LONDON — 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 uneven bars 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’d come oh, so close four years ago, missing the bronze by a mere 25-hundredths points, and the devastation almost drove her into retirement.
To finally win a bronze Monday in what is surely the 27-year-old’s last Olympics, in front of an adoring British crowd, was all that mattered and 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 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 Monday, Arthur Zanetti gave Brazil its first medal in gymnastics, upsetting “Lord of the Rings” Chen Yibing for the gold on still rings. South Korea’s Yang Hak-seon added Olympic gold to his world title on vault. The Americans went home empty-handed, with Sam Mikulak finishing fifth on vault and Gabby Douglas last on uneven bars.
Mustafina was so dominant at the 2010 world championships it seemed impossible she wouldn’t 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, however, she blew out her left ACL at the European championships, putting her chances of simply competing in London in doubt.
“Sometimes I did,” Mustafina said when someone asked if she ever considered quitting. “But these urges left me quickly.”
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 acknowledged. “I was nowhere near in the shape I am now.”
On this night, however, she was as brilliant as she’s ever been.
Mustafina’s uneven bars routine is packed with so many difficult skills it leaves her gasping for air by the time she’s finished. But she makes them look easy, flipping and floating from one bar to another. Her execution is exquisite, her toes perfectly pointed, her legs razor straight.
When she landed, she threw up her hands in triumph and turned on a megawatt smile. When her score of 16.133 flashed, coach Evgeny Grebenkin picked her up in a bear hug, and chants of “ROSS-EE-YAH!” (Russia) rang out.
Only Douglas was left, and what slim chance the all-around champion had at a medal ended when she stalled on a handstand. The gold was Mustafina’s, and the Russian could not stop staring at the scoreboard when the final results posted, a proud and satisfied smile on her face.
She now has a complete set of medals, following her silver from the team competition and bronze from the all-around.
“I was hoping very much I’d done everything I could to win it,” Mustafina said. “It’s the worth of all the hard work I’ve put in.”
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.”
The British have become a surprise force in gymnastics — they won four medals at these games — and it was Tweddle who led the way. Her bronze at the 2003 world championships was the first world medal for a British woman, and she won Britain’s first world title, on uneven bars, three years later. She has since added two more world titles, one on floor exercise in 2009 and another on bars in 2010.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Tweddle said after securing her bronze. “It’s the one medal that was missing from my collection and I’ve always said I don’t care what color it is.”