Checking In On Russia and Romania


Last month, All Sport reported the ten gymnasts Valentina Rodionenko named to her 2016 Olympic Games training squad.

No one on the list was much of a surprise. It included four of this year’s worlds team members, including vault champion Maria Paseka, bars champion Daria Spiridonova, floor medalist Ksenia Afanasyeva, and Viktoria Komova, as well as Aliya Mustafina – who missed worlds after spending time away from the gym due to a minor injury – and Angelina Melnikova, this year’s unofficial Russian Cup champion who will be a first-year senior in 2016.

In addition to these six, Rodionenko named worlds team members Seda Tutkhalyan and Maria Kharenkova to the reserve squad alongside new seniors Daria Skrypnik and Natalia Kapitonova.

As a follow-up to this preliminary squad, Rodionenko spoke to the press again last week, announcing that she has already decided four of the five who will definitely take spots on the team going to Rio.

“We have not only formed the backbone of the Russian Olympic team, but we have already decided the disciplines of those going,” Rodionenko told All Sport on Thursday. “Our leaders Mustafina and Komova will perform in the all-around. In the team competition, Afanasyeva and Paseka will join them.”

Rodionenko went on to explain where each will join the team, noting that all but Mustafina just became champions on each event at the Toyota International meet in Japan last week, with Paseka winning vault, Komova winning beam, and Afanasyeva winning floor. She noted that Spiridonova was also among the event gold medalists in Japan, and could contribute at the Olympics, though she isn’t yet part of the “backbone” of her team.

It’s interesting that Mustafina is. Rodionenko claims Mustafina could win medals everywhere but vault, despite Mustafina not having trained seriously since last summer. She is only just now ending her recovery from surgery, comes back to the gym on January 6, and won’t return to full training until February, giving her less than six months to get back in fighting form. Her first meet back is expected to be the Russian Championships in March.

When we last saw Mustafina, she won the all-around and bars titles as well as the silver medal on floor at the European Games in Baku this past June. She looked good there, if not exactly at her competitive best, but if she could get back to even that level she’d still be the strongest all-arounder in her country at the moment.

As we saw at worlds, the team qualified only one gymnast – first-year senior Tutkhalyan – into the all-around final after Daria Spiridonova choked on beam in prelims. Kharenkova, the 2015 European silver all-around medalist, could’ve fit in alongside Tutkhalyan, but Spridonova was given the nod after her Russian Cup win. It was a situation similar to the “Raisman or Nichols?” all-around qualifications question in the United States, and in both situations, the national team leaders made the incorrect choice.

Without Mustafina, the team is specialist-heavy, and those who do perform all four events don’t stand out enough on more than one event to make much of a splash. In fact, it’s the rising seniors – Melnikova, Skrypnik, and Kapitonova – who are the big all-around hopefuls right now, especially as they begin to upgrade their routines to senior-level sets for the new year. The problem with these, however, is that they share the good old Russian consistency issues that keep gymnasts like Tutkhalyan, Spiridonova, and Kharenkova from truly reaching their all-around potential.

Rodionenko did name Komova as the all-arounder she wants to see alongside Mustafina in finals next summer, however. At worlds this year, Komova competed everywhere but floor, an event she has eschewed for most of this year in order to focus on perfecting her bars and beam. As the worlds co-champion on bars, she has been mostly strong there all season, hitting eight of her twelve routines, though beam has been rough, with only about half of her routines hit and only three at a level that would be useful internationally.

Komova actually did perform on floor once, in her international comeback at the European Games, where she earned a 13.3 for a shaky set. But if she hit that score in qualifications at worlds to add to her 15.033 on vault, 15.3 on bars, and 14.533 on beam, she would’ve qualified into the all-around final with a score of 58.166, good enough for second place behind Simone Biles, which is kind of hilarious and amazing.

