The FIG World Challenge Cup series kicked off over the weekend in Baku, Azerbaijan and while it’s still early in the season and competitor attendance was a bit low, fans were nevertheless treated to world class routines from some fan favorite veterans as well as a couple of newbies on the scene.
With Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan on the roster, it’s not surprising that no one could challenge her for the vault title. Though she’s still working her way up in terms of difficulty, her form looks better than ever. Her handspring layout full is half a twist up from what she competed at HNI and the WOGA Classic earlier this month, and the form on her tsuk 1.5 is killer. We’ve yet to see if she’ll bring the Produnova back to her arsenal at the Olympic Test Event, but her form is so good right now I hope she leaves well enough alone.
The silver medalist was Slovenia’s Tjasa Kysselef with her handspring front tuck full – which was a bit of a mess from start to finish – and a decent FTY, averaging a 14.075 in finals, while Lisa Ecker of Austria earned bronze with a 13.775 and Dorina Boczogo of Hungary was close behind, coming fourth with a 13.75, performing a clean handspring front pike and an FTY.
Daniele Hypolito of Brazil was in a medal position here, though unfortunately had an error on her Yurchenko 1.5, which came in just a bit too short, causing her to squat and take two big steps back on the landing. I believe she also had her Lopez vault downgraded from a layout to a pike, as she got only a 5.2 as her start value there.
The first-year seniors from Germany, Lina Philipp and Florine Harder, had a fantastic showing in prelims, with Philipp qualifying first on bars and Harder making every final but vault. Harder pulled out of finals, after unfortunately breaking her thumb during warm-ups, but Philipp improved on her bars performance in event finals to win the gold.
Philipp’s routine included superb handstands, a lovely Maloney to bail to toe full to toe shoot combination, and a stuck toe-front layout half dismount for a 14.4. She was six tenths ahead of silver medalist Hypolito, who had a 13.8 for her hit set capped off with a stuck double layout.
Her teammate Flavia Saraiva finished with the bronze medal, hitting all of her big skills – including a piked Jaeger, piked Tkachev, Tkachev to pak, and stuck full-in – but all of her handstands were short aside from one she arched over and had to repeat. Still, she managed a 13.25, and showed mostly nice improvements despite the mistake and form errors.
Dilnoza Abdusalimova of Uzbekistan tied Ecker in fourth place, each with a 12.85, while Tzuf Feldon of Israel placed sixth with a 12.2, one of her strongest bars performances in her recent competitive history. Rounding out the results were Yana Horokhova of Ukraine with an 11.35 and Yuliya Inshina with a 10.45, a very unfortunate performance after looking good in qualifications.
Saraiva came back from her bars mistake to strike gold on beam, earning a 14.8 for a majorly steady effort, the second of the weekend. While her finals routine wasn’t quite as good as her qualifications performance, she showed incredible control on expert-level combinations, including a bhs + loso + loso, bhs + layout + sissone, switch ring + sheep jump, and front aerial + front aerial + side somi in addition to her double pike dismount. It was a stellar routine and she looks more and more confident every time I see her do it. Now if only she can do it just as well in Rio!
Emma Larsson of Sweden and Elisa Hämmerle of Austria were the silver and bronze medalists with scores of 13.65 and 13.35, respectively. Hämmerle actually got very lucky here; as the first reserve for this final, she got the go-ahead to compete when Harder had to drop out, and because this was your typical international beam final, nearly everyone else imploded while Hämmerle just so happened to hit the best set of her career.
It was an incredibly exciting upset for the Austrian, who is fighting Ecker for the test event spot this April. Back-to-back 2014 and 2015 Austrian national champion Ecker was the clear standout in qualifications, earning a spot in each of the four finals and getting vault bronze in Baku while Hämmerle had multiple falls on bars and floor, though for Hämmerle to gather herself and walk out a medalist should certainly give her a big boost in the eyes of her national program.
Several of the top contenders for the bronze medal had falls, including Abdusalimova, Tutya Yilmaz of Turkey, Chusovitina (on her bhs + layout which actually looked more like a pike, and then she dismounted with only a layout) and Boczogo (who put her hands down on her front toss to back tuck and then fell on her side aerial). This not only allowed Hämmerle to sneak in for the gold, but also helped hometown girl Marina Nekrasova finish fourth with lower difficulty but a much cleaner set, going 13.05 in front of an appreciative crowd.
Saraiva again was golden on floor, and while her routine is actually downgraded a bit compared to last year, it was still both the most difficult and the cleanest routine in the bunch, earning a 13.85 for her calm and steady tumbling, including a tucked full-in, whip to 2.5, double pike, and double tuck.
Another silver medal also went to Larsson, who posted a 13.4 for her interesting routine, which had tons of cool choreography bits throughout in addition to her big tucked-full-in opening pass. But it was Nekrasova who scored points with the crowd for her routine, earning a 13.2 after showing great control to finish in the bronze medal position on the podium.
Close behind her in fourth was Boczogo, who had big skills with her piked full-in and double front, but hopped or stepped out of most of her tumbling, aside from a double pike which she stuck cold. Ecker tied her with that score, while Abdusalimova was sixth with a 13.0 for a solid routine of her own and Yilmaz was last after an ambitious but nervous set, stumbling out of her piked full-in (where she also put her hands down), hopping out of her tucked full-in, and stepping back on her double tuck in addition to missing some dance elements. But the crowd loved her energy, and she had a strong finish with her nearly-stuck double tuck.
The floor final actually only had seven gymnasts competing, as Chusovitina pulled out at the last second in addition to Harder’s last-minute withdrawal, and only the second reserve – Abdusalimova, who qualified in 10th – was prepared to compete. Given that Chusovitina only dismounted with a layout instead of her usual double tuck off beam, it’s possible she just wanted to save her body from the wear-and-tear of a full day doing event finals. She didn’t look injured during her beam routine, but remember, this was her third meet in as many weeks so it was probably best that she take it a bit easier on herself. She is forty, after all! She looks more than ready for the test event even two months out, so hopefully she can schedule some rest in with her busy travel and competition schedule this year.
Full results from the Challenge Cup are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins