1. Catalina Ponor, Romania
Romania’s Catalina Ponor has achieved everything there is to achieve in the sport. She has been to the Olympic Games twice, she has been a three times Olympic champion and a five times Olympic medalist, she has been a 5 times world medalist, a 10 times European medalist and a 7 times European champion. In 2004, she was part of a young and talented Romanian team that stunned the world and dominated the Athens Olympic Games. She continued competing after that, and even though she didn’t have the same scoring potential and the same spark we saw in 2004, she kept qualifying into major beam finals and showing world class gymnastics. Ponor would definitely have a strong chance to make the 2008 Olympic team, but injuries forced her to retire in 2007. Four years later, she announced she was coming back to the sport. This decision made everyone think she was insane. At the age of 24, she was too old, she had been away from the gym for too long, she did not have enough time to prepare and the all the statistics showed that this was not going to work out. And yet, she pulled off one of the most improbable and impressive comebacks in the history of the sport. She did not just manage to get back into shape and regain her skills. She actually upgraded her routines and debuted many difficult skills she could not do when she was 17. And she did all that with just a few months of training. She earned two individual medals at Romanian nationals, went to the 2011 worlds, where she qualified to the beam finals, she won three more European medals, two of which were gold as well as multiple world cup medals and she was selected to compete at the second Olympic Games of her career. There, she helped Romania earn a bronze medal in the team competition and she won a silver medal on floor exercise. After this amazing success, she retired once again, without ever ruling out the possibility of a potential comeback and fans from all over the world were joking about when was she going to come back. But when Ponor announced that she was once again not done with the sport, she was not joking at all! After only sixth months of training, she returned to competition at the Romania vs France friendly meet and she showed a great level of difficulty on three events. She had already regained all her skills back and she even debuted new combinations. Unfortunately, this was the first and the last competition of 2015 for her since an injury prevented her from competing at the national and the world championships. She had to sit back at home, watching her teammates having the worse competition of their lives at the world championships and I’m sure that this is an experience she does not want to relive. Romania is being through the most difficult period in their history and Ponor’s return could be a tremendous help for them. I do agree that the country should focus on building their younger gymnasts, because veterans will not always be here to save them, but there’s just not enough time to do that beyond Rio so at least for now, they will have to rely on their older athletes. Catalina had surgery about three weeks ago and she’s currently doing physiotherapy. We are not sure when she’s planning to return to competition, but I’m beyond excited to see her proving that impossible is nothing for her once again.
2. Rebeca Andrade, Brazil
It seemed like Rebeca Andrade was born at the perfect time. She would turn senior in 2015, just a year before the Olympics were held in her country and she would be in the ideal age to compete at Rio, in front of her home crowd. And she certainly had enough talent to make it. From a very young age, she was already capable of an amanar that even the best gymnasts of the world would envy, she was performing difficult and clean tumbling passes and she had shown fantastic improvement on bars and beam. She was supposed to dominate the Youth Olympic Games, but an injury kept her out of this competition. Everyone agreed that Rebeca had no reason to push herself too hard to compete at YOG since she had the actual Olympic Games waiting for her. She made her senior debut in the Ljubljana world cup, where she only competed on the uneven bars because she was still recovering from injuries. She qualified first into the finals but only got a bronze medal after having a major mistake. After that, she participated at the Sao Paulo world cup, where she won a silver medal on vault with a fantastic double twisting yurchenko and a very clean Podkopayeva. Her first All Around competition as a senior was at the FIT challenge and everyone immediately knew that this girl was a rising star. She brought back her fabulous amanar during the team competition, she scored a fantastic 14.6 on the uneven bars and she even debuted an original tumbling pass: an incredibly clean1.5 twisting double tuck. Rebeca placed second AA with a score of 55.350 despite major mistakes on both vault and beam and she won plenty of fans with her interesting choreography and Beyonce floor music. She was not perfect, but she was clearly on the right path. And after all, was still coming back from an injury and starting her senior career so things could only get better from now on. Andrade was expected to shine at the Pan american Games before competing at the world championships but unfortunately, a devastating injury took her out of competition before she could do any of those things. She tore her ACL after an under-rotated mustafina vault during training and it was clear that she would not compete for the rest of the year. Now, it’s a race against the clock for her. The Rio Olympics are less than a year away and Brazil has not qualified a full team yet. Will she be ready to help her team on the Test Event, even in just a couple of events? Will she regain her full difficulty? Will she manage to be strong enough to actually make it to the Olympics? Only till will answer those questions but personally, I can’t imagine anything more devastating than Rebeca missing a chance to compete at Rio so I hope that everything will work out for her.
