Aliya Mustafina stood atop the podium, proudly cradling her medal and watching the Russian flag rise.
She dared not even imagine such a scene six months ago, her left knee aching and the ruthless brilliance that had made her the world’s best gymnast no longer within her command. Yet she refused to give in, to the pain in her body or the doubts in her mind, and the reward now lay heavy upon her chest.
“I am very, very happy I’ve won gold,” Mustafina said after winning the Olympic title on the uneven bars on Monday. “Every medal represents its own thing.”
No one could appreciate that better than Beth Tweddle.
Tweddle has been at the forefront of the transformation in British gymnastics, winning every prize there is — except an Olympic medal. She had come so close four years ago, missing the bronze by a mere 0.25 points and the devastation almost drove her into retirement.
To finally win a bronze on Monday in what is surely the 27-year-old’s last Olympics, in front of an adoring British crowd, was all that mattered, not the color.
“I tried to say it didn’t matter if I didn’t medal, but I’ve got every other title to my name,” Tweddle said. “I can now say I would have been devastated walking away with no medal. I am going to sleep easy tonight.”
The medals handed out on Monday were for the uneven bars, but they may as well have been for grit and determination. Reminders that talent is not always enough and that the greatest triumphs are sometimes born out of the biggest disappointments.
Also on Monday, Arthur Zanetti gave Brazil their first medal in gymnastics, upsetting “Lord of the Rings” Chen Yibing for the gold on the still rings, while South Korea’s Yang Hak-seon added Olympic gold to his world title on the vault.
TUESDAY, AUG. 7
Hsiao Mei-yu was placed 17th of 18 on 61 points after four events.
The US went home empty-handed, with Sam Mikulak finishing fifth on the vault and Gabby Douglas last on the uneven bars.
Mustafina was so dominant at the 2010 world championships it seemed impossible she would not overwhelm the field again in London. She left those worlds with a medal in all but one event, including the all-around gold, and her haughty attitude was as entertaining as her gymnastics skills.
Six months later, though, she blew out her left anterior cruciate ligament at the European championships, putting her chances of simply competing in London in doubt.
“Sometimes I did, but these urges left me quickly,” Mustafina said when someone asked if she ever considered quitting.
She threw herself into her rehab, coming back so quickly she actually tried to convince her coach she could compete at the world championships last fall, but there were only glimpses of her old self and she was downright dismal at this year’s Europeans.
“I did not believe I could do it,” she said. “I was nowhere near in the shape I am now.”
On Monday, she was as brilliant as she has ever been.
Tweddle might have given Mustafina a real run for the gold had she not landed low on her dismount, needing to take two steps back to steady herself, but after her disappointment four years ago, any medal was as good as gold for Tweddle.
“I saw myself in third and I thought: ‘Please don’t be fourth again,’” she said. “I just can’t put into words what it means to me.”
From 4pm, Taiwan’s Yang Shu-chun goes for gold in the women’s under-49kg competition.