This year is a weird one in Europe, with both the traditional European Championships, a gymnastics-only event organized by the European Union of Gymnastics held in April, and now the first-ever European Games, a multi-sport event governed by the European Olympic Committee beginning with opening ceremonies today in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Because the Games are a team event, a few countries decided to play it safe at Euros, where in odd years the competition showcases individual finals only. Some sent weaker teams to Euros while others skipped out entirely, like Belgium. Other nations saw Euros as the more prestigious event, sending top gymnasts capable of picking up medals while saving their B-teams for Baku. A few without the luxury of depth are letting their gymnasts take advantage of both opportunities to prepare for this year’s World Championships, a very important year on the road to Olympic qualification.
25 full teams and an additional nine individuals – check here for the full list – are preparing to begin competition tomorrow, and while it’s typically easy to have a firm grasp of where teams will fall in the rankings, the insanely different strategies determining teams for each country have made the race to the podium a rather strange one.
Russia, with a team featuring two Olympians (Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina) and last year’s Youth Olympic Games champion (Seda Tutkhalyan), has the potential to run away with the team gold. This is the only certainty in Baku, and yet even this could go awry. Komova hasn’t seen major international competition since 2012, Mustafina has sat out since last year’s Worlds and it’s unclear what level of difficulty she’ll be showcasing, and Tutkhalyan is a ticking time bomb with her consistency, capable of putting up great scores on vault, beam, and floor, but often falling victim to her own nerves.
On paper, this team is the clear best shot at winning the title, and could probably even afford a handful of falls or mistakes to still finish on top, especially in a three-up two-count situation. I don’t think anyone else has the power to topple them, but with the limited competitive results from these three gymnasts in the past six months, it’s difficult to tell just how they’ll perform over the next week.
Had Romania, Great Britain, and Italy sent top teams, I’d say they would have been clear shots for silver and bronze, but with weaker athletes in Baku – some of whom aren’t even in serious contention for their nations’ Worlds teams – they definitely stand to place behind typically lower-ranked teams like Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Switzerland.
All eight of the above teams could realistically end up on the podium, and all eight could realistically finish within a point or two of one another. It’s gonna be super tight, so taking this into account as well as the fact that only two scores count toward each event? This means a single fall will absolutely take a team out of the race to the finish. Luckily, with a three-up two-count format, they do have the leeway to afford one fall per event, but if they do end up counting a fall, it could mean a team capable of silver might find themselves barely in the top ten.
Right now, I’d say the Netherlands seems to have a very strong shot at making the podium. Lisa Top, Celine van Gerner, and Lieke Wevers have been incredibly consistent this season and each averages scores in the mid to high 13s on every event. There’s not a lot of flashy work there, with the exception of some great work from Top on floor, and van Gerner and Wevers on beam and floor, but they are able to hit their routines relatively well each and every time, as demonstrated at several meets throughout the spring.
Compare this to a team like Germany, who brought two of their strongest bar workers and all-arounders in Sophie Scheder and Elisabeth Seitz as well as last year’s Worlds alternate Leah Griesser, a nice floor worker who could use the experience.
Scheder and Seitz have been wildly inconsistent in 2015, even on their best event. Their bars scores range anywhere from the low 12s to the high 14s, as they both medaled on the event with fantastic scores at the World Cup in Sao Paolo but then both had disastrous routines in Flanders several weeks later. If they hit, they could be right up top, but they have as much potential to make costly mistakes as they do to finish well. It’s a crap shoot with this team, and beam and floor have been a pretty big issue for them as well, so it’ll all come down to how they show up in the arena.
Romania, always a team you expect to see fighting for a podium spot, is in a bit of a jam without gymnasts like Larisa Iordache (who has sat the early half of this year out due to minor injury recovery) and Diana Bulimar (out again for another surgery and expected to miss Worlds for the third year in a row). Instead, they’re sending 16-year-old Silvia Zarzu as the one with the most senior experience alongside 15-year-olds Laura Jurca and Andreea Iridon, hands down the youngest team at the Games (and also the tiniest – most of the athletes in Baku have breached the 5’0 mark but these three are all around 4’7-4’9).
All three of these gymnasts are capable of lovely work on beam and floor, but they lack difficulty across the board and have an especially rough time on bars, which is where they stand to have the most difficult time keeping up this weekend. It will be interesting to see how they compete without an older teammate in the mix, though Jurca especially seems to have a cool head in competition so it’ll be nice to see her step up.