3. Gabby Jupp, Great Britain
Gabby Jupp has to be one of the most unlucky gymnasts of the quad. She was a promising junior who won plenty of national medals as well as a bronze medal on floor at the 2012 Junior European championships and showed massive potential in 2013. She had her senior debut at the 2013 American Cup. There, she placed 6th All Around, 2nd on beam and 5th on bars and floor. After that, she was also successful at the Doha World Cup, where she won two bronze medals and she became the British All Around, balance beam and floor exercise champion. It seemed like she was exactly what Great Britain needed at the moment. She was very clean, very consistent and she had a strong beam set that she could hit every time and back then, there weren’t many athletes in her country who could do that. She was a strong contender for the balance beam finals at the 2013 European championships and she was expected to fight for medals but instead, she injured herself on her double pike beam dismount, she had to fly back to Great Britain and it turned out that she had torn her ACL. After a surgery, lots of physiotherapy and lots of hard work, Gabby came back just in time to fight for a spot for the 2014 worlds team. She showed enough difficulty to be chosen and she traveled to Nanning, where she helped her team finish in the fourth place during qualifications. She was not 100& back yet but she was certainly on the right path and it looked like she would be a strong contender in 2015. However, she ended up suffering from a torn ACL for one more time and we have not seen her in an elite competition since then. Coming back from a torn ACL is incredibly hard, so you can only imagine how much effort, courage and dedication it takes to return to the sport after suffering from this injury twice. Gabby was obviously frustrated after her injury but it looks like she has tried to maintain a positive attitude, hoping that this time around, her recovery would be faster and smoother because she is stronger both mentally and physically. We recently got a clip of her bars routine, from a small competition and her form looked as beautiful as ever. Hopefully, Gabby will be back in time to fight for a spot in Great Britain’s Olympic team.
4. Lauren Mitchell, Australia
Between attending two Olympic Games, qualifying in Olympic and world finals, getting skills named after her, becoming Australia’s first ever world champion and dominating the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Lauren Mitchell has had a career that most gymnasts would kill for. She really has written history for her country over and over again. The London Olympics didn’t quite work out her way. She stopped training bars, sacrificing her spot in the All Around finals, so she could focus on her strongest events, where she was hoping to fight for medals. She definitely had fantastic success at the London Olympic Games, qualifying into the floor finals, but she didn’t quite have the best performance of her life and she did not manage to advance into the beam, while Australia did not reach the team finals. After London, Lauren took some time to let her body rest, and then she made a comeback to compete at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she won two medals. After accomplishing the main goal of her comeback, she decided to continue competing through the world championships. Unsurprisingly, she made the Australian team but she never got to compete at Nanning because of an injury, sustained right before qualifications. It looks like this injury actually prolonged her career, since she decided she didn’t want to finish with a disappointing moment and she kept training. In 2015, Lauren announced that any retirement thoughts were in the past and that she was determined to become a three times Olympian. However, the road to Rio wasn’t meant to be easy for her since an other injury came to set her back. This time, it was a torn ACL and given her age and this injury, everyone thought that this could mean the end to her stunning career. However, she decided that she didn’t want to have any regrets and she’s currently working hard in order to come back and fight to compete at her third Olympic Games. She’s realistic about her chances and she realizes that this is not going to be easy for her, but she’s still going to give her absolute best. “I still might not make it to Rio” she said “but I’m going to give it everything.” Australia could definitely use a double twisting yurchenko, a high level floor set and a solid beam routine so if she regains her old difficulty, she would be in the mix but nobody can guarantee that she’ll manage to do that. If coming back from a torn ACL is hard, coming back from a torn ACL at the age of 24, when you’re already beaten up and tired seems close to impossible. However, Lauren Mitchell has proven multiple times, that impossible is nothing for her.
