The 25 Greatest Gymnastics Moments in U.S. Olympic History

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIMay 21, 2012

The 25 Greatest Gymnastics Moments in U.S. Olympic History

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    Today, it is among America's preeminent Olympic disciplines, both in terms of medal count and cultural import.

    But it wasn't always that way for U.S. gymnastics, and the sport's journey to prime time was seldom smooth, from early Olympic firsts to international irrelevance in the mid-20th century, to the renaissance days of the 1980s and beyond.

    The following 25 Olympics moments chart all of that—the rise, fall and re-rise—keying on the athletes and achievements that made progress possible.

25. Americans Get 1st Peek at Olympic Gymnastics (1904)

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    With events like rope climbing and club swinging, the version of gymnastics seen at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis would look awfully foreign to a modern viewer.

    But we must at least pay homage to the first Olympic gymnastics competition held on U.S. soil, if only to point out that the American gymnastics tradition has roots beyond the 1980s.

    The U.S. even excelled at the 1904 Games, highlighted by amputee George Eyser's six medals in one day.

    The secret to America's success?

    All but eight of the 119 competing gymnasts were from the U.S.

24. U.S. Women Take 1st Team Medal (1948)

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    The U.S. women's team winning bronze at the 1948 London Olympics stands like an island among the country's gymnastics achievements.

    Flanked on both ends by prolonged medal droughts, the U.S. team won its first-ever women's gymnastics medal at those Games and would go 36 years before winning another.

    Star performer Clara Schroth Lomady—known as the "Queen of the Beam"— would later become one of the first women inducted into the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

23. Phoebe Mills Wins Breakthrough Bronze on the Balance Beam (1988)

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    Though the '84 games brought unprecedented success and notoriety to American gymnastics, the absence of various Communist nations raised questions about Team USA's true place in the international pecking order.

    Up against a full slate of Eastern Bloc nations at the 1988 Seoul Games, it was the relatively unheralded Phoebe Mills who broke through and became the first American female to win an individual medal at a fully-attended Olympiad.

    In fact, her bronze on balance beam would be America’s only gymnastics medal that year, bridging the gap between L.A.'s pioneers and the golden years of the 1990s.

    A remarkable all-around athlete, Mills went on to win three Big East titles as a diver at the University of Miami.

22. Julianne McNamara Wins Gold on Uneven Bars (1984)

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    Mary Lou Retton may get all the ink, but she wasn't the only trailblazing American female gymnast at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

    Upon scoring a perfect 10 in the uneven bar finals, Julianne McNamara became the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold in an individual event.

    It was the cherry atop a fine international career that included a bronze medal on uneven bars at the 1981 Gymnastics World Championships and a U.S. all-around title in 1980.

21. Frank Kriz Wins Gold on Vault (1924)

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    At the 1924 Paris Games, Frank Kriz won gold on vault and became the first American to medal at an Olympics held outside the United States.

    Remarkably, that record would stand until 1976, when Peter Kormann took bronze in the floor exercise. It would then take another 16 years for an American to win a gold medal on foreign soil. 

    For his pioneering contributions, Kriz was named a charter member of the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1959.

20. Mary Lou Retton Revives the Wheaties Box Tradition (1984)

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    Unless you're a cereal aficionado, you may not remember that Wheaties stopped putting star athletes on its cereal boxes in the late 1970s and early 80s.

    Upon reviving the franchise, General Mills threw its weight behind Olympic hero Mary Lou Retton, who in 1984 became the first athlete to front the box in seven years and the first-ever woman to do so.

    A decade earlier it would have been hard to imagine a gymnast of either gender at the focus of a major marketing campaign. Wheaties' decision was proof that gymnastics had staying power and that Retton was the type of transcendent cultural icon capable of carrying her sport to the front pages.

19. Bart Conner Breaks Through (1984)

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    The 1984 Olympics were a long-awaited breakthrough for many of America's top male gymnasts, but perhaps none more so than Bart Conner.

    After the Moscow boycott voided his chances in 1980, Conner entered L.A. nursing a torn biceps that many feared would impede his ability to contribute.

    Not to be denied a second time, Conner gritted through the team competition and went on to take gold in the parallel bars with a perfect 10 routine. It was the first American gold on any apparatus since 1932.