I’d say Great Britain with a top team featuring gymnasts sent to Euros could have actually challenged for gold, but while Kelly Simm, Georgina Hockenhull, and Charlie Fellows aren’t quite at that level, they should have some nice work of their own, particularly Simm who has spent the season upgrading like crazy on all events. Consistency is sometimes an issue for her, especially as she goes for her bigger skills, but if she hits she could add some huge numbers to their total.
Fellows, last year’s Worlds alternate, has a great line and some nice presentation in all of her routines, while Hockenhull is excellent on bars and beam, though again lets her nerves get the best of her in competition. We love seeing a Welsh gymnast make an international team in a sport dominated by the English, so we hope she can follow through with some big numbers in Baku.
Italy is in the same boat as Great Britain. Had they gone with a mix of their top girls, they’d be a no-brainer for the podium, but they’re using the Games to test out some athletes either coming back from injury (like Giorgia Campana) or those without much international experience (like Alessia Leolini and 2013 junior champion Tea Ugrin, who missed most of her first senior season due to injury).
For this team, Campana always does some lovely work on bars and beam, so that should be a highlight and she’s probably also hoping to make some individual finals after showing some fantastic work in May, both in the 4th Serie A meet and in the Four Nations Trophy, where she finished 4th in the all-around. Leolini can typically hit great vaults and could definitely make that final, though she’s lacking a bit elsewhere, while Ugrin is also relatively consistent on bars and beam and should also do well in the all-around.
Unlike Romania, Italy, and Great Britain sending weaker options, teams like France, Belgium, and Switzerland have sent some of their best athletes to compete in Azerbaijan, allowing them a slight edge over the ‘B’ teams from traditionally stronger countries.
With reigning European champion Giulia Steingruber leading the way for Switzerland, the country can also expect strong work from Caterina Barloggio on bars and beam as well as from Jessica Diacci on vault and floor. Steingruber’s scoring potential definitely helps out in a two-count format, as she usually can count on a couple of 14s in addition to a 15+ on vault, which adds a nice bump when the majority of gymnasts competing will finish with considerably lower scores in the 13s at best.
Like the Netherlands, each French woman averages a 13 on all four events, making them easily one of the most consistent teams here. Marine Brevet can definitely post 14s on beam and floor if she hits, while Valentine Pikul has a great bars set and Anne Kuhm is solid just about anywhere you put her.
For Belgium, a team with great potential for growth in the next year as they work to make the Olympics as a group, you have veteran Olympian Gaelle Mys leading the way with her consistent all-around set and a standout floor routine. Lisa Verschueren is also looking really strong, showcasing great work onall four events in Flanders two weeks ago and also putting up strong bars and floor scores all season. Finally, they have new senior Cindy Vandenhole, this year’s national champion with a lovely FTY and nice work on bars and floor as well. The team does lack beam workers, as all three tend to make their mistakes there, though if they hit when it counts they have as good of a chance as any of these teams to land on the podium.
I don’t think there are any other teams that could realistically factor in, though I think Poland will give it a hell of a shot. Even without star attraction Marta Pihan-Kulesza (who sustained a minor injury at the Polish International meet last month), they’re led by the beautiful Katarzyna Jurkowska-Kowalska, who is fantastic on beam and could put up quite a fight for a medal there in addition to looking fantastic on her other events as well. Gabriela Janik and Paula Plichta round out this squad with clean FTYs and nice work on floor.
Other teams set to compete include Austria, host team Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece (watch for Vasiliki Millousi‘s beam), Hungary (which has Dorina Böczögö and Noemi Makra poised to make a final or two), Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, Spain, and Ukraine.
As far as individuals, you’ll see Stelutsa Savvidou of Cyprus, Nato Dzidziguri of Georgia, Tzuf Feldon of Israel (who will hope to make the beam final after winning Challenge Cup bronze last month), Vaida Zitineviciute of Lithuania, Mariana Pitrez of Portugal, Aleksandra Rajcic of Serbia, Barbora Mokosova of Slovakia, Sasa Golob of Slovenia, and Tutya Yilmaz of Turkey (watch for her dynamic gymnastics on beam and floor especially).
Competition begins with qualifications on Sunday June 14. The women will compete in eight subdivisions on vault and bars, and then on Monday will continue with beam and floor (the split is because it’s cheaper to have the judges do two events apiece instead of having judges for all four events). Qualifications will act as team finals, and the split could either help or hurt the team…it’s much easier on the body to only compete two events per day, but at the same time, teams risk losing momentum, so a team in the lead after one day could fall apart having to come back 24 hours later.
The European Games will continue with all-around finals on June 18 and event finals on June 20.
Article by Lauren Hopkins