5. Peng Peng Lee, Canada
Peng Peng Lee was a super star since she was 13! She was a tiny powerhouse, a little daredevil who could compete incredibly difficult and unique skills from a very young age. Her fabulous beam mount, her gorgeous bhardwaj and her powerful tumbling and fun personality were enough to earn millions of fans from all over the world. As she grew up, she polished her routines and by 2012, she had difficult and clean sets on beam bars and floor and it was clear that she would go to the London Olympics if she stayed healthy. However, in a sport like gymnastics this is always a big if, and Peng Peng ended up tearing her ACL during training at the Canadian nationals. It was clear that after such an injury, her Olympic dream was over before it even begun. She traveled to London with her teammates, who wore flowers on their hair in her honor but when Canada wrote history by finishing fifth in the team finals, she could only watch. After that, Lee chose the path of college gymnastics and went to UCLA but even there, her injury gave her a fair amount of trouble, keeping her away from competition for two years. It’s been a long road of her, full of pain and disappointments but once she finally was healthy enough to compete it was clear that all the struggles had not taken away her spark or her unique skills. Now, Lee is working hard so she can finally see her Olympic dream becoming reality. We have seen some exciting training videos on her instagram but we don’t know what routines she’s planning to perform or when she’s hoping to return to competition but I’m certainly excited to see her back. Canada has improved a lot on bars and beam during the year, but they can always use an athlete capable of posting high scores on those events and Lee is absolutely capable of doing that.
6. Martina Rizzelli, Italy
Martina was a promising junior who impressed us all with her fantastic ricna + bail to handstand combination at the 2013 EYOF, where she won the uneven bars title. As a junior, she also won a silver medal on the same event at the Jesolo Trophy and she was expected to improve Italy’s bars line up in the future. 2014 was a bit of a struggle for her. She had a busy year, competing in all major competitions for Italy but she just didn’t seem to be quite ready to be out there. She was making lots of mistakes, she was falling more often than not and her form and swing on bars had definitely deteriorated a lot. She definitely had some great moments and she delivered some solid scores for the team, especially on vault but she also posted lots of scores below 13 and I was worried about her future. However, she worked hard and in 2015, she looked like a different gymnast. She was obviously not perfect but she kept improving every time she competed, she started showing more consistency and she only had lots of problems on balance beam, which has always been her worse event. Her form on bars was much cleaner, her double twisting yurchenko on vault was much more powerful and she showed better control on floor exercise. With her DTY and her 6.0 bars set, Martina was extremely valuable to Italy in the country’s two weakest events and her silver All Around medal at the Golden Leauge and her uneven bars gold at the Italian championships solidified her position as a lock for their worlds team. At the end, it turned out that this was all too good to be true, and Rizzelli broke her foot just weeks before worlds. She went to the Novara Cup to cheer for the team, and seeing her jumping on one foot to get on that podium at the end of the competition was one of the sweetest moments of the year. Her teammates gave her the trophy as a gift so she definitely had lots of love and support through that hard time. Italy could always use strong bars set and solid double twisting yurchenkos, so Martina will definitely be in the mix next year if she gets her difficulty back.
7. Youna Dufournet, France
Being a fan of Youna Dufournet has been one of the most heartbreaking things a person can do. She had so much potential but also so many falls, so many obstacles and so many injuries but it was all worth it when she finally did hit her routines. I fell in love with Youna because she was unique. She’d do defs, layout jaegers into pak saltos and onodi + front aerial + back handspring + layout step out combinations with clean execution and she was not afraid to go for the big skills. Of course, it didn’t always work out for her, but it was certainly refreshing to see her attempting original routines and continuing her country’s legacy on the uneven bars. She took a well deserved break after the 2012 Olympics and she returned to competition in 2014, winning multiple gold medals at the French national championships and making it to worlds, where she helped her country qualify a full team for Glasgow. In 2015, she won the uneven bars title at the Doha world cup and she earned a silver on the same event at the Varna world cup. However, she was not selected to compete at the European championships, where France chose to sent a young team, or the European Games but she was expected to be one of the top contenders for Glasgow. Unfortunately, this never happened since she injured her shoulder and needed to have a surgery that required three months of recovery. She is already back in the gym and she has shared some training videos on her instagram. She obviously has a long way to go and France will have quite a deep field of Olympic hopefuls next year, but Youna should definitely not be counted out. The country will try to qualify a full team to Rio through the Test Event and it would be great to see her helping them with that. She is very inconsistent but, at her top shape, she is the country’s only medal contender on the uneven bars and this is hard to ignore.
