Brazil gymnasts’ hope for historic world championships medal clouded by pain

Flavia Saraiva
Flavia Saraiva

Rebeca AndradeFlavia Saraiva and the Brazil women’s gymnastics team were supposed to be the feel-good story of this week’s world championships. They still may be, but some of that promise was replaced by pain in qualifying on Sunday.

Saraiva, whose Tokyo Olympics were beset by ankle problems, suffered another ankle injury in Liverpool, England, on Sunday, getting assistance after a vault. She finished qualification with a watered-down uneven bars dismount, then was in a boot in the media mixed zone, according to Olympics.com.

She was in medical care Monday afternoon in Liverpool, according to the Brazilian gymnastics federation. Her status for Tuesday evening’s team final (Peacock, 2:15 p.m. ET) is unknown, though she is listed to compete on all four apparatuses.

Brazil qualified in third place into the team final behind the U.S. and Great Britain, the silver and bronze medalists from the Tokyo Games. Scores are reset for the final. Russian gymnasts who took Olympic gold are banned from these worlds due to the war in Ukraine.

More than 300 teams of gymnasts have won Olympic or world championships medals all-time. But in the nearly 120 years of global competitions, the United States is the lone Western Hemisphere nation to make a men’s or women’s team podium.

Brazil’s women, who had not won an Olympic gymnastics medal in any event until last year and failed to qualify a full team for the Tokyo Games, can change that. They have been a revelation since the program nadir of missing the Olympic team event.

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In July, Brazil beat a U.S. B team at the Pan American Championships in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil’s roster was the same as its quintet at this week’s worlds. It leaned heavily on Andrade and Saraiva (for seven of its 12 routines in the final). The U.S. team at Pan Ams included one woman who went on to make its world championships team (Skye Blakely), but none of its top all-arounders who are at worlds (Shilese JonesJade CareyJordan Chiles). Still, Brazil’s decisive victory (by 1.999 points) reverberated.

“The Pan Am title validated their work,” said Marcos Guerra, a producer for Brazilian broadcaster Globo. “The girls saw that they have a real shot at winning a team medal [at worlds] for the first time.”

Andrade, the Olympic all-around silver medalist, and Saraiva, precocious talents hardened by past injury setbacks, were expected to again carry the five-woman squad in Tuesday’s team final.

In qualifying, four gymnasts from each team of five were chosen for each of the four apparatuses, with the best three scores counting for 12 total. Andrade and Saraiva were used on each apparatus. All eight of their scores counted. Andrade is well-known for her individual Olympic success, and she is favored to win Brazil’s first world all-around title on Thursday.

If Andrade is the team’s Marta, then Saraiva is Cristiane. If Saraiva’s scores were replaced by the fourth Brazilian on each apparatus, Brazil would not have qualified for the eight-team final.

Andrade and Saraiva, born four months apart in 1999, have trained together in Rio for much of the last decade, said Gabriel Gentile, a Brazilian sports journalist.

“We have been a family since childhood,” Saraiva said this summer about not just Andrade, but a larger group of national team gymnasts, according to the International Gymnastics Federation, citing Olympics.com. “I live with them. I spend more time with them than with my own family.”

Andrade is originally from outside Sao Paulo, where she and seven siblings were raised by their mom, a house cleaner, before she left home for gymnastics at age 8.

A junior Pan American all-around champ at 13, she was then plagued by injuries. A broken big toe kept her out of the 2014 Youth Olympics. Three separate right ACL tears ruled her out of the world championships in 2015, 2017 and 2019. She still managed to compete at the 2016 Rio Games and became known as Rebeyoncé back home after performing to Beyoncé music on floor exercise.

Healthy in Tokyo, Andrade became the first Brazilian female gymnast to win an Olympic medal with her all-around silver behind Suni Lee. It would have been gold had she not gone out of bounds twice in her closing floor routine. Three days later, Andrade won Brazil’s first Olympic gymnastics gold medal, doing so on vault.

“This medal is not just mine, it’s one for everyone that knows my story, everything I have been through,” Andrade, who has four million followers between Instagram and TikTok, reportedly said in Tokyo.

Saraiva was listed at 4 feet, 5 inches when she made her Olympic debut in Rio at age 16 as a medal contender on the balance beam (she finished fifth). A Carioca, she developed at one of Rio’s government-sponsored sport programs for low-income children.

“Flavinha,” or little Flavia, missed the 2017 World Championships after injuring her spine. She had individual finishes of fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth at worlds between 2018 and 2019, setting her up to go for Brazil’s first Olympic women’s gymnastics medal in Tokyo.

But an ankle injury in qualifying at the Olympics ruled her out of the all-around. She celebrated Andrade’s silver instead. She returned on the last day of competition and was seventh on beam, then had surgery later that month.

“We keep fighting,” Saraiva posted in Portuguese on Instagram after last year’s ankle injury.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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Brazil gymnasts’ hope for historic world championships medal clouded by pain originally appeared on NBCSports.com