Anna Kovalyova came to the 1998 American Cup as the baby of the Russian squad. She was a porcelain faced, ginger-haired young performer with cheery folk music and there was a raw, impish quality to both tumbling and performance. She was really good, but she hadn't realized it yet. To employ an overused metaphor, she looked like she was still playing at gymnastics.
On floor, anyway. But the routine -- the routine -- that gymnastics fans associate Kovalyova with has to be her spectacular beam from the International Three on Three competition a few days later. (Watch it here.) No playing there. She did a whole bunch of things you'd never seen before (and rarely seen since) just flawlessly. More importantly, she did them all in combination.
The code of points on beam changed after 1996. Gone were the days of back handsprings followed by 10 layout stepouts, and they haven't come back. Combinations -- gym-acro-gym, acro-gym-acro -- were all the rage. And nobody had mastered them like baby Kovalyova.
There was the front handspring to immediate punch front. The beat jump to back handspring, layout, back handspring. The front tuck with a half twist (which, to be fair, was having its moment with Vanessa Atler, Meng Fei and Yelena Produnova all doing variations of within that time period), and that smooth full twisting Shushunova to back hip circle pop to middle splits! The routine seemed themed -- certain positions (the single stag, the Shushunova) appeared more than once. No, this was something entirely new. And nobody else, even in Russia, was doing anything like it.
Kovalyova performed tentatively on beam at the American Cup, falling on the front half and wobbling on her mount. But she got another chance to make a big impression a few days later during the International Three on Three meet, which paired men's and women's artistic gymnasts with rhythmic gymnasts. There, Kovalyova delivered a routine that demonstrated all her potential and talent on beam. The three-on-three format died out after a couple years, but at least it gave us this souvenir.
Anna Kovalyova didn't get her big Olympic moment. She won the 1998 Junior European all-around in her home country over future Olympic champion Andreea Raducan, and competed well but not spectacularly at the 1998 Goodwill Games. The coltish lack of polish so easily forgiven in 1997 became more apparent over time, and injuries prevented her from excelling during the later years of the quadrennium. I prefer to remember her gymnastics through this routine.
Though she stopped competing in 2002, Kovalyova stayed close to Russian gymnastics. She married Nikolai Kryukov, the 1999 World champion who had been the youngest member of the Russian Olympic team that took a surprise gold medal in the team competition in 1996 (Kryukov was 17 at the time). He had incredible longevity, competing at the 2008 Olympics. Their son Konstantin was born the same year.