It seems that she is actually the country’s best all-around bet at the moment, and that’s with a scrappy basic floor routine. With Komova hoping to peak for next summer and assuming Mustafina returns at least to the level we saw last summer, all-around spots are covered and it would bode well for the team to include Spiridonova as the fifth member, if only because she’s a strong shot at bars gold. Beam in this scenario is definitely a major weakness, but unfortunately their strongest beam workers Tutkhalyan and Kharenkova aren’t known for delivering there under pressure.

It’s definitely odd that Rodionenko would voice the plans for her Olympic team nearly nine months before they’re set to begin, though it’s not as if she’s sitting on national secrets and can whip out a secret weapon a month before the Games. The Russians have more depth than usual, but not enough to make the puzzle a really confusing one. The four already named are obvious choices, and unless something changes in the coming months, the fifth spot is pretty obvious as well.

Now for the Romanians. You may have read about the return of Octavian Bellu and Mariana Bitang, back in business after the team failed to qualify to the Olympic Games at worlds in October.

The team will fight for a team spot at the test event in April, a first in program history. The Romanians have won team medals at every Olympic Games since 1976, so the return of these leaders as of December 15 is expected to turn things around in order to keep the trend moving in the right direction.

Right now, they’re hoping for the healthy return of two-time Olympian Catalina Ponor, who is still in the gym and training, working hard on her recovery from the injury that kept her out of this year’s worlds. Her 2012 teammate Sandra Izbasa, who also medaled at the Games in 2008, is not currently in the mix.

“I don’t know if I will be ready to join the team by April to help at the test event,” Izbasa told MediaFax. “I want to be healthy and to begin training again. If it works out, great. If not, fine. Physically, I feel good, and I have set goals to meet. But my comeback is more difficult because I need to be back on all four events. I won’t go [to the Olympics] with just two or three. If I have a respectable showing in competitions, I will go, but if not I’m pleased with what I’ve done so far and won’t regret trying.”

Without Izbasa, those currently in the mix for the Olympic team picture at Izvorani include Ponor, 2012 Olympians Larisa Iordache and Diana Bulimar, 2015 worlds team members Andreea Iridon, Laura Jurca, Ana Maria Ocolisan, and Silvia Zarzu, current first-year senior Dora Vulcan, and next year’s new seniors Anda Butuc, Andreea Ciurusniuc, Maria Holbura, and Denisa Stanciu.

The federation also announced the transfer of several gymnasts from Izvorani to Deva, meaning they are no longer considered serious contenders within the program and will not be part of the training squad for the Olympic Games. This group includes former worlds team members Andreaa Munteanu (the reigning European beam champion) and Stefania Stanila, both of whom were reportedly relaxed with their training this year and are no longer at an international elite level. The remaining transfers include Stefania Orzu, Asiana Peng, and Cristina Vrabie, and in addition, Ioana Nicoara and 2014 worlds team member Paula Tudorache are no longer part of the national team.

Both of these legendary programs had major problems this year, with Russia failing to reach the podium and Romania failing to reach the team finals at worlds. And they both seem to be taking early approaches in solving these problems going into the Olympic year, as Russia focuses on the formation and fine-tuning of their team months in advance and Romania brings in ghosts from gymnastics past to work their magic.

In both situations, the problems are mostly one-time fluke disasters, as Russia would’ve won a team medal had they not fallen four times in the final and Romania would’ve qualified past prelims had they not imploded on bars. But both problems are indicative of actual deep-rooted issues in each country’s program. It remains to be seen how these short-term solutions will help the teams in 2016, and I think that both are on the right track to redemption. But after the upcoming Olympic year, I think it’ll be even more important to sit back and draw up plans for more foundational changes to keep them competitive in the long run.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

14 thoughts on “Checking In On Russia and Romania

  1. “Mustafina just became champions on each event at the Toyota International meet in Japan last week” I think you meant Russia and not Mustafina? 🙂


    • Actually just re-read it and the full sentence says “Rodionenko went on to explain where each will join the team, noting that all but Mustafina just became champions on each event at the Toyota International meet in Japan last week.” ALL BUT Mustafina.


