Gymnasts and Faces in the Crowd

In American media, Sports Illustrated is the premier publication in the sports genre with an iconic brand and long running history that few institutions compare to, let alone rival. Going back to my childhood days I would always get excited when a copy of Sports Illustrated came in the mail, and as soon as I got my hand on it, one of the first segments I would flip to was “Faces in the Crowd.”

In every issue the Faces in the Crowd segment would feature six athletes (sometimes more or less) and provide a brief overview of a recent accomplishment that particular athlete achieved. Faces in the Crowd was unique in that it didn’t select athletes on any specific criteria. Faces in the Crowd took athletes from all sports and all level of play. In theory, winning a kindergarten youth league was as equally as meritorious for consideration as winning the Super Bowl. The diversity of Faces in the Crowd ranged from not just football and basketball players, but high school coaches, chess players, and every Olympic sport imaginable.

The big appeal for Faces in the Crowd when I was growing up is that unlike it Major League Baseball or the NFL coverage, Faces in the Crowd wasn’t featuring famous athletes twice my age who live in multi-million dollar mansions. But rather, high school aged athletes from my own age group who I could relate to. In its time Faces in the Crowd has featured somewhere around 20,000 athletes, and as you can tell where this article is going, many of them were gymnast.

My best guess is that somewhere between 100 to 200 gymnasts were profiled on the segment, and for this article I limited myself only to gymnasts who were veterans of elite level women’s artistic gymnastics. Gymnasts who went on to achieve success at the Olympic level were only a small portion of the gymnasts featured in Faces in the Crowd. Most were recreational non-elite gymnasts from the high school level and/or collegiate gymnasts.

Simone Biles was featured in the September 2, 2013 edition of Faces in the Crowd. At the time she was coming off her iconic performance at 2013 American Cup where she finished 2nd to Katelyn Ohashi in what would go down in gymnastics history as the encounter between the future Olympic Superstar and the future viral UCLA gymnast.

Kyla Ross was featured in the November 30, 2009 edition of Faces in the Crowd as a result of the success she was achieving as a junior. Kyla Ross was given the added bonus of having her profile fitted with a red background to make it standout more than the rest, while providing readers with a link to watch one of her routines.

Katie Heenan won a bronze medal on the uneven bars at the 2001 World Championships while also leading Team USA to a bronze medal finish in the team competition. In doing so, Heenan ended Team USA’s long medal drought which spanned the 1997-2000 Olympic quad.

But it was Heenan’s success at the collegiate level rather than the World Championships level which landed her in the April 23, 2007 edition of Faces in the Crowd. There are numerous examples of famed gymnasts from the elite level who were passed over during the elite days, only to later make the segment as a result of their collegiate-level success. At the end of this article are recent examples of this trend including a Tokyo-2021 Olympian

Canadian gymnast Kate Richardson who is a 2x Olympian made the February 22, 2004 edition of Faces in the Crowd while she was in between her two Olympic appearances. But it was as a result of her NCAA success where she was a member of the UCLA team that earned her a mention in this segment. Sports Illustrated is a North American English-language publication and as a result, it would frequently feature Canadian gymnasts in Faces in the Crowd.

Ashley Postell was featured in the February 17, 2003 edition of Faces in the Crowd in the aftermath of her victory at the 2002 World Championships where she won a gold medal on the balance beam.

I am going through Faces in the Crowd in reverse yearly order, but I want to take a quick detour to the very beginning, May 7, 1956. Sandra Ruddick and Jack Beckner were the first gymnasts to ever appear in the segment. There is a lot of symbolism regarding this particular feature. First, it establishes that gymnastics was a popular sport for the Sports Illustrated editors from the very beginning. Faces in the Crowd made its first appearance on January 9, 1956. Meaning, it took only five months for gymnastics to be selected for inclusion.

Secondly, in an era where female athletes weren’t given anywhere near the same level of recognition compared to their male counterparts, Sports Illustrated was willing to give women stronger consideration than what otherwise would be expected. Ruddick was the only woman to be featured in the entire segment, and was one of just two athletes to be given a headshot.

Ruddick would make her lone Olympic appearance in 1956 where her scoring ranged from 46th to 55th in the various individual events. Jack Beckner would become a 3x Olympian while attending the Olympics for a 4th time as head coach of the 1968 team. He was also a successful NCAA coach where his program (USC) won the 1962 National Championship. He also had an older brother (Dick Beckner). The Beckner brothers were both members of the 1956 Olympic team.

Jack Beckner passed away in 2016 at the age of 86, Sandra Ruddick passed away in 2017 at the age of 85.

