This weekend’s World Challenge Cup in Varna, Bulgaria saw a nice mix of medalists from around the globe. Of the twelve medals awarded in the event final format, four went to Asia, six to Europe, and two to South America, making it one of the more diverse events of the season.
Switzerland had the strongest showing, bringing in four of Europe’s prizes. This year’s European all-around champion Giulia Steingruber picked up two bronze medals, one on vault (even though she downgraded both) and the other on bars (despite mistakes in the final). She didn’t compete beam or floor, but her teammate Ilaria Käslin picked up a bronze of her own on beam as well as gold on floor.
Other Europeans to come out with success here were Teja Belak of Slovenia on vault, earning a silver medal to add to her growing Challenge Cup collection, and Youna Dufournet of France with silver on bars.
North Korea earned two medals, though it likely would have been three had Hong Un Jong‘s Cheng mishap in qualifications not kept her from the event final. Her teammate Kang Yong Mi won gold on bars while Kim Un Hyang, last year’s Asian Games beam champion, won the silver medal there. Phan Thi Ha Thanh of Vietnam was the beam champion this time around, and Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan was the gold medalist on vault.
Chusovitina was the clear favorite here, as no one came close to her level of combined difficulty. But her performances were great as well, hitting her handspring layout full with just a small hop and then her tsuk 1.5 with a slightly larger hop, though her form on the latter was a billion times better than anything I think I’ve seen from the 39-year-old! She averaged a 14.650, putting her nearly half a point above anyone else in the competition.
In second was Belak with a 14.250. Her handspring tuck full was a bit wild in terms of form and she took a step out at the end, but her Yurchenko 1.5 was excellent, showing great layout form and just a tiny step to the side on the landing.
Steingruber opted for heavily downgraded vaults in Varna, performing a handspring layout half with a hop back and then a clean FTY, also with a tiny hop. Her layout half was downgraded to a pike here because of her body shape when coming off the table (though she showed a nice layout position before she went into the twist). Still, she was rewarded with clean execution. Even though she had two full points more difficulty at Euros last month, her score of 14.050 was only a point less than her Euros score!
Tjasa Kysselef of Slovenia had a great effort with her two vaults, an FTY and a handspring pike half, but wasn’t quite as clean as Steingruber and finished two tenths behind her with a 13.850.
This final wasn’t so impressive, as Kang and Dufournet were the only two with the potential to earn gold (though had Steingruber hit, she probably could have taken advantage of the lackluster routines from those at the top).
Kang won with a 13.767 after hitting her Jaeger, piked Tkatchev, Tkatchev to pak salto, and double layout dismount. She showed an impressive amount of difficulty, coming in at a 6.0 start value, but her leg form was a little loose at times and she didn’t have the strongest handstand work.
Dufournet, who qualified first, had some issues that limited her from taking the title, including messy leg form on her van Leeuwen, a couple of short handstands, and a near-accident on her toe full. But she still managed a 13.7 thanks to her difficult skills, including a great Church to pak salto and then a big double layout dismount. It really is a great routine, though she definitely loses a lot with her form and I hope that’s something she and her coaches pay attention to between now and Worlds. She also looks like she rushes things at times. Slow and steady, Youna!
Though Steingruber had many mistakes on bars and only came out with a 7.167 execution score, she can thank her relatively high start value for giving her the push she needed to finish in the bronze medal position with a score of 12.867. She started out well, but her Gienger came in a bit too close and had a bit of leg separation, she missed the handstand on her clear hip half (meant to be a clear hip full, I believe), and then stumbled out of her double front dismount. Just messy in general, though the lack of strong competition allowed her to stand on the podium.
Right behind her was Austria’s Lisa Ecker with a 12.733. She had the best execution of the day on this event, but her lack of difficulty (she comes in at just a 4.8) sadly kept her from medaling.
Chusovitina was in third place coming into finals, but had a series of mistakes and likely left the apparatus before she finished her routine, posting just a 5.567 including a 2.2 d-score, 7.367 e-score, and then 4 points off in neutral deductions (which occurs when a routine is incomplete). She did go on to place 4th in beam finals later that day, so no major injuries, thankfully!
At last year’s Asian Games, Phan and Kim were the two big rivals on this event after the Chinese made mistakes (Kim ultimately took the title, tears streaming down her face). It was nice to see this little rematch between the two, who once again stood out in a pretty tight field. But this time it was Phan’s turn to win, earning a 14.2 after showing the day’s strongest combination of both difficulty and execution.
Kim was also strong, though was just slightly behind Phan’s own routine, earning a 13.867 for silver. Switzerland’s Ilaria Käslin rounded out the podium with a 13.733 for bronze, though close behind her were Chusovitina in 4th with a 13.633 and then Tutya Yilmaz in 5th with a 13.533.
The only real struggles on this event came from Ralitsa Mileva, the Bulgarian competing on home turf. Poor Mileva had multiple falls, earning just a 10.2 despite her respectable 5.5 start value.
In addition to her beam bronze, Käslin finished atop the podium after looking the best in floor finals. It wasn’t her strongest routine – she incurred 0.3 in deductions after going out of bounds – but her 13.367 put her just a hair above Amado, who finished with a 13.333 for silver.
Amado, who lives in the U.S. and trains at Excalibur where she also competes as a level 10 (she placed 3rd in the Senior D division at regionals this year with scores of 9.7 on beam and floor), began her routine with a big double tuck and hit her big 1.5 to front full before finishing with a stuck double pike.
Earning the bronze with a 13.1 was Chiarella, opening with a tucked full-in. She went on to hit her double tuck and a double pike with a step back, and looked mostly clean in her execution throughout the exercise.
In 6th place was Yilmaz, who still is struggling a bit, but seems to be getting more comfortable with each competition she does. In Varna, she opened her “Puttin’ on the Ritz” routine with an excellent piked full-in, but then couldn’t manage to get her triple full all the way around, landing it truly as a 2.75 but cheating her chest around the last quarter twist (though she still had to take a large step back and out of bounds to hold onto the landing). Her double tuck had a step forward, and she finished with a double pike with two steps back (one out of bounds). Not a perfect routine, but a far cry from sitting passes. I look forward to seeing more of her as she continues improving!
Article by Lauren Hopkins