When Gabby Douglas won the women's all around gold medal, she became the most marketable 16-year-old athlete in the world and the first the first African-American woman to win the most prestigious title in gymnastics. Her teammate, 15-year-old Kyla Ross (whose father is black and Japanese; her mother is Filipino and Puerto Rican), turned in solid performances two nights earlier that helped push US gymnastics to the top of the medal podium in team competition. Though this an enormous accomplishment for both worthy (and adorable) champions, several other talented black women have ascended the ranks and earned honors and titles gracing the mats in America leotards.
Durham was a two-time junior national champion before becoming the first African-American female gymnast to win the senior national title in 1983, shortly after becoming a pupil of the famed Bela Karolyi. Durham had a legitimate shot at making the 1984 Olympic team, but was injured at the Trials and was erroneously told that she could sit out and could petition onto the Olympic team. She learned too late that since she hadn't competed at the 1983 world championships, she was unable to petition onto the team.
Okino was born in Entebbe to a Romanian mother and Ugandan father before moving to the U.S. with her family. Though she started gymnastics relatively late at age 9-most of the members of the Fierce Five have bee in the gym since 2 or 3 years of age-her ascent up the sport's ranks was swift, especially after she moved to Houston to train under Bela and Martha Karolyi. Under their tutelage, Okino won the 1991 American Cup. She also won world championships medals as part of the 1991 silver medal winning team while adding an individual bronze on the balance beam. In 1992, she won a silver on the uneven bars at the world championships and was a member of the bronze medal winning Olympic team in Barcelona where she placed 12th in the all-around.
Up until Thursday night, Dawes was certainly the most famous African American gymnast in U.S. history. The Silver Spring, Maryland native first achieved national prominence as a junior athlete in 1990. She charmed audiences with adorable choreography and was known for her explosive tumbling, especially her back-to-back passes on floor. She was a member of the 1992 Olympic team that took bronze. The following year at the world championships, she picked up two individual silver medals on bars and beam. In 1994, she became the first gymnast to sweep the all of the gold medals at the national championships. That year, she went onto lead the U.S. women to the team silver at the worlds and won another individual medal for herself at the 1996 worlds on the balance beam. Of course,later that year Dawes was a member of the Magnificent Seven, the first U.S. women's gymnastics team to win the team gold at an Olympics Games, a feat that went unmatched until this past week. She also picked up an individual bronze on the floor exercise. Though she retired after the 1996 Olympics, she came out of retirement to join the 2000 team, which she helped earn a bronze.
Also a Virginia native like Douglas, Postell burst onto the senior international scene in 2002 by winning the world title on the balance beam at the world championships. She was named to the 2003 World Championship team but had to withdraw due to illness. After her elite career, she went onto become one of the top gymnasts in the NCAA competing for the University of Utah.
Annia Portuondo Hatch
Hatch had perhaps the least straightforward path to Olympic greatness. As a young gymnast, she competed for her native Cuba, winning their national title for the first time at ten. She was already a seasoned international competitor by the time she won her first world championship medal in 1996, a bronze on the vault. Though she qualified to compete at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the Cuban federation lacked the funds to send and only their male qualifier was able to compete at the competition. She retired shortly thereafter, married and moved to the United States where her husband, Alan Hatch, was a gymnastics coach. In 2001, the same year she became an American citizen, she began her remarkable comeback to elite gymnastics.
In 2002, she was the favorite to win the vault at the 2002 worlds but was not formally released by Cuba and given permission to compete. (IOC rules stipulate
that in the first year after receiving citizenship in a different country, the first country's federation has to grant permission.) Hatch to wait until 2003 when she could get international permission to compete for the U.S. That year, she was named to the world championship team, but tore her ACL during podium training. Less than a year later at 26 years of age, she was named to the U.S. Olympic team where she helped the U.S. win a team silver and won an individual one on her specialty, the vault.
The Las Vegas native's rise began when she was named as an alternate to the 2000 Olympic team. She got on the competition roster when Morgan White had to withdraw due to injury. Though the 16-year-old Schwikert had very little international experience, she became the most consistent competitor for Team USA and helped them earn the team bronze. (Well, they actually place fourth in Sydney, but a decade later they were awarded the bronze after the IOC proved that the bronze medal winning Chinese team used underage athletes.) Schwikert's career didn't end after the Olympics. She went onto to win two consecutive U.S. national titles and led the U.S. to a team bronze at the 2001 world championships. In 2003, she was the leader of a young team that won the U.S.' first ever world championship team title in Anaheim. Once again, Schwikert was named as an alternate to the 2004 Olympic team but did not compete. She went onto to a spectacular All-American NCAA gymnastics career at UCLA, which included winning the NCAA all-around title as a freshman.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.