Power Ranking the 25 Best Women's Gymnasts in Olympic History

Emily BayciContributor IIIAugust 8, 2012

Power Ranking the 25 Best Women's Gymnasts in Olympic History

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    Take a moment and think about the history of gymnastics, the evolution of the sport. What do you see?

    I see moments of greatness where gymnasts stood up and tried new impressive skills, where they shocked the crowd with stunning performances, powerful acrobatics and graceful dance moves. 

    Women's gymnastics is one of the most-viewed sports in the Olympics, and it's because of the gymnasts who make the show worthwhile.

    Here's a look at the 25 female gymnasts who I consider to be the greatest in Olympic history.

    There was no set criteria for the rankings; but focus was on not only Olympic medals, but also the gymnast's performance at the Olympics and her impact on the sport as a whole.

    Note: It can be argued impossible to compare gymnasts from different eras and to compare specialists with all-arounders, but I looked at what the athletes accomplished as a whole and based the rankings on what they did in relation to their time of competition.

    The information regarding medals won was found from the medal databases at Olympic.org.

25. Tatiana Gutsu, Unified Team

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    Tatiana Gutsu won the 1992 all-around gold for the team representing the Soviet Union at the time.

    She edged out Shannon Miller by .012.

    Gutsu was known for having high difficulty values, specifically on floor—where she won the bronze medal in 1992. 

    She also claimed a gold medal for the team and the silver medal on uneven bars in Barcelona.

24. Mo Huilan, China

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    During the 1990's, Mo Huilan was one of China's most successful gymnasts.

    She was recognized for having advanced and difficult routines. She often had key falls that stopped her from winning all-around titles, though.

    In the 1996 Olympics, Huilan was in first before floor, the final rotation. She then stepped out of bounds and finished in fifth place. Her only medal was a silver on vault.

23. Dominique Dawes, United States

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    Nearly everyone remembers Kerri Strug's heroic one-footed vault in the 1996 Olympics which led Team USA to its first team gold medal.

    This injury opened the door for her teammate, Dominique Dawes, to compete in the floor finals, where Dawes took bronze and became the first female African-American to win an individual event medal in gymnastics.

    She made history as an African American athlete with that medal: She is the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics, and the first black person of any nationality or gender to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics.

    Dawes won team medals in all three Olympic Games she participated in—Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.

    Her team finished fourth in the 2000 games, but 10 years later the International Olympic Committee stripped China of its bronze medal because one of their members was underage. On August 11th, 2010 the IOC awarded Dawes and her teammates from the 2000 Olympics with a team Bronze medal.

    Dawes wanted to give her medals meaning and now works as a motivational speaker.

22. Aliya Mustafina, Russia

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    It was a long journey for Aliya Mustafina, but the Russian gymnast completed an extraordinary comeback that ended with four medals in the 2012 Olympics—more than any gymnast in the extremely deep field.

    She helped Russia to the team silver medal and then tied with Team USA’s Aly Raisman for third place in the all-around, but won the bronze due to a tiebreak rule.

    Mustafina finally won her gold medal in the uneven bars finals and finished off with another bronze on the floor exercise.

    Mustafina was the gymnast to beat at the 2010 World Championships, where she claimed the all-around gold and a medal in every event but one. She blew out her left ACL at the 2011 European Championships, and it seemed like she wouldn’t be able to compete in London.

21. Shawn Johnson, United States

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    Shawn Johnson was the face of Team USA—along with Nastia Liukin—during the 2008 games.

    She helped lead Team USA to a team silver medal and was the balance beam gold medalist. She won a silver medal in the all-around and on the floor exercise. 

    Johnson inspired young women around the U.S. to take up gymnastics.

20. Agnes Keleti, Hungary

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    Agnes Keleti is Hungary's greatest gymnast.

    Her career was halted by World War II, when her father was killed by the Nazis and her family hid in a "Swedish House."

    Keleti was an Olympic alternate in 1948 and won 10 medals—five gold—during the 1952 and 1956 Olympics.

    Her greatest gymnastics success was during the 1956 Olympics when she won six medals, including four gold.  In the individual event finals she won the balance beam, floor exercises, and the uneven bars. She won gold in the team portable apparatus, and silver medals in the individual and team all-around.

19. Ecaterina Szabo, Romania

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    Ecaterina Szabo was the favorite to win the all-around gold at the 1984 Olympics.

    She controversially lost the title by a .05 to Mary Lou Retton.

    Szabo rallied in the individual event finals, where she won gold on the three events she qualified for—vault, beam and floor. Her four medals made her the most successful athlete at the 1984 Olympics.

