The Russian juniors set a major precedent for the seniors at today’s junior competition, winning by a large margin over the remaining teams. On paper, the senior team can make it happen as well, but as fans of Russian gymnastics understand by now, the Russian seniors do not tend to hit the way they’re able to. For Russia, “on paper” is basically meaningless.
Based on past results this season and what they’re capable of doing when they hit, this Russian team is good enough that they can afford a couple of falls and still take revenge on the British team that knocked them off the podium to nab the bronze at worlds last year. Russia is coming in with that nasty memory, which should motivate them to do well here, though the three-up three-count pressure that will exist both in the qualification as well as in the final is something that can definitely mess with their heads.
That, plus training wasn’t really great. Not only did the team lose a floor routine from Ksenia Afanasyeva due to a minor injury (she’ll only compete vault), Aliya Mustafina looks both physically and mentally exhausted. It’s not in the same way we’ve seen her looking over it in the past, either; her floor routine – the first she’s done since the European Games a year ago – looked downright painful for her, and I don’t think she’s properly conditioned enough to make it through full sets on any of her three events. Even on bars, easily her best at the moment, she struggled to make it past her pak salto on two separate occasions, and showed form issues elsewhere. I generally am one who says Mustafina can come back whenever or wherever and look like she never left, but if yesterday’s training is any indication of how she’ll look tomorrow, I think it’s time for them to worry a little.
Daria Spiridonova will only perform on bars tomorrow, and she looks like she always does – like training bores her, like she can do her routine in her sleep, and like winning another international title will be a piece of cake. Seda Tutkhalyan also looks great…better than ever, actually, and she’ll be under a lot of pressure on all three of her events, so hopefully she can keep herself together mentally. Then there’s the new senior Angelina Melnikova, who could potentially make every final she goes after and will possibly also have the best all-around score of the day if things work out.
It’s not a bad team at all, even with the problems. But it’s still a nerve-wracking team given their issues and their inability to perform well under pressure. That’s where the British team can win it once again. Talent-wise, they’re about on par with the Russians on vault and have the power to defeat them on floor, though Russia far excels on bars and beam, so if the Russians hit, that’s what it’ll come down to. The British also have some problems of their own, with Ruby Harrold struggling to hit her bars consistently this year and beam always an issue.
Even the standouts like national champion Claudia Fragapane, Osijek world cup superstar Ellie Downie, and Olympian Becky Downie haven’t been perfect this year, and while I think mentally they’re leagues beyond the Russians and tend to not let the pressure cause a meltdown (in fact, most of their mistakes this year came at the lowest possible pressure competitions!), everyone makes mistakes and the British aren’t exempt from that. They’re doing very difficult elements and combinations that come with so much risk (you try watching Fragapane’s jam-packed beam without holding your breath!), and no one has a perfect record this season.
They did make the super smart decision to not throw anyone into the all-around, with everyone doing only two or three events apiece, so it’s nice that no one gymnast will feel the full weight of competing for the team. In some ways, this does actually work against them. Ellie Downie, for example, has a much stronger beam routine than Gabby Jupp, and I’m assuming they might swap the two in the team final if things are looking close after tomorrow. But for qualifications, with the desire to test Jupp on the event in a major international competition, and with Downie’s Olympic team spot all but a guarantee at this point, why put that extra stress on Downie this early on? While the overall team score could be a full point (or more) higher with Downie going up on beam, it’s not worth the risk when European Championships gold isn’t the end goal – an Olympic team medal is.
I do think the teams could go back and forth. Either one could lead after qualifications, and either one could win the gold in team finals. Again, the results say it should be Russia and I think it could, but I’m not going to bet on that because, frankly, I don’t trust them. I do think if everyone on both squads shows up and does their jobs, the Russians will likely have the stronger outcome. Either way, it’s going to be an awesome fight between these two teams for the gold medal, something we don’t generally get in this sport with one team usually so dominant above the rest.
