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Gymnastics Biggest Bad-Asses

While listening to a podcast about badass people (nearly all of whom were men), I decided it was time to celebrate the badass-ness of women.

Since this is a gymnastics blog, this article will focus on bad asses in the sport of gymnastics, particularly women in gymnastics. These women are tough for their perseverance, their bravery, and just generally being awesome.

Alicia Sacramone (Quinn)

The newly minted Mrs. Brady enjoyed a decade long career as an elite athlete. She was on multiple world medal winning teams and a silver medal winning Olympic team.   She's also got a mean fist. Some dude asked her to punch him and she obliged. Don't think he saw such a powerful punch coming from such a small person.

She's also a bad ass for her perseverance and sheer will. In 2004, Alicia was a first year senior in 2003 and placed 4th on the vault and made the US national team for the first time. That same year, Alicia went to her first international competition at Elite Massillia in France. In 2004, she was competing for a chance to represent the United States at the Athens Olympics that summer.  At nationals, she tied with Mohini Bhardwaj for the silver, but didn't score well enough to move on to the Olympic trials. Alicia's motto seems to be "if at first you don't succeed, try, try, and try again." She took this philosophy to heart through the next Olympic cycle and was selected for the 2008 Beijing Olympic team. Although she won a silver medal in the team final with the rest of team USA, she didn't have the Olympic experience she desired.

After taking a break in 2009, she returned in 2010 to give the Olympics another shot. She won a vault gold medal at the World Championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands. In 2011, she was selected for the team for the Tokyo World Championships, while there, she tore her Achilles tendon during training. Alicia was unable to compete.The team won the gold medal and Alicia was awarded the gold medal with the rest of her team. At the Olympic trials in 2012, Alicia had strong performances on the beam and vault, but was not selected for the team.

Aliya Mustafina

Dynamic, beautiful and athletically gifted, Aliya Mustafina could be a poster girl for gymnastics.  Under the tutelage of famed Soviet coach, Alexander Alexandrov, Aliya won the all-around gold medal at the 2010 World Championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands. She also helped the Russian team bring home their first world championship team gold medal. The world was Aliya's oyster and Aliya was poised to become the next great Russian olympic champion. In 2011, Aliya suffered a bump in the road at the European Championships in Berlin, Germany. Aliya had qualified to the all-around final and was poised to take her first European championship gold medal. On her first rotation for the vault, Aliya performed an Amanar vault. After she finished, she crumpled to the mat in pain and was wheeled out of the arena. Aliya's teammate, Anna Dementeyva took home the title. The Olympics in London were just over a year out. Later, Aliya learned she'd torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and was flown to Germany to receive surgery to fix her injured knee.

A year later, it was time for the London Olympics. She and the Russian team managed a silver medal in the team final behind the United States. Afterwards, she got wind of some derogatory comments Russian team coordinator, Valentina Rodionenko had said, saying Aliya wasn't going to medal on any event but bars. Disturbed by her comments, Aliya went to Alexandrov, who told her in a nutshell, "you can prove her wrong." Aliya became the most decorated athlete of the Russian women's team, taking the team silver, a bronze medal in the all-around and the floor exercise and a gold medal on the uneven bars. Alexandrov also deserves a place in the bad ass hall of fame in his own right. Coaching several World and Olympic champions  (and honorary bad asses)including NCAA champion Mohini Bhardwaj, Dominique Moceanu, Svetlana Boguinskaya and Dmitri Bilozerchev, whom like Aliya, Alexandrov also coached through a devastating injury.

Chellsie Memmel

Chellsie Memmel is a bad ass much like Alicia. She had a career that spanned three Olympics cycles, multiple world championships, including titles on the uneven bars and an individual all-around title from 2005.  She helped Team USA get their first world championship team gold medal in 2003. In 2006, Chellsie was chosen for yet another world team. Team USA was expected to dominate. It didn't quite go as planned. The first rotation saw a fall on the vault and the second rotation didn't go much better. Chellsie went up on the uneven bars.The routine didn't go smoothly, she fell on her Hindorff right off the bat and during a transition from the high bar, she felt the distinct feeling of her labrum tearing.  She managed to finish the routine and had to go straight on to the next rotation.

 Team USA's next rotation was the balance beam and they were first (China would go after team USA). Since there wasn't enough time to put in an alternate, Chellsie had to go through with her beam routine even with her injured shoulder. Luckily, the rest of the competition went okay for the team and they managed to pull off a silver medal by the skin of their teeth. Chellsie had to pull out of the all-around final (she was the defending world champion) and the event finals. However, if she'd been allowed, she'd have continued through with the all-around final. She tried to convince her father (who was her coach) to allow her to compete, but her father said "no."

