The List: The Sixth Gymnast

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As we get closer to Tokyo 2020 and a four gymnast team for WAG, I thought it would be fun to look back at some six person teams from back in the day!  For many years, both Worlds and Olympics consisted of six all around gymnasts in a 6-6-5 format; the 1996 Atlanta Olympics saw the team increase to seven.  By 2000, Sydney’s quad showcased the six person team again, but in a 6-5-4 format.  Worlds in 2001 introduced the three up-three count format in team finals.  With some teams not utilizing all six gymnasts, we saw the teams go to five members in 2012 and 2016; now, Tokyo is reducing the number, but emphasizing the all-arounder once again.

The focus of this list is to celebrate the ‘sixth’ gymnast—she was usually first up, not often a factor for all-around or event final placement, but still an integral member of her team.  Let’s look back at some stellar gymnasts who contributed to their team in a big way, even if they did not always get top billing!

Elena Grudneva EUN Olympics 1992

A member of the powerful Soviet Union|Commonwealth of Independent States|Unified Team during the Barcelona quad, Grudneva never made a World Championship team.  With modest success, she had a few all-around titles and medals at smaller meets before placing tenth at the European Championships in 1992.  Interestingly, the former Soviet Union members competed for their individual republics, allowing a gymnast like Grudneva to avoid the three per-country limit issue; she was highest placing Russian in the all-around.  She also placed fifth on vault and floor, and she won a bronze medal on bars.  When the Olympic team was decided, gymnasts were chosen not only by talent, but by delegation.  As a top Russian, Grudneva punched her ticket for Barcelona.  Aside from an average compulsory vault (9.762) and subpar floor (9.512), all of her scores in the team competition went 9.812 or better.  In fact, due in part to Chusovitina’s fall on compulsory bars, Grudneva was actually the fifth best gymnast on the gold medal team.  While her teammates wrote an amazing story at these Games and beyond, I wanted to highlight this gem of a gymnast. Watch her 9.9 bars set from team finals—a routine ahead of its time!


Celestina Popa ROM Worlds 1987

Popa achieved early success by winning silver with her team at the 1985 Worlds, a year where she seemed to compete non-stop.  The next two years saw less competitions from Popa, who showed up for Worlds in 1987 with her knee wrapped.  As one of only two gymnasts on her team to not score a 10 (the other being legend Ecaterina Szabo), Popa’s scores were not quite up to par with her on-fire teammates, but she set the stage for big performances that resulted in a total of nine perfect tens over the course of the team competition on their way to gold!  Popa competed at the Olympics, winning silver with her team, but she did not make any finals at Worlds or Olympics in her career.  Nonetheless, fans love her style and spunk during this amazing era of gymnastics! Footage of Popa at this Worlds was hard to find, but here is a home video of her engaging floor (featuring her signature skill, of course!)


Carola Dombeck GDR Olympics 1976

In an era where East German gymnastics was really starting to take off, Dombeck competed as a senior gymnast for only one year—an Olympic year.  With good showings at junior competitions in 1974 and 1975, Dombeck found her way onto the Olympic team after winning vault at her country’s national championships.  While her scores on bars and beam were dropped, her vault and floor helped propel Team GDR to a bronze medal.  Dombeck then went on to win silver on vault, the only individual medal for her country!  While her competitive career was short, it was impactful! Her two vaults in event finals, averaging 9.9!




Katie Heenan USA Worlds 2001

Post-Sydney, the team from the US saw many gymnasts head to the NCAA or retirement.  An untested new batch of gymnasts surprised everyone at Worlds by winning the bronze medal (after no team medal in 1997 and 1999).  A highlight for the team was Katie Heenan, who only contributed bars in team finals, but who also won an individual medal on that event a few days later!  In a wild new format, Katie was able to make her mark without doing all four events in finals, even though she continued to train as an all-around throughout the quad.  Injuries slowed her promising progress; she did not make the 2003 team and was unable to finish her competition at the Olympic Trials.  Fortunately for gym fans, Heenan continued on at the University of Georgia, helping her team win a national title for all four years.  Heenan helped establish the new success for the Team USA, who went on to see many medals and great moments on the road to Athens!

Catch Katie’s sublime style during prelims—



Li Shanshan CHN Olympics 2008

A stellar beam worker, Li won silver on that event at Worlds in 2007.  For her country’s home Olympics, a remarkable group of gymnasts were assembled, and Li was pressed into service for her beam skills.  She did not disappoint—even though she only competed one event in team finals, she scored a massive 16.050 (only eventual beam champion Shawn Johnson scored higher in team finals).  Li’s score helped make up for a fall from Cheng Fei, and it was a major factor in Team China’s first Olympic team gold medal.  In my opinion, Li was one of the best on beam in this code of points—she took risks and showed signature style. Watch Li’s top notch routine with “lots of places where she needs to be brave!”—



Svetlana Baitova USSR Worlds 1989

On one of the best teams ever assembled, Baitova was no slouch.  But her teammates outscored her and she struggled on compulsory beam, leaving her sixth overall.  To put it in perspective, her score would have been fourth best on the second place Romanian team and third best on the bronze medal winning Chinese team.  Her best score in optionals was her 9.937 vault, and she also had a 9.9 or higher on bars and beam.  In one of the last competitions of her illustrious career, she made no finals, but she walked away with another team gold, which joined her Olympic gold from 1988.

Baitova’s contribution to an amazing lineup of floor workers—



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These are just a few of the top, though sometimes underappreciated, gymnasts who were featured on great teams.  Who else would you like to highlight for their great contributions to their teams and our sport?


Article by: Kristen Ras

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