The Glory of Brazilian Gymnastics

When Brazil beat the United States at the 2022 Pan American Gymnastics Championships, Rebeca Andrade said this win was “for the girls that are coming up and the ones who came before us.”

That quote in itself was powerful seeing such an influential gymnast of Andrade’s caliber working to prop up the younger gymnasts within her program, while paying respects to the pioneers who made her career possible. But there was a deeper meaning to the quote.

This competition was held on Brazilian soil, in the city of Rio de Janeiro and the team won gold in front of a home crowd. Among those in the stands were Jade Barbosa, Daiane dos Santos, and Lais Souza. They were three of the most important trailblazers in the history of Brazil’s women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) program.

Jade and Daiane are Brazilian icons who are well known to gymnastics fans. Daiane dos Santos has the distinction of being the first Brazilian WAG to win a gold medal at the Group-1 level (World Championships and/or Olympics). While Barbosa was the first Brazilian WAG to ever win an All-Around medal in such competition.

Outside of Brazil the gymnast Lais Souza is not as well known to the gymnastics fanbase, but she was one of the most effective gymnasts Brazil has ever had. Souza was the first WAG in Brazilian history to qualify to event finals on two different apparatuses in her career. She was such a reliable member of the Brazilian lineup that on the nine occasions where Brazil as a team finished inside the top-10 of a Group-1 level competition, five of them were teams featuring Lais in the lineup.

Souza was formally named to three Olympic teams, but was only able to compete in two Olympics because of an injury. Lais also has the unfortunate distinction of finishing 4th in a Group-1 level competition, only to finish her career without ever winning medal. But even as her gymnastics career had reached its conclusion, Lais found a new way to advance the Brazilian flag in athletic competition.

Brazil was slated to host the Olympics in 2016, and one of the country’s goals was to enter Rio-2016 with momentum by having a strong showing at the 2014 Winter Olympics. As a mostly tropical country, Brazil had little infrastructure amongst its Winter sports programs. But Brazil’s athletic leadership realized that one of its most viable paths to expanding the size of its 2014 delegation was to build an aerial skiing program from scratch and recruiting gymnasts capable of switching sports.

Sidenote: Uzbekistan’s only gold medal at the Winter Olympics was won by a gymnast who switched to aerial skiing when she was 19 years old.

Lais not only excelled in this role, but six months after adopting her new sport she became Brazil’s top ranked aerial skier and qualified to the Winter Olympics. Brazil invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in its aerial skiing program. The investment was well worth it as Lais was one of two former WAGs to complete Brazil’s 2014 Winter Olympic lineup in aerial skiing. Raising the total number of Brazilian athletes slated to compete in Sochi from 12 to 14. Brazil has not qualified an Olympian in aerial skiing before or since the 2014 Olympics. Brazil was a geographical outlier, being the only country from Latin America or Africa to participate in aerial skiing at the 2014 Olympics.

But in one of the most heartbreaking freak accidents involving a gymnast, Lais broke her neck in a skiing accident one week before her planned departure for the Olympics and was left paralyzed from the neck down. The accident occurred not on a training run, but during a recreational outing. It was a freak accident that could have happened to anyone.

Jade Barbosa (L), Lais Souza (M) and Daiane Dos Santos (R)

While gymnastics has numerous examples of WAGs experiencing horrific, life-altering injuries, Lais Souza’s case was amongst the worst of the worst. Her condition was far more severe even when compared to other gymnasts who have also suffered a broken neck. Lais needed a tracheotomy because the injury prevented her from breathing normally. During her recovery she had instances of “turning purple” when blood clots restricted oxygen from reaching her lungs. In order to communicate she had to place a stick in her mouth and used it to type on an iPad.

The personal struggle Lais Souza had to overcome greatly exceeded contemporary examples such as Elena Mukhina and Sang Lan. But in the end, Souza did overcome it. After years of grueling rehabilitation her condition greatly improved. Lais frequently produces the most inspiring interviews and quotes. She takes the “glass is half full” approach in her discourse. Proving that with enough mental strength, a person can find happiness and positivity in the most difficult of circumstances.

Souza is also incredibly insightful in her interviews and provides perspectives on the tiniest of details showcasing what it is like to live in her shoes. From the difficulty of rehab, to curtailing the embarrassment of having someone change your diaper and giving you a bath. Lais Souza even has a tattoo of a person sitting in a wheelchair and rising to their feet. That is the positivity, insightfulness, and determination of Lais Souza.

