Rebeca Andrade wins gold in the vault and becomes the 1st Brazilian woman to be an Olympic champion in gymnastics
By Marques Travae
She’s gold. That’s really all that needs be said. Well, even better she’s gold and silver. It goes without saying that it’s been an incredible and historic week for Rebeca Andrade. All of Brazil was in an uproar with her first victory for the silver medal in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. If she hadn’t won anything else, becoming the first Brazilian woman to win an individual medal in an Olympic sport would have been enough to secure her place in the history books. But Rebeca wanted more and she got it, climbing the highest podium to receive her gold medal.
Her accomplishment is historic. Andrade reaches the pinnacle of success in women’s gymnastics by following the trail blazed by Daiane dos Santos, nearly two decades ago. In Brazil’s women’s gymnastics we can divide the eras into before and after Daiane dos Santos and Daniele Hypolito. And 6:30 am Brasilia time, Rebeca’s performance showed off the full potential of Brazilian women in the sport.
It all started with Daniele Hypolito when she became the world runner-up in the floor competition in 2001. Then, in 2003, Daiane dos Santos won the title in the same apparatus. Then it was Jade Barbosa’s turn as she came in third as the most complete gymnast at the 2007 World Championships. And seven years later, the diminutive Flávia Saraiva won three medals at the 2014 Youth Olympics. In some ways, they all set the stage for Rebeca’s victory.
With her winning the Olympic gold Rebeca Andrade has placed Brazil’s women’s gymnastics on a whole other level. Andrade has now fulfilled the potential that experts saw in her as a child gymnast, lifting her as well as the country’s practice of the sport onto the world stage where countries such as united states, Russia and China have long dominated.
To understand Rebeca’s accomplishment, consider that she now enters a small circle of only three other elite Brazilian athletes who have ever won gold medals in the Olympics in the country’s entire participation in the competition. The others are Maurren Maggi, who won in in the long jump, in the Beijing Olympics of 2008, Sarah Menezes, victorious in judo in London’s 2012 Olympics and, Rafaela Silva, also in judo in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
A gymnast who does well on the beam in the Olympic qualifying round qualifies to compete for a medal on the apparatus. In the vault, though, things are a little different. The average of two performances, in which two separate movements must be performed, is used here. Having one trick up your sleeve isn’t quite enough. To pull this off, a gymnast must have two.
In Rebeca’s case, she’s always had them, going back to when she was 12 years old, when she was already performing the Amanar, a high-difficulty vault with a heavy impact on the knees. The joint has been a concern for Andrade since her first significant injury in 2015. Nagging injuries would hinder her in 2017 and 2019 as well.
Her competition performances have not been at the level in which she is accustomed to competing since then, in an effort to save her knee. She has done the Amanar in her training routine by finishing the exercise in the foam pit. She had only done the exercise on a hard mattress in training in Tokyo, and since she did it right, she attained the confidence to do it again in the final.
“I jumped double and a half (Amanar), which is something many people said: ‘Oh, that won’t work, and another on her knee’, but I trained a lot, I was prepared, if I kept thinking about it, I wouldn’t do gymnastics anymore”, she revealed after the competition.
She also did a Cheng exercise in the final, a move she had been hiding and which was “leaked” by coverage of the Jornal Nacional news program since it showed in the background of a report by journalist Pedro Bassan. “I didn’t post it on the internet because I think it’s better to surprise everyone here by using everything we have. It was an excellent decision,’’ he said in reference to the report.
Andrade’s first knee injury occurred in 2015, when she had already turned 16, finally earning the right to compete in adult women’s events. She injured her anterior cruciate ligament and needed surgery two months before the Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada, that same year. She also missed the World Cup, which would have been her first appearance.
Unfortunately for Rebeca, she would be sidelined by the same injury once again in 2017, during World Championships podium training, and in 2019, right before the Pan American Games, during the Brazilian Championships. The injuries would force her to have surgery both times and go through a long and painful recuperation period of roughly one year.
Due to her injuries, Rebeca was unable to compete in the two major events she had entered prior to Tokyo, the second vault in the classification, which was required to compete in the apparatus final. She was the qualifier with the fourth best vault score at Rio-2016. She would have been a finalist if she had one more bureaucratic vault for her standards. The goal, however, was to make it to the general individual final in one piece, where she would have a chance to earn a medal.
Rebeca began with a strong performance in the vault, scoring lower than Simone Biles (gold) and Aly Raisman (silver), but then she was shaken up by her failure on the uneven bars and wound up executing poor performances on the beam as well as the floor. She ended up coming in 11th, a disappointing showing.
She also excelled in the vault in 2018, her only World Championships appearance in her career. She scored 14.633 in the qualifying rounds, which was topped only by the American Simone Biles and Canadian Shallon Olsen who earned higher scores than she did with 14.600 and 14.433 respectively. These scores were actually lower than Rebeca’s greatest vault, but she since she didn’t go for the second vault, didn’t even attempt to compete in the final.
Rebeca’s gold medal in the vault comes with her first attempt at competing in an international final. And that’s not all. It’s also her first attempt at qualifying for a vault final. Because of the steady injuries that have hampered her progress, she has never been given the opportunity to showcase her full potential in the apparatus. Now, with both her mind and body in synch, she has been able to reach her full potential.
In her first vault, the Brazilian scored 15.166 points, but in the second, she slipped and finished with an average of 15.083. The mark was a little lower than the 15.100 she received in the qualifiers, when she placed third out of all the gymnasts. However, it was still higher than the combined results of all competitors. Mykayla Skinner of the United States took the silver for her efforts (14.916) and Seojeong Yeo of South Korea was awarded the bronze with 14.733 points.
