The sport of gymnastics not only requires physical strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, balance, and grace, it also requires a high level of passion for the sport. Throughout Olympic history there have been several women who have stood out above the rest, mastering artistic gymnastics in events like the uneven parallel bars, balance beam, floor exercise, and vault. Their competitive spirit and athletic achievements have gained them a place in the record books as the best gymnasts in the world.
Olga Valentinovna Korbut is a Soviet-born gymnast who won a total of four gold medals and two silver medals while representing the USSR team during the 1972 and 1976 Summer Olympics. Known for her talented acrobatics and open displays of emotion during her routines, she became one of the first gymnasts to ever do a backward somersault on the balance beam in competition. Olga also performed a skill known as the Korbut Flip on the uneven bars where from a stand on the high bar, the gymnast performs a back flip and regrasps the bar. Korbut amazed audiences with this routine at the 1972 Summer Olympics, the first time it was performed on the uneven bars in international competition.
Her 1972 Olympic debut was so memorable that it caused many young girls to join their local gymnastic clubs and take up the sport. Her focus on acrobatics rather than on elegance also reversed the trend of the way athletes performed their routines. In 1988 Korbut was the first gymnast to be inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
Nadia Elena Comaneci is one of the best known gymnasts in the world. She received three gold medals at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Quebec, as a member of the Romanian team. In 1970 she became the youngest gymnast ever to win the Romanian Nationals. She won her first all-around title in 1971 when she participated in her first international competition that also won her team the gold. At the age of 11 she won the all-around gold at the Junior Friendship Tournament in 1973. By age 13 she won the all-around gold medal on every event except the floor exercise at the 1975 European Championships in Skien, Norway. Her success was recognized by the international community and was named the United Press International's "Female Athlete of the Year" for 1975.
It was at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal where 14-year-old Comaneci became a shining star. Her routine on the uneven bars was scored a perfect 10.0, the first time in modern Olympic gymnastics history that the score had ever been awarded. By the end of the Olympics, Nadia had earned six more perfect ten scores capturing the all-around, beam, and bars titles and a bronze medal on the floor exercise. In addition to being inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, Nadia also received the Olympic Order, the highest award given by the International Olympic Committee. She received the award in 1984 and 2004 making her the only person (and the youngest) to receive this honor twice.
Inspired by watching Nadia Comaneci on television, Mary Lou Retton took up gymnastics in her hometown of Fairmont, West Virginia. She then moved to Houston, Texas to train under Romanian coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi, Nadia's former coaches. Retton won the American Cup in 1983 and the American Classic in 1983 and 1984. She also won Japan's Chunichi Cup in 1983. Gymnastics at the time was completely dominated by Eastern European gymnasts. Mary Lou Retton was the first gymnast outside Eastern Europe to win the Olympic all-around title during the 1984 Summer Olympics. She also won two silver and two bronze medals. Her performance during the Games earned her Sports Illustrated magazine's Sportswoman of the Year. Retton was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997.