If Rebeca Andrade’s performance was powerful to watch, it was even more so knowing Lais Souza was in the stands to personally witness it. It was in this very same city in 2007 that Souza along with dos Santos and Barbosa formed the most historic lineup in Brazilian WAG history. Even though it wasn’t technically a Group-1 level competition, the 2007 Pan American Games was Brazil’s dream team in WAG.

It not only featured Souza, dos Santos, and Barbosa, but Daniele Hypolito as well. Ultimately making it the most star studded lineup Brazilian WAG ever had. Four of the biggest legends Brazilian WAG has ever known were all on one team. Most importantly, the 2007 Pan American Games was highly successful and demonstrated Brazil’s ability to host a large scale event. It formed the basis of the IOC’s decision to award Brazil the winning bid to host the 2016 Olympics. Women’s gymnastics was particularly successful due to how much popularity Brazilian WAG achieved for itself during the competition.

The return of Souza, Barbosa, and dos Santos to the very same city to watch the next generation of gymnasts win added symbolism to the moment. They were able to see the results of a seed they planted fifteen years prior.

Jade Barbosa (L) with Flavia Saraiva (R)

What makes Brazil different from other WAG programs, they are a nation of 212 million people who operate their WAG program as a small, exclusive, and tight nit group. Unlike the United States which rarely retains a gymnast beyond two Olympic cycles, it is common for Brazilian athletes to compete in three or more Olympic cycles. Hypolito represented Brazil at the 1999 World Championships, yet she competed in domestic competition throughout 2021.

The bonds between teammates have existed for far longer and are far stronger in your typical Brazilian lineup than most programs such as the United States. When Barbosa and Hypolito competed on the domestic circuit in 2021, they did so while wearing leotards, but behaved like coaches. Every time a younger gymnast faltered on the apparatus, Barbosa was there to comfort that gymnast and then spend two minutes explaining to her how that mistake can be avoided in the future.

And then Hypolito would come along and approach the exact same gymnast and give her the exact same pep talk. The domestic competitions of Brazil were filled with these examples in 2021. It was an especially selfless act from Hypolito and Barbosa because they are aging veterans whose careers are threatened by young gymnasts rising up the ranks. Yet neither Hypolito nor Barbosa seem to care about that. Their goal is supporting their teammates and making Brazil the strongest program it can possibly be. Personal self-interests are completely disregarded.

Rebeca Andrade

So when Andrade says this win is for “the ones who came before us” that statement has weight to it. Brazil is unique in the lengths gymnasts of the past like Hypolito and Barbosa will go to support the next generation. Andrade and her contemporaries also know the history of Brazilian WAG, because gymnasts like Hypolito who kickstarted the modern era of Brazilian WAG all the way back in the 1990s still compete alongside them. Unlike other countries, Brazilian gymnasts aren’t removed from their own program history, they grow up living alongside it.

They know the struggle of Brazil’s rise from a program that wasn’t taken seriously in the past, to one that now wins Olympic gold. They interact with the very gymnasts who pioneered the path that helped South America pierce the power structure of a sport that once excluded Latin America. They understand what it took for a women’s program to rise, gain popularity, and excel in a country where female athletes have historically been underrepresented at the Olympics.

In the 21st century Brazil’s participation rates amongst women at the Olympics are well above the international average. But for the entirety of the 20th century, Brazil was below the international average. Of all the countries with strong WAG programs, Brazil was the last to “cross” the gender line by having participation rates for female Olympians that were first significantly behind, then eventually equal to, and ultimately exceeding the international average.

The significance of this being, in order to have success in such an expensive women’s sport like WAG, a country is most likely to have already developed a strong sports infrastructure in the less expensive women’s sports. Having a strong women’s sporting legacy is often a perquisite for building a strong WAG legacy. It was under that context, and overcoming such a disadvantage for female athletes that Hypolito’s career began in the 1990s.

The historical neglect of its women’s sports lineup is what made Rebeca Andrade the first female athlete from Brazil to win multiple medals at a single Olympics. As well as the first Brazilian woman to win multiple medals in the individual events. These are not WAG records, but multi-sport records. Brazilian women didn’t win as often in the past because there weren’t as many Brazilian women attending the Olympics.

