The New Seniors: Russia

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Russia’s new seniors are an interesting bunch. Three of them are top-notch all-arounders part of Valentina Rodionenko’s exclusive Rio training squad, but will find it difficult to break onto a team where their strengths are already represented by the more experienced women. Then there’s one young lady who can really help the team on floor, where they consistently earn their lowest team marks for hit routines, but at this point she might be out of sight and out of mind.

Angelina Melnikova

With one of the most-anticipated senior debuts of the year, Angelina Melnikova – a 15-year-old from Voronezh who celebrates her 16th birthday two weeks before the Olympic Games – was quite possibly the missing piece on the Russian worlds team last year.

Melnikova earned the highest all-around score of 57.234 at the Russian Cup in September, but wasn’t able to take the gold medal due to her junior status. In the eight all-around races she has been eligible to win, half of her performances have resulted in gold and the other half in silver, with no score below a 55.

In addition to her junior national title in 2014 with a (mostly inflated but shhh) score of 58.3, she has also posted big international results, including a 57.107 to win the junior title at the 2014 European Championships and a 57.5 to win Elite Gym Massilia last November. At the Four Nations Trophy in Italy last May, she won the silver all-around medal behind teammate Seda Tutkhalyan in a mostly-senior competition with a 55.8, and that included a fall on floor.

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Melnikova’s 15.0 uneven bars performance at Massilia

So, what are her strengths? She has a passable DTY, but Russia looked pretty good on vault this year so you can take it or leave it. Her floor is a solid 14 when she hits, which is about on par with the majority of the Russians, save for Ksenia Afanasyeva (though she does have a super cool triple wolf turn straight up into a double pirouette, even if it’s not necessarily always pretty to watch).

It’s bars and beam where Melnikova truly shines…though her consistency as a junior is worrisome given Russia’s already precarious history with falling under pressure. Though she’s beautiful and effortless on bars, she fell in four of her seven routines in 2015, and while the junior Euros beam champion can look breathtaking on that event, she fell or had major wobbles in nearly half of last year’s routines there as well.

The last thing Russia needs is another Tutkhalyan, which pains me to say because I love her to death. But Tutkhalyan might single-handedly be the reason I have trust issues, because how can someone be so good at an event but then never hit it? That’s my fear with Melnikova. While her bars are beautiful, Russia isn’t exactly short on supply in that department, so beam would be her key contribution to the team and unless she can go out and hit every single routine this year, I don’t know if she would make anymore sense on the team than Tutkhalyan or Maria Kharenkova would. To stand out, she’ll definitely need to improve on her consistency, and making her floor routine a standout team finals routine couldn’t hurt either.

Daria Skrypnik

Next likely to make the squad is Daria Skrypnik, the elegant and classic beauty who tends to go back and forth with Melnikova for the top prize at each meet. Skrypnik, who is from the city of Krasnodar down by the Black Sea, turns 16 in October and can put up a great score on almost any event…when she wants to.

Last year, Skrypnik was the Russian junior all-around champion a full point ahead of Melnikova with a 58.333, and she also won the bars gold with a huge 15.567. She picked up yet another all-around title at the prestigious European Youth Olympic Festival with a 55.75, where she also grabbed a medal of every color in event finals with first on bars, second on floor, and third on beam.

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Skrypnik earns a 15.4 on bars at the Russian Cup in 2015

But that’s where her luck came to an end. At the Russian Cup, Skrypnik was fourth going into the final rotation and likely would’ve challenged Melnikova had she not crashed her DTY, but then fell and had to be carried off the floor with a foot injury. When she returned at Massilia two months later, she looked completely uninspired, finishing 12th all-around with a 54.5 and no event finals.

I think Skrypnik is the kind of gymnast who is hit or miss, but times a million. She’s either brilliant or terrifying depending on the day, which is a big risk when you’re dealing with a team final situation. Her bars could be a 15.5, or they could be a 13.5. Her beam could be a 14.5, or it could be a 12.5. There is no middle ground.

Otherwise, her strengths and weaknesses are similar to Melnikova’s, with a messy but passable DTY, a solid 14 on floor, a mid-14 beam on a good day, and stellar bars. If I had to pick between the two, Melnikova gets the bid if only because she is generally in control of her gymnastics; even when she falls or has an issue, she doesn’t come apart or lose her focus. It’s the mental game that makes or breaks athletes, and while Skrypnik might actually be the more naturally gifted of the pair, she’s a little too unfocused for this already flaky team.

Natalia Kapitonova

Here’s the real sleeper hit of these three. Natalia Kapitonova – born in Penza and turning 16 in May – is on the Rio training squad along with Melnikova and Skrypnik, but it wasn’t until midway between 2015 that she really stood out as a contender.

Kapitonova actually started off well, with a silver medal at Gymnix earning a total of 55.4, not bad given that she had a fall on beam. The meet was somewhat under the radar due to it happening early in the season and without a ton of big names, but her work was promising. But at junior nationals, more beam errors in addition to only an FTY vault and lower difficulty on bars and floor meant fifth place. Her 55.9 score was more than respectable, but she just wasn’t able to impress in this particular field (though she did go home with silver on bars thanks to mistakes from girls like Melnikova).

When it came time for the Russian Cup, three 2000 babies got invites and Kapitonova was one of them. She competed well on bars and decently enough on beam, but still wasn’t considered a standout…and then Massilia came along.