Courtney Kupets made the Faces in the Crowd segment in the December 16, 2002 issue for largely the same reason as Postell, winning a gold medal at the 2002 World Championships. Kupets would later become a 2x Olympic medalist.

Courtney is currently the head coach of the University of Georgia’s gymnastics program. Ironically, she isn’t the only active NCAA head coach who was featured in Faces in the Crowd. Another alumnus of the segment was Tanya Service, who now goes by the name Tanya Chaplin and is the current head coach of Oregon State’s gymnastics team.

Future Olympic All-Around Champion Carly Patterson was featured in the September 16, 2002 edition of Faces in the Crowd. It is one of the best examples of Sports Illustrated taking notice of a rising star in its Faces in the Crowd segment.

Mohini Bhardwaj made the April 17, 2000 edition of Faces in the Crowd owing to her success at UCLA. However, the current Bruin would become a future Olympian when she competed at the 2004 Olympics. The 2004 Olympic team included three different gymnasts who were featured in the segment.

Kristen Maloney and Kristal Uzelac were profiled in a rare “double” featurette in the May 26, 1997 issue. Maloney would become a 2000 Olympian and won a medal in the team competition. Uzelac would go on to become one of Team USA’s most successful juniors having won three straight All-Around titles at the Junior U.S. Championships from 1999-2001. Unfortunately, Uzelac never achieved the same level of success at the senior level. However, Uzelac is arguably as equally well known as Maloney amongst the gymnastics fanbase even to this day because Uzelac’s junior career was simply that memorable.

Tamara Levinson who represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympics in rhythmic gymnastics made Faces in the Crowd in the September 6, 1993 edition. She is one of three rhythmic gymnasts to be featured in the segment. The others being Lisa Wang and Natalie Lacuesta who were both featured in the segment when they were only 12 years old.

Missy Marlowe, albeit with her name misspelled was featured in the February 8, 1993 edition of Faces in the Crowd. The profile made no mention of Missy being a 1988 Olympian and praised her for the success Marlowe was achieving at the collegiate level.

Jennie Thompson and Dominique Moceanu made a joint appearance in Faces in the Crowd as part of the March 29, 1993 edition. The young duo would go on to win the Junior All-Around at the U.S. National Championships in 1993 (Thompson) and 1994 (Moceanu). Their combined success as well as being coached by Bela Karolyi made Dominique and Jennie the two most famous junior prospects the American program had during the early years of the 1993-1996 Olympic cycle.

Not only would Thompson and Moceanu become training partners under the most high profile coach in the country, but Bela Karolyi also invited Kim Zmeskal and Svetlana Boginskaya to train alongside them as well. It was perhaps the most staggering collection of fan favorites to ever be assembled under the roof of a single club. The most high profile coach in the sport had secured two former All-Around Champions. One being the most famous non-American in the sport (Boginskaya) while the other had been the biggest American star up until recently (Zmeskal).

All while the two biggest junior prospects within the American program were training alongside two of the most famous gymnasts from the senior circuit. Dominique Moceanu went on to become an Olympic gold medalist. Unfortunately for Jennie Thompson, her senior career did not materialize as well as Moceanu’s. But Jennie’s career was unique in that she trained with Steve Nunno (coach of Shannon Miller), Bela Karolyi, and Mary Lee Tracy at various points throughout her career.

Like Kristal Uzelac, Jennie Thompson remained a relatively well known gymnast despite her lack of success at the senior level due to the merits of her junior career. Kristal and Jennie are two of the most high profile juniors the American program ever had, and coincidentally both made Faces in the Crowd. Their inclusion in the segment is a reminder as to just how high profile both gymnasts were in the heyday of their junior careers.

Before she became a 1988 Olympian, Brandy Johnson was featured in the February 9, 1987 edition of Faces in the Crowd when she was only 13 years old. At the 1989 World Championships Brandy would become the 7th American to win a medal in an individual event at the World Championships and/or Olympics.

In the October 1, 1984 edition of Faces in the Crowd Tracy Calore was featured in the segment. In the following year she would represent Team USA at the 1985 World Championships.

Michelle Dusserre made the 1982 December 2, 1984 edition of Faces in the Crowd. Two years later she would win a medal at the 1984 Olympics.

Dianne Durham made the September 20, 1982 edition of Faces in the Crowd. Whereas everyone remembers Mary Lou Retton as the most iconic American gymnast of the 1981-1984 Olympic quad, from 1981 to 1983 it was actually Durham who was putting up superior results and appeared better position to dominate the Los Angeles Olympics. On most occasions where they competed head-to-head, it was Durham who put up higher scores.

