France has been ruled by the young these past four years, with bright and shiny gymnasts breaking into the senior ranks each year.
Big skills and clean routines are helping the new slowly push out the girls only slightly older, which is why gymnasts like Claire Martin and Valentine Pikul – bright and shiny in their own right just a few months ago – are now standing in the shadows of the girls just 15 and 16 who will dominate the country’s Olympic team this summer.
The team that traveled to the Olympic Test Event in April had an average age of 17.5, and their European Championships team average was 17, with three first-year seniors participating alongside Loan His, who just turned 17, and Marine Brevet, the clear grand-mère of the team at 22.
Brevet’s decision to skip out on this weekend’s nationals (she was feeling a little pain and didn’t want to aggravate it lest she miss out on her second Olympic Games in a row due to injury) skewed the age group even lower, and the first-year seniors won every title but bars (which went to His in her second year at the senior level). The pool of young talent is so deep that two of these title-winners didn’t even factor into the nation’s major international team selection this year, showing just how many options the French team has, which is excellent news compared to just four years ago when numerous injuries kept them from sending a high-caliber team.
Marine Boyer, the 16-year-old who excels on beam and also vaults a powerful DTY, won the all-around title with a 56.5, followed somewhat shockingly by Juliette Bossu, also 16 and just steady enough on all four events to capture the silver medal with 55.85. The rest of the race to the top was super close, with 19-year-old Anne Kuhm getting bronze with a 55.55, 16-year-old Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos placing fourth with a 55.35, 17-year-old Louise Vanhille coming in fifth with a 55.3, and Euros teammates/bars prodigies Oreane Lechenault and Alison Lepin, both 15, placing sixth and seventh with scores of 55.25 and 54.6, respectively.
Yes, five of the top seven all-arounders are first-year seniors, and each will have something to offer this year’s Olympic team. For Boyer, it will be her vault and beam. For Bossu, it’s floor. Lepin and Lechenault are both wildly talented on bars, and then De Jesus Dos Santos is the kind of gymnast who could go up anywhere with a steady set, not bad considering she’s been out with injury for almost a year. In fact, based on their all-around scores at nationals, a team comprised only of France’s new seniors could’ve challenged for a medal at Euros with hit routines. They’re all that good, and they’re going to make the selection process a nightmare for the French federation.
Boyer showed great work all weekend, winning the beam gold with a huge 15.0 in addition to claiming the all-around title. Her bars and floor are nothing fancy, but both looked good enough when hit, you could put either up in qualifications and not have to worry much. I was especially impressed with her beam in finals, which was about as close to perfect as she’s going to get there. She always has a couple of little bobbles or form breaks or missed connections, but here, everything was golden aside from a large wobble on her full L turn. In retrospect, her e-score might be a tad high, but even so, she showed a great fight to stay on which is exactly what this team will need if they want to make the final.
Bossu was definitely a big surprise, managing to sneak in over girls who have represented the country in major international competition this year with a clean and steady day. As I’ve mentioned, floor is definitely her standout routine, and while her difficulty may be a little low for someone who could be considered a ‘specialist’ there she makes up for it with super clean technique and a fabulous performance as well. She also does good work on bars, though had a fall in event finals to place seventh. I don’t think she’ll factor in too much in the team decision, especially considering that she has almost no international experience and some of the girls she outscored in the all-around would’ve beaten her had they not fallen, but I still can’t believe how impressive she looked.
I like to refer to Kuhm as ‘the perfect alternate’ even though she does end up sneaking onto most teams. I don’t think she’ll ever be a top choice, as her difficulty is low on all four events and she has made mistakes at international competitions over the past couple of years…but she did a fantastic job staying steady to fight for bronze in Mulhouse. Her work on bars was especially clean, and though some of the young girls came in with difficulty exceeding 6.0 there, she got the bronze bars medal over them because her execution was nearly untouchable, reaching 8.7 for her beautiful and clean work.
De Jesus Dos Santos placing fourth was a good surprise given that she’s been out so long due to injury. She was another one with strong work across the board in the all-around competition, and then she also placed fourth on beam and floor as well, making small errors but looking good for the most part, especially on beam. The timing might be a bit off for her, because like Bossu, she’s had almost no international experience, but I think this is just the beginning for her and can definitely see her rising to rule the next quad.
Without her mistake on beam, Vanhille would have been fighting Boyer for the title, but instead she placed fifth with a 55.3…still a great score with a fall. The rest of her events continue to be fantastic, and she also went on to win the bars bronze with a 14.0 after some little mistakes there in addition to the floor silver with a 13.75 for her excellent work. She certainly remains one of the top choices for the team going to Rio thanks to her well-rounded and usually consistent performances, and beam aside, this meet definitely worked in her favor.