8. Aliya Mustafina, Russia
If the worlds team finals taught us anything, it’s that Russia really does need their leader. And it’s not so much about the difficulty! The Russian women have high start values on every event besides floor. It’s about the consistency and the leadership she brings on the team. You can count on her, you know that she’s not going to fall after seeing the athlete before her falling and you know that she will somehow manage to win medals, even if nobody expects her to. After a succesful performance at the 2014 world championships, Aliya announced that she would take a break from competition in order to let her body rest. She followed this plan and she missed the first half of the year before coming back at the European Games of Baku. There, she dominated the competition, winning the All Around, the team and the uneven bars title while also grabbing a silver medal on floor exercise. It looked like she was in the right path and there was tons of room for upgrades in her routines so everyone was excited for her future performances. However, Aliya ended up missing the world championships and she recently had a knee surgery, to take care of a nagging injury. She said that she is hoping to be back at full training in about three months, so this should give her enough time to prepare for Rio. Τhe routines Aliya showed in Baku were promising. They were not the most spectacular ones out there but they looked like a good base where she could build on so I’m excited to see what she can do. Ι just hope that she manages to stay motivated during the next year, because as long as Aliya sets her mind to Rio, I have no doubt she will be a two times Olympian.
9. Kim Bui, Germany
Kim Bui, who is now a veteran at the age of 26, has been one of the most important members of the German team during the last two quads. After making it to the London Olympics, Bui continued competing and achieving excellent result at national and international competitions. It just looked like she was getting better as she got older. She cleaned up her form, she upgraded her tumbling and she was an athlete who would always make Germany’s line up on all four events. She showed difficult and unique skills, like a bhardwaj, a layout step out mount on balance beam and a double layout on floor and she kept upgrading and improving her routines every single year. She didn’t get to compete much during 2015, and she was not at top shape at Bundesliga, but if she regained her 2014 shape, she definitely was a front runner for Germany’s world team, where she could have delivered solid scores on every event and even make it to the All Around finals. Her floor was particularly useful to Germany, which is a country without many powerful tumblers. However, Kim never got to fight for the ticket to Glasgow since she tore her ACL while training on vault at the end of May. Despite this devastating injury and her age, Kim seems to be determined to return to the sport and she has said that Rio is not over for her. This is actually not the first time she suffers from a torn ACL. She had struggled with the same injury back in 2010 but she came back just a year later to earn a European bronze medal on the uneven bars, which is probably the best individual result of her career. She doesn’t quite have as much time to recover now, but we can only hope that everything will work out for her.
10. Yao Jinnan, China
Yao Jinnan was a relatively unknown gymnast who stunned the world by winning an All Around bronze medal in 2011. She accomplished this amazing achievement with a fall on balance beam and she was planning on upgrading her routines for London so at some point, people expected her to be in the mix for the Olympic All Around podium. Unfortunately, her body did not cooperate and an injury did not allow her to compete well at London, where she had mistakes on vault, beam and floor that prevented her from even qualifying to the All Around finals. During this quad, she had some fantastic success, becoming the National and the Asian All Around champion as well as the uneven bars world medalist. However, despite her national and continental titles and despite her impressive progress on the uneven bars, she never quite lived up to the All Around potential we saw in 2011. After the 2014 worlds, it was announced that Yao would head to the United States in order to get surgery. She had a nagging shoulder injury and her coaches felt that it was the perfect time to get it fixed, so she could have enough time to recover and prepare for the Olympic Games, so she took the entire year of. We all missed her at the recent world championships, where she could have certainly helped the Chinese team and fought for individual medals but she really did need some time to let her body rest. Yao is one of those gymnast who have been competing non stop since 2011 so this break was much needed for her. It looks like she is back in training and she is expected to return to competition in 2016. We haven’t had many updates on her training but we did get a video of her training some gorgeous turns. I am hoping that now that her body has rest, she will be ready to come back with strong routines on every single event, and not just the uneven bars, where she is a world champion.
Photo credit: thomas schreyer
More comebacks to be excited for here
Athletes you should not count out here