After a long and crazy quad, let me start by saying that being a fan of Red Sox baseball makes me super equipped to deal with Russian gymnastics at any given time.
Between this time last year and the Olympic Games, the Russian program had more ups and downs than a seesaw, but when it mattered, everything seemed to come into place and the team that finished off the podium at the 2015 World Championships managed to upset China for the silver medal. With the drama in the past few months alone — including losing 2012 Olympians Viktoria Komova and Ksenia Afanasyeva to injury only months before the Games after both had been preliminarily named to the team back in January — there was a question of whether they’d once again end up without team medals, but the women ended up having a spectacular team competition day, earning a 176.688 to finish just over half a point above China.
Russia’s situation in general is interesting because for the most part, team decisions tend to be made not necessarily based on who might best help the team, but rather who could come together to walk away with the most impressive collection of individual medals.
That explains why this team, so weak on balance beam, brought two specialists in Daria Spiridonova and Maria Paseka, one of whom doesn’t even train on the event and the other whose consistency there is suspect at best. But Spiridonova is a two-time world medalist on bars and Paseka was the reigning Olympic bronze medalist who, with her combination of difficulty between her Amanar and Cheng, was all but a shoo-in for a vault medal this time around.
Additionally, had Afanasyeva been healthy enough to compete, she would’ve gone over Seda Tutkhalyan because Afanasyeva’s chances for an individual medal on floor were so great. Had this happened, the Russians would have only three gymnasts with beam routines, a tight situation to be in making it obvious that for Russia, the team goals come second to their desire for a large medal haul overall.
But this year, whether intentionally or not, the strongest performances came in the team final. With the exception of a slip-up from newcomer Angelina Melnikova on beam, this was the best the Russian team has looked in a decade or more. Other teams have been more talented as a whole, with the 2012 squad the only team capable of challenging the Americans in the past five years, but despite glaring weaknesses on beam and floor, this year’s team fought so hard through injuries and other drama, it was great to see them give everything to fight back from Melnikova’s fall and step onto the podium to win silver.
Qualifying in third place less than a point behind China and two points behind their team final finish, the Russians started off the competition on a sour note. With beam their first event, they were forced to count a fall as both Aliya Mustafina and Melnikova fell. Floor was somehow even worse, with Spiridonova putting her hands down on her 2½ to punch front, forcing them to count another fall from Melnikova on her double pike.
The team finished up strong on its two best events, but the damage had already been done. They were in a tenuous third place, and with another performance like that in the final, risked losing yet another team medal with both Great Britain and Brazil within half a point of upsetting them.
From qualifications, the team did have some decent individual finishes, earning three spots in the apparatus finals while Mustafina and Tutkhalyan reached the all-around. I loved seeing Tutkhalyan give her best international performance to date, qualifying two tenths ahead of Mustafina with a 58.207, though it was heartbreaking seeing Melnikova, who has been a pillar of consistency for the Russians this year, finish 22nd and miss the final due to the two-per-country rule. Without falls, she easily would’ve been the top Russian all-arounder, and likely would have challenged for the podium, but instead she missed every individual final.
Russia killed it in the team final, however. Melnikova did fall on beam again, on her flight series, but otherwise had a strong day, putting up the team’s best score on floor and trusted to perform on all four apparatuses alongside veteran Mustafina. Tutkhalyan had some little mistakes on floor, but her beam was mostly fantastic, earning one of the best international scores of her career. Spiridonova showed nice work on bars and Paseka hit one of her best Amanar landings in recent memory, the two competing only these one events apiece but showing why the Rodionenkos were so keen on having them along.
But the star of this final was Mustafina, who showed why she is so vital to the team. As tenuous as this quad has been for the Russians, when Mustafina is around, you know there won’t be a problem. She helped the team fight past mistakes to reach the bronze medal in 2014, and was an integral part of their team gold at European Championships this June, once again coming from behind after qualifications to finish on top.
With both of her individual performances in Rio getting her in the 58-range due to mistakes on beam, Mustafina was nearly flawless in the team final, competing all four events for a total of 60.024 including a 14.958 on beam, her second-best score there this quad and one of her highest beam scores ever. She nailed her vault, was as close to flawless on bars as we could possibly see her, and though her floor routine is relatively easy, she was clean and lovely there.
It’s rare that a team is truly happy to get silver, though with the U.S. as dominant as they’ve been over the past five years, silver is about the best any team can hope for. The Russian women were ecstatic to take this medal, coming at a disadvantage with lower difficulty than the Chinese. Following the competition, some of the gymnasts took to social media to express how shocked they were to make it that far, with Maria Paseka sharing a photo of her medal with the caption “I can’t believe we did it.”
The Russians often come across as a team of cold and hardened Soviet divas, but this trope would be hard for even the biggest propaganda factory to create. Their happiness came through in everything they did, and even the more heartbreaking moments were made sweet, especially as Mustafina — the biggest “diva” of them all — comforted her crying younger teammates as they made mistakes throughout the week.
Following her killer performance for the team, Mustafina showed some more strong work in the all-around final, though wasn’t quite as on point as she had been two days earlier, giving a teeny bit more away on bars and floor and then missing her flight series on beam. She managed to not fall, but her D score took a gigantic hit without the required series, a series that has plagued her all quad long.