18. U.S. Men Land a Surprise Bronze (2008)

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    Missing defending all-around champ Paul Hamm and his brother Morgan, both of whom withdrew due to injury, the underdog American men's team soared past expectations en route to a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games.

    The highlight-reel moment came from Russian-born Sasha Artemev, whose performance on the pommel horse held off the hard-charging Germans and secured a podium place.

    For an American team missing its biggest stars, the medal was affirmation of Team USA's depth and indication of a more permanent place among the world's elite.

17. Dominique Dawes Breaks Ground for African-American Gymnasts (1996)

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    Dominique Dawes' illustrious gymnastics career is a long list of firsts.

    In 2000, she became the first U.S. gymnast to win three team Olympic medals.

    And in 1996, following Kerri Strug's injury in the team competition, Dawes entered as an alternate in the floor exercise event final and, upon finishing third, became the first African-American gymnast to win an individual Olympic medal.

    Dawes would later say it took her years to digest the significance of those trailblazing achievements. She told ESPN in 2008:

    "I compare it to -- of course, it's not as big of a deal, but -- Tiger playing golf or the Williams sisters in tennis. Being there on that stage and having young girls see a diverse team is what allows that sport to be seen as an opportunity for them because they see Tiger, or Venus, or me or someone who looks like them finding success."

16. Shannon Miller Is the Beam Queen (1996)

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    By 1996, the only thing missing from Shannon Miller's jam-packed resume was an individual Olympic gold medal.

    After taking silver in the all-around and on beam in 1992, Miller finally delivered in front of the home faithful in Atlanta.

    An elegant routine on the balance beam made her the first American woman to win an individual gold medal at a fully-attended Summer Games and cemented her place as the most accomplished gymnast, male or female, in U.S. Olympic history.

15. U.S. Women Cheated out of Team Bronze (1988)

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    The U.S. women's gymnastics squad would have won the team bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics if not for a rarely assessed penalty handed down by East German official Ellen Berger.

    The controversy hinged around U.S. alternate Rhonda Faehn, who was tasked with removing the springboard gymnasts used to start their uneven bar routines.

    Regulations stipulate that the springboard be carried all the way to the bench,—a tier below the performance podium—but on one occasion Faehn merely moved the apparatus to the edge of the competition platform.

    Berger spotted the technicality and docked the Americans 0.5 points, throwing coach Bela Karolyi into a rage and throwing a dark cloud over the Seoul experience.

    Short-term, it was a crushing defeat.

    Long-term, however, it was a sign of growth.

    The U.S. team had been competitive at a non-boycotted Olympics, proving that the breakthroughs of 1984 were a harbinger of things to come and not simply the byproduct of watered-down competition.

14.Peter Kormann Breaks Soviet Stronghold, Takes Bronze in Floor Exercise (1976)

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    When Peter Kormann arrived at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, it had been 44 years since an American, man or woman, had won an individual Olympic medal.

    Through the lens of the Cold War, that meant the U.S. had never medaled at an Olympiad attended by the Soviet Union (which first began participating in 1952).

    Kormann's bronze on the floor exercise ended that drought, setting in motion an American rise that would come to its full fruition in 1984.

13. Trent Dimas Shocks the World, Takes High Bar Gold (1992)

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    After missing out on the podium in 1988, the U.S. men's gymnastics team came into the 1992 Barcelona Games hoping for some traction at a non-boycotted Olympiad.

    Hope turned to reality when Trent Dimas, who had never before qualified for an apparatus final,* pulled off a shocking gold medal upset on high bar.

    It took the performance of a lifetime,—sealed with a triple back flip dismount—but Dimas became the first American man to win a gold medal on foreign soil in 68 years.

    For a U.S. men's team that hadn't yet achieved the sustained success of its female counterparts, Dimas' victory was the defining achievement of a lean decade.

     

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky.

12. Peter Vidmar Wins All-Around Silver (1984)

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    That Japan's Koji Gushiken overtook American Peter Vidmar on the final two events to win the closest men's all-around Olympic competition in 60 years is remembered in some circles as a crushing defeat.*

    But don't let that letdown completely obscure what Vidmar accomplished.