  2. What do you think about these two countries post-Olympics? I know the games are coming up soon, but I’m interested in how Russia and Romania will do come 2017 or 2018. These two countries are relying so much on veterans. If what Valentina says is true and if Izbasa makes a comeback, then 4 out of the 5 members of both of these teams would be past Olympians. Don’t you find that a little concerning?


    • I think it’s definitely something they should be worried about, especially with Romania. Last year I did a little article about the Romanian comebacks and how Romania claims that Ponor and Izbasa back in action will “motivate” the younger athletes, but I said if anything it’ll probably make them not work as hard because the spots they thought they could work towards on an Olympic team are now going to super experienced Olympic medalists. People fought me on this, but in the past year three of the six new seniors on the 2014 worlds team are now off the national team or out of Izvorani. Munteanu had potential for a huge 15+ beam routine and both she and Stanila basically stopped training after Ponor came back because they no longer had that motivation knowing they probably wouldn’t go anywhere beyond where they already went. It’s incredibly discouraging. If gymnasts want to stick around for years and years, cool, but to make it program policy to be like “you know what, you ladies aren’t good enough so we’re bringing Catalina and Sandra back!” is really hurting them in the long run. Even look at Aly Raisman in 2010. People were like meh she’s good but Alicia’s getting that Olympic spot over her. And then she worked her butt off and became more valuable than the returning Olympian in 2012. Who’s to say Munteanu or Stanila or Tudorache wouldn’t have had a similar late bloomer situation in their own careers if they were only trusted with the responsibility of being on a major team instead of essentially being told “you’re not good enough and you never will be, which is why Ponor is back?” If they need Ponor as a short-term solution, fine, but right now they don’t even seem to have a long-term plan. It’s “get medals, get medals!!! get Ponor back!!!! get Belu and Bitang!!!” and then they scrounge something together, take a couple of years off to breathe, and then panic about getting medals at the next Olympics. There’s no “how do we fix this for the long run” happening and while their not making TFs was definitely a fluke (I think Ocolisan’s injury the day before really rattled them all and had they made it to TFs they prob would’ve beaten Russia), I think it was definitely an indication of a bigger problem at large.

      With Russia, I’m not AS worried because they do tend to have some good juniors coming up who are very advanced and I think even though they are relying on four 2012 Olympians for 2016, I think it’s mostly for individual medal chances more than anything. Like, a team of Melnikova, Skrypnik, Spiridonova, Kapitonova, and Tutkhalyan or Kharenkova aka all girls who turned senior this quad could probably somewhat easily come together for a team medal, but there would be little hope for individual medals, so it makes more sense to take the four veterans who could bring in golds on their events. But they’re not in desperate need of them, and if worse came to worse, they could bring one of the younger girls and have it all work out. At least those younger girls are being given plenty of opportunity now to prove themselves unlike in Romania where they’re just kind of cast aside and in some cases, just thrown to Deva when they’re seen as no longer useful.


      • These days I heard that Paula Tudorache retired because of health problems, as the official romanian gymnastics team page said: “The health problems didn’t allow her continue the gymnastics career”. Also, Andreea Munteanu wasn’t consistent in trainings for a long time and she had problems of retirement since she was a junior, as I know. I don’t think that the Ponor’s comeback was the problem.


  3. Do you think Romania can still challenge for a team medal in Rio? (Assuming they get through the test event). Who do you see as being most likely to get the last two spots if Iordache, Ponor, and Bulimar are healthy?


    • I do think they can challenge, which would be absolutely crazy for them to not make it as one of the automatic eight but then possibly win a title! I think they are an incredibly strong team in a three-up, three-count situation…they just didn’t have the depth this year to make it past the qualification round. I think if Iordache, Ponor, and Bulimar are all healthy, I could see Ocolisan and Jurca getting the last two spots, if only because they actually have two of the better bar routines…Iridon might be prettier but she is the least consistent among them, which is a shame. I don’t see her factoring in at all unless she really turns her mental game around.

