More of Our Favorite Small Program Heroes

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Last night you met some of our favorite gymnasts from the smaller programs competing on day one. These gymnasts don’t get quite as much recognition as they probably should, so if you’re looking to enjoy gymnastics beyond the major programs in today’s subdivisions, here’s who we love and why.

Yamilet Peña (Dominican Republic)

One of our favorite Caribbean gymnasts, Peña is most known for her death-defying Produnova vault. She’s one of four gymnasts in the world to compete the vault over this past quad, and while it’s often borderline scary with her “fall feet first” strategy, we do love the daredevil in her that isn’t afraid to go for broke. The reason she risks it is so she can get more notoriety and therefore more funding for her struggling program, so until smaller nations like the DR are able to somehow find recognition another way, she’s making the system work for her.

Vasiliki Millousi (Greece)

The 31-year-old Millousi is absolutely breathtaking on beam. She has the kind of routine that makes you drool. When she struggles it’s the saddest thing ever because you know she deserves to be in literally every final, because her presentation and confidence are magical, but even though she has a good heap of difficulty, it’s still not quite enough for large-stage podiums (though she did make it to finals at the European Championships this year!). She has represented Greece at the Olympics twice so far – Sydney 2000 and London 2012 – and is well on her way to finding a spot in Rio as well.

Morgan Lloyd (Cayman Islands)

The country where Lloyd lives has the same population as my small suburban hometown. The Cayman Islands has exactly one gym, their national program wasn’t founded until 2006, and there are 28 gymnasts total in the entire thing. But that hasn’t stopped Lloyd from paving her way at the elite level, representing at the Youth Olympic Games last summer and the Pan American Games this July. She doesn’t have nearly the difficulty to make her able to challenge anywhere, but she is good at what she does and is a fighter, not afraid to go after huge dreams. She is also eligible for the tripartite spot at the Olympics, which is awarded to a gymnast from a country with fewer than six athletes at the previous Olympic Games.

Dorina Böczögö (Hungary)

Like Millousi, Böczögö is another “oldie but goodie” who has two quads’ worth of Olympic experience, having competed in 2008 and 2012. She’s still hungry for more, however, and at the age of 23 still looks like the most likely Hungarian to take the spot. She’s famous for her beam mount, which showcases incredible strength and elegance, and then her routine as a whole is great as well, as is her floor. She reportedly has some awesome floor upgrades for this year’s Worlds, and scored a 14.1 and 14.2 on her sets at the Hungarian Grand Prix last month, so keep your eyes peeled for some magic there.

Hong Un Jong (North Korea)

I still remember hearing that Hong wasn’t going to be allowed to compete at the 2012 Olympic Games due to her federation’s decision to cheat in 2004, forging her sister’s birthdate to make her age-eligible. It wasn’t her fault, and yet she missed out on a Games where she could have likely defended her 2008 title. She went on to get vault bronze in 2013 and then gold last year, defeating Simone Biles with an Amanar and a Cheng, the highest combination of difficulty in the world. She has some competition this year from Maria Paseka of Russia, who has the same vaults, though Hong has looked great in training and I can see her pushing to defend her gold.

Danusia Francis (Jamaica)

I almost wrote ‘Great Britain’ next to Francis’ name, and that’s because it’s where she used to be affiliated, having served as alternate for the country at the Olympic Games in 2012. This time around, she wants a legitimate spot of her own, thus the change of nationality to the country that makes up half of her natural citizenship, where she’ll have a much greater shot. She’s known for her jaw-dropping skills, like the sideways side aerial to a gainer layout dismount she competed on beam for UCLA and now the aerial to Y scale, which she can’t get named for herself (it’s technically two skills) but will probably do anyway, because it’s awesome and so is she.

Janessa Dai (Singapore)

Dai flies under the radar quite a bit, but she’s actually a super spunky and fun gymnast you should always keep an eye on. She has so much fun with her gymnastics, especially last year at the Commonwealth Games, where at 15 she was one of the youngest competitors and seemed to be having the time of her life. Now back at the Hydro, she’s a little more seasoned, and her scores are getting more consistent as well. Floor is her clear standout routine, and while the difficulty is a bit low, she’ll definitely impress you with her technique and performance.