This particular listing is a reminder of just how successful Durham was at the height of her career.

Julianne McNamara was featured in the May 26, 1980 edition of Faces in the Crowd. At the time she was on the verge of missing the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a result of a boycott. But McNamara kept faith with the system and won medals at the 1981 World Championships (which was held in Moscow) and the 1982 World Cup. At the 1984 Olympics Julianne was one of the most successful gymnasts in attendance.

She scored five Perfect 10s which was not only more than Mary Lou Retton or Ecaterina Szabo, but more than any athlete on the men’s side of the sport as well. At the 1984 Olympics the men’s teams ranked #1, #3, and #4 at the 1983 World Championships were all in attendance.

As a 12 year old Tracee Talavera was featured in the April 2, 1979 edition of Faces in the Crowd. At the time Tracee was already considered one of the top gymnasts in the American program. She would later be named to the 1980 Olympic team but missed the Olympics due to the 1980 Moscow boycott. Like McNamara, she went to Moscow in the following year as part of the 1981 World Championships and returned with a medal. Like McNamara again, she made the 1984 Olympic team and this time was actually able to compete this time. In the process becoming an Olympic medalist.

Sharon Shapiro was featured in the May 1, 1978 edition of Faces in the Crowd. As an elite level gymnast, Shapiro only had modest success appearing mostly in low level international competitions and tended to place towards the bottom of the standings at the U.S. National Championships. But she was present at a 1979 British competition where she competed against Elena Davydova. It was the same competition in which Davydova showcased her iconic red/pink flower leotard that would be made famous at the 1980 Olympics.

Shapiro would go on to become a trailblazing collegiate gymnast and in 1981 won the All-Around at the AIAW Championships. At the time the AIAW was competing with the NCAA for being the top governing body for women’s college sports. The very same year Shapiro won the AIAW title, she competed in the 1981 University Games which was Nadia Comaneci’s last appearance in a major competition.

Merilyn Chapman was featured in the January 16, 1978 edition of Faces in the Crowd. Oddly enough, Chapman’s career at the elite level was very similar to that of Sharon Shapiro. In many of the low level international competitions Shapiro participated in, Chapman was present right alongside her. The only difference is Chapman enjoyed more success in the process.

Chapman finished 7th at the 1978 World Championships team trials, the top-6 were selected for the starting lineup. Sports Illustrated makes a reference to Chapman being the first American to win an All-Around while competing against Soviet gymnasts since 1970. The statistic is true and the Soviets in question were Olga Koval and Elena Gurina. In college, Chapman competed for Stanford while Shapiro competed for UCLA.

Rhonda Schwandt made the August 9, 1976 edition of Faces in the Crowd. Unlike her American contemporaries, Schwandt never became an Olympian. But her career was a game changer for the American program. Schwandt represented Team USA at the 1978 World Championships. Along with her teammate Kathy Johnson, they became the 2nd and 3rd Americans to ever finish inside the top-10 at the World Championships and/or Olympics.

The Kathy Johnson-Rhonda Schwandt duo marked the two highest All-Around placements the United States had ever achieved up to this point in time, as well as the first instance of the United States having multiple gymnasts inside the top-10. In Event Finals Rhonda Schwandt finished 4th on vault. While she narrowly missed out on a medal, along with Kathy Johnson and Marcia Frederick, Rhonda complemented a wave of American success.

Frederick, Johnson, and Schwandt had all qualified to Event Finals. Each of them qualified on three different events. And once qualified, all of them finished 4th or better in the standings during apparatus finals. This diverse showcasing of talent was an early indication that the United States had arrived as one of the dominant powers in women’s gymnastics that was now capable of producing well-rounded teams.

At the 1978 World Cup Rhonda Schwandt won a silver on vault, a bronze on bars, and finished 4th on floor while competing directly against Hall of Fame gymnasts from the Eastern Bloc. At the time, the United States had previously achieved success against the Eastern Bloc only on rare occasions. Prior to 1979 Schwandt is one of just four American gymnasts to win a medal in Event Finals at the World Cup, World Championships, and/or Olympics. And Schwandt would be the first ever American to win multiple medals in the same competition at this level prior to the 1984 boycott.

Up until now I have focused on athletes from the women’s side of the sport, but men have been featured in Faces in the Crowd on a frequent basis as well. Among those who have been included are Abie Grossfeld, John Roethlisberger, Jonathan Horton, and Yul Moldauer. But it is the inclusion of Bart Conner in the April 29, 1974 edition that I feel is the most compelling.