The young Lechenault and Lepin killed it on bars in the all-around competition, though both had mistakes elsewhere, with Lechenault falling on beam and Lepin looking weak on beam and floor. Lepin is fantastic but might still be a bit too green for me, and while her bars are impressive, she either hits a fabulous set or completely melts down, making her a major risk in a team final competition. Given that bars is really all they’d bring her to Rio for, I’m not sure it’s going to happen, though I’m still on board with Lechenault. She really stepped up at the test event to put up the strongest bars and floor scores for the team, not bad for her first major international meet, and she could conceivably contribute everywhere but beam to help the team.
Lechenault has been pretty consistent this year on bars, and got a 14.95 in the all-around competition, though she did have an error in the final for just a 13.6, finishing off the podium. She came back to hit floor (with some excellent new choreography at the end!) for a 13.55 to win bronze, though, so I’d forgive this one mistake because she’s been so good this year and could be a breakout star alongside Boyer. Lepin, meanwhile, had an implosion in the bars final similar to what happened at Euros, earning just a 10.9 to place eighth and making her 50/50 with routines over the past few weeks.
Rounding out the top ten, Grace Charpy was eighth with 54.55 looking clean and consistent, Valentine Pikul was ninth with a 52.75 after a fall on beam, and Alix Scandella was tenth with a 52.45.
Outside of the all-around, Olympic hopefuls Youna Dufournet, Martin, and His also competed. Dufournet, the 2012 Olympian who returned well this quad but was taken down by a shoulder injury last year, competed on all but floor, though had a fall on bars in prelims and then another one on beam in event finals, essentially taking her out of the running. Knowing her chances were almost zilch, Dufournet announced her retirement on Sunday evening, stating that she was proud of her achievements and had no regrets.
Martin, who has been known for her gorgeous work on beam and floor this quad and has contributed on a couple of worlds teams, showed watered-down and comparatively weak routines in prelims and didn’t qualify to either final, likely taking her out of contention as well, though His – who competed only on bars here – got a 15.1 in prelims and won the gold with a 15.05 in finals, which should solidify her as one of the locks who will travel to Rio in August after similarly strong work throughout the past several months.
At the junior level, Lorette Charpy won the gold with a 56.2, Janna Mouffok won the silver with a 54.55, and Alisson Lapp won bronze with a 53.25. Their fellow European Championships teammates also competed, with Morgane Osyssek placing fourth with a 53.05 and Melissa Poitreau placing eighth with a 51.65 after an unusually rough day. Between them, Cloe Blanca Perret was fifth with a 52.3, Assia Khnifass was sixth with a 52.05, and Ines Ben Rhouma was seventh with a 51.95.
Charpy is showing already that she will be the one to beat in the coming quad, with an all-around score that would’ve put her in second among the seniors. One of the favorites to finish on the podium at Euros, she ended up having an uncharacteristically bad day in the all-around final, but she more than made up for that here. In event finals, where the juniors and seniors competed together, she placed second behind His on bars with a huge 14.8 and getting a 9.0 in execution, and then also won beam bronze with a 14.05, handling her skills beautifully there. Her only mistake of the meet came in the floor final, where a fall put her in last place with an 11.8.
The second-place Mouffok was basically a less difficult version of Charpy in the all-around, with hit routines on all four events, though no real big standout routines that brought her much attention in the apparatus finals. She did make the beam final, getting a 13.6 to place fifth, and she has a lot of solid skills to build on as she continues to grow within the sport.
My favorite little floor worker, Lapp, hit everything but bars in the all-around final, and showed her typically excellent work on beam and floor. Her floor routine was once again a highlight of this meet, just as it was at Euros, though some mistakes in the final meant a seventh place finish with a 12.6. She remained stellar in the beam final, however, winning the silver medal ahead of several senior competitors with a 14.15.
Osyssek was the only other junior to medal in apparatus finals, averaging a 13.9 on vault for silver. Like Lapp, she too had a good day in the all-around aside from a rough bars set.
The French Olympic team will be announced on June 27. I think those who have been mainstays on the international squads thus far in 2016 – Brevet, Boyer, His, and Vanhille – will probably all be top choices, with Lechenault likely to fill the last spot. This team has worked well together and though there are some girls with last-minute potential – like Bossu and De Jesus Dos Santos – I’m not sure they’ve quite been tested enough to step onto the team.
Kuhm is another strong and consistent option, though with her lower difficulty and ability to come in on any event if needed, I see her more as the perfect alternate than someone who will lead the team. As for Lepin, I can see her stepping in as a reserve if needed, especially if one of the bars gymnasts is out. She actually was a reserve for Euros, replacing Vanhille who pulled out due to minor injuries, and while it was great to see her get a test there, I don’t think she’d be my first choice based on her propensity to melt down under pressure.
Even though I think the team will remain what we’ve seen so far this year, I love that the French women have so much depth in 2016, especially compared to 2012 when many of their top options – including Brevet – were taken down by injuries shortly before the Games. If the federation wanted to, they could send a team of five first-year seniors to the Games this summer, and if they hit, they could be about on par as the team that’s likely to go. They’re full of options right now, and if a top contender does end up needing to bow out, someone just as strong could step right in.
Article by Lauren Hopkins