Kirsten Beckett (South Africa)

Yesterday I mentioned Farah Boufadene of Algeria likely earning an Olympic spot next year, rendering one of the ‘universality’ spots useless. You can count on Beckett as a top option to get the other spot, as she’s probably the strongest all-arounder in the continent and should have no problem earning the scores to make it happen. At the Commonwealth Games last summer, she qualified into nearly every final, and then despite being injured for most of the past year, causing her to miss the 2014 World Championships, she returned at this September’s All-Africa Games to win gold in the all-around and on beam.

Franchesca Santi (Chile)

My love for the World Cup gymnasts is no secret, and Santi fits this bill. The 23-year-old competed at three of the Challenge Cups this year, and won bronze in both Sao Paulo and Osijek in addition to picking up silver at the South American Championships and qualifying into finals at the Pan American Games. She’s been limited to just vault and floor for most of the year, and though she did all four in qualifications at Osijek, she just doesn’t have the ability to be a contender on anything but vault…but her vaults are clean and incredible and she deserves a look!

Toni-Ann Williams (Jamaica)

Like Francis, Williams is coming straight from her collegiate program – she just finished her freshman year at Cal – to contend for an Olympic spot for the country she has represented internationally for several years. Williams continued her elite training at Cal with her NCAA coach Justin Howell, who is with Williams in Glasgow and is part of the plan to get Jamaica a spot in the 2016 Olympic Games. Williams will compete alongside her sister Maya, who is just doing beam, and is hoping to unveil some pretty powerful tumbling, from what I’ve heard. Even more powerful than what she already does in NCAA!

Sofi Gomez (Guatemala)

I will always remember watching the Pan American Games in 2011 and being just fully amazed at this then 15-year-old Gomez from a country with literally no real program coming out and pocketing medals over much more likely gymnasts. Her score of 14.175 on beam was enough for gold there over gymnasts like Kristina Vaculik of Canada and Daniele Hypolito of Brazil, and she also earned the silver medal in the all-around less than half a point behind the American Bridgey Caquatto, and over Vaculik, Peng Peng Lee, Elsa Garcia, and Brandie Jay. She competed at the 2012 Games, and this year could’ve repeated both all-around and beam medals at Pan Am Games in Toronto, but unfortunate falls kept her off of both podiums. Her biggest goal in Glasgow will be the all-around final, which will be totally achievable if she hits.

Houry Gebeshian (Armenia)

Wow, this post is full of that awesome hybrid of NCAA elites! Gebeshian was a star gymnast at the University of Iowa, and has represented Armenia in the past at world championships, though did not continue on to the Olympic Games. She is blogging about her experience on her official fan Facebook, which is awesome to follow, and she should be able to earn a spot at the test event as an all-arounder. It’s been a while since we’ve seen her at this level, but the 26-year-old seems ready to take on the challenges of elite once again.

Tutya Yilmaz (Turkey)

At last year’s Youth Olympic Games, Yilmaz made a lot of mistakes, and then she cried about them. A lot. She is definitely one of those gymnasts who is just all over the place with her routines, but since growing up a bit between last summer and this fall, she now takes her mistakes and falls with a smile on her face and the knowledge that there’s always another day. She actually has a phenomenal beam set, though we’ve never really seen it competed well, unfortunately…and then she has some huge tumbling on floor, though usually succumbs to poor landings in competition. But we love her anyway.

Marina Nekrasova (Azerbaijan)

20-year-old Nekrasova was one of seven Russian gymnasts who didn’t get enough love from her original program, and so packed up and took the show to Azerbaijan, where she is now helping forge an elite program that’s just beginning to thrive despite its young presence in the country. With the European Games held in Baku, tons of fans came out to support their local girls, and Nekrasova really stepped up to the plate, competing some of her best routines in both qualifications and all-around finals. She’s limited in difficulty – especially on bars – though can knock a beam routine out of the park and is getting more consistent on her weaker events as she continues to grow with the program.

Giulia Steingruber (Switzerland)

This lady really needs no introduction, but we’ll give her one anyway. Steingruber, 21, is a beast. The 2012 Olympian gets better each year, adding difficulty to her already awesome routines, and looking consistent everywhere she goes, which helped her earn the all-around title at this year’s European Championships ahead of gymnasts from much stronger programs. With the way qualifications went yesterday, she can definitely challenge for a top six spot to fit into that first group in all-around finals, and if other top gymnasts have mistakes, she could likely find herself on the podium as well. Her floor and vault are the most impressive and there’s a vault finals spot waiting with her name on it, though she can hit a pretty solid beam routine at times as well.

