This year’s European Championships, like most major international meets that take place in the year following the Olympics, will be a bizarre one.
In some cases, countries are sending their absolute best competitors while others in this off-year are opting to test out young talent, gymnasts who need a bit more experience before they’d be in the mix for a worlds or Olympic team. There’s no team competition, so federations are going for a maximum of individual medals or event finals spots, giving them more freedom to select gymnasts who might not be the best team contributors.
Many fans are understandably confused about who to keep an eye on in the all-around and on each event, so I put together a little guide that should hopefully clear things up.
The obvious all-around choices are the Russians. Natalia Kapitonova is the Russian national champion, Elena Eremina was fourth in the all-around at Jesolo, Angelina Melnikova was second at Stuttgart…all three of these have potential to medal here, but all three have also had rough patches this season, so it’ll come down to who hits in qualifications.
Of the three, I think Eremina has the greatest potential. She doesn’t have the highest difficulty, but generally tends to look solid across all four events, and is a fairly balanced gymnast overall. When she makes mistakes, they’re just that — mistakes. She doesn’t melt down, or at least hasn’t yet this year, and knows how to fight back from any problems she has.
Kapitonova has been very consistent this year, but only vaults a full, and essentially is a brilliant bars worker who happens to get by in the all-around thanks to the big scores she can pull off there, while Melnikova hasn’t looked fit enough yet this season to make a big impression, though her performance at Stuttgart was a good indication of how she could be on a day where everything goes almost right.
Speaking of Stuttgart, Tabea Alt of Germany has two world cup all-around titles to her name this year, and hasn’t scored below a 54.199 yet under this code. Her world cup wins both came with mistakes, so a fully hit day from her could mean all-around gold in Cluj, though I expect she’d have a really strong shot at the podium barring a complete meltdown.
Ellie Downie is the one British gymnast really in the mix here, and while she had some mistakes at British Championships, she has strong enough difficulty to get by. On her best day, she could win it all, but with a fall or two, she could still land in the top five, which is a testament to her ability to fight back from mistakes. I mean, could anyone else have landed head-first on floor at the Olympics to come back and nab an all-around finals spot?! Fighter.
My hopeful favorite for the podium is Zsofia Kovacs. The Hungarian has slowly been building up her difficulty all season, bringing her close to the level she was at going into the Olympics last year. With a DTY on vault and hit performances elsewhere, she’s definitely one of my hopeful favorites for the podium, and how amazing would that be for Hungary?!
These are definitely the top gymnasts going into the all-around, but as we know in gymnastics, anything can happen. Some of my outside hopefuls for strong finishes in finals include Eythora Thorsdottir of the Netherlands (especially if she does her DTY to boost her difficulty a bit), Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos of France (she unveiled a DTY in podium training, upping her potential by a ton!), Ana Perez of Spain if she looks anything like she did at the London World Cup a couple of weeks ago, Alt’s teammates Kim Bui and Pauline Schäfer if they hit, and Nina Derwael of Belgium, though she is nursing some ankle pain and will be a little downgraded on a couple of her routines.
Though she hasn’t competed since Rio and wasn’t expected to come back until much later this year, two-time Olympic vault medalist Maria Paseka is a surprise competitor in Cluj. She was named kind of at the last-minute over both of her 2016 teammates Daria Spiridonova and Seda Tutkhalyan, so we knew she must have had something medal-worthy in the works.
In podium training, Paseka whipped out the Amanar and Cheng combination that got her on the podium in 2012 and again in 2016, and while her Amanar looked good — for someone who hasn’t competed in months — her Cheng was pretty heavily spotted, so hopefully she won’t kill herself trying to outdo everyone in a field with much lower difficulty than she’s capable of. An Amanar with a Lopez would be more than fine, especially since beyond Paseka, the most difficult combination of vaults is a DTY and Lopez.
That’s the combination both Melnikova and Downie have, with Downie’s execution quite a bit stronger than Melnikova’s, so if Paseka isn’t up to standard or ends up falling on her Cheng, Downie could very well be looking at gold here. Her DTYs were fabulous at British Championships, one getting close to 15 without the bonus, so if the judges in Cluj reward her as favorably, she could be unbeatable.
Coline Devillard of France has slightly higher difficulty, doing a DTY and Rudi combo, but I think she loses more with her form on both than she gains in the difficulty over those doing the DTY and Lopez combo. Still, she adds a bit of excitement to the mix, especially since it’s been close to a decade since we’ve really seen a French gymnast challenge for a vault medal.
Aside from these four, there’s Teja Belak of Slovenia, who has picked up the bronze medals in two world cups this year, and if she does her full difficulty here — a handspring layout full and a Yurchenko 1½ — she won’t be far behind the top girls, so hit vaults could get her on the podium depending on how the others do.