    By finishing second, he became the first American-born gymnast to medal in the individual all-around and the first to finish in the top eight since 1932.

     

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics.

11. Gabby Gold (2012)

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    Gabby Douglas' rise to the ranks of Olympic champion may well have been the most stunning ascent we've ever seen in American gymnastics.

    A year prior to her victory, she'd been been labeled unreliable by gymnastics brass and cast as a bit player behind seasoned all-arounders like Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman.

    But there was always talent, and the "Flying Squirrel" managed to reign in her inconsistencies at just the right time, besting  Wieber at U.S. Trials and then defeating Russian adversary Viktoria Komova in London to win the Olympic individual all-around.

    Her victory marked Team USA's third consecutive gold medal in the event, and set Douglas on the path to super-stardom.

10. Bela and Marta Karolyi Defect (1981)

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    On a March afternoon in 1981, Romania's Bela Karolyi, perhaps the most famous women's gymnastics coach in the world, and his wife Marta walked out of their hotel room in New York City and just…kept…walking.

    Without a plan and just $360 in cash, the defectors set out on an odyssey that would take them from desperate poverty to the pinnacle of international gymnastics.

    More than 30 years later, the couple has contributed to almost every major achievement in U.S. women’s gymnastics history.

    Bela was Mary Lou Retton's coach when the West Virginian became America's first Olympic champion in the individual all-around. He would later guide America’s 1996 women's gymnastics squad, the so-called "Magnificent Seven," to the country's first team gymnastics gold at a fully attended Olympics.

    In 2001, Marta became the U.S. national team coordinator for the women's team and has since overseen the development of two all-around Olympic champions.

9. Shannon Miller Takes Second in the All-Around (1992)

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    Shannon Miller was the first homegrown star of the post-Mary Lou Retton era to find meaningful success on the Olympic level.

    Though predecessors such as Kristie Phillips and Kim Zmeskal made inroads, it was Miller who broke out at the 1992 Barcelona Games with a U.S.-record five-medal haul.

    Her most impressive performance came in the all-around, where she finished a close second to Ukraine's Tatyana Gutsu. In taking silver, Miller became the first American female to medal in the individual all-around of a non-boycotted Olympics.

8. Paul Hamm’s "Routine of a Lifetime" Wins Individual All-Around (2004)

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    Paul Hamm stepped to the final rotation of the individual all-around competition at the 2004 Olympics hoping to salvage a medal. An abysmal showing on vault had seemingly ended his hopes of becoming the first American-born male to win the all-around.*

    Then came what NBC commentator Tim Daggett called "the routine of a lifetime," a 9.837 on high bar that ended with an emphatic, two-footed landing.

    The score, to Hamm's surprise, was good enough for gold in what turned out to be the closest men's all-around competition in Olympic history.

    Later investigations revealed a scoring mistake that, if corrected, would have made South Korea's Yang Tae-Young the Olympic champion. But before burying Hamm's triumph in skepticism, remember to keep proper perspective.

    Controversy aside, Hamm was the first American to medal in the all-around at a fully-attended Olympiad, and no judge's error should detract from the fact that his was among the most stirring comebacks in U.S. gymnastics history.

     

    *Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics.

7. Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson Finish 1-2 in Individual All-Around (2008)

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    It was a display of strength heretofore unseen in the history of U.S. gymnastics: two Americans going toe-to-toe for the most sport's most prestigious honor, the Olympic all-around title.

    That was the scene in Beijing, as American teammates Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin jockeyed for top position in a thrilling all-around competition.

    That Liukin's elegance won out over Johnson's acrobatics was almost ancillary.

    The enduring image was that of them standing side-by-side, together displaying the full range of U.S. gymnastics' might.

6. Fierce Five End the Gold-Medal Drought (2012)

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    It's hard to pick a definitive moment from America's 2012 gold-medal win in the women's team all-around, but that's in part a tribute to the talent on hand.

    The so-called "Fierce Five" dominated its Olympic foes unlike any American group prior, finishing five points ahead of Russia in an event final that lacked suspense but more than made up for it with historic reverb.

