On a Refurbished Knee, Brazil’s Andrade Vaults to a Gold Medal


TOKYO — On a night of unexpected joy mixed with unexpected disappointment, Rebeca Andrade, a gymnast from Brazil, held her gold medal in the vault on Sunday at the Tokyo Olympics and wondered if it was real.

And Sunisa Lee of the United States, who won the women’s gymnastics all-around competition last week, looked back on her performance on the uneven bars on Sunday and regretted that it had indeed been real.

Andrade, from a family of eight children whose mother worked as a maid, had just won the first ever gold medal for Brazil in women’s gymnastics. She had done it just a month after qualifying as an individual for these Games, competing here without a Brazilian team and on a right knee that had undergone three operations for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the past six years.

And now Andrade, who is being celebrated as a hero in Brazil, has accomplished more than she had ever imagined at these Olympics — or in her career, really. She has a gold medal in the vault to add to the silver medal she won last week in the all-around. Though she had thought about retiring many times because of her injuries, the pain had been worth it after all, she said, especially because she has become a role model for Black girls and women in her country.

“I don’t really know what to say,” Andrade said, sounding giddy. “I couldn’t imagine myself up there on the podium.”

MyKayla Skinner, an American, won silver on the vault, and Yeo Seo-jeong won bronze for South Korea to become that nation’s first medalist in women’s gymnastics. It surprised both of them that they made the podium.

For Skinner, it was a surprise to even be at these Games, and an even bigger one to compete in Sunday’s final.

Skinner, who was an alternate at the Rio Olympics and cried every night while watching her teammates compete, spent time in the hospital in January with pneumonia while battling Covid-19. She missed a month of training but still made the U.S. team last month as an event specialist in the vault.

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In Tokyo, so close to her life’s goal of winning an Olympic medal, she did not initially qualify for the final after finishing fourth overall in the preliminary round. Simone Biles and Jade Carey had finished ahead of her, and a country can send only two gymnasts to each final.

She wrote on Instagram, “For now I will just try to fill the hole in my heart.” And she started packing her bags for a flight home.

But U.S.A. Gymnastics told her to wait. Biles, the four-time Olympic champion, had pulled out of the team final, citing a mental health issue, and her status for the rest of the Games was unclear. A day before the vault final, Biles withdrew, allowing Skinner to take her spot as the second American in that event.

That long-awaited shot at an Olympic medal was hers, finally, and on Sunday she took advantage of it by coming close to nailing two big vaults.

At last, Skinner, 24, who is called the team’s “grandma” because she has so much experience on the national team, will go home to Arizona with an Olympic medal. She is retiring, and said that she and her husband, Jonas Harmer, were planning to start a family.

I’m sad, but it’s time for me to move on with life,” Skinner said. “I’m ready.”

The other two American women competing on Sunday night were less satisfied with their performances.

Carey, from Phoenix, finished second on the vault in qualifying, but stumbled during her run-up for her first vault on Sunday and ended up bailing out of it. She could muster only a Yurchenko tuck, which is one flip and no twists. The score, 11.933, took her out of the running for a medal.

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Later in the night, before the uneven bars final, Lee was tired and nervous. Two days before, she had won the all-around gold medal, and now had another chance for an individual gold. Going into the uneven bars, she was considered a favorite, and her toughest routine was the hardest one in the world. Winning the event was what she had been training for.

But she failed to connect her first skill to her second one, and her routine started to crumble. She said she could have easily jumped off the bars and quit, which probably was what she would have done at practice, but she held on to finish the routine at the biggest meet of her life. She ended up performing a watered down performance that wasn’t anything like the spectacular one she had planned.

Her score of 14.5 was nearly one point lower than the 15.4 she received for the bars in the team final last week. It was, however, still good enough for her to win the bronze medal. Nina Derwael, the two-time uneven bars world champion, won the gold, the first Olympic women’s gymnastics medal of any kind for Belgium. Anastasiia Iliankova of Russia was second, for the silver.

Afterward, Lee admitted that she couldn’t help but feel devastated, as if she had let everyone down.

“I don’t want people to think I’m not grateful for this bronze medal because I really am,” she said in a one-on-one interview as tears rolled down her face. “But I came here to win gold on bars, and that was supposed to be my thing. That’s what I came to do, and people were putting pressure on me to do that. Winning the all-around was what Simone was supposed to do.”

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She added: “This is all just so overwhelming. I didn’t expect my Olympics to go like this, and now I’m really sad that I didn’t do the bar routine that I came here to do.”

Since winning the all-around on Thursday, Lee has been inundated with media requests, including television interview after television interview, and hasn’t gotten much sleep. She said she would delete Twitter from her phone because the comments there were stressing her out and “aren’t good for me.”

She was so distracted coming into the final, she said, that she forgot the special U.S. team sneakers she was supposed to wear on the podium and wound up borrowing Carey’s shoes for the ceremony.

Lee, who will compete in the balance beam final on Tuesday, said that she was trying to keep her subpar performance on Sunday in perspective. But that it was hard.

Yes, she won the all-around title, one of the most prestigious gold medals of any Summer Olympics. And yes, she led the U.S. team to a silver medal last week when Biles withdrew after the first event.

She planned to cry out her frustrations about the uneven bars and get up in the morning, refocused. One glance at her hands, though, will remind her of her humbling night.

Watching all the other gymnasts complete their routines, Lee had been so upset that she ripped off the long, acrylic nails that she had on each of her fingers. The nails were white, and three of them had Olympic rings meticulously painted on them.

She left the arena on Sunday night with them tucked away in her backpack.

Maggie Astor contributed reporting.


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