The Junior Japanese Gymnastics Federation released the list of competitors for this year’s Junior Japan International, which is set to be held in Yokohama later this month. Normally one of the strongest meets of the year for junior gymnasts, this year is no exception, as top juniors from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Canada, and more are expected to attend.
Most notable on the list are the Americans who placed first and second in the junior division at U.S. Championships with scores good enough to put them on any top senior podium in the world, Maile O’Keefe and Emma Malabuyo.
In addition to earning a combined nine medals between the two of them at nationals, the pair has cleaned up on the international scene so far this year, with O’Keefe winning the International Gymnix title and the silver all-around medal at Jesolo while Malabuyo was the Gymnix vault champion and the floor champion at Jesolo, where she also won bronze in the all-around.
This is a tough pair to beat, and they can be expected to pick up a bunch of medals between them in Yokohama, but they won’t be without competition. One of my favorites we’ll see at Junior Japan is Chen Yile of China, who won the title at Asian Junior Championships this spring and has been consistently beating out many top seniors for medals at home, including getting the silver all-around medal at Chinese national championships and placing first in qualifications at this week’s National Games.
Chen, who turns senior next year, isn’t really a standout on any event in the traditional sense, but she’s an incredibly balanced all-arounder with vast potential on bars and beam, and now that she has a Yurchenko double on vault, her all-around scores are going to be strong enough to allow her to contend in hugely difficult fields.
The other Chinese junior here will be Li Qi, this year’s Asian Junior Championships beam gold medalist who also excels on floor, where she has a hilarious NCAA-style routine that fans absolutely adore. On beam, Li has tons of tricky and awesome connections, like a front aerial to split jump to Onodi to stag jump and a side aerial to straddle jump to back handspring, so if she hits in Japan, look for her to be a medal favorite.
There are also the Russian gymnasts Angelina Simakova and Viktoria Gorbatova to think about. Simakova has been injured this year, causing her to miss out on the European Youth Olympic Festival, but when healthy she’s probably the strongest junior in Russia at the moment, and Gorbatova is immensely talented on bars and beam, finishing on the podium on both events at junior nationals this year.
My absolute favorite on this list should come as no surprise, and that’s Ana Padurariu of Canada, who is SO good, she outscored every single senior at Canadian Championships in May, sweeping the junior divisions both there and at Elite Canada, while also picking up the gold on beam at Jesolo