But coincidentally, because Brazil is a relatively young power in women’s Olympic sports, Brazilian WAGs have an easier time generating massive amounts of support for themselves. On Instagram Barbosa has 740K followers. Lais Souza has 709K even though her last Olympic appearance was 2008. Daiane dos Santos has 330K followers even though the most famous portion of her career came in the 2001-2004 Olympic cycle. Hypolito has 478K, Flavia Saraiva has 1 million, and Rebeca Andrade has 2.2 million.

Flavia Saraiva

It would be accurate to say Brazilian WAG has some of the largest social media followings in all of gymnastics. For all the lack of proper support female Brazilian athletes had in the past, the country is making up for lost time with fervor. Supporting its current generation of athletes with such passion that it would make gymnasts from other WAG powers feel envious.

The same trend also impacted Rayssa Leal, the 13 year old skateboarder who won a silver medal for Brazil at the 2021 Olympics. Her Instagram following currently sits at 6.4 million and is only narrowly behind that of Simone Biles. Proving how quickly female Olympians are building massive personal brands for themselves in Brazil.

For Rebeca Andrade, saying her 2022 gold medal is for “the ones who came before us” has a firm and important meaning behind it. It wasn’t enough that Barbosa and Hypolito took the next generation under their wings and put the needs of their young teammates ahead of their own personal needs. Going above and beyond the standard call of duty when veteran gymnasts are tasked with supporting the youngsters in other programs. Before any of that had happened, they worked to tear down barriers in the realm of gender equality and bias against gymnasts from South America in international competition.

But when Rebeca then adds “for the girls that are coming up” she means something else. Rebeca intends to have the 2022 Pan American Gymnastics Championships do for future generations what the 2007 Pan American Games did for her generation.

As the Brazilian gymnasts came to the realization that they were going to win gold as a team in 2022, they included Barbosa in their victory celebrations. Going as far as to let Jade hold the Brazilian flag as they posed alongside it to take the victory photo that would define the entire competition. That is the best part of this story. Barbosa gave everything she had to support the younger gymnasts on the team. For those young gymnasts, they see it, they acknowledge it, and do their best to always give respect back towards Barbosa as she rightfully deserves.

But their greatest form of giving respect back to Daniele Hypolito and Jade Barbosa will come in later years. When they forward the legacy Hypolito and Barbosa started by continuing to win medals in increasingly prestigious fashion. But also, by treating the youngsters on future teams with the same care Jade and Daniele treated them with. By continuing to make Brazil the program where every gymnast supports each other and subscribes to a mindset where it doesn’t matter who wins medals.

Only that Brazil wins medals.

3 thoughts on “The Glory of Brazilian Gymnastics

  1. Brazilian WAG really feels like something special, and this is such a lovely tribute. There’s been so much innovation coming out of Brazil in terms of both cool new skills and approaches to coaching and athlete longevity, and I loved watching Hypolito, Barbosa and dos Santos reacting during Tokyo. I don’t speak Portuguese but I get emotional every time I see Dos Santos tearing up speaking about the significance of Rebeca’s wins for Brazilian gymnastics but also for black Brazilian athletes (I think as well as the first Brazilian worlds gold, Dos Santos was also the first ever black woman of any nationality to win an individual gold medal at worlds in 2003, but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong!).

    I’m a bit sad Hypolito didn’t make it to Tokyo for her 7th Olympics – if it wasn’t for Chuso setting the bar so high, Hypolito’s track record would be considered even more legendary!

    Like

  2. Wow!
    How disrespectful of you to leave out the ORIGINAL trailblazer of Brazilian gymnastics, Luisa Ribeiro (nee Parente)!
    She was the first Brazilian to win Pan American Games gold and she did so twice in 1991 on both UB and VT.
    She finished 4th in the AA in both the 1987 and 1991 Pan American Games, which had been the highest finish ever for the weak program.
    Additionally, she was the first Brazilian to go to 2 Olympic Games (and the first at a fully attended games) in 1988 and 1992.
    She made the all around final in 1988 and placed 35th.
    She then narrowly missed (57th) the all around finals in 1992 due to a compulsory bars fall.

    But truly there would not have been a Hypolito, Dos Santos, Souza, or Barbosa without Parente’s historical accomplishments.

    Great read otherwise, Parente just needed to be mentioned if you are truly going to recognize the roots of Brazilian gymnastics.

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