of gymnasts who competed in an Olympic AA Finals on three different occasions, in all of WAG history only Vanessa Ferrari can say she won an AA title and then returned to qualify to Olympic AA Finals three times after that. In the case of both Boginskaya and Khorkina, they competed in Olympic AA Finals, won an AA title at the next World Championships, and only then did they compete in their two remaining AA Finals.

In the case of Larissa Latynina, she won her first AA title in an Olympic All-Around, and competed in her 2nd and 3rd Olympic All-Around in the next two Olympic quads. Vanessa Ferrari’s unique career stat line is that she won an AA title at the World Championships, and then two years after that she kickstarted a streak of three consecutive appearances in Olympic AA Finals.

But we still haven’t gotten to the most impressive part of this story which is the fact that Vanessa Ferrari won an Olympic medal, in an individual event, at the 2021 Olympics. This event single handedly makes Vanessa Ferrari the ultimate example of how much longevity any AA Champion has ever achieved in women’s gymnastics.

In the above graphic I compiled the 14 AA Champions who had the longest timeline in between their first and last appearance in Group-1 competition. I will use only the top-8 gymnasts for the rest of this article. Gymnasts #9 through #14 were included due to their popularity so readers can see how they compare to the top-8.

Vanessa Ferrari not only has by far the longest longevity, but her lead over #2 Larissa Latynina is as big as the gap between #2 and #5.

Next, I edited the graphic to reflect how the data changes when you look at the timeline of any AA Champion in-between the first and last medal (of any kind) that she won at the World Championships and/or Olympics over the course of her career. Whereas Vanessa Ferrari has a 16-year gap between her first and last medal, the remaining seven gymnasts average only 9.7 years.

I then edited the graphic again with the same concept as before, but this time I included only medals won in an individual event rather than a team event. Doing it this way drops the average of the seven remaining gymnasts down to 8 years.

But I’m not done as I repeated the process above. Before I looked only at the start and finish of any AA Champion’s career regardless of whether she won her first AA title as a 1st-year senior or a 5th-year senior. This time I looked only at the years after she won her first AA title with the intention of measuring how long a gymnast stays in the sport after winning the AA. Whereas Vanessa Ferrari remains at 16 years in career length, the average age for the remaining gymnasts is only 7.5 years.

Finally, I repeated the pattern once more but switched to measuring only medals won in an individual event, as opposed to team + individual medals. The result, no gymnast is within seven years of Vanessa Ferrari.

While the above data is an incredible showcase demonstrating just how historic Vanessa Ferrari’s career has been, it is only one small part of what has made her career so impressive. Another aspect of Vanessa Ferrari’s career and what made it so unlikely to evolve in the way that it did was her nationality.

The country a gymnast competes for will play a significant factor in how long her career will last. It is significantly more difficult to earn a starting lineup spot in a strong program as opposed to a program that is relatively weak. Strong programs produce talented young gymnasts in large numbers which is the main detriment to the veteran members of these national programs.

There are not one, but two disadvantages to competing for a strong program from the perspective of an aging veteran. The first is the physical obstacle of directly competing against so many high-level juniors for one of the few spots available in Group-1 competition. But the other obstacle that is for many, an even more daunting roadblock to overcome is entirely mental.

When an Olympic veteran returns to try for the Olympics once more, she isn’t just signing up for 4 years of around the clock training under grueling circumstances, she is doing so without any guarantee that it won’t be in vain. For so many veteran gymnasts, they do have a strong chance of beating out the rookies and making the next Olympic team. But knowing it’s only a 50% chance in a sport where coaches frequently favor their younger gymnasts while pushing their veterans aside, that is the main factor discouraging gymnasts from continuing their careers.

Oksana Chusovitina is WAG’s most famous gymnast when it comes to longevity, but even her most ardent supporters cannot ignore the role nationality played in Chusovitina’s career developing in the way that it did. Had the Soviet Union never broke apart, Chusovitina would most likely have been a 1x Olympian, with a second appearance in 1996 being a significant challenge. If Chusovitina had been a Ukrainian gymnast in the post-Soviet era, would she have stuck it out in the 1990s and early 2000s as gymnasts like Lilia Podkopayeva, Viktoria Karpenko Alena Kvasha, and Alina Kozich made the program a revolving door of young talent? Would a veteran gymnast not get discouraged under these circumstances?

Oksana Chusovitina ended up in Uzbekistan, a program that has been unable to produce young gymnasts capable of upstaging Chusovitina and denying her a pathway to being her program’s top entrant in a major competition. It goes without saying that eight Olympics is impressive regardless of circumstances, that Chusovitna would have achieved some form of success regardless of nationality, and that her brief time in Germany proves Chusovitina would have achieved some form of success in a program capable of qualifying a full team to the Olympics.

But it is not like what Vanessa Ferrari went through while competing for Italy, a program that has a storied reputation for producing young talent. In the history of European WAG Romania, Russia, and the Soviet Union are the continent’s most historic programs and no other program comes close.

Those programs have produced multiple AA gold medalists at the Junior European Championships and the only other program that has done the same is Italy (Enus Mariania and Giorgia Villa). Giorgia Villa also won the Youth Olympics and along with three fellow 1st-year seniors, (Asia D’Amato, Alice D’Amato, and Elisa Iorio) won a bronze medal in the team competition at the 2019 World Championships.