Phan Thi Ha Thanh (Vietnam)

In the last quad, Phan came pretty much out of nowhere to snag the bronze medal on vault at worlds in 2011, thus becoming the only gymnast to secure a nominative spot at the 2012 Olympic Games through the apparatus medal qualification. While she’d be lucky to make the final this year let alone medal (thanks, depth!) she could still put up some great sets, and then also has a gorgeous beam routine, for which she’s won gold medals at two 2015 world challenge cups in addition to the Southeast Asian Games, where she also won all-around and vault gold. She’s been injured as of late, but is expected to compete on all four events in Glasgow.

Farah Ann Abdul Hadi (Malaysia)

21-year-old Abdul Hadi was unfortunately the subject of controversy this summer. During her competition at the Southeast Asian Games, she became noticed by fans not for getting on every single podium (gold floor, silver all-around, bronze everywhere else) but for wearing a leotard. People from her predominantly Muslim country vilified her for dressing so skimpily, tormenting her on Instagram about how she needed to be covered. She got through it like the pro she is, returning for a stellar competition at Universiade, where she earned a 53.199 in the all-around, one of her best scores ever. She’s phenomenal on floor with gorgeous lines and a super engaging routine, so try to watch her there if you can.

Rifda Irfanaluthfi (Indonesia)

Speaking of gorgeous lines and engaging routines…that’s literally why Irfanaluthfi exists. Irfanaluthfi is difficulty is a little weak across the board, but this is the first time we’ve seen Indonesia represented on the international stage in forever, and yet she fits right up there with her elite peers. Actually, she stands out, because her floor is magical and you will love it. In addition to her expressive set, her tumbling’s actually quite strong and clean, and she also does some excellent work on beam, though she struggles in the all-around because her bars are nowhere up to snuff. But who doesn’t struggle on bars, and who cares when you’re otherwise fabulous?!

Dipa Karmakar (India)

Karmakar is another of the Produnova gymnasts, and as I was talking about with Peña, it has really paid off in terms of helping her struggling program get attention and funding for greater training opportunities. After winning a vault medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Karmakar was basically treated like she’d just won the Olympic all-around title. The government gave her many prizes, without which we likely wouldn’t see her in competition this year or next, as is the case with all of her national teammates. It’s a sad reality of the sport, but like Peña, I think Karmakar is smart to exploit the loophole. If only there was a safer way to get around this!

Gaelle Mys (Belgium)

It was hard for me to choose one of the Belgians, because they’re all so stupendous. But Mys is their two-time Olympian who is still kicking butt at 23, so she gets the nod. After competing in 2008, she actually didn’t get the 2012 spot, but when teammate Julie Croket backed out due to injury, Mys replaced her and got to go to her second consecutive Games. She had some struggles on bars earlier this year, but since then has been the picture of consistency, regularly scoring around the 54 mark, give or take a few tenths. I don’t think it’ll be enough to get her into the all-around final, but she’ll get pretty close and more importantly, will help her team finish in the top 16 so they can earn a spot at next year’s test event as a team.

Marcia Vidiaux (Cuba)

I don’t think anyone had heard of Vidiaux before she came vaulting into our hearts at the challenge cup in Anadia this May. It was like, who’s this other Cuban kid with Yesenia Ferrera? AND HOW DID SHE JUST WIN VAULT AVERAGING A 15.112?! Mind. Blown. With a rudi and a tsuk double full, she has incredible difficulty, and typically also shows great form. It probably won’t be enough to medal in Glasgow, but it would be hard to see a final without the new senior, who – it should definitely be noted – will be a member of the first Cuban squad to attend a world championships since the 2003 competition in Anaheim. How exciting, especially because it means she could go on to nab an Olympic spot for her country for the first time in forever.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

2 thoughts on “More of Our Favorite Small Program Heroes

  1. Pingback: ONLY 2 gymnasts / nation into Finals | Excellent Liquid Chalk for Weight Lifting

  2. Pingback: Thema WILLIAMS – Floor | Excellent Liquid Chalk for Weight Lifting

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