For the third team final in a row, the U.S. women’s gymnastics program proved to be the best in the world.
What looked like a fluke in 2011 – remember when everyone thought they wouldn’t even qualify to team finals after Alicia Sacramone got injured?! – has only been reinforced again, and again, and again.
The individuals who make up Team USA are all rock solid, and pretty much any U.S. senior who competed at national championships this summer could have easily made the all-around final on the World Championship stage. But they’re not successful because of their individual talent – they’re successful because they are a real-life embodiment of what a ‘team’ should be. Every piece of the puzzle works for the overall team goal, and they want the individual glory but the priority is the team.
It’s not like the Russian, Romanian, and Chinese teams aren’t putting in any effort, and Romania and China have also lost pretty much all of the stars who made up their 2012 Olympic squads, leaving team babies Larisa Iordache and Yao Jinnan to lead. But the U.S. team also lost their 2012 Olympians, with Kyla Ross – the team baby just like Iordache and Yao – the only one left this year. The U.S. can still get on without them. No one else can.
The issue is all about development, in terms of both fostering high-level training in young athletes of all skill levels and in developing diverse skill sets among these athletes so that no one event is absolutely dominant over another. Development is where the U.S. program has focused all of its efforts over the past decade and it’s why – even in a rough year with injuries to six top athletes – they’re able to make such an impact, earning about seven points higher as a team than any other team there.
When these other teams have injured competitors, meanwhile, they go into disaster mode because they have no one to take the place of their injured girls. Russia was originally counting on including Maria Paseka – and later, Ksenia Afanasyeva – in their lineup, and briefly considered Viktoria Komova, though didn’t want to derail her from her recovery (or the Rodionenkos were unimpressed with her return on just one event – take your pick).
With the absence of Olympians Paseka, Afanasyeva, and Komova, the Russians weren’t exactly stuck – they still had a largely decent team. Tatiana Nabieva and Ekaterina Kramarenko really stepped up despite not having competed at that level in years, and the young seniors – Daria Spiridonova, Maria Kharenkova, and Alla Sosnitskaya – proved they could hold their own on a big stage.
The problem is that they only had one Aliya Mustafina. Yes, there is a pretty wide margin between Simone Biles and any of her challengers on the U.S. team, but she’s not single-handedly holding down the fort. She didn’t even compete on all four events in the team final, because their bars lineup was so stacked. She’s a major individual standout and the team really needed her scores on vault, beam, and floor, but they wouldn’t have crumbled without her. The majority of all-arounders in the U.S. don’t get near Biles, but they’re in the neighborhood of 57-59 on a good day. If Biles had to sit out, the situation would be a bummer and they definitely wouldn’t score as high as they did, but it wouldn’t be devastating. They’d still be miles ahead of the competition.
Mustafina aside, the strongest Russians are averaging between about 54-56 in the all-around at the moment. She had the highest scores on all events in team finals aside from beam, where Kharenkova earned about two tenths higher. No one gymnast makes a team, but in this case without someone like Mustafina guiding them, they’d be in a very tough spot. For comparison, Russian alternate Polina Fedorova is nowhere near the level of her teammates while U.S. alternate Madison Desch would have been welcomed with open arms on this year’s Russian team.
If Russia’s position looks bleak, what can be said about Romania? They’re not missing three top players this year. They’re only without ONE. When Diana Bulimar got injured, it looked like Iordache would be making everything happen all by herself, and even though her teammates really fought at World Championships, they’re undoubtedly below the Romanian standard of excellence. Had Iordache been injured, forget it. They wouldn’t have made team finals.
I mentioned that they have a much better three-person team than they do a five-person team, but without Iordache it wouldn’t matter. Though we did see some other nice performances from the Romanians, specifically with some solid DTYs on vault and with Andreea Munteanu’s beam, they just didn’t have enough difficulty overall to make much of an impact. Without Iordache, they would have plummeted.
China didn’t have any major injuries that affected the team this year, but when nearly all of last quad’s top performers retired, they had nowhere near what they needed to replace them. Bars looked amazing, they could throw some DTYs, but there were no fully solid performances from the nation that won team gold six years earlier. You could argue that they went from not making the podium in 2012 to earning silver this year, but this year’s silver doesn’t mean the team is in a better position. It only means Russia and Romania, their biggest challengers two years ago, are in a weaker position.
Though it’s scary for a team to be so far behind, we do have to think about how it’s the middle of the quad. No one is prepared with their Olympic caliber routines, and each team will have some promising new seniors next year, right? Wang Yan should help change China’s bleak vault and floor situation. Powerful Youth Olympic Games champion Seda Tutkhalyan and lovely Maria Bondareva are expected to help out the Russians. Romania should add another competent all-arounder to the mix with Laura Jurca while Andreea Iridon will provide much-needed relief on bars.
