The Age Of Rebeca Andrade
It's finally her time.
Here’s my final newsletter about the just-finished world championships. For all my grousing about how I wasn’t looking forward to worlds this year since they came too soon after the Olympics, I got up at ungodly hours more than a couple of times to watch the competition live from Kitakyushu, Japan and I was rewarded with a meet that was much more interesting than I was expecting.
I’ve already written about how wonderful Angelina Melnikova, the all-around winner in Kitakyushu, was, both in the meet and in her development throughout the years. Now it’s time to talk about Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade.
Andrade, as has been pointed out often both during the Olympic and worlds broadcasts, has torn her ACL thrice between 2015-2019. Yet despite this unfortunate track record, Andrade managed to show flashes of brilliance in the brief periods of time when she was physically healthy. In Rio, about a year after her first ACL tear, she placed third in qualifications for the all-around final, right behind Americans Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. (She ended up placing 11th in the all-around final.)
Then she tore her ACL again during podium training warmups at the 2017 world championships. (That competition was a shit show when it came to injuries.) She had a healthy 2018 only to tear her ACL yet again in 2019 before the world championships. Without her, Brazil failed to qualify a full team to Tokyo. In 2021, a finally healthy Andrade had to earn her ticket to the Olympics and the Pan Am Championships. (Andrade was clearly one of the beneficiaries of the Olympic postponement.)
In Tokyo, she was absolutely brilliant. In qualifications, she placed second, just over .3 behind Biles. Biles didn’t have a clean outing in qualifications, but it was still surprising to see just how close Andrade had gotten to the American in the standings since, in the past, Biles had been able to win all-around titles by record-breaking margins despite having to count falls. (American Sunisa Lee had sort of ended Biles’ all-around victory streak, which had begun in 2013, by posting the highest four-event total during the second day of Olympic Trials. I say “sort of” because it’s a two-day competition and so it’s the two-day total that truly counts, and Biles still came out ahead on that front.)
As we all know, Biles had to withdraw from much of the Olympic competition, including the all-around final, due to a dangerous mental block known as the twisties, and Andrade won the all-around silver behind Lee. It was Andrade’s to lose in the final rotation, and she stepped out of bounds on floor twice, which ended up being the difference between gold and silver. Andrade then went on to win the vault gold that Biles had been favored to win, competing two of the vaults in Biles’ repertoire almost as brilliantly as Biles performs them.
Watching Andrade really come into her own over the last few months and win multiple gold medals, it’s hard not to play the game of “What if?” What if she hadn’t had all of those ACL tears, or maybe even *just* one ACL tear? What would her career have looked like?
These repeated tears have meant surgery, rehab, and significant time away from the gym and competition. She never really seemed to get a chance to build any career momentum. She was always trying to get back to where she had been before the injury. It can be quite difficult to learn new skills to add to your routines when you’re constantly rehabbing major injuries. It’s truly remarkable that she came back so strong after this most recent ACL tear. Though I wish she had competed in the all-around in Kitakyushu, I understand the decision to not do floor and protect her body for the future.
Andrade, in my opinion, is the gymnast who comes closest to Biles in terms of physical talent and ability. This is a purely subjective statement. There is no way to definitively measure talent. Nor is this observation based on scores in competition because those aren’t always an accurate measure of performance—Luo Rui, ahem—and they also can’t measure ability or potential. I’m going by what I observed with my eyeballs here. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.
They’re nearly matched on vault, at least on vaults performed in Tokyo. We know that Biles has a Yurchenko double pike in her repertoire, which she didn’t compete at the Olympics, but, as I noted above, Andrade does the two vaults that Biles competed most of the time—the Cheng and Amanar—almost as well the GOAT does them. I’d say that Andrade is the stronger gymnast on bars though Biles, who has made multiple event finals and won a silver in 2018 on the event, is certainly no slouch there. Biles is definitely better on beam and also on floor, but Andrade is also a superb tumbler capable of some truly impressive passes. (Obviously, she doesn’t do the triple twisting double somersault. Only Biles can do that.) Beyond technical difficulty and complexity, both gymnasts have great form and execution on their skills. They both are the complete package.
It would’ve been amazing to watch a healthy Andrade, one who hadn’t spent years on the sidelines rehabbing, and a healthy Biles go head-to-head over this past quad. Biles would’ve won those showdowns—she still is tops in terms of talent and difficulty, and is also a fierce competitor to boot—but those could’ve been potentially amazing all-around contests.
