The Amateur Athletic Union staged the first national gymnastics championships in 1897. For many years, Turner organizations dominated the competition, but other athletic clubs then began to emerge. Eventually, YMCAs and colleges also became involved in competitive gymnastics.
National competition for women was added in 1931 and the NCAA inaugurated its national championship for men in 1938. The first NCAA championship meet for women was held in April of 1982.
The United States won most of the medals at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, but that was because almost all of the competitors were American. Frank Kriz was a gold medalist in the vault in 1924. At Los Angeles in 1932, Americans again made a good showing, but again it was at least partly due to the lack of strong foreign competition. At that time, American men tended to specialize, as indicated by the fact that 14 U. S. gymnasts each won a single individual medal. The U. S. team took the silver medal, behind Italy.
After that, U. S. gymnasts pretty much disappeared from the international scene for more than 40 years, although the women's team won a silver medal in 1948 and Cathy Rigby won a silver on the balance beam at the 1970 world championships.
Dissatisfied with the AAU's lack of promotion for the sport, a group of coaches and athletes formed the U. S. Gymnastics Federation in 1963. The two chief goals of the USGF were to help established local gymnastics organizations and to sanction local and regional competitive events that would train gymnasts for national and international competition. The USGF also began holding its own national championship meet.
In 1971, the USGF was recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the national governing body for te sport, and the AAU discontinued its championships. The USGF began attracting sponsorship money after the sport's television appeal was demonstrated by the 1972 Olympics. One important donor was a Ft. Worth businessman who gave the federation land on which to build a $5 million national training center.
USGF efforts began to pay off in the late 1970s. At the 1976 Olympics, Peter Kormann became the first U. S. gymnast since 1932 to win a medal, a bronze in the floor exercise. There were three medals at the 1978 world championships, including golds for Marcia Frederick in the uneven bars and Kurt Thomas in the floor exercise. Thomas and Bart Conner each won two medals, including a gold apiece, at the 1979 world championships, when the U. S. men won bronze in the team event.
The Americans seemed poised for several medals at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, but the United States boycotted the games because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, and the showing was disappointing at the 1981 world championships, when the U. S. took only two bronze medals.
But 1981 was also an important year for U. S. women gymnasts. Romanian coach Bela Karolyi and his wife, Martha, defected while on an exhibition tour and established a gym in Houston. Karolyi, who had also been Nadia Comaneci's individual coach, was soon developing some outstanding American gymnasts, including Mary Lou Retton, Julianne McNamara, Kim Zmeskal, and Kerri Strug.
In retribution for the U. S. boycott in 1980, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and several Eastern European countries followed suit, depriving the Games of many of the world's top gymnasts. As a result, the United States dominated. The men won the team event and six individual medals, including two golds. The women's team was good only for the silver medal, but Mary Lou Retton emerged as one the biggest television stars.
The 16-year-old Retton, only 4-foot-9 and 94 pounds, had boundless energy and enthusiasm along with a radiant smile. She became the first American to win a gold medal in the all-around, scoring two perfect 10s along the way, and she also won a silver and two bronzes. Retton was named the Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year and the Associated Press female athlete of the year. Remarkably, she was still the most popular athlete in the country nine years later, according to an AP survey.
Over the next six years, U. S. gymnastics was again in the doldrums. Phoebe Mills won the country's only medal, a bronze, at the 1988 Olympics and Brandy Johnson's silver in the vault was the only U. S. medal at the 1989 world championships.
Karolyi was then named coach of the women's team and he produced results almost immediately. The U. S. team won the silver medal at the 1991 world championships and Karolyi's pupil, Kim Zmeskal, won the all-around. Zmeskal added a bronze in the floor exercise, Shannon Miller took a silver in the uneven bars, and Betty Okino won bronze on the balance beam.
Zmeskal followed that with golds in the beam and the floor exercise at the 1992 world championships, where Okino (another Karolyi pupil) won silver on the uneven bars. At the Olympics, not long afterward, Zmeskal was struggling with an injury, though she was still a member of the bronze medal team. Shannon Miller was the only individual medalist, but she won two silvers and two bronzes. On the men's side, Trent Dimas was the only medalist, with a gold on the high bar.
Miller quietly emerged as the world's top woman gymnast over the next two years but, because she peaked between Olympics, she didn't become nearly as well known as Retton. Miller won a total of five gold medals at the 1993 and 1994 world championships, including both all-around titles, and she helped take the women's team to the silver medal in 1994.
At the 1996 Olympics, Miller was the only U. S. gold medalist, on the balance beam, but the women's team won its first gold medal. Even though he was no longer the coach of the national team, Karolyi was a prominent figure in a dramatic television sequence. Coaches believed that the team needed points from Kerri Strug's last set of vaults to win gold. Strug, a pupil of Karolyi's, fell on her first attempt, spraining her left ankle severely.
In obvious pain, she talked to Karolyi and then decided to make her second attempt. She scored a 9.712, ensuring the gold medal for the U. S. Her ankle was then placed in a soft cast and Karolyi carried the 4-foot-9, 88-pound gymnast to the podium for the medal ceremony a short time later. It later transpired that the U. S. team would have won without Strug's courageous effort, but that was little noted at the time.
The 2000 Olympic were a major disappointment, as the United States failed to win a single medal. But American gymnasts began to come back with the 2000 World Championships, winning two individual and two team medals. The men's team was particularly strong, winning the silver medal, and Sean Townsend's gold in the parallel bars was the first championship for a U. S. male since 1992.
In 2002, Courtney Kupets won the uneven bars, Ashley Postell won the balance beam, and Samantha Sheehan took bronze in the floor exercise. The following year, the U. S. team had its strongest showing ever. The women won the world team championship, along with two individual golds and a silver, while the men finished second, paced by Paul Hamm's gold medals in the all-around and floor exercise.