With her first medal being dedicated to gymnasts who came before her, Rebeca this time dedicated her triumph to Francisco Porath Neto, aka Chico, her coach who has been with her since she started her career. “I think I am happier with his happiness than with the medal itself, because we have worked hard since forever. The only way I can make him feel good is with my gymnastics.”
Another person who must be ecstatic after Rebeca’s historic victories has to be her mother, Rosa Braga, who is responsible for her achievements. After having suffered a knee injury for the third time, Rebeca thought seriously about giving up. “That conversation was when she fell apart. When she really gave up. Me and her, both of us, crying. But a little light came to me. I had to let go of that mother’s side of me a little bit, when she was crying that she wanted to come home, and turn to the encourager side, telling her to at least give herself one more chance. To try to get back to training and to feel her body. She listened. Two days later she called me, happy, saying that she had trained and decided to stay in Rio. She said: ‘The knee isn’t hurting! She recovered very quickly,” Rosa revealed.
According to Rosa, one of Rebeca’s best qualities is her ability to listen to and take advice to heart: “In that conversation, I told her not to give up before trying, and only then decide whether to stop or not. That sometimes we have obstacles that we need to overcome. I don’t know what came over me, but something told me she would make it.”
Rebeca’s triumph is also inspiring considering that her mother had five children with her father Ricardo, who was not around during her childhood and adolescence. Rosa also had three children from her second marriage.
With all the obstacles that Rebeca overcame to enter the history books, one other aspect is being celebrated in Brazilian social media circles. The fact that Rebeca is a black woman. We’ve already learned of the attitudes, gestures and comments that previous world champion Daiane dos Santos dealt with in her rise to the champion’s circle. The reaction of Brazil’s black community symbolizes the changes in racial perspectives over the past few decades.
Her victory is a triumph that Afro-Brazilians are claiming that goes beyond Brazil’s usual ‘’we are all Brazilians’’, ‘’we are all equal’’ rhetoric that attempts to hide wide and persisting socioeconomic gaps between white and non-white Brazilians as well as everyday racial bias. It’s a tone that I also noted at the end of the 2016 Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro when Rafael Silva won a gold medal in judo.
With that victory, I remember many black Brazilians speaking out on the love than Rafaela was receiving at the time. Everyday black bodies are shot down in the streets by police bullets, treated as if they are only criminals and generally disregarded in the most subtle and obvious ways, so why is it that Brazil then wanted to shower Rafaela with all of this affection? Rafaela experienced much of what it is like to be in a Brazil that demonstrates time and again that it doesn’t like blackness. With Rebeca’s victory, one particular comment I think sums up much of the sentiment among black Brazilians.
‘’I saw a white journalist writing a story saying that Rebeca is pride and representation for all of us Latinos, that’s why I hate this term, fuck you man. she is the pride of black people, of favela slum inhabitants, you cross the street when you see us, and when we win you come with this about all of us Latinos?’’
Speaking of the racial politics and how they are playing out regarding Rebeca’s victories, again, I note a rising polarization along lines of race that just a few decades ago didn’t seem to exist, at least not this degree. I have always maintained that racial disparities have always existed in Brazil. it’s just that now, increasingly, black Brazilians are no longer willing to remain silent on these issues as they seek to carve out their own territories as well as access areas of Brazilian society of which they’ve long been denied. Gymnastics is a good example of this.
In social networks, what I’ve seen for a few days now are, one, people who are celebrating Rebeca’s victory as one for all Brazilians without mention of her race; two, black and some white Brazilians acknowledging the importance of a black woman winning Olympic medals; and, three, white Brazilians who want to dismiss the racial significance of her achievement in order to maintain the narrative that ‘’race doesn’t matter’’ and Brazilians being all equal.
”A black, evangelical and peripheral woman is the first Brazilian athlete in history to win two Olympic medals in the same competition; but the choice of ”BAILE DE FAVELA” they complain about. Take a good look at Rebeca Andrade’s face: she is the face of Brazil that these people have never supported.”
‘Rebeca Andrade is the first Brazilian – not the first “black Brazilian”’. That’s it. No divisions.
”Rebeca Andrade is the first Brazilian – not the first “black Brazilian” as those playing the victim of African ancestry would say – to win two medals in a single edition of the Olympic Games. She made history and is a source of pride for Brazilians of all colors. Congratulations Rebeca!”
”For ex-Big Brother Brasil participant Lucas Gallina to remember that Rebeca Andrade is a black woman performing funk in a country like Brazil is “praising the wrong things”. It is obvious that a white man like him would never understand the importance of this….”
In terms of Rebeca, her own perspective on the topic has been somewhat in the middle ground. She acknowledges that she is a black woman but that she represents black, brown and white Brazilians alike.
In the end, if Rebeca doesn’t manage another medal (and I am now learning that she came in fifth in her last floor routine), her record-breaking performances will never be forgotten. Especially by little black girls across Brazil who will always remember her and know that they can also get the gold.
‘’Rebeca Andrade is gold. The image reproduces reality, seeing a black girl/woman in a prominent place is beautiful and makes it possible to recreate a positive image for black children, serving as a foundation and reference for future steps and/or leaps.
Rebeca saw herself in Daiane dos Santos, a great gymnast who defied racism, which insists in determining the place of black people. Daiane demonstrated that black people can be anywhere, that racism does not determine us…This image, kept in the affective memory of Receba, exploded on the Olympic soil.
May our future generations be seen in other places that were previously established by racial supremacy as impossible to access.
Congratulations, my sister! Àse on your journey. I extend this thanks to the great Daiane dos Santos – @daiane_gs_ . I am/we are because we are!’’
Congratulations Rebeca Andrade.