The Russian program has been full of ups and downs ever since they narrowly lost the bronze medal to Great Britain at last year’s world championships. There have been injuries and inconsistencies, but also big wins – like the team title at Euros – and tons of promising talent.
One of these promising newcomers is Angelina Melnikova, who turns 16 next week. Melnikova was good as a junior, consistently winning domestic and international titles, but this year as she learns the ropes in senior competition, she’s steadily risen to become the most predictable and reliable gymnast in all of Russia. The drama that has afflicted her teammates doesn’t exist in Melnikova’s life, making her the country’s rock going into the Olympic Games.
As the Russian national champion, the unofficial European champion (she won the all-around in qualifications but the seniors didn’t have a final this year), and now the Russian Cup champion with a 59.525, Melnikova brings four strong, consistent, and clean routines to the table. Over the last week in Penza, she had a couple of wobbles on her beam set in the all-around final, and she also touched the beam and had a rough dismount in qualifications, but that aside she is looking to be in great shape and has all season. In addition to her all-around win, she also took home the title on beam while placing second on bars and third on floor.
Thankfully, Melnikova got her biggest bumps and bruises out of the way at the DTB Team Challenge, her first meet of the year, and now looks ready to bring her supreme preparedness to the next level as the youngest member of Russia’s Olympic team. The full team hasn’t been officially named yet, but based on the Russian Cup, Andrei Rodionenko said their current choices in addition to Melnikova are her 2015 European teammates Aliya Mustafina, Seda Tutkhalyan, and Daria Spiridonova along with Maria Paseka, who missed Euros due to injury.
While Ksenia Afanasyeva is also in the mix, her recent surgery has taken her from a definitely to a maybe, so she’s in alternate territory at the moment along with Lilia Akhaimova and Natalia Kapitonova. Sadly, Maria Kharenkova is out of the picture due to an injury sustained while training for this meet, and Evgeniya Shelgunova performed mostly well here but just doesn’t have the routines that would boost them much on any event. The same can be said for Daria Skrypnik, who seems to have regressed a bit in her competitive ability since last year, something she hasn’t yet fixed.
It’s actually a pretty great team…or at least has the makings of a great team. They’ll do very well and come in as the team to beat in the race for bronze if Tutkhalyan is hitting and if Mustafina is back to the Mustafina we all know and love. Mirroring Russia as a whole, both showed flashes of greatness and shades of “oy” in Penza, though overall it’s fair to say they walked away with more of a positive impression than negative.
Tutkhalyan won the silver medal and Mustafina won bronze with all-around final scores of 59.075 and 57.9, respectively. Tutkhalyan had what was probably her best day ever in the all-around final, with everything finally coming together for her, including excellent work on beam and floor. She did have a fall on beam in the team competition and in event finals, and she bounced forward on floor out of her double pike, putting her hands down for a low score there, though I’d like to believe the latter was a fluke. Beam…it’s safe to say at this point that her beam falls are anything but flukes, but truth be told, she offers more on beam with a fall than most of the Russians can offer with hit routines, which is how she still managed to get the silver medal.
In her first all-around performance since last year’s European Games, Mustafina struggled, though it was on the one event you’d assume would come naturally to her – bars. In the team competition, she kind of lost herself during her simple toe-on, where it looked like there was an issue with her grip. When she got back on and repeated the toe-on into the shaposh, she again seemed to have an issue with her grip, and came in way too close to the high bar to catch, falling a second time for just a 12.125.
Bars aside, Mustafina had an okay day, hitting her first vault in over a year – a DTY – as well as her beam and floor routines. On beam, there were multiple stumbles, and she tried yet another new flight series with an Onodi into a side aerial, which I actually love and hope she sticks with. And on floor, she had some nice work but overall showed once again that she needs a bit more time working on endurance, as she sacrificed form and landings on all of her passes. But because of the bars issues, she had only a 54.9 in the all-around on that day, which had her place fifth behind even Tatiana Nabieva, who isn’t even really seriously training or competing (and yet always manages to somehow get it together enough to remain among the top in the field).
Mustafina improved in the all-around, though yet again had a flub on bars, arching over on her giant full in what was one of her weaker sets overall, though she performed well on beam and floor. She skipped out on event finals, likely to sit back and rest after a frustrating first couple of days, but even with her mistakes she still easily managed to be a front runner for the Olympic team, so hopefully she can brush this meet off and start fresh at the Rio training camps.
On the first day of competition, Paseka competed only on vault and bars, with vault the clear focus of her week. She won the event title with a 14.867 average, quite a bit lower than what she’s capable of after missing her Cheng. Her Amanar isn’t super clean right now, but it’s good enough and better than what anyone else is doing on vault, earning a 15.667 in the final. Because that vault adds so much to the team – she would’ve brought in an extra six tenths to the team’s total at Euros – it makes sense to bring her even if she doesn’t contribute anywhere else.
The same can be said for Spiridonova, who trains more than just bars, but who would only be expected to contribute on that one event in Rio. Her routine earned a 15.425 in prelims and a 14.933 in event finals, a few minor mistakes in the latter causing her to place third. I think it’s her general consistency and two world medals that gives her the benefit of the doubt over someone like first-year senior Kapitonova, who beat her in the final with a 15.333 and who has a floor routine good enough to help them add several tenths there. But Kapitonova lacks the finesse Spiridonova has on the event, and I think Spiridonova looks more likely to do well in the final. You have to remember that Russia cares about the individual medals as much as they do the team medal, because medals equal funding. I don’t think they’re willing to risk someone like Kapitonova in that spot with this in mind.
Rounding out the top eight in the all-around after Melnikova, Tutkhalyan, and Mustafina were Shelgunova in fourth, Kapitonova in fifth, Skrypnik in sixth, Nabieva in seventh, and Akhaimova in eighth. Akhaimova, who doesn’t really compete well on anything but floor, actually won the floor title following a week of good performances there, asserting herself as an alternate even though she’s never been seriously considered for even minor international assignments since becoming a senior in 2013. It’s quite a big leap for her, but with the state of floor hovering somewhere around abysmal at the moment, Akhaimova would be the clear choice to have around in a pinch if needed.
I do like the current team, and think if they do end up deciding to swap out Tutkhalyan for Afanasyeva, it would be a mistake, as they’re already kind of gambling with two specialists on the team in Spiridonova and Paseka. If they take Tutkhalyan out of the picture, they get a boost on floor, but only Melnikova and Mustafina will have high-caliber beam sets, with Spiridonova needing to go up in team finals. And because Afanasyeva and Paseka currently aren’t competing beam, with both of those two on the team, they’d have to settle for three-up three-count in qualifications, giving them very little room for error and a huge disadvantage as every other team competing will be able to afford a fall without counting it. Tutkhalyan’s inconsistencies aside, her beam is actually pretty necessary and taking her out of the picture would be a major blow.
Full results from the Russian Cup are available here. We’ll keep our ears open for an upcoming team announcement, which should come around sometime prior to the official IOC date of July 18…though as always, this is Russia, where change is the only constant they know.
Article by Lauren Hopkins