(Remember, she did this beam routine right after injuring her shoulder on the uneven bars)

Nadia Comaneci

The world best remembers Nadia Comaneci as the cute, brown haired Romanian gymnast who scored the first perfect tens in an Olympic Games. She grew up in communist Romania under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. She describes what it was like in her book, Letters to a Young Gymnast. Ceausescu was basically an enormous asshole with a God complex and no concept of reality.  He rose to power in 1965 by becoming the first secretary of the First Communist Party of Romania.  Under Ceausescu, Romania was the definition of a police state. He manifested this police state through complete control of basically everything. From the media to implementing a secret police called the "secuiritate".  Reproductive rights were basically nonexistent. Ceausescu implemented draconian policies banning abortion and contraception, resulting in a baby boom which provided for high poverty rates and high infant mortality. At twenty-five Nadia wound up having to pay extra taxes as a result of not having children. While the rest of the country suffered in poverty, Ceausescu and his wife, Elena spent money like it was going out of style, ironic, since he allowed the American TV show "Dallas" to enter the country to turn Romanian citizens against the evils of capitalist greed and excess.

In the early 1980's after Nadia finished her gymnastics career, she got a job working the Romanian gymnastics federation, basically acting as a liaison between the clubs and reported on what the coaches and the athletes were doing. Even as a decorated athlete, Nadia wasn't immune to the same struggles of her countrymen. "I could not  hope for a better or more money or the opportunity to see the world as a gymnastics delegation member. I couldn't even decide what to cook for dinner because there were no groceries to buy. One day, I just realized I'd reached a dead end." * However, the One day, at a birthday party for a friend, Nadia met a man named Constantin, who recently defected to the United States. This was a time when defecting could mean death or being caught and deported back to the country. Constantin told her about his new life in the US. Feeling frustrated, she ultimately sat down with her brother, Adrian and said she needed to leave Romania.

In November of 1989, with six other defectors Nadia fled Romania under the cover of darkness. They traveled across icy terrain in bitter cold temperatures, having to cross through a partially frozen lake. Constantin, the man Nadia met at the party, planned to meet the group on the other side of the Hungary/Romania border with a car and from there, they would flee to Austria. Their escape didn't exactly go as planned. The group stumbled right into the hands of the Hungarian authorities. They interviewed Nadia and discovered her identity and immediately offered her Asylum. Nadia told the authorities she wouldn't stay unless the rest of the group would be allowed to stay. The group was granted the permission to stay, and provided them with food vouchers and a hotel room for one week. Once in Austria, the group went their separate ways, finding jobs and homes while Constantin took Nadia to the American Embassy to ultimately seek political asylum in the U.S. She eventually decided to settle in Montreal, and later moved back to the United States, settling in Oklahoma where she now lives with her husband, Bart Conner.  December of 1989 marked the Romanian revolution. A generation of baby boomers were now adults and were fed up with Ceausescu and his totalitarian state. December 25, 1989,  Ceausescu and his wife, Elena faced trial for genocide and gathering wealth illegally. They were found guilty and sentenced to death and were executed on December 7, 1990.

Vera Caslavska

Vera Caslavska is a woman who competed in a time when gymnastics was a sport of women in their early twenties, not late teens. She holds a record 22 Olympic and world titles.  Vera is also known for having scored two perfect tens in the 1967 European Championships (nine years before Nadia scored her Olympic perfect tens in Montreal). But beside that, what makes this woman a complete bad ass is her willingness to stand up for what she believed in, despite the consequences it might bring for herself. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City after tying for the gold medal with a soviet Larisa Petrik and being bumped from the gold medal position on the balance beam in favor of another soviet athlete. Vera became frustrated by the judges' blatant favoritism of the Soviet athletes, and the impending Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.Vera was a fierce opponent of Communist opposition and favored a democratic movement referred to as the "Prague Spring."  In the sixty day war of 1967, Vera signed the Two Thousand Word protest manifesto which resulted in her having to flee the city of Prague and seek refuge in the mountain town of Sumperink. With the 1968 Games looming, Vera had to keep practicing with rudimentary training techniques, practicing floor routines in a meadow and beam routines on a logs and swinging bar routines from trees.

In Mexico City, during the beam and floor exercise finals, Vera stood in silent protest, looking down and away during the playing of the soviet anthem during them medal ceremony. While she was heralded as a hero by her fellow countrymen, her government black balled her, and since they were in charge of the gymnastics program, this effectively ended her career. The government refused to publish her autobiography and instead, the book was published in Japan (albeit heavily censored). She coached in Mexico in the '80's and was allowed to because Mexico threatened to cease oil trade. She was finally allowed to coach and judge in her home country after pressure from then IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. She currently lives a quiet life in Prague and is still so freaking awesome, she can still do the splits at 71 years old and in the snow nonetheless.
A perfect 180 degrees. Yes, I've still got it!

* From Letters to a Young Gymnast. Nadia Comaneci,  pages 121-148. 2003

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