    The gold medal was Team USA's first in the event since 1996 and just its second all time. And compared to the first one—an all-time nail-biter—2012 was a clinic

    Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross were a cut above, and they proved it over a night of near-flawless competition.

    By the time Aly Raisman stepped up to deliver Team USA's final routine on floor exercise, the gold was already secure and the debates over "Greatest Team of All-Time" were already raging.

5. U.S. Men Shock China, Win Team Gold (1984)

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    The U.S. men's team gold medal may have been the single-most stunning American gymnastics achievement of the 1984 Los Angeles Games—Mary Lou Retton's all-around title included.

    Retton was a clear beneficiary of the Soviet bloc's boycott, with much of her best competition getting caught in the political dragnet.

    The American men's gymnastics team, however, was up against defending world champion China in a competition they were given little chance to win.

    On the strength of stellar performances by Peter Vidmar and Tim Daggett—who scored a perfect 10 on high bar—the Americans surged to a lead in the compulsory round and refused to relinquish their advantage in optionals.

    Mitch Gaylord's routine on high bar during the final rotation—in which he performed his signature move, the"Gaylord II,"—effectively sealed victory. To this day, it is the only Olympic team gold medal in U.S. men's gymnastics history.

4. "The Magnificent Seven" Win 1st Women's Team Gold (1996)

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    In what was a popularity coup for the sport—perhaps the largest since Mary Lou Retton's 1984 all-around triumph—the 1996 U.S. women's gymnastics squad won a dramatic team final that featured stunning falls, miraculous recoveries (more on that later) and ultimate vindication in the form of a gold medal.

    Dubbed the "Magnificent Seven," the team's rousing victory would propel gymnastics, and women's athletics at-large, to new heights.

    As The New York Times wrote in the aftermath:

    "The United States has had its share of women's Olympic heroes: Babe Didrikson, Wilma Rudolph, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Janet Evans and a spark plug from West Virginia named Mary Lou Retton.

    "But until now, it has never had a team of women capture so many hearts, imaginations and a gold medal on the world's biggest sporting stage."

3. Carly Patterson’s Killer Beam Dismount Wins Individual All-Around (2004)

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    In 2004, 20 years since Mary Lou Retton captured American hearts in Los Angeles, the U.S. still hadn't won an individual all-around Olympic title at a fully attended Olympics.

    With most observers pegging Russia's Svetlana Khorkina as the pre-Olympic favorite, it seemed likely the drought would continue.

    Texas' Carly Patterson thought otherwise, and the 2003 runner-up at the Gymnastics World Championships delivered the best performance of her career in Athens.

    The signature moment came on beam, where Patterson delivered a near-perfect routine punctuated by a gorgeous dismount.

    It would stake Patterson to a lead she never relinquished and would vault her into the swelling ranks of American gymnastics pioneers.

2. Kerri Strug Lands the Impossible Vault (1996)

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    It remains among the most iconic sequences in Olympic history: Kerri Strug sticks her second vault, lands on one leg, forces a brave smile, falls to the mat in agony.

    The gut-wrenching performance sealed a gold medal for America's much-hyped women's gymnastics team and eventually propelled Strug into stardom.

    The truth behind the heroics is a bit more complicated. A subsequent poor performance by the Russian team meant the U.S. would have won whether or not Strug vaulted.

    No matter, though.

    The 1996 Atlanta Olympics had its hometown, made-for-TV moment, and gymnastics, through Strug and her triumphant teammates, had confirmation of its rising status on the American sporting scene.

1. Mary Lou Sticks Vault, Wins All-Around Gold (1984)

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    Put all of the distraction about boycotts aside—no victory meant more to the growth of American gymnastics than Mary Lou Retton's all-around title at the 1984 Olympics.

    By extension, no moment meant more than the one that sealed Retton's victory: her perfect 10 vault in the competition's final rotation.

    Retton's triumphant pose—arms raised, smile wide—would make it onto the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline, "Only You, Mary Lou."

    Indeed. No other American gymnast had commanded her own SI cover, just as no other American gymnast had fronted a Wheaties box or been named the AP's Female Athlete of the Year.

    Retton was a pioneer in so many regards and a key inspiration behind America's climb to the first tier of international gymnastics over the quarter century since.