18. Simona Amanar, Romania

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    Simona Amanar is a seven-time Olympic medalist—three golds, one silver and three bronze.

    She was a member of Romanian teams who won four straight world gold medals and the 2000 Olympic team gold.

    The Amanar vault, the most difficult and dangerous vault in gymnastics, was named after she performed it at the 2000 Olympic Games. She won the gold with that vault and won the all-around title that year. 

    According to About.com Gymnastics:

    The Amanar is a Yurchenko-style vault, where the gymnast performs a round-off onto the board, a back handspring onto the horse, and flips off with a 2.5 twisting layout back flip.

17. Lavinia Miloşovici, Romania

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    Lavinia Milosovici was the last gymnast—along with China's Lu Li—to receive the perfect 10 score in an Olympic competition, on the floor during the 1992 individual event finals.

    She can be considered one of Romania's top gymnasts of the 1990's. 

    She medaled in every World Championships meet, Olympic Games and European Championships between 1991 and 1996 and is the third female gymnast to win at least one World Championship or Olympic title in all four events.

    During the 1992 Olympics, she won the gold medal on floor and vault, silver in the team all-around and bronze in the individual all-around. She took bronzes in the team and individual all-around in the 1996 games.

16. Polina Astakhova, Soviet Union

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    Polina Astakhovawho won 10 medals—five gold, two silver and three bronze—while competing for the USSR in the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympics.

    She earned back-to-back bronze medals on the all-around in 1960 and 1964 and back-to-back gold medals on uneven bars.

15. Nastia Liukin, United States

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    Nastia Liukin is one of the most recently successful American gymnasts.

    She won five medals at the 2008 Bejing Olympics: gold in the all-around, silvers for the team, bars and beam, and bronze on floor. This ties Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller for the most medals won by an American gymnast in a single Olympics.

    She is known for her balletic style and her bars prowess.

    Liukin attempted a comeback for London, but had heartbreaking falls at the U.S. Olympic Trials. However, she still managed a graceful exit from gymnastics. 

14. Lilia Podkopayeva, Ukraine

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    Lilia Podkopayeva was the first female gymnast since Ludmilla Tourischeva to have the European, World, and Olympic all-around titles all at the same time, from 1995-996.

    She was known as a well-rounded gymnast with no major weaknesses on any events, which led to her multiple all-around titles.

    Her combination of difficult skills and near-perfect form and execution—particularly on the floor—are what propelled her to success.

13. Shannon Miller, United States

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    Shannon Miller is arguably the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history.

    She dominated the gymnastics scene in the early '90s, with seven Olympic medals and nine World Championship medals. 

    She earned five medals in the 1992 Olympics, the most of any American athlete at the 1992 Games, and hit all 16 of her routines. Only three American gymnasts have won five medals in a single Olympics (Miller, Mary Lou Retton and Nastia Liukin).

    Miller led Team USA to a bronze medal and then earned a silver in the individual all-around, falling short by only .012 to Tatiana Gutsu. The medal result is still debated today.

    She was a member of "The Magnificent Seven," which won the first-ever American team gold medal in 1996.

12. Yelena Shushunova, Soviet Union

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    Yelena Shushunova won four Olympic medals and the all-around gold in the 1988 Olympics.

    According to sportstales.com, she is best known for her powerful vaulting and difficult tumbling as well as her consistency—she has won medals on every apparatus in major competitions.

11. Mary Lou Retton, United States

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    Mary Lou Retton was the first extremely successful American gymnast. In 1984, she became the first gymnast outside of Eastern Europe to win the Olympic all-around title.

    She won five medals that year and jumped to national popularity.

    Retton was named Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportswoman of the Year" in 1984 and was the only gymnast on the cover of SI, until this year's women’s gymnastics squad made the cut.

    Retton is a member of the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

10. Gabby Douglas, United States

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    Gabby Douglas made history as first American woman to win the individual and team all-around gold medal in the London 2012 Olympics, and she became the first African-American to win the all-around.

    She may have fallen short during the individual event finals, but her two golds are what will be remembered.

    Her legacy is fresh, but Douglas’ success will inspire millions of young girls around the world, African-American and others. People are going to look at her every morning while eating their Kellogg’s cereal and they will be inspired by her strength, success and focus.

9. Daniela Silivaş, Romania

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    Daniela Silivas dominated the 1988 Olympics, winning medals in every possible event. She tied Nadia Comaneci's record of seven perfect 10's in one Olympics.