Andrade has committed to continuing on to Paris 2024; she’d like to compete there with her team this time. And with Biles’ future in the sport uncertain—she hasn’t committed to continuing to Paris though she hasn’t completely ruled it out just yet either—we may very well be entering the Age of Andrade.
At the end of a competition that saw the U.S. men pick up their first individual world championship gold since 2011 (!) and the U.S. women win none, there was a lot of, shall we say, concern about this online. I agree with what many others have been saying about the general mismanagement of the U.S. women’s program: that high-performance director Tom Forster hasn’t done a great job of communicating with the athletes and their coaches about what the requirements and expectations are; the national team staff hasn’t done a good job of helping gymnasts come up with the best routine composition and has let gymnasts compete skills and combinations that were going to get hit with massive deductions. This last part was further enabled by very lax judging at domestic meets that rewarded combos that shouldn’t have been. And since there have been so few international events these last two years due to the pandemic, the American women hadn’t gotten out in front of international judges who could’ve given a dose of reality before the Olympics so the gymnasts might’ve been able to make adjustments to their routines. It is not draconian or cruel to tell a gymnast and their coach to remove elements from their routine that either aren’t going to get credited or are going to get hit with deductions that are higher than the value of the skill. To do this—to communicate effectively with coaches and athletes—doesn’t signal a return to the ways of Martha Karolyi. This is the kind of feedback and guidance that athletes and coaches are looking for from their high performance director.
All of these criticisms are valid and it’s something to look out for over the rest of the quad to see if the powers that be continue down this path of the “non-communicative nice guy” or if they’re able to course correct. But I think we also have to acknowledge that these world championships were also fairly unique and we can’t extrapolate too much from the results that we saw in Kitakyushu. We typically don’t have world championships 80 days after the Olympics. It’s not surprising that most of the U.S. women, almost all of whom had to train for an extra year due to the postponement—this doesn’t include Konnor McClain—weren’t interested in trying to make the world team. (And other countries like Brazil and Germany didn’t even bother using up all of their roster allotments.)
But maybe if Forster had been better at communicating from the start, there wouldn’t have so few U.S. gymnasts vying for a spot on the team. (Only six gymnasts tried for four spots.) Perhaps if they had been treated differently, gymnasts like Shilese Jones and Morgan Hurd might’ve considered continuing training for Kitakyushu. Jones has been openly critical of Forster, without using his name, about how over the course of her training for the Olympics—she made Trials, but wasn’t named one of the alternates—she and her coach hadn’t received any advice or guidance from Forster. This was in stark contrast to how other gymnasts, such as MyKayla Skinner, were treated. Forster even visited Skinner’s gym and watched her train when he found himself in Arizona. Jones should’ve been an athlete that was encouraged to continue to worlds, especially since she was capable of a second vault, and could’ve made vault finals in the relatively thin post-Olympic field; the U.S. women didn’t send anyone to Kitakyushu who was capable of performing two vaults.
But it is understandable, given how Jones was ignored during the arduous and grueling Olympic selection process, that she wouldn’t want to continue in the elite program. Jones is now performing, along with most of the Olympic team and Hurd, on Biles’ Gold Over America Tour. By the looks of it on social media, she is having the time of her life. Perhaps if Jones had felt better treated by Forster and the national team staff, she might’ve decided to keep training to vie for a spot to Kitakyushu. Or maybe the opportunity to travel the country with the tour would’ve still been too good to pass up.
It’s hard to know what went on behind the scenes, whether Forster was doing outreach to the top athletes not selected for the Olympics, and encouraging them to keep going a few more months to have a shot at worlds, or not. (I’m not privy to that sort of info.) As I said, this is a very unique set of circumstances; normally a high performance director wouldn’t have to rally gymnasts for a world championships a mere two and a half months after an Olympics. Let’s not focus too much on the results—which were still pretty darn good!—of this very unusual competition, and instead address the behaviors and tactics that we’ve witnessed over the past couple of years from the U.S. women’s program. One competition without gold medals isn’t going to make or break a program, but national team staff that doesn’t have a firm grasp on the Code and a high-performance director who isn’t able to communicate effectively with coaches and athletes just might.