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From favelas to the Olympics: Rebeca Andrade’s gold medal



Annalisa Teggi - published on 09/03/21

This athlete from Brazil overcame incredible hardships, from extreme poverty to multiple injuries, to reach the Olympics.

Rebeca Andrade, 22 years old, won the gold medal in vaulting this year. Hers is a talent that blossomed among the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil.

The grace of a squirrel

Rebeca’s specialty is vaulting, which means she is in her element when she’s taking a run-up, jumping, doing acrobatics over the horse, and then falling back to the ground in perfect balance. Every sport is a physical manifestation of an inner tension. Vaulting means jumping over an obstacle with all the human creativity capable of overcoming the force of gravity.

Rebeca Andrade

It’s not enough for a person to oppose gravity; she must also put her creative signature on how she jumps over obstacles. This is precisely the storyline of Rebeca’s life. Gazzetta reports:

When she was 4 years old, they took her to the gym. They no longer knew what to do with the little girl who climbed trees with the grace of a squirrel. “Rebeca came with her aunt to the gym, all shy. When I asked her to perform a move, I saw an incredible talent,” recalled her first teacher, Monica Barroso dos Anjos. 

This talent sprouted in Guarulhos in the favelas (crowded tenements where poor families live) of São Paulo, Brazil. To get to training she had to make a trek every day: a two-hour walk from home to the gym.

Training is precisely the effort to channel the internal drive we feel towards an outlet that is not “volcanic,” but expressive. Inside each of us, forces and voices struggle with us and with each other. What is their purpose, their rightful goal? Discipline is the first answer to this question, even before being the price to pay to be champions.

From the favelas of Sao Paulo to the podium of Tokyo 2020

When her victories began to be significant and gymnastics became her “job,” Rebeca, with her first earnings, bought an apartment for her family. The first rule of a good jump is to have a solid support from which to push off. (I remember, with terror and trembling, my very strict ballet teacher who always asked us: “Where does the pirouette start? From the floor.”)

Rebeca said thank you to her parents and siblings (she has 7) by giving them a floor and walls — a home. Those family members have been her foundation, which can be very solid—in terms of care and affection—even in places that we would summarily describe as unlivable, such as favelas. Rebeca told Gazzetta:

We didn’t always have the money to go to training sessions. There was a time when my brother would take me on his bike to practice. My house was a long way from the gym. He did anything for me. There was a very steep hill and he wouldn’t let me get off the bike; he would push it until we got to the gym. 

Many athletes felt anxiety and strong emotions during the Olympics. It’s a side of the event that was important to report, because it allows us to remind ourselves that falling or stumbling, or even simply wavering, are not something to be overcome, but to be lived. We need to experience these things, without a frenzy to immediately turn the page and also without the band-aid of thinking about the victory to come. Vulnerability is an essential part of human experience.

Rebeca Andrade was not hit by the wave of emotion or overwhelmed by anxiety. And paradoxically, perhaps her legs didn’t falter precisely because they were already broken.

3 injuries before the Olympics

Even the absolute legend of gymnastics, the Romanian Nadia Comaneci, congratulated this young Brazilian athlete. Andrade made it to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic competitions after an incredibly complicated journey. One could be tempted to see this as a string of incredibly persistent luck. However, those who have the talent to acrobatically jump a horse with the speed and directness of a missile, probably see things differently.

Three times Rebeca has ruptured the ACL in her right knee. It happened in 2015, 2017, and then in 2019, causing her to risk blowing her Tokyo qualifier. It might be her Achilles heel, who knows? The athletes’ bodies that seem so robust are actually very fragile. However, can one dare to say that such an evident weak point is part of the best equipment of a true champion?

Browsing through the pieces dedicated to Rebeca, one can already catch a glimpse of the label that the media are sewing on her: the athlete of resilience. What an imagination; sometimes we fall for certain terms as if they were magic potions. But in her opinion, the vocabulary of her personal situation lies elsewhere. The Gazzetta reports:

She has always viewed her story as “a process of improvement because I’ve been through some very difficult times. I didn’t get here alone, I had a lot of people helping me and a lot of spiritual help from God.”

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