Bart Conner would go on to become arguably the most popular figure in all of men’s gymnastics, at least amongst American participants of the sport. This Faces in the Crowd mention comes at a time when Bart was a young junior prospect who was only one month past his 16th birthday. In 1974 Bart Conner had yet to achieve success at even the national level within USA Gymnastics, let alone in international competition. But before his legendary streak of success began, Bart was given a mention in Sports Illustrated as a rising star.

It is also noteworthy to mention that Bart Conner was featured alongside another young child athlete who was also considered a rising star, the eight year old Lori Kosten. At the height of her career Kosten was getting letters of support from NFL legend Joe Namath and “went out with” a Hollywood celebrity from her age group. But Lori’s junior career came crashing down after other juniors caught up to her, she lost her passion for the sport and at one point contemplated suicide. Eight years later Sports Illustrated featured her in a story highlighting the risk child sports prodigies faces when they are subjected to intense pressure at an ultra young age.

All the way back in 1982 Sports Illustrated was having a conversation regarding the welfare of child athletes, had been critical of parents who put too much stake in athletic performance at the cost of childhood development, and had specially cited anorexia as a risk.

Carrie Englert made the November 5, 1973 edition of Faces in the Crowd. Three years later she attended the 1976 Olympics.

In the December 20, 1971 edition of Faces in the Crowd Sports Illustrated profiled a pair of gymnasts, Cindy Eastwood and Debbie Fike.

Debbie Fike had a successful career where she made the 1974 World Championships team and was given the most prestigious assignments USA Gymnastics had to offer which included visits to Japan and the Soviet Union. In this era, it was also common for USA Gymnastics to send their top gymnasts to apartheid South Africa which had been the career path American superstar gymnasts such as Cathy Rigby and Mary Lou Retton had all followed. Fike was chosen for this assignment and won the All-Around.

Fike finished 16th at the 1976 U.S. Olympic Trials and did not make the team. Cindy Eastwood had a rather mysterious career and there is a very compelling mystery regarding a gymnast of a similar name and profile who competed in 1972, produced strong results, and then promptly disappeared.

Donna Schaenzer was featured in the July 25, 1966 edition of Faces in the Crowd. She won the All-Around title at the U.S. National Championships on multiple occasions while also producing three All-Around titles at the collegiate level. It can not be overstated just how impressive it is to achieve simultaneous All-Around titles at both the collegiate and elite level. Let alone for a female athlete to rack up All-Around titles in three different years during the mid 1960s in an era that not only predates Title IX, but an era where the overall culture of college athletics still had an existing attitude that athletes should only have three years of eligibility.

Schaenzer competed at the U.S. National Championships while having her college team listed as the “club” she was representing. Donna also competed at the Pan-American Games. However, she never appeared in a World Championships or Olympics for Team USA, but was an alternate for the 1966 team.

As to why Sports Illustrated listed her as a participant of a 1966 Canadian National Championships despite all of this? She is listed in the competition report writeup as a “visitor to our country.”

Linda Metheny appeared in the May 5, 1965 edition of Faces in the Crowd. It can not be overstated just how historically significant Metheny’s career was. Besides her three Olympic appearances (1964, 1968, and 1972), she competed at the collegiate level in between two of her Olympic appearances. To date she is the only American woman to have ever competed at the Olympics, competed in college, and then return to the Olympics. NBC Sports has made sure to highlight this particular detail as Jade Carey, Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles, and Sunisa Lee might be the first Americans to do it in 2024 since Metheny in the 1960s. This was years before Title IX and over a decade before the NCAA formally incorporated women into its ranks.

Linda Metheny is also one of the greatest elite level coaches the American program has ever had, and certainly the best amongst the “former Olympian turned coach” category. Along with her husband Dick Mulvihill, they built one of the longest career resumes any coach has ever achieved within the American program.

I’m not going to even try to count all the successful gymnasts the Mulvihill-Metheny duo have been affiliated with, but I am going to cheat by stealing the number the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame credits them with.

More than 15 Olympians
Over 25 World Team Members
Over 12 National All-Around Champions
Over 70 National Team Members

The reason I emphasize “more than” is because USA Gymnastics’ website officially credited them with 17 Olympians. Three of the gymnasts I’ve mention so far in this article as being profiled by Faces in the Crowd were once coached by Metheny (Talavera, McNamara, and Englert).