Behind these two, I could see France having the best shot at bronze, followed by Italy and Romania, and with Switzerland a close fourth. Again, I can’t stress enough how it’ll all come down to who hits because that’s life in a three-up three-count situation. With the top eight teams making it to the final, a team with a legitimate medal chance could fall four times in qualifications and miss out on the final completely, so take all of this with a grain of salt…though if things line up magically in the universe, it’s these four that are the strongest.
Neither Italy nor France brought teams at full strength. France would have, actually, but some nagging pain kept Louise Vanhille out, and the federation replaced her with the new and inexperienced senior Alison Lepin, who will perform only on bars. They also have Loan His only on bars, opting to test the young Marine Boyer in her place on floor and Oreane Lechenault in her place on vault, and then Marine Brevet will provide the experience as the team leader, competing everywhere but bars. Still, even with these line-up shifts, it’s an excellent little team and it will be great to see how the younger ones continue to handle the pressure after doing such a great job at the Olympic Test Event.
The Italians, meanwhile, are without their three best seniors, as Vanessa Ferrari, Erika Fasana, and Carlotta Ferlito are all basically just trying to keep their bodies held together for Rio at this point. There’s no real leader on this young team, which will feature first-year senior Sofia Busato with her killer DTY on vault alongside four girls all fighting to fill spots on the Olympic team, including Enus Mariani and Lara Mori competing everywhere but vault (both are good on all three events, with Mariani only slightly stronger than Mori though Mori is typically more consistent), Martina Rizzelli on vault and bars (she has a new DTY and the most difficult bars set in the bunch, which she’s typically great at hitting), and Elisa Meneghini on vault, beam, and floor (she has some big skills everywhere including a layout full on beam, but has been hit or miss all season).
While France and Italy didn’t go all out with their team choices, Romania and the host team from Switzerland both showed up with their best available. For Switzerland, we’re pretty much going to see all their top gymnasts competing as if this was their Olympic Games, which in a way it is. With the face of the competition Giulia Steingruber coming in hot and ready to qualify into multiple individual finals in addition to leading her team to a solid finish, her teammates Ilaria Käslin (also competing all four events, with beam and floor her best), Stefanie Siegenthaler (bars), Caterina Barloggio (beam and floor), and Thea Brogli (vault) have a fearsome leader and together, they could make big things happen the way they did with their awesome Test Event performance.
Romania’s “best available” is misleading in comparison. Given that three of their top seniors – Larisa Iordache, Diana Bulimar, and Laura Jurca – are all currently out with injury, the only A team gymnast competing is Catalina Ponor, who will represent on vault, beam, and floor. She’s good with big scores on all three, and I don’t think we have to worry about how she’ll compete even if she did struggle a bit in training yesterday (she had a fall on her layout series on beam and all of her floor landings were either spotted or otherwise rough). Ponor is the kind of gymnast who comes in and does her job no matter the situation, and with a bit more time in the gym between Rio and now, she’ll hopefully look the best we’ve seen in her current comeback.
In addition, the team will also feature Anda Butuc on bars and beam, Silvia Zarzu on vault and floor, Ana Maria Ocolisan on vault and bars, and then Maria Holbura on all but vault. As a bars team, they’re about equivalent to their juniors, though I do think this group has some of the nicest lines and form overall compared to Romanian bars teams of recent memory, even if they don’t have the big skills. They’re actually collectively fantastic on beam, with no one quite reaching Ponor’s level, though both Butuc and Holbura should do excellent work just with some lower difficulty. And if Zarzu hits floor, that’s another solid number for them. They also get a leg-up on vault with three potential DTYs in the mix, which evens their bars weakness out a bit.
They’re not in the same position as the junior team was to come in as a strong medal contender, as the senior field is a bit more difficult and the program just isn’t able to field top-level competitors, but while I do think bronze would require a pretty big fight and a whole lot of mental energy and sheer will, it’s not totally out of reach. When the team showed up at the Test Event looking battered alongside teams you knew were going to qualify with epic results, it was hard to see how they could make a top four placement possible even on a good day, and it wasn’t surprising when it didn’t happen. But this team in this field could do very well, so hopefully they’re able to stay in the game mentally.
