Italy’s women’s gymnastics program, compared to other top programs in the world, is still in its infancy.
Before Vanessa Ferrari burst onto the scene in 2006, the country hadn’t qualified a full team to the Olympic Games in thirty years and struggled to receive recognition for individual performances as well.
Ferrari breathed new life into the program with her youthful and energetic performances, securing her the world championship title at her debut in 2006, and as the younger generations inspired by her climbed up to reach her level, she has still pretty much carried Italy internationally for the past decade. The country is at a point now where they wouldn’t crumble without her, though they haven’t quite been ready to let her go just yet.
It’s fitting that Ferrari was on hand as one of the junior team’s coaches at Gymnix over the weekend. As I watched her proudly — and only slightly nervously — look on, all I could think of was that these girls — three years old when Ferrari stood atop the podium in Aarhus — have grown up wanting to be Vanessa Ferrari, and now here they were, training under her and getting ready to take the reins straight from her hands.
The Italian juniors at Gymnix — Giorgia Villa, Elisa Iorio, and the D’Amato twins, Alice and Asia — won’t reach the senior level until 2019. They’re still so young, too young to have been in the mix for any major international competitions in the past, with the exception of a friendly meet in France last fall, where Villa, Asia D’Amato, and Iorio placed first, second, and fifth, respectively.
This was also the girls’ first meet on a podium, adding another layer of nerves they had to overcome in their preparation for Gymnix. While all four looked strong at the first Serie A competition of the season a few weeks ago in Turin, it was hard to say going into this meet how the girls would handle the pressure of their big international debut.
But the Italians ended up blowing me away. All four had the confidence and poise of a team far beyond their years, and they handled big skills and tough competition with a finesse that can’t be taught. While the American juniors were the big favorites in this competition, the U.S. team — shaky on beam, counting two falls there — came out with only a two-and-a-half-point lead ahead of Italy, with the Italians beating them on both vault and bars, though they fell behind due to lower difficulty on beam and floor.
Italy also placed all four gymnasts in the top seven all-around, a massive feat showing just how strong this team is at the individual level. Villa, the most experienced of this bunch, ended up with bronze after a fantastic competition, earning a 55.502 to finish just behind two Americans who outscored her by only a few tenths each.
In addition to team silver and Villa’s all-around bronze, Asia D’Amato got a bronze medal on vault and Iorio picked up a bronze of her own on bars, with all four girls each making at least one individual final.
Skill-wise, the Italians are strongest on vault and bars at the moment, as all four gymnasts have Yurchenko doubles and all four show beautiful lines on bars, especially on their intricate front giant work (Iorio’s were probably my favorite, especially with her Endo to Endo full to double front half-out combo). As I said, beam and floor aren’t quite as difficult, and there were some struggles on beam with falls as well, but the floor routines are so well-choreographed and performed, making their final rotation in the team competition on Saturday my favorite part of the meet.
Based on what I saw in Gymnix, both in terms of what the Italians already have mastered and also on the practically limitless potential in all four, I would be thrilled to see this exact group of gymnasts headline the country’s Olympic team in 2020. Seriously, beam and floor difficulty aside, this team is already pretty much on par with most of last summer’s Olympic team, and they still have three years ahead of them to get more experience. Italy should be incredibly proud of what they have coming up right now, and I can’t wait to watch as this particular group of girls ends up being the future of the sport.
I also obviously enjoyed watching the gold-medal American team, and despite a really rough beam rotation to start them out on Saturday, I admired their composure in coming back from those falls to attack the remainder of their events.
It’s funny, because going into this meet, I was most excited to see this team on beam and I think it’s one of my favorite beam teams in recent years. With Gabby Perea‘s strength, Maile O’Keefe‘s tricky yet effortless combos, Emma Malabuyo‘s poise, and Sunisa Lee’s dance ability, they all offer something unique and beautiful on this event, and all have potential for huge scores.
The falls were definitely a bit of a damper on my high hopes for these beam sets, yet even with counting two of the three falls into their total, the U.S. still had the highest beam total of the competition by half a point. That’s the mark of a fantastic beam team, and I think once we see them get a hang of competing again (they’ve been on hiatus for nine months, with nationals in June the last time we’ve seen them) they’ll be just fine.
Picking things up after beam, Lee — who fell twice on that first apparatus — had another fall on floor, but debuted a Nabieva to pak salto on bars, becoming the first American to compete that super-difficult toe-on to layout Tkachev, a G in the code of points. Perea showed phenomenal work on the remainder of her events, with bars her standout, Malabuyo surprised me with a brilliant Yurchenko double on vault and a fabulous new floor routine, and O’Keefe — the only American to hit beam on Saturday — ended up winning the all-around with a 55.934 after a fall on bars, showing just how solid she was on her other events.
Event finals were also a success, with the U.S. getting two medals on every event, coming out of the competition having earned 11 of the 12 medals available to them (the all-around final wasn’t two-per-country, so they could’ve picked up the bronze there as well, had Villa not been so solid in her own performance). On vault, Malabuyo and O’Keefe had strong DTY and FTY combos to place first and second with averages of 14.388 and 14.1, respectively. On bars, Perea was brilliant, earning a 14.6 for gold, while Lee also showed incredible work to get a 14.125 for silver.