We’ll also see Kovacs pushing for a medal with her DTY and tsuk full, both of which are clean enough to outscore some of the gymnasts with higher difficulty but weak form. And while none of these have vaults quite difficult enough to end up on the podium, Tjasa Kysselef of Slovenia, Boglarka Devai of Hungary, and Gabriela Janik of Poland could at least make the final if they hit in qualifications.
This will be the best final of Euros, no doubt about it.
Eremina and Kapitonova have the best chances for Russia, with Melnikova also in the mix if she isn’t messy in qualifications as she has been in recent meets. Kapitonova’s D score of 6.2 when everything’s connected is the highest bars difficulty we’ve seen so far this year, with Melnikova’s 6.1 second-best, and Eremina’s 6.0 third, so as always, the Russians will be out for blood on this event if they can control their nerves.
Becky Downie of Great Britain should bring her A game as well, and while she had a couple of errors at British Championships last month, she always pulls it out at Euros, having won two of last quad’s golds in 2014 and 2016, as well as the silver in the super-tight race in 2015.
My favorite for a bars medal is Derwael, who unveiled a huge routine earlier this year complete with a brand-new skill — a Ricna with a half twist — that she connects right into her Ezhova. She’s clean and polished here, and like the others in this bunch, is capable of scoring in the high 14s with a hit routine. She’s Belgium’s biggest podium hopeful in years, no pressure, so I hope it happens if only because her routine is so superb and unique (and I’ll totally forgive the gym gods for leaving her out of the Olympic bars final).
Then there’s Diana Varinska of Ukraine, who — like Derwael — is her country’s biggest medal hope in quite some time, on the women’s side of things of course. Varinska is a new senior with a superb routine, winning gold at the world cup in Baku, where she competed a super difficult Tkachev half to Jaeger. She got a little low-balled in Baku, in my opinion, but up against the rest of the bars contenders, she absolutely matches up and we should at the very least get to see her in the final if not on the podium.
Off-shot hopefuls are probably Bui, Kovacs, and Alison Lepin of France, though the top of this field is so strong, they’d need to hope for big errors if they want to match them. I’d also keep an eye out for Ellie Downie; with Georgia-Mae Fenton getting injured in podium training, the younger Downie could sneak into the final with a solid routine, though again, I don’t think she’d medal without mistakes from the others.
And how did I almost forget Elisabeth Seitz?! She hasn’t been back at her absolute top form yet this year, but if she gets close to it, she’s another obvious choice for the final, if not the podium just yet (unless she’s planning on Aliya Mustafina-ing the crap out of us with surprise upgrades after competing at a lower level last month).
This could be amazing. It could also be a disaster.
I’m thinking, if all goes according to plan, the big showdown could be between 2016 Olympic champion Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands and hometown girl Catalina Ponor of Romania. At the Melbourne World Cup, Wevers showed a 6.0 D score, and when she hits, she has very little to be concerned about in terms of her execution, meaning a score somewhere around a mid-14 is more than reasonable.
Ponor with home field advantage, though, could be unstoppable. She matches Wevers in terms of D, and while she’s not necessarily as clean, competing at home always adds a little boost from a loud and supportive crowd, which also tends to cause the judges to be a little more forgiving in terms of faults and errors (what bent knees in a punch front pike!?).
I’d love to see these two battle it out, but think we also have to keep an eye out for Alt, who has the highest level of difficulty in the field at a 6.1 if she does everything she’s supposed to. I think the other two have a bit more finesse to their beam work, whereas Alt is still a little young and tentative at times on some of her more difficult elements, but all you need is that one epic routine in finals, and bam, the gold is yours.
The other big Romanian name in the mix is comeback kid Larisa Iordache, whose last major international competition came at the 2015 World Championships. If she competes as she looked at a friendly meet in March, she’s definitely not really going to contend here, but she’s had a month to improve and I’m hoping she’s done a lot of work since then. Actually, in France, her bars looked better than her beam, so maybe she’ll be a surprise there as well, but beam has historically been where she shows her greatest ability and level of difficulty, so if she can figure out how to get back to a higher competitive level, you can’t really count her out.
As for the rest, the top beam workers are probably Schäfer, Thorsdottir, Vasiliki Millousi of Greece, and Marine Boyer of France. Millousi won the silver medal in Baku last month, and could score nicely with a fully hit routine, but she’s also been a little inconsistent this year, so it’ll all come down to hitting when it counts. Thorsdottir has also been a little hit or miss, though when she hits she’s incredible, and could challenge the podium, and while Schäfer hasn’t been at her best this year, as she proved at worlds in 2015, all she really needs is to hit, which is sometimes more than enough when everyone around you is unable to do so.
Of that group, Boyer is probably my favorite for a sneaky medal bid. She’s coming off of a fourth-place beam finish in Rio and winning the silver medal at Jesolo, boasting the big skills and strong mental game that a gymnast needs to medal on this event. Her teammate De Jesus Dos Santos is also great to watch here, and it’s where I enjoy her the most, so while she’s not quite at the level as Boyer, she could at the very least make the final with a strong set of her own even if she’s not a top candidate for a podium finish.