It was a statement win for Italy as the program had won its first team medal in 59 years. But it also defied the traditional power balance of WAG where team medals going to a traditional non-power was an extreme rarity. But above all else, it established Italy as a program with a heavy emphasis on young gymnasts being the backbone of the team.

And yet Vanessa Ferrari never let that discourage her or the rise of young rookies be the end of her career. In a sport where aging veterans have so frequently quit when faced with a young generation of gymnasts blocking their path to the next Olympics, Vanessa decided she was going to take all of them on. While also supporting them in every way by being their leader and role model. It resulted in Vanessa Ferrari making Italy’s 2021 Olympic team. With Ferrari on the team, Italy finished 4th in the team standings.

And that was historic.

In the past I’ve written on a topic that I like to call the “Elena Ceampelea Barrier.” It dictates that as a team rises higher in the standings, its ability to field an aging, veteran gymnast in its lineup becomes less and less likely. In other words, aging veteran gymnasts simply can’t achieve success in a program good enough to place in the top-4.

The Elena Ceampelea Barrier is the precise point where age (27 years or older) and team rank (4th or better) cross paths and dictates that the disadvantage older gymnasts face becomes too difficult to overcome. It is named after Elena Ceampelea who at 27 years old was part of Romania’s 4th place team at the 1974 World Championships and the last gymnast to achieve the milestone. What makes the Elena Ceampelea Barrier so historic is that numerous gymnasts at the age of 26 (Ludmilla Ezhova and Annia Hatch) came close, but it was as if that extra year was far too elusive.

Since the 1974 World Championships no one was able to match Ceampelea’s combination of age and success in the team competition. All the gymnasts who were of the right age were not part of teams that placed high enough in the team standings. All the gymnasts who were top-4 in the team standings were under the age of 27. For 47 years the Elena Ceampelea Barrier stood the test of time and it highlighted the impossibility aging veterans face when trying to maintain their lineup spots in the most competitive WAG programs.

That was until Vanessa Ferrari broke the Elena Ceampelea Barrier in 2021. And in typical Vanessa Ferrari fashion, she didn’t break it by a little bit, she utterly destroyed it by a full three years. Even though she didn’t get a medal out of it, Vanessa Ferrari’s appearance in the 2021 Team Finals was quietly one of WAG’s most historic moments.

If Vanessa’s performance in the team competition was historic, her performance in the individual events was even more so. By winning a medal in 2021, Vanessa Ferrari became only the 4th oldest Olympic WAG medalist since 1960. Yes, you read that right, Vanessa Ferrari isn’t just one of the oldest Olympic medalists since the start of the “little girl” era, but before it as well.

To finish this article, I want you to temporarily disregard everything I’ve said for a brief moment and consider this:

In 2021 Vanessa Ferrari joined Oksana Chusovitina, Daniele Hypolito, and Olga Tass as only the fourth gymnast to become a 4x Olympian in WAG. That is merely the raw data regardless of the missing context. And without mentioning the missing context, Vanessa Ferrari is already one of the most historic gymnasts when it comes to measuring longevity.

But the missing context is Ferrari’s status as a first-rate AA contender which is a type of gymnast where the career lengths are typically short. That she also belongs to a top rated program where such countries typically cycle through young talent rather than keep an aging veteran around. That she didn’t merely participate in the Olympics four times, but actually achieved personal success in her 4th Olympic appearance by winning a medal. By every conceivable metric, Vanessa going to the Olympics on four separate occasions is even more impressive than it looks.

All of this while being a trailblazer. When Ferrari won the AA in 2006, the widespread interpretation was the result must have been a fluke, as how else could such a historically weak program win the most coveted event in WAG? Fast-forward 16 years later and Italy is now seen as a top power that is always to be taken seriously. In two weeks Angela Andreoli will turn senior and is one of the most anticipated names of her respective junior class.

Fans were so quick to witness the rise of Angela Andreoli and take her seriously because Vanessa Ferrari set a high standard for Italy, a standard that didn’t exist prior to 2006. If Vanessa Ferrari was a trailblazer for Italian gymnasts and the first to prove what they were capable of, she was a trailblazer for international gymnasts as well. Ferrari was the first to establish a new trend where gymnasts who win the AA were going to have longer careers and not fade away as quickly as past AA Champions.

Perhaps the best way to think of Ferrari is to remember that since 2006 there have been two other gymnasts who won the AA as a first-year senior, and then went to the Olympics 2x after that. They are Aliya Mustafina and Simone Biles.

Both Oksana Chusovitina and Vanessa Ferrari are incredible gymnasts and my attempt to compare them is not to put one over the other, but to empower both. As of the writing of this article, both gymnasts have made personal statements expressing their intent to return to future competition. In both cases, they have included an appearance at the next Olympics as a goal they are considering.

What makes Oksana Chusovitina a living legend is that everything she has done redefines the meaning of “impossible” and her success is so jaw-dropping that the going sentiment is we are witnessing history when we watch Oksana. What Chusovitina has done and continues to do is so impressive and beyond the scope of human possibility that fans believe we will never see the likes of her again. That there will never be another gymnast like Chusovitina.

But I disagree with that notion because in my opinion the “next Chusovitina” is already here, and has been so for some time. I say that not because I believe Vanessa Ferrari will one day become an 8x Olympian, but that what she has already accomplished is so impressive, she deserves to be admired in the same way we admire Oksana Chusovitina.

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