O’Keefe did have a fall on beam on Sunday, but it was a rough final for most of the juniors, and she still walked away with the bronze while Perea picked up her second gold of the meet with a 13.825, and then O’Keefe and Perea tied for gold on floor, showing a good mix of lovely dance and strong tumbling to defeat the rest of the field.
After the meet, I overheard national team coordinator Valeri Liukin happily exclaim, “that’s a wrap!” He posed for pictures with all of his girls, smiled his way through greeting other gymnasts and coaches, and just generally looked to be having a great time at his first team competition in his new role. Yes, beam was less than ideal, but as I said about the competition at the American Cup a week ago, it’s the first competitive month of a new quad. What matters right now is potential, not results, and the juniors in Montreal showed buckets full of potential while also easily walking away the most decorated team of the meet after an epic fight back from that murderous first rotation.
While not as strong as the top two junior teams here, I fell in love with the little Russians, most of whom were 2004 babies with barely any domestic experience, let alone international. And yet this was the only team here that went the whole meet without counting a single fall. YES, RUSSIA! Elena Gerasimova did sit her beam dismount after a FANTASTIC routine, but the other three routines were hit, and so they got to stand on the podium and earn their bronze medals with the pride of knowing they did everything they could to get there.
Daria Belousova, who reminds me a bit of Tatiana Nabieva for some reason (she seems like a bit of a wild child and was always out there having fun, which is terrific), was the strongest all-arounder, placing eighth with a 53.268. The oldest of this bunch (Belousova turned 13 in December while the rest are all still 12), you could tell she was the leader and was proud of her team’s accomplishments, which was adorable.
The Russians were about three or four points on average behind the top Americans in difficulty alone, so really, the gap coming in was far too wide for them to overcome and challenge the stronger teams. Beam is where they showed the biggest skills, but the remainder of their events are mostly in the mid-to-high 4.0 range, though their routines did indicate bigger things are still to come, especially on bars.
Though Russia had two gymnasts in every event final but vault, their low difficulty on bars and floor kept them from medaling, as did their unfortunate falls on beam, with Belousova coming off on her bhs bhs layout series and Strukova coming off early in hers as well (though she did hit her fabulous wolf jump down to one knee, and her back walkover swing down).
Canada had three junior teams at Gymnix, with the strongest girls on Team Canada, and then another eight split between Canada East and Canada West, depending on their geographical location.
Team Canada was fourth overall after a rough day with several falls, including from junior star Ana Padurariu on her flight series on beam. Padurariu I believe also didn’t complete her turn on that event, and so lost a huge chunk in her difficulty in addition to getting docked for the fall, which was heartbreaking as she was a big contender for both the all-around podium and for the beam gold.
But the rest of her day went very well, especially with her beautiful work on bars, and she got at least some redemption in event finals with a bronze on floor, not typically her strongest event. In tougher fields, she also placed fifth on vault with a Yurchenko 1.5 (her best yet, squatted but not scary as other attempts have been) and FTY, and then fourth on bars, half a tenth away from the podium.
After Padurariu’s tenth-place all-around finish was 16th-place Jillian Langille, a 13-year-old national team addition in 2016 who was a crowd favorite at Elite Canada last month. A member of Canada East, Langille definitely surprised by outscoring several of the Team Canada girls thanks to a mostly good day, bars aside. Her choreo on beam and floor is fantastic, based on the Lindsey Stirling “Hold My Heart” music video, and she’s phenomenal to watch, such a performer and one to keep an eye on.
Other Canadians who stood out were Team Canada gymnasts Victoria Jurca, who made the vault final with her super cool Yurchenko full-on back tuck off, Lucia Jakab, who hit a lovely beam in the team competition but fell in the final to place seventh, and Zoe Allaire-Bourgie, who was the surprise of the meet with her beam silver, earning a 13.575 for an excellent routine that included a perfect front aerial to jump series, bhs bhs loso, beautiful double spin, and double full finish.
Finally, Japan. Fifth in the team competition, the girls came in at a disadvantage with only three, meaning it was a tough three-up three-count situation for them whereas everyone else got to count a fall…and so they did end up counting quite a few mistakes. Their standout junior, Mana Oguchi, ended up not competing this weekend, so we saw the adorable Soyoka Hanawa stepping up as the strongest on all events and placing ninth all-around with a 53.068.
Hanawa hit a solid handspring front pike half on vault and solid sets on bars and floor, which is a Godzilla-themed monster routine, just super awesome…Japan’s floor routines are so underrated. But beam is where Hanawa was a superstar, earning a 13.934 in the team competition with two triple flight series and a fantastic double tuck, so it was a shame to see her fall early in her routine in finals, placing fourth, a half tenth shy of the podium.
This was my first year physically getting to attend Gymnix, because it’s usually held the same weekend as American Cup, and I was so excited to go and every expectation was met, especially in this junior competition. The U.S. women finally saw a competitive international threat from the Italian juniors, however short-lived it may have been, and we got to see both excellent up-and-comers in addition to seasoned performances from girls like Perea, O’Keefe, Malabuyo, and Padurariu, all of whom turn senior next year.
With the senior field always a little depleted in the year following the Olympic Games, junior competitions are where it’s at, and Gymnix is always one of the greatest junior meets of the year. At another incredible junior meet, the City of Jesolo Trophy held in just two weeks, we’ll get to see a little rematch between the U.S. and Italy, where they’ll be joined by a slightly more competitive Russian junior team to spice things up even more.
Article by Lauren Hopkins