At Massilia, Kapitonova was fourth behind Melnikova, Marine Brevet of France, and Diana Bulimar of Romania, but her score of 56.7 was a personal best…and it came with still only an FTY on vault. Her biggest improvement came on bars, where she started breaching the 15.0 mark to earn a 15.3 in prelims and a 15.267 in finals, winning the gold over Melnikova who was fifth after a fall. Then, at the Voronin Cup a few weeks later, she shattered her personal best with a 58.15, one of the top all-around scores of the new seniors to date thanks to a gorgeous bars set and – finally – a fully hit and upgraded beam, which earned a 14.7.

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Kapitonova’s gorgeous 15.3 bars set at Massilia

Unlike her aforementioned teammates, Kapitonova was never a hyped junior expected to take the world by storm. She slowly crept into our consciousness, improving little by little all year long until this explosive 2015 finish. With less experience than the others, she still has a lot to prove this year, but I think she could definitely be the dark horse for the team if she continues this slow but steady approach to reach her peak.

Ekaterina Sokova

Ekaterina Sokova, the baby of this group not turning 16 until December, is a bit of a mystery. She’s the only one in this group not part of Rodionenko’s ten-member training squad, but she is the only one who isn’t a bars standout, instead showing her best work on beam and floor, where Russia could really use some better options.

From the city of Vladimir a few hours east of Moscow and known to gym fans by the name Juice, the literal translation of her Russian last name, Sokova missed a good deal of the 2015 season due to a nagging elbow injury. In fact, we last saw her at the Four Nations Trophy competition in Turin last May, one of only two meets for the gymnast last year which is likely the reason why she hasn’t made any recent impression in the eyes of the national team staff.

Sokova was the bronze medalist at junior nationals, earning a 57.134 in addition to beam bronze (13.9) and floor gold (a huge 14.633). With just an FTY on vault, she also showed good work on bars, even though it’s clear it isn’t a specialty of hers. On floor, not only is she showing powerful tumbling for such a small gymnast, but her dance elements are crisp and polished and she pays so much attention to detail, it’s going to be difficult to deduct from a fully hit routine. There’s so much room for upgrade here as well, which is something I hope she’s been able to work on despite her injury.

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Sokova’s 14.633 on floor at Russian Junior Championships

In Italy, Sokova competed only on her two best events, and her 14.8 on beam was the best on that apparatus among even the seniors in the competition, coming in three tenths higher than Tutkhalyan’s score. A few little stumbles on floor cost her in execution, and it was slightly downgraded from what she performed at junior nationals a month earlier, but was still promising.

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Sokova earns a 14.8 on beam in Italy. Check out her must-see front handspring to front tuck flight series, which she hopes to eventually connect to her jump series!

With a full profession of bias, Sokova is my favorite of the new seniors if only because I love that she deviates from the typical Russian standard and I find her work on floor so much fun to watch, and I not-so-secretly hope she ends up defying all expectations and showing Rodionenko exactly why they need her in Rio. She improved by leaps and bounds between 2014 and 2015, so I’m going to hold onto the hope that she can do the same between last year and now.

Edit- Sokova has been added to the training squad! My dreams just might come true.

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As a bonus, are Sokova and Melnikova clones OR robot prototypes as part of Rodionenko’s plan to create the perfect Russian gymnast OR gearing up to star in a remake of The Shining? Discuss.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

8 thoughts on “The New Seniors: Russia

  1. I love Sokova’s beam work and Skrypnik’s bars! But my one wish for Russia’s Rio team is that Tutkhalyan makes it! But given her past issues that may be too much to hope for 😬

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  2. Russia doesn’t need event specialists but AAers. That’s why Melnikova will be included for Rio. At the moment, and with no reliable informations about Mustafina, she is the best Russian AAer. In 2014, she was much more consistant than in 2015, then she was injured (a very painful groin injury) and had a “growth crisis” which forced her to reconsider all her skills (like Komova in 2013). The other reason why Melnikova will be in Russian team, is that the Rodionenkos adore her. Valentina told in Russian press she is the new Mustafina and announced incredible D-score for UB and beam (6.7 for both).
    I don’t believe in Skrypnik : she seems to be a dabbler and her D-scores are not so high. Her floor is incredibly lazy and boring. Kapitonova is the unexpected one to follow. If she gets her DTY (she is training for it), with her lovely UB and beam she could outwit Melnikova.
    Sokova is as well my favourite but she doesn’t seem to be Valentinna’s one. And just fo floor and beam, she is challenged by Dmitryeva.
    BUT, Russian team is very unpredictable. Afanaseva is injured : will she recovered for Rio ? No one if Komova will compete on 2, 3 or 4 events, and she is more unconsistant tha Tutkhalyan. We have no news from Mustafina, her shape ant her character. Spiridonova is the woman of one event. Tutkhalyan is messy … Why not a team with the four new seniors and Paseka ?

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  3. These are the first of the Post “Yeltsin DisasterYears” babies who grew up in optimistic times & with better nutrition. I think it already shows . They will be more resilient mentally & physically than those who grew up under the shadow of Yeltsin poverty.

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  4. The russian new senior situation is so complex that I can’t answer. However, melnikova and sokova are definitely starring in a remake of the shining.

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