And then there is Linda Metheny finishing 4th on beam at the 1968 Olympics. In doing so, she was the first American to ever finish high enough to be considered an apparatus finalist. Metheny almost won an Olympic medal in an era where the best American finish at the previous Olympics was 34th in the All-Around and 18th on any single apparatus.

Coming the closest to being the first American in women’s gymnastics to win an Olympic medal in any individual event during the pre-Retton era would be a legacy-defining accomplishment all on its own. But for Linda Metheny who also has a bachelor’s and master’s from her successful college career, it is a mere footnote in her life story.

Doris Fuchs was featured in the July 2, 1962 edition of Faces in the Crowd. Whereas most American stars who predated Olga Korbut have been reduced to obscurity as recency bias favors post-Korbut era gymnasts, Doris Fuchs is the American from this era whose career is the most widely remembered and respected.

It all comes down to her iconic bars routine from the 1966 World Championships that many view as introducing modern swings and acrobatic style that is now the backbone of modern gymnastics. Whereas so much of the narrative from the mainstream media which only covers the sport once every four years paint the history of women’s gymnastics as Olga Korbut single-handedly modernizing the sport all by herself, Doris Fuchs-1966 is often inserted by gymnastics history buffs as a counter example.

Doris Fuchs (who later competed as Doris Brause) is by far the most popular choice when Western gymnastics pundits comment on the topic of gymnasts who can be classified as Korbut-style gymnasts in the pre-Korbut era. Soviet/Russian media spend a lot of time highlighting Lyubov Burda-1967 for the same reason.

Fuchs competed at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. She was formally named to the Olympic team in 1964, only to be demoted to alternate one day before the Olympics were to start. The incident remains the most egregious case of an American gymnast being wrongfully left off the Olympic team.

Roy Tomizawa who in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, wrote a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and covers this incident. He states that Abie Grossfeld who was present as an assistant coach for the men’s team felt Doris was the third best gymnast the Americans had on the women’s side. And that after the Olympics ended, every member of the women’s Olympic team signed a letter protesting the decision to leave Fuchs out of the starting lineup. Meaning, even amongst the lower scoring members of the team, they were willing to admit that one of them did not deserve to be a 1964 Olympian over Fuchs.

Dale McClements was featured in the May 21, 1962 edition of Faces in the Crowd. Two years later she became a 1964 Olympian. Dale is yet another example of a collegiate gymnast from the pre-Title IX era who competed in college, doing so as early as the 1963 season. She was the highest scoring American gymnast at the 1964 Olympics.

Avis Tieber was featured in the April 17, 1961 edition of Faces in the Crowd. The following year she made the 1962 World Championships starting lineup. It was her lone appearance in a major international competition. Tieber was also the coach of the 1966 American World Championships team.

Gail Sontegrath was featured in the August 15, 1960 edition of Faces in the Crowd. She competed at the 1960 Olympics and was the highest scoring American in attendance. Gail would also prove to be a successful coach. One of her pupils was Kim Chace who became a 2x Olympian (1972 & 1976).

Betty Maycock was featured in the January 12, 1959 edition of Faces in the Crowd. She represented Team USA at both the 1960 Olympics and the 1962 World Championships. During the 1962 U.S. National Championships gymnasts who finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th in the All-Around had all been featured on Faces in the Crowd at some point in their careers.

Canadian gymnast Ernestine Russell was featured on the May 12, 1958 edition of Faces in the Crowd.

She was also featured in the July 21, 1958 edition as well. Ernestine is the only gymnast from the elite level who appeared in Faces in the Crowd on two different occasions. She is also a 2x Olympian having competed at the Olympics in 1956 and 1960.

Ernestine Russell has the distinction of being simultaneously both the American and Canadian All-Around Champion in 1955. She then repeated this feat in both 1958 and 1959. At the time the American program didn’t have a true U.S. National Championships. The AAU Championships were seen as the top domestic competition from this era. The AAU Championships weren’t limited to U.S. citizens allowing Russell to be inserted into and winning the All-Around on three different occasions.

Ernestine Russell is officially credited as the true American All-Around Champion on USA Gymnastics’ official website in each of these years.

MyKayla Skinner was featured in the March 12, 2018 edition of Faces in the Crowd due to her successful college career. She would make a comeback to the elite level which culminated in her winning a silver medal at the 2021 Olympics.

Peng Peng Lee appeared in Faces in the Crowd on May 21, 2018 not long after Skinner’s appearance, and for largely the same reason. MyKayla and Peng Peng are amongst the wave of college gymnasts Sports Illustrated has featured, what makes them different is the coincidently happened to be famous athletes from the elite level as well.

Sandra Ruddick and Jack Beckner

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