      In terms of current juniors, either Ciurusniuc or Holbura could potentially make it, if only because they could actually add decent – if not medal-winning – bar routines. Both Ciurusniuc and Holbura can also get a high 13 on the event now as juniors, and Ciurusniuc also has a decent beam if needed. Ciurusniuc has been a bit inconsistent on bars this year, though had a great set at Massilia…but I still think they’d both need to grow quite a bit to get on the team over Ocolisan or Jurca, especially as Jurca really proved the crap out of herself at worlds all-around finals this year…8th best in the world is hard to ignore!

      At least they do have some options. It’s not quite as tight this year where they had literally six gymnasts ready to go, and then no one to step in as a replacement when Ocolisan got injured. Next year they should easily have five for the Olympics, knock on wood, and then two or three who could be semi-strong replacements.


  4. Russia’s decision to choose the team this far ahead of the Olympics is bizarre, to say the least. Choosing AAers is beyond crazy. ANYTHING can happen within the next nine months. Illness. Injury. Burnout. Slump. Whatever. And counting on Mustafina – who is like a broken down old car – is crazy.


    • Yeah, I find it hilarious that Aliya literally hasn’t trained in almost six months at this point and Valentina is like “OLYMPIC ALL-AROUNDER WHAT WHAT” but like honestly I don’t trust Valentina’s early teams as far as I can throw them. Look at how many times even just her alternate for worlds this year changed…four athletes in the span of two weeks?! I think this really is the strongest mix of gymnasts IF Aliya is at her top fighting form, but really, anything can happen between now and then. I guess it’s smart to have a training squad of ten just in case, but to straight up say at this point in the year that four are “confirmed” is nonsense. It’s basically a guarantee that at least one will be out of the picture before Rio for whatever reason.


      • A training squad makes far more sense. Plus, it ensures that no one gets lazy or arrogant because their “spot” is already locked up. Choosing a team this far ahead would make Marta plotz.


      • Komova Paseka & Afan are definites (injury & sickness aside ).Kapitonova & Melnikova (AA)

        But Russia is not that weak because they could also send a competitive b team of Seda MariaK Skrypnk Sosnitskaia Dimitrieva.

        I’m not counting Mustafina in . She looked more than a bit wild during her break & imo outgrown the sport mentally.


    • I think they included mustafina based on what she does every year. In 2011 she tore her ACL and everyone counted her out. She then went on to become the most decorated gymnast at the olympics winning medals in all around floor which is not exactly known for being soft on your knees. In 2013 she dealt with illness and random spurts of pain in her ankle, knees and heels and everyone thought that she would leave Antwerp medal less. She then won all around and bars bronze along with becoming world champion on her then weakest event. In 2014 when she again got surgery on her ankle? After Europeans everyone said that if she came back she would be a specialist and no way do all around and then cam close to an all around medal despite having a fever and won two bronze medals in event finals. Then the back strain this year and still was ready enough to dominate Baku and was still progressing at a great rate according to RGF until September. So considering mustafinas tendency to pull things off when everyone says that she’s pretty much done for, i can see why they would say that she is already one of their all arounders, although I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a group of ten gymnasts to pretty much be told that they have a 10% chance that they’re going to make the team and will most likely be alternates or at home when the whole thing is over.


  5. For Romania I think they can regroup but not in time for Rio. USA is almost shoo in for gold no matter what happens, though anything is possible. If Russia pulls off the four Olympian team way in advance to prep them up to be amazing in rio thing then they can come in at a close second. China has a very well balanced team between bars beam floor and vault and are getting closer and closer to the correct formula as we’ve seen at the past two worlds. What Romania needs to do now is prep up their current Olympic training squad members as well as their top juniors so that they can do the best they can at olympics while setting up their future members at the same time. Ponor, izbasa and iordache aren’t going to be around forever to almost single handedly save the team every four years.


  6. Pingback: The Test Event Reflections: Romania | The Gymternet

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