While I think these six are the strongest, I think Spain, Belgium, and Germany all have the best chances at making it into the eight-team final alongside those top six, with outside bets placed on Poland and Hungary. Spain is going for broke with their best available (including Olympic Games qualifier Ana Perez as well as her Test Event co-competitor Claudia Colom alongside Cintia Rodriguez, Nora Fernandez, and new senior Helena Bonilla), while Belgium and Germany have sent a mix of contenders and younger B-team kids who will value this experience going into the next quad.
Belgium’s standout will be Nina Derwael, the top gymnast in the country at the moment who missed out on the Test Event due to an injury to her hand. She’s been slowly getting back into the swing of things, and while we won’t get to see her perform her gorgeous new floor routine, she will compete on bars and beam with the ability to make the finals for both. Her bars especially looked killer in training, and this could be a great way to prep her for Rio after missing a good chunk of this season.
Two-time Olympian Gaelle Mys will also get in some practice everywhere but bars, new senior Julie Meyers will compete all four events, and last year’s national champion Cindy Vandenhole will compete all but beam. All are options for this summer’s Olympic team with something to prove on their way to hopefully making it to Rio.
For Germany, Kim Bui is really the only one in Olympic contention. Recently back from a knee injury, she has routines the team could use on bars and floor, and she also hopes to prove herself as a lineup possibility on beam, so she’ll do all four events tomorrow. Her teammates Maike Enderle, Amelie Föllinger, Lina Philipp, and Sarah Voss all definitely stand out on an event or two apiece, though they’re not quite at the same level as some of the older seniors who have been running the show this quad, and so this is more their intro season for the next quad, which they’re all expected to lead.
Hungary brought a team of five, but will only put its Olympic contenders Zsofia Kovacs and Noemi Makra as well as two-time Olympian Dorina Boczogo up in the competition, each doing all four events. It’s possibly a test for Kovacs and Makra more than anything, as neither was at full strength at nationals due to minor injuries (Kovacs competed only bars while Makra withdrew completely) and the federation still has to decide between the two for the Olympic spot, so this could help decide who gets to return to Rio this August. Boczogo, meanwhile, is there to hopefully make finals on beam and floor in addition to helping the team possibly qualify into the team final.
Poland is in a similar situation with Olympic contenders Katarzyna Jurkowska-Kowalska (keep an eye out for the unveiling of her brand-new gainer layout double full beam dismount!) and Gabriela Janik still fighting for their one spot as well, helped out in the team event by Alma Kuc, Klara Kopec, and Paula Plichta. Both of these teams are a little bit beyond the others mentioned above, but anything can happen in gymnastics, so I wouldn’t count either out for the team final.
Other 2016 Olympic individual qualifiers set to compete this week include Lisa Ecker of Austria, Kylie Dickson of Belarus, Irina Sazonova of Iceland, Ana Filipa Martins of Portugal, Tutya Yilmaz of Turkey, Barbora Mokosova of Slovakia, and Angelina Kysla of Ukraine. All of these will compete all four events with the exception of Yilmaz, who is resting a bit and will only show routines on bars and beam. Greece has its Olympic hopefuls Vasiliki Millousi and national champion Argyro Afrati on hand, with Millousi doing beam and floor with the hope of making the beam final while Afrati will compete all but beam.
Still want more to keep an eye on? There are some solid vault gymnasts hoping to make that final, including Slovenian Olympic qualifier Teja Belak and her teammate Tjasa Kysselef along with Sweden’s back-to-back reigning national champion Marcela Torres, in what will likely be her final competition ever. The Dutch gymnasts Tisha Volleman and Mara Titarsolej will also compete as individuals, with the Netherlands opting not to send a full team. Both Volleman and Titarsolej are potential candidates for their Olympic team, with Titarsolej especially in the running as a strong vault and floor competitor now that Lisa Top is sadly injured and done with her season.
The senior competition begins tomorrow at 10 am in Bern with the four subdivisions acting as qualifiers for the team final held on Saturday as well as apparatus finals held Sunday. There is no senior all-around final at this year’s meet.
Article by Lauren Hopkins