I’ve definitely screamed “just do a freaking back handspring layout stepout!!!!” at almost every meet Mustafina has competed over these past few years, but the fact is that when Mustafina does hit her series — a tricky front aerial to front aerial to back handspring — it’s glorious. Totally worth the risk. Her problem is that she usually ends up finishing the first front aerial a bit off, not giving her the momentum needed to carry into the second aerial. In most instances, she does a cheated front handspring (let’s face it, it’s actually a front walkover, but the judges literally don’t care), so she’s still able to meet the requirement even if the value isn’t as much. But in Rio, she botched the front handspring and held it as a handstand for a second before falling in qualifications, and then in the all-around final, wobbled and didn’t continue at all, likely to save herself from falling again.
With the rest of her day relatively strong, Mustafina was able to sneak ahead of China’s Shang Chunsong by a tenth, a decision I happen to not agree with, as Shang had a better day overall, though judges tend to not favor her as much. A clean routine from Shang tends to score lower than a sloppy routine from other gymnasts, which is a shame because Shang had some fabulous work in Rio and was overlooked at almost every turn.
Some have tried to argue that Shang didn’t “deserve” the bronze because her FTY difficulty, only a 5.0, holds her back. But two of Mustafina’s own routines were rated at 5.2 in terms of difficulty, and Shang actually ended up having about a point and a half in difficulty over Mustafina, making that argument invalid. In reality, Mustafina won the meet based on her execution, which I don’t agree with, and in general, I think winning an all-around or event medal with a crucial part of a routine missing is exactly what’s wrong with this code of points.
That’s why I blame the FIG and the code for this, however. Not Mustafina. Mustafina did what she needed to do and got a bronze medal out of it, while Shang with one of her better all-around performances finished fourth, yet again. There is no question that the FIG has a slight bias against the Chinese, with president Bruno Grandi telling the press that the Chinese are too “robotic” and train under a form of slavery, and shouldn’t be rewarded for it. It’s a bummer that the gymnasts suffer because of some political drama, but at the very least, Mustafina did have a clean day even with the mistake.
Unfortunately, Tutkhalyan wasn’t as lucky, finishing nearly last with multiple falls across beam and floor after a strong start on vault and bars. I have to say, her bars work wowed me at these Games. In the Russian program with bar routines showcasing long lines on intricate transition work, Tutkhalyan has had to carve her own path there, and while her bar routine isn’t a traditional Russian routine, she still manages to reach a 6.5 start value there, and has become very consistent at hitting.
After surprising with her excellent work on beam in the first two days of competition, Tutkhalyan had what was looking to be her best set of the week under her belt until she stumbled back on her double pike dismount to count her first fall of the Games. She then struggled through her work on floor, falling twice and landing short on her other two passes for just a 10.966. It was a devastating finish to what started out as an incredible Games for the 17-year-old, but despite her initial tears, she seems to have gotten over everything quickly and was there for event finals supporting her teammates with so much heart.
The Russians filled three spots in event finals with Paseka on vault and both Mustafina and Spiridonova on bars, and they seemed to be gunning for all three, though a shocking mistake from Spiridonova on her van Leeuwen took her out of the running, causing her to finish last there.
Paseka didn’t have the best day on vault, with some serious form issues on her Cheng, which also finished with a step out-of-bounds, and her Amanar was also quite weak in terms of form, finishing with a large step back. Like Mustafina and Spiridonova, her best work came when it mattered for the team, though with a fall from Hong Un Jong on her triple Yurchenko and thanks to Giulia Steingruber‘s lower difficulty, Paseka took the silver medal with a 15.241 average.
Finally, with her fourth brilliantly-hit routine of the week, Mustafina defended her 2012 uneven bars title with a 15.9, less than a tenth ahead of reigning world champion Madison Kocian. Mustafina actually struggled most on bars leading up to the Games, missing her routines twice at the Russian Cup in July, so it was a surprise to see her show up here with her top-notch difficulty, including bringing back her eponymous dismount, a double tuck with one-and-a-half twists. Dismounts aside, she and Kocian had almost identical routines, but in the end, it was that extra tenth of difficulty from the dismount upgrade that gave Mustafina the win, making her the first back-to-back Olympic bars champion since compatriot Svetlana Khorkina did it in 1996 and 2000.
So overall, it wasn’t the best possible Games for the Russians. A total of only four medals of an available 11 is low for them, and that’s because many of the team’s specialists were unable to compete. Instead, new kids like Tutkhalyan and Melnikova got a chance to shine, and while nerves got the best of both when their individual performances mattered, they each showed tremendous fight for their team under Mustafina’s guidance.
Because of this fight and dedication to one another, this was probably my favorite Russian team in quite some time. There’s something about a group of young women coming together and working hand-in-hand for a common goal that smacks me right in the feels, especially when they get the job done and cry happy tears to see they’ve earned silver. It was quite the difference from the sad silver medalists of 2012, who walked away disappointed in themselves for not fighting harder.
Mustafina has seemed all but mentally and physically done with the sport for the past couple of years now, and before these Games even started, she told the press she couldn’t wait to go home. But now that she’s carried her team to yet another fantastic moment, I could see her inspired enough to stick around just a little bit longer. She and all of her teammates here still have so much more they can give, and I especially hope Tutkhalyan and Melnikova continue to work on and refine what is clearly an incredibly talented foundation. The skills are there. Everything else will come.
Article by Lauren Hopkins