Becky Downie hasn’t quite been at full strength here this year, though she always manages to pull something off for Euros, and I think her sister Ellie’s difficulty isn’t really where it needs to be if she wants to challenge. Claudia Fragapane‘s difficulty has also been much lower than we’re used to, having only recently gotten back to training, and she’s struggled this year as well, and Alice Kinsella — covering last-minute for the injured Fenton — has a beautiful routine, though I don’t think it’s quite strong enough for this level of competition, so we’ll see if we get any Brits in the final.
Finally, I want to include the three Russian beamers here, because this season they’ve all shown that they can be extraordinary on beam — if they hit. Pretty much all three of these gymnasts — Kapitonova, Eremina, and Melnikova — could get an 11 one day and a 14 the next, so if they’re in the right state of mind, we could get something great from them (well, at least one of them) and we can’t ever really count them out.
This event is the weakest globally right now, with Mai Murakami of Japan and the American juniors posting the top scores of the year in the low 14s.
In Europe, the numbers get even weaker, and even the top scores thus far have been a bit questionable (domestic scores, that crazy Reykjavik meet where everyone got huge E scores, you know the drill) so it’s hard to say where everyone stands.
The hardest routines we’ll get will come from Melnikova, Ponor, and Fragapane, most likely, though Melnikova and Fragapane both have so much room for deductions. I actually love Fragapane’s new Thoroughly Modern Millie routine and I think Melnikova’s is probably the best-choreographed and most artistic set to come from Russia in the past five years, but they both struggle with form, and Melnikova also can’t seem to physically last an entire set without her endurance imploding, so difficulty might not actually win it for either of them.
While beam is a stronger event for Ponor, with the rest of the field severely lacking, I think this is going to be her easier final. She has some form issues of her own going on, though she doesn’t rack them up quite as severely as the other two do, and while I wouldn’t necessarily include her in any of my favorite current floor worker lists, a hit routine from her here would be about as good as it’s gonna get, even though she doesn’t necessarily have the biggest tumbling passes or most intricate dance elements of the bunch.
Outside of these three, it’s kind of a crap shoot. Ellie Downie wasn’t at her greatest potential difficulty at British Championships, but she’s had time to improve on both that and on her execution, so she could end up working her way up the rankings and medaling. Thorsdottir lacks huge tumbling, but as we know, she does an insane amount of dance skills that keep her D on message and put her right up there with those busting out full-ins and double layouts. Eremina and Kapitonova both come in at about a 5.2, which isn’t the greatest, but it’s not the worst, either, and they both tend to have strong technical performances, though their consistency could use some work.
Off-brand favorites for this event include a bunch of the Germans — Schäfer, Alt, and Bui all have a solid enough level of difficulty that won’t make them gold medal threats but could put them on the road to the podium if they hit — as well as Martina Maggio of Italy, who has low difficulty but generally solid sets, and Ana Derek of Croatia, who surprised with a world cup medal last month, performing excellent leaps and showing a comparatively high level of difficulty at 5.2, though she tends to lose a lot in execution, especially on her tumbling landings.
As always, there are a bunch of gymnasts here I’m excited to see, but who probably won’t make an event final or come close to the top ten all-around. Based on nothing but my own personal preferences, here’s who I’ll be keeping an eye on:
- New senior Vendula Merkova of the Czech Republic has the potential to make the all-around final, repeating what she accomplished as a junior last year. She’s beautiful to watch, especially on beam (where she does her signature back walkover into a split) and on floor, where she made a world cup final this year with low difficulty but a beautiful routine. Unfortunately her twin sister Adela injured her elbow in training and is no longer able to compete.
- Marie Skammelsen of Denmark is making her senior debut here after sitting out much of 2017 — including Danish Championships — due to a nagging injury. Super powerful on vault with a solid set on floor as well, she’s another young senior who I’m hoping will make it into the all-around final.
- I looooove Giada Grisetti of Italy’s lines. She’s to-die-for on bars and beam especially, and while she sometimes struggles with consistency, she is always beautiful to watch.
- I’ve been a fan of the up-and-coming Norwegian team since European Games a couple years back, where Solveig Berg competed an easy bars set (seriously just the basics) but with absolutely stunning lines. She’s very clean and technically proficient in addition to being lovely to watch, and she’s actually quite good on beam. She, along with new senior Julie Søderstrøm, both have lots of potential, but all four girls in Cluj are fabulous.
- Other favorites include new senior Lynn Genhart of Switzerland, 2016 Olympian Angelina Radivilova of Ukraine, and 2012 Olympian (and somewhat new mom!) Göksu Üctas Sanli of Turkey.
We hope everyone’s getting excited for qualifications, which begin at 10 am local time on the 20th! That’s 3 am ET, so enjoy waking up early, friends back home. 🙂
Article by Lauren Hopkins