But the U.S. will also get new juniors next year, including Bailie Key and Nia Dennis, who already outscore these international juniors by an astronomical amount. The Chinese, Russian, and Romanian teams are taking a step forward, especially if Russia can get Afanasyeva, Komova, and Paseka back in top shape and Bulimar recovers well, but the U.S. additions knock them right back down a step (and that’s only counting the new U.S. seniors, not anyone making a comeback either from injury or returning from 2012).
Is there even a solution at this point in the quad? Or does everyone continue to fight on through injuries and hope for the best? The United States is literally untouchable. This year, they could have had a fall on each event and still would have finished a couple of points ahead of the rest, and the gap next year could be even wider if they continue following the trend.
The trend, again, is a product of their program’s attention to development. Since Martha Karolyi’s takeover in the post-Sydney years, the rebirth of the women’s program showed gradual results at first, with the athletes a mix between ‘old system’ veterans and young elites who knew nothing else. The 2005-2008 quad was still experimental, with the new scoring system creating a bit of havoc, and then the following quad, culminating with the huge gold medal win in 2012, showed that the past decade hadn’t been in vain.
The 16 to 18-year-old girls who made up the Fierce Five all came up together through the J.O. program and TOPs, all started elite under the revised open-ended code of points, and all knew what was expected at the monthly training camps, where they all admitted Martha was tougher than any judges they’d see internationally. Individual coaches follow Martha’s advice for building difficulty and structuring routines, compulsory routines ensure the basics are for the most part being done correctly, and regular physical abilities testing sets a tough standard of fitness difficult for even top level gymnasts to achieve. Through it all, the U.S. has been able to build up an elite machine. Instead of having just two or three highly competitive girls ready to go, they have about twenty who could compete internationally and come out with a respectable result.
While other programs are similar to the U.S. in many ways, the focus becomes too narrow. Got someone like Mustafina or Iordache? GOOD. Hold on to her and make her a star, even if it means shifting attention from younger juniors you might need someday. Really good at bars? Push to get the best routines in the world but struggle to put up a single score above 14 on floor. You get some good results, but it’s too limited an approach to ensure lasting dominance.
There’s a reason why Bridget Sloan, the girl who was almost an afterthought on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, became a World all-around champion in 2009. There’s a reason why MyKayla Skinner, who didn’t even qualify to the 2012 Olympic Trials, now has a World vault bronze to her name. The U.S. very well could have pushed Nastia Liukin to stay on following her win in Beijing or hurried McKayla Maroney back from last year’s injury, but they didn’t have to because there’s always someone waiting in the wings ready to go because they receive the same care and attention the superstars are given, and then they can become stars in their own right.
Based on this year’s team final and the trend of American dominance that has existed over the past four years, I don’t think anyone can seriously threaten at least until the next quad, unless the new seniors who pop up in 2015 and 2016 help change the landscape in a major way.
Unlike 2010 and 2011 when anything seemed possible in terms of the podium, unless something goes insanely out of control, the gold is more or less spoken for over the next two years. It’s definitely a little less fun than this time four years ago, when the top two teams were separated by the tiniest margin. Now the excitement comes in seeing who among Russia, Romania, and China can battle it out for silver and bronze, a much tighter race.
There’s also excitement among the non-Big Four teams, actually. I’m wondering if this quad will finally see a team break into the big four medal standings for the first time since the introduction of open-ended scoring (I mean, no one really counts 2007, right?). It almost happened this year, with Great Britain and Italy looking especially ready to push Romania out (and actually accomplishing it during qualifications, where even Japan placed ahead of the team in red, yellow, and blue). However, Great Britain and Italy both had problems in the team final, where Romania fought like hell to regain their Big Four status, so neither was able to make it happen.
Since 2000, the United States, China, Romania, and Russia have earned every single team medal with the exception of one, when Australia won bronze in 2003.
Medals aside, the last time a non-Big Four team finished in the top four was 2007, and only then because Russia had to count Kramarenko’s zero on vault (thus why I said it doesn’t count – Russia was arguably the better team, besting Italy by 3.5 points in qualifications). Before that, Ukraine’s fourth place finish at the 2004 Olympic Games is the only other time in ten years that the bubble has been broken.
It wasn’t as rare to see a non-Big Four team in the top four prior to 2004, so we can chalk it up to open-ended scoring allowing the big countries to get even bigger, which is why it’s awesome that both Great Britain and Italy this year have come closer than any other team has in years. It means they’re actually keeping up with the demands made by the very best, coming close to matching the world’s best difficulty scores and performance levels, no easy feat when the top programs have seemingly unlimited resources not as readily available to the smaller programs.
From a fan’s perspective, it’d be cool to see it finally happen, but at the same time, Italy and Great Britain are chasing Russia, Romania, and China in the same way these three are chasing the United States. Great Britain might actually have an edge over Romania in the coming two years as they prepare to add a group of juniors who just might be some of the strongest athletes the country has seen, juniors who have defeated Romania’s juniors in several instances this year.
Until then, it’s one big game of cat and mouse and it doesn’t look like the mice will take over anytime soon…but it’s certainly exciting to see them try.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
Chart with permission from Ilaria Bonamici