Nina Derwael (21) took home Belgium’s first gold at the 2020 Olympic Games when she became gymnastics champion on uneven bars.
The 21-year-old dominated the final of the event, ending with a score of 15,200 points (6.7 for difficulty, 8.5 for execution). Silver went to Russia’s Anatasiia Iliankova (14,833), while Sunisa Lee of the United States took bronze with 14,500 points).
The win by the young woman from Sint-Truiden gave Belgium its third medal in Tokyo, following Wout van Aert’s silver medal in the cycling road race and bronze by Matthias Casse in judo (-81 kg). It also marked the 16th time Team Belgium has reached at least the final stage (Top 8) in Tokyo.
Her performance also gave Belgium its 151st medal Olympic medal ever, its 41st Olympic gold, and its first gold in artistic gymnastics at any Olympic Games.
Derwael performed the exercise proposed since the start of the Tokyo Olympics, whose level of difficulty was 6.7. On Sunday last, she obtained 15,366 points in the team qualifiers. At the team final on Tuesday, she scored 15,400. At the finals of the all-round individual competition, on Thursday, the jury awarded her 15,266.
Her most watched rival, “Suni” Lee, fell short at the final. The American, who won gold on Thursday in the all-round individual competition, scored 14,500 points with an exercise with a limited level of difficulty – 6.2 – and placed third in the final. Earlier in the week, she had scored 15,200 points, then 15,400 and 15,300, thanks largely to a more technically difficult routine, graded at 6.8 except on the first day, when its level of difficulty was assessed at 6.6.
Nina Derwael had placed 12th at the uneven bars at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 and failed to qualify for the final (Top 8).
In 2017, she became European champion in the same event in Cluj-Napoca, then repeated the feat in Glasgow in 2018. In Autumn of the same year, she took the world title in Doha after winning a first bronze medal in 2017 at the Montreal Games.
In her last major competition before the novel Coronavirus pandemic and the Tokyo Games, French coaches Marjorie Heuls and Yves Kieffer’s star pupil won a second world title in Stuttgart in October 2019.
A tough 2020 – marked by three quarantines, including one Coronavirus infection, the accusation levelled at her trainers for their behaviour towards other gymnasts, and Belgium’s withdrawal from the European championships in Turkey – failed to weaken her will to become an Olympic champion.
The first half of the 2021 season was anything but encouraging. A foot injury forced her to pull out of the European championships in Bâle at the eleventh hour, an investigation report confirmed the abusive behaviour by the coaches, then she fell at her last preparatory competition at the Flanders International Team Challenge in Ghent in June.
A decision to give up a new element and, finally, to present one programme instead of another just three days before the Olympics also did not send a positive signal.
Despite all these potential harbingers of defeat, however, Nina Derwael delivered in Tokyo, and was able to experience the sweet taste of victory.