How Rebeca Andrade went from last-minute qualifier to Olympic medalist

TOKYO — The applause started as soon as Rebeca Andrade walked into the mixed zone on Thursday night at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.

She had just won the silver medal in the all-around competition and had become the first female Brazilian gymnast in Olympic history to stand on the podium. The Brazilian media couldn’t hide their enthusiasm and admiration for what she had just achieved.

Even with a mask on her face, it was clear she was smiling from ear to ear as she giddily answered every question.

“I am super happy,” Andrade said. “I hoped for this moment, and I have trained and worked super hard for this moment. I don’t have any words to describe how I am feeling, nor the feeling of having the Olympic silver medal around my neck.”

Andrade had been in medal competition the entire night, and battled with eventual champion Sunisa Lee and bronze medalist Angelina Melnikova for the top spot on the leaderboard. It was hard to imagine that Andrade’s status for the Olympics had once been in doubt.

Andrade, 22, tore her anterior cruciate ligament for the third time in her career at the Brazilian Championships in 2019. She was sidelined for the remainder of the season, including the world championships, as she underwent surgery and rehabbed the injury — again. The injury was tough — and the emotional toll was even harder.

In her absence, the Brazilian team failed to qualify for the Olympics, and she needed to clinch a spot as an individual. She went to Baku, Azerbaijan, for her first meet back after injury in March 2020 for a World Cup event. During qualifying, she finished in second place on beam and in third place on bars, advancing to the event finals on both. But, like so many global sporting events during that month, the meet was canceled before any of the finals could get underway. Her comeback was paused yet again, and this time, indefinitely.

As Brazil was hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, many gyms were closed and training became inconsistent. She joined a delegation of 112 Brazilian athletes in Portugal in order to ensure she could continue preparing to qualify to the Olympics.

Then, in December 2020, she tested positive for the coronavirus. She was asymptomatic but had to withdraw from a competition and temporarily stop training while isolating.

Through it all, she worked with a sports psychologist who helped her stay focused on her long-term goal of going back to the Olympics. With limited events in 2021 and few opportunities to earn a spot for the Games, Andrade wasn’t even sure in early June whether she would secure a berth to Tokyo.

Her last shot was at the Pan American Championships in which the top two finishers would earn two of the final spots.

She won the all-around by more than four points.

Without her teammates by her side, Andrade qualified to the all-around final in second place, behind only Simone Biles. On Thursday, she showed no signs of slowing down as she took early control of the competition with an impressive Cheng vault — earning a 15.300, tied for the highest score on any event of the night.

She had a chance to clinch the gold medal on floor, her final event of the night. Despite having a higher degree of difficulty than Lee, Andrade stepped out of bounds twice and finished 0.135 overall behind Lee.

Still, the color of the medal didn’t seem to matter.

“I wanted to shine in the best way possible,” she said. “And I think I shined.”

After the medal ceremony, she posed for selfies and goofed around with Lee and Melnikova. None of them had arrived in Japan feeling the gold medal was in reach with Biles in the competition, and they all seemed surprised they had even had a chance in the end following Biles’ withdrawal.

“Simone is incredible, and knowing how she had to leave the competition was very difficult,” Andrade said. “People need to understand that we are not robots. We are human beings, and we have feelings like anyone else. That’s the same with me. … We feel the pressure. But I tried to keep my cool. I tried to put into practice everything that I trained with my psychologist, and it worked. I did all that I could, and I couldn’t be happier with my performance.”

After so many challenges on the path to the podium in Tokyo, Andrade knew she didn’t get to the end result on her own. She credited all those who have been in her corner, every step of the way, for helping her achieve her dream.

“This medal is not just mine, it’s one for everyone that knows my story, everything I have been through,” Andrade said. “There have been so many people that helped me along the way. I am very grateful for having them around. I wouldn’t have achieved this without them.”

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