She kicked her leg above her head as the beat began and the crowd clapped in rhythm to the Brazilian funk song that helped gymnast Rebeca Andrade steal hearts across her homeland.
Andrade has become a superstar since she arrived in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. After the 22-year-old took the silver medal in the individual all-around competition, becoming the first Brazilian woman gymnast to make it onto an Olympic podium, she gained two million new followers on social media. A couple days later, she won gold in the vault final, and her celebrity at home was cemented.
She could feel them from the other side of them globe, she said through a translator, “sending me good vibrations.”
Andrade — a charismatic performer — flipped, twisted and shimmied across the floor in Tokyo in part to the hit funk song “Baile de favela” in an homage to the poor neighborhoods that are an important part of Black Brazilian culture.
The funk genre was born in the favelas. It has grown in popularity among Brazil’s young people, but despite becoming more mainstream, it still has a particular resonance there.
After performing to the song in the event finals Monday for the floor exercise, Andrade said she believes the song inspired people back home and compelled them to come on this journey with her. It symbolizes the struggle and the joy of her people, she said, and also her own fight to the Olympic podium.
“This medal is not just mine, it’s one for everyone that knows my story, everything I have been through,” Andrade said after winning the silver medal in the individual all-around, in part on her score for the floor routine performed to the song.
Andrade was one of eight children, raised by a single mother who worked as a maid. She grew up in a poor community in São Paulo and started gymnastics when she was 4. Her Olympic victory has made her a hero, especially among Black women who face incredible hurdles to success in a country where systemic racism runs deep.
“We have to believe in ourselves, not ever give up, nothing is easy,” she said. “Bad things are always going to happen, but also good things.”
She said Monday, giddy, that her millions of new social media followers include one of her favorite singers.
The Brazilian funk genre can be controversial. Some of the lyrics can be graphic and sexual — but its artists defend the depictions as an expression of reality in the favelas.
Local Brazilian media reported that Andrade’s choreographer Rhony Ferreira said using the music was a “chance to show the world our culture.”
“This funk portrays a Brazilian reality because sometimes the dance in the favela is a refuge or a place where Brazilians can have fun, smile, forget their sorrows and problems, it’s a party,” Ferreira told the G1 Brazilan news website.
In Andrade’s routine, the song is interlaced with “Toccata and Fugue,” written by Johann Sebastian Bach in the 18th century. In one and a half minutes, it toggles between the slow and sober classical song and a dance party.
Andrade represented Brazil when her home country hosted the Olympics in 2016 and finished 11th in the individual all-around. Andrade’s routine then was to a remix of “Single Ladies” by her idol, Beyonce. She has since become known in Brazil by a pet name: Rebeyonce.
Her road to Tokyo was not easy. She’s had three surgeries in the past few years to repair torn anterior cruciate ligaments. There were moments when she wanted to quit, she said, but she didn’t.
Then she stood twice on a podium with a medal around her neck and struggled to believe it was real.
“All I thought was: thank you, God, I did it. This is something I wanted so badly, I really wanted to be up there,” she said. “And this is not only for me but for the whole of Brazil. I want to inspire younger kids with my achievements.”
Her floor routine Monday marked her last appearance in Tokyo’s gymnastics arena, and she stepped out of bounds and finished fifth — not good enough for another medal, but that was fine with her, she said. She felt light and looking forward to going home to see her family and her fans.
“It’s more than I ever dreamed,” she said through a translator. “It’s not just the medals. I made everybody proud of me.”
Still, she has slept each night since with the medals around her neck, so when she wakes up she remembers it wasn’t a dream.
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