Generally I watch the Russian Cup every year because I know while it probably isn’t really going to be good, it’s going to be entertaining as heck.
But this year it was entertaining in a different way. In an “oh my GOD, how is this team SO GOOD?” kind of way. It has been shocking and disorienting, much like it was when junior Ksenia Klimenko made it through the European Youth Olympic Festival last month looking more consistent than any Russian gymnast has in the past decade. I truly believe she set off this Twilight Zone alternate universe chain reaction which is so exciting not only for Russia, but for the sport in general. The sport isn’t at its best until every team is at its best, and even though Russia is lacking its big-name stars right now, the youths are like “who needs them?” and are going to slay all on their own.
It’s hard to pick out a ‘star’ of these event finals, because everyone was fantastic in her own right, but I have to go with Maria Kharenkova, the girl who came into this meet with literally zero expectations and ended up competing some of the best beam and floor performances this country has seen in a long time. Kharenkova went six-for-six on these two events to earn the silver on beam and the gold on floor with masterful performances that would make her a medal contender at worlds.
Originally not named as a frontrunner for the worlds team, Kharenkova completely turned things upside down here. In event finals, her beam included a punch front, a slight wobble at the end of her layout series, a check after her split leap to front aerial to ring jump, a lovely switch ring and ring leap, and a stuck double pike for a 14.8, but while this is the event she’s known for, it was floor where she became a superstar.
On floor, Kharenkova hit a huge double layout right into the corner before nailing a quad turn, the most perfect whip whip through to 2½ to punch front, a switch ring to ring leap, a double tuck with a tiny bounce, and a double pike with a small step. The routine earned a huge 14.5, which is now the highest floor score so far this year, and deservedly so. There’s just something different about her, a maturity and confidence she didn’t have before, and it’s so incredible to watch her blossom into this unstoppable force. She’s always had talent but now she’s outstanding, and I need to see her at worlds.
New senior Anastasia Iliankova was also brilliant in finals, though, earning a 15.275 for her tour de force performance on bars. Her handstands and overall form were close to perfect here, and her skills were tremendous, including a Shang as well as her epic Hindorff to Pak to Maloney to clear hip half to Ezhova series before her toe full to stuck full-out. She’s a little weaker on beam, but also hit that routine for a 14.15, starting out with a scary wobble on her loso mount, but coming back to hit the rest very well, though she won’t really factor in there should she go to worlds.
Her bars set was the best I’ve seen so far this year, and both she and Kharenkova proved that they belong on this year’s worlds team over Maria Paseka, who is one of the country’s best bets for a medal thanks to her difficulty on vault, though based on her two international competitions this year, Paseka absolutely did not earn a worlds spot. I’m afraid she’ll get one anyway, which is a shame, as it means either Iliankova or Kharenkova will be left behind, but to look at it from a different perspective, at least Russia now not only has options, but such great depth that no matter how you look at it, they’ll be leaving a medal contender behind.
Top all-arounders Angelina Melnikova and Elena Eremina also looked great in event finals, for the most part. Melnikova seemed a little tired, causing her to struggle on her power events, and so a crashed DTY on vault and several short landings on floor — including a sat double pike final pass — took away from an absolutely perfect meet, though her bars and beam finals still went super well.
In such a deep bars field, Melnikova ends up looking not quite as polished as some of the other girls, but she still had an excellent routine, placing fourth with a 14.65. Her problems are small issues like ankle separations and the occasional short handstand, but her skills mostly looked great, including her inbar full to Maloney to Pak to van Leeuwen, inbar half to piked Jaeger, and toe full to full-out with a hop.
But it was beam where Melnikova truly shined. Beam has been Melnikova’s struggle all year, and prior to the Russian Cup, she had a hit rate of about 25% on eight routines. She truly turned things around mentally in her time off between European Championships and this weekend, though, hitting every beam routine in Ekaterinburg with her event finals performance most impressive, getting her the gold medal with a 14.825. With a perfect front aerial to jump series, some slight wobbles on her switch ring and layout series, a solid punch front, and a double pike with a hop back, Melnikova looked strong, fighting back from the few small mistakes she did have to finish with one of the best routines of the night. I’m super happy for her, and hope her newfound confidence follows her to Montreal.
Eremina didn’t really have a single standout event in finals, but was just solidly good on all three, winning the silver medals on bars and floor while picking up the bronze on beam. On bars, she actually got to perform two routines, falling on her inbar half on the first set, but they determined her fall came due to a ‘technical error’ with the bars, and so she was allowed to repeat the routine, hitting the second time to get a 14.975 for a mostly strong set.
On beam, Eremina had some wobbles after her full Y turn and bhs loso loso series, and then she had a lunge back on her triple full dismount, earning a 14.275. Like Melnikova, beam is where she has truly struggled all season, but she hit all three of her sets here very well. Wrapping up her meet on floor, Eremina hit a tucked full-in with a step, a 1½ through to triple full to punch front with a small hop, and a triple full with a step back for a 14.2, a fantastic end to an incredible week for her.
Aside from these gymnasts, no one at this meet will factor into the worlds picture, but if I had to pick a wildcard who could end up making a push for teams in the future, that person is Eleonora Afansyeva. As a junior, Afanasyeva — then Goryunova — was one to watch, along with her sister Kristina, but once they reached the senior ranks, neither one ended up working out.
Afanasyeva, who turns 21 next week, stopped training for a bit, got married, had a baby. She made a somewhat surprising comeback this spring, looking okay, but not really impressing much with falls on most of her events. But this week, Afanasyeva was on fire, placing fourth all-around with a 53.850 before winning the gold on vault and the bronze on floor.
It was supposed to be Melnikova taking the vault title with her difficulty level eclipsing the rest of the finalists, but after falling on her DTY, Afanasyeva was able to step up and get the gold for herself, sticking her DTY for a 14.75 before performing a great Podkopyaeva, averaging a 14.275. She was then outstanding on floor, with a great double layout, a whip whip through to triple full with a step forward, a 2½ to front layout with a little skid forward, and a stuck double pike, earning a 13.925 to end up on the podium.
She also finished seventh on beam with a mostly solid but easier set, earning a 13.325, but seriously, Afanasyeva came out of literally nowhere this year and could end up providing some needed depth on floor, where the team has notably struggled in the past.
Uliana Perebinosova looked promising in her first day of competition here, but after rough all-around and event finals performances, it’s clear she still needs a bit of work going foward. She did have a good bars set, earning the bronze with a 14.675, but today she put her hands down following her wolf turn before falling on her layout series on beam, and then she sat her double arabian and crashed her double layout on floor, finishing last on both.
The other gymnast to medal in finals was Viktoria Trykina with the silver on vault, hitting her DTY and Podkopayeva to average a 14.162. Trykina also had a serviceable beam, placing fifth with a 14.05 after wobbling on her layout mount and layout series, and she then finished seventh on floor with a 12.55 after crashing her final pass, the double pike.
I love coming away from this competition feeling so freaking excited for worlds, and I’m so intrigued thinking about what Valentina Rodionenko will do with the fascinating puzzle that awaits her.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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