    Silivas missed the all-around gold by just 0.025 points to Yelena Shushunova, and won gold on bars, beam and floor and a bronze on vault.

    Silivas is remembered for her Olympic success along with perfect form and execution.

8. Nellie Kim, Soviet Union

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    Nellie Kim won three gold medals and a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and two gold medals at the 1980 Olympics.

    She was the first woman in Olympic history to earn a perfect 10 on the vault.

7. Ludmilla Tourischeva, Soviet Union

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    Ludmilla Tourischeva claimed the all-around gold at the 1972 Olympics but was overshadowed by Olga Korbut during those games.

    Tourischeva was an example of the Soviet style of gymnastics: classiness, grace and perfect form and technique.

    Tourischeva won the all-around bronze in 1976.

6. Svetlana Boginskaya, Soviet Union

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    Svetlana Boginskaya was the 1989 world all-around champion and won four Olympic medals in 1988 (all-around bronze, floor silver, team and vault gold).

    Boginskaya was nicknamed the “Goddess of Gymnastics” according to Sportstales.com "because of her stature, balletic grace, and long elegant lines that was most eminently exhibited in most of her routines, especially on floor exercise." 

5. Olga Korbut, Soviet Union

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    Olga Korbut makes the top five for popularizing and redefining artistic gymnastics.

    She was not considered the top gymnast on the USSR team in 1972, but she stole the show with a move on the uneven bars where she did a standing back flip to catch the bars.

    Korbut won the silver medal on bars and gold on beam and floor.

    The uneven bars move that made her famous is no longer a recognized skill on the apparatus.

    Her Olympic debut was so memorable that it caused many young girls to take up gymnastics. Her focus on acrobatics rather than elegance revolutionized how athletes performed their routines. 

4. Svetlana Khorkina, Russia

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    Svetlana Khorkina is known as one of the most popular and successful gymnasts of all time.

    She never won an all-around gold, as she was edged out by Carly Patterson in the 2004 games, but has won seven Olympic medals and 20 World Championship medals.

    She was called "Queen of the Bars", as she won consecutive Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000 and won the world bars gold in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2001.

    Known as an innovator, Khorkina has eight skills named after her in the Code of Points.

3. Larisa Latynina, Soviet Union

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    Larissa Latynina, a two-time Olympic (1956, 1960) all-around champion, ranks second among Olympians of all sports with 18 career medals. Latynina—who held the record for several decades until Michael Phelps broke it during the 2012 Games—owns nine gold medals, five silver and four bronze.

    She was known for graceful movements on floor exercise, where she won three consecutive Olympic gold medals (1956, 1960 and 1964).

    As written in the New York Times:

    As a gymnast, Latynina performed with a dancer’s erect posture and classic lines. Her personality was commanding. She was beautiful and unwavering in the consistency of her routines. The Soviets were dominant, and no one was more accomplished than Latynina. It was a different sport, less demanding but more elegant. Women’s gymnastics was actually performed by women instead of girls.

2. Věra Čáslavská, Czechoslovakia

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    Looking at her gymnastics skills, Vera Čáslavská is deserving of the No. 2 slot. Her attitude could be reason enough to lower her, but she will stay in second.

    Čáslavská won a total of seven golds and four silvers between 1960 and 1968.

    In 1960, she won silver in the team event, and in 1964 she broke free and won gold in in the all-around, vault and balance beam; and silver in the team event.

    In 1968, she won gold in the all-around, vault, uneven bars and floor exercise, and took silver in the balance beam and team competition.

    She is one of only two female gymnasts to win back-to-back all-around titles.

    Čáslavská was very outspoken in her views about Soviet-style communism during the 1968 Olympics.

    It looked like she won the gold on the floor exercise, but the judges changed Soviet Larisa Petrk's score and there was a tie for gold. Čáslavská also lost the gold on the beam to Natalia Kuchinskaya.

    She protested both medal ceremonies by turning her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem.

1. Nadia Comaneci, Romania

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    Simply put, Nadia Comaneci eternally captured the Olympic gymnastics world.

    The history of the sport could be split into B.N. and A.N. for Before Nadia and after Nadia.

    She is best known for scoring the first ever perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics when she was only 14 years old. It was on the uneven bars during the team competition of the 1976 Olympics.

    At those Games, she won gold in the all-around, uneven bars and balance beam, silver in the team competition and bronze on the floor exercise.

    In 1980, she won gold on the balance beam and floor exercise, while winning silver in the team competition and all-around.

    Comaneci was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame and received the Olympic Order, the highest award given by the International Olympic Committee.