Melnikova Stellar at Russian Cup

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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

8 thoughts on “Melnikova Stellar at Russian Cup

  1. I agree with everything written, I had the same reasoning with Afanasyeva’s situation, added that it might be difficult for her to bring full difficulty if she has taken time off due to her recent procedure.

    Oh, it was said that the problems Mustafina had on bars were due to the equipment, they just changed it recently to the one that will be used in Rio and she is still getting used to it. It’s on rewritingrussiangymnastics ; )

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  2. Wouldnt they replace Spiri with Afan not Seda? As you said, that would leave them without a beam routine (Spiri’s beam is not useable). It would be incredibly unwise to bring two AAers and three specialists, especially when two of the 3 only do 1 event (Afan and Spiri). Seda will score at least one full point higher than Spiri on beam, where as Spiri only scores .5 higher than Paseka on bars so it would make more sense to being Seda for beam and leave Spiri at home and use Paseka on bars. They wont sacrifice a team medal for an AA medal.

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    • Yeah, but then they lose Spiridonova’s bars and a likely/possible medal and they only have two strong bar routines, again from Melnikova and Mustafina, neither of whom is a bars medal contender unless Mustafina adds difficulty. Like I said, Russia treats all medals equally and would rather have Spiridonova there almost certainly getting a medal than Afan who COULD medal on floor but it’s not super likely. Also, Afan doesn’t add as much on floor as Spiri would add on bars, because if you get rid of Spiri’s bars, your using Maria P’s (which haven’t been good this year) or Seda’s (which are okay but a 14.6 ish compared to Spiri’s 15.4 or so).

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  3. Aliya skipped out if event finals because she was scheduled to meet with a physiotherapist before commencing training for Rio. It’s the same (and only) physiotherapist that she has used for two competitions- European Games and the London Olympics- which makes me a little more optimistic because those are both up there as the most successful meets of her career. She’ll probably never meet the personal bests she set for herself in Rotterdam but becoming the most decorated athlete (?) at the European Games, and the most decorated non- swimmer in the London Olympics are obviously still amazing achievements. If I were in charge of the Russyan Fedaration, it kills me to say that I would exclude Afanasyeva and Ahaimova from consideration almost entirely. Their biggest hopes for medals, as it was in Glasgow, lies in the individuals, not the team. Mustafina and Melnikova are both legitimate contenders in both the all around and beam, and Melnikova may actually put herself on an extremely short list of athletes who will credited for a layout on beam without inquiry (not singling out Aly or anything). Paseka I will dare say is pretty much a lock for a medal on vault along with Hong Un Jong and Simone Biles unless Chusovitina manages to perform the Produnova without the butt touch. Spiridonova is also pretty solid for a bars medal, with Fan Yilin and Becky Downie being the only two that I think can beat her on a day where everyone hits to their potential. Their podium dark horses are Tutkhalyan on beam and Mustafina on bars. Afanasyeva has simply dipped too far below the competition on floor to contend. Raisman and Biles are practically guaranteed a 1-2 finish barring injury or big faults. Shang Chunsongs 6.7 set has been the cleanest and most consistent it has ever been and I think will be at its height in Rio, and she’s already in the 14.9-15 territory. The same goes for Steingruber and Ponor is also extremely clean with enough difficulty (if she hits the Gonez a 6.2) to catch up to her higher level peers. Afanasyeva would need to show what she did in Glasgow simply to have a chance, and with her recent injury it is unfortunately very unlikely. Even if she does manage to salvage the 6.4 d score, it shouldn’t be assumed she will hit. Furthermore, spiridonova will likely add more to bars than Afanasyeva and Ahaimova will on floor, and it’s obvious that they can’t give up an Amanar vault. As Lauren often mentions, it doesn’t matter where you add the tenths as long as they’re there. Who cares if they place 6 or 7th on floor as a team if they medal? The team will be unpredictable as Russia always is. When I look at this provisional team I can see the possibility of no medals and I can see the possibility of an extremely fruitful games for them simultaneously. We’ll see what they will have to deal with in exactly a month.

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    • I agree with you in all points. Obviously Mustafina didn’t want to go to this Russian Cup which disturbed her preparation. We can just remember that one month ago, at Eurpean championships, she got 3 medals (2 gold and 1 bronze). Afanasyeva has not been training for such a long time … Nobody knows where she is and what she can do just now. Tutkhalyan will fall, the only suspense is at what event she will (I bet it will be beam) … But, generally, she falls just once, and she can bring points where she won’t. The only real option is between Spiri and Kapi, but I bet the conservative Rodionenkos will prefer Spiri.

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      • Kapitonova is the one who really needed to knock it out of the park at Russian Cup to have a shot. While she did well to capitalize on others’ mistakes during the event finals, she also made some pretty big errors on every event where she could possibly be used, and that’s not good enough for a first-year senior with no big meet experience. I do think if she keeps improving she can help them next quad, she’s upgraded a ton since a year ago.

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      • Yes but Kapi won the bars with a 6.7 score. Ans if she is not consistent on beam and floor, she is better on these events than Spiri. So Spiridonova seems to be a conservative choice grounded in the the enhancement of experience over results.

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  4. I know some people are not happy about Seda being on the team, but I ask you – who else should be on the team at this point? Seda is a risk, but she’s a risk with a nice reward if the stars are aligned. I think they have already stated they are planning on Afanasyeva taking Seda’s place if she’s able. However, I can’t quite wrap my head around how an athlete who has less than a month to prepare from surgery can possibly be ready. If this happens though – they have only 2 proper beam workers. Daria falls all the time and when she falls she’s liable to score in the 11’s – which would petty much wipe out any bonus she gives on bars. If Seda goes on beam and falls she might even score a 14(Olympic scoring can be a bit generous) and it still let’s them keep their Dasha – bars – bonus. If they decide to not even try for a team bronze, then sure put Ksenia in and hope for some EF medals. Of course all in all it’s a shame Ksenia isn’t ready, and it’s also a shame beam causes her so much physical pain as she is a lovely beam worker(and has a history of staying on the beam on the Olympics, imagine that) because she would be amazing 5th member in that scenario.

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