If you've been following the 2016 Rio Olympics — especially if you've been watching NBC's broadcast, which often tends to keep the spotlight pretty tightly focused on the biggest American stars — then you've probably been inundated with stories about the Final Five, the epic, best-in-the-world USA women's gymnastics team. And while all that attention is well-deserved (considering they might be the best of all time) some other extremely worthy stories have gotten elbowed out by all the coverage — for instance, you should know who Sheng Chunsong is, because she has a deeply moving and impressive story.
Chunsong, 20, is the eldest and most accomplished of the Chinese women's team, and if you tuned into the individual women's all-around competition, you saw her suffer an enormous disappointment, a very human and raw moment that broke a lot of hearts. Chunsong finished in fourth place in the competition, behind Americans Simone Biles and Aly Raisman and Russian Aliya Mustafina.
In fact, Mustafina bested her score by a mere 0.016 points, a razor-thin margin that left Chunsong off the medal stand, and with tears in her eyes. Her sadness triggered an outpouring of sympathy and support on social media, with additional focus being devoted to her unlikely and incredible story.
As Phila Siu detailed for the South China Morning Post on Friday, Chunsong grew up in a small village in abject poverty, suffering from awful malnourishment. And on top of that burden, she had to take epic strides just to make it to school every day — she reportedly had to cross over an entire mountain each day in order to get her education, and she and her partially blind brother, Shang Lei, were forced to take turns supporting each other through the arduous trips. In the mornings, Shang Lei would carry his malnourished sister. And in the nights, under low-light conditions, she would help him make their way back.
Her brother ultimately gave her a gesture of support and confidence, however — he dropped out of school at 13 in order to earn money and help pay for her gymnastics training. It was through her commitment to that grueling, years-long training — as well as the sacrifice and hard work of her brother to be able to afford it — that she ultimately became arguably the finest Chinese gymnast in the world. Right now, at 20, she's the most senior member of the team.
Given her improbable story and the raw emotion she displayed after losing the individual all-around bronze, it's no wonder why so many people have been empathizing with Chunsong. Sadly, though it's impossible to know for sure, she might never get another shot, since gymnasts age out of their primes so quickly. She'll be 24 during the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and while it wouldn't be unprecedented, that's a good deal older than most elite-level gymnasts. As Ella Koeze detailed for FiveThirtyEight on Thursday, the median age for women artistic gymnasts in the Rio Olympics is 19.
She will exit Rio with one Olympic medal to her name, however, even though it wasn't an individual achievement — she and her team took third-place in the all-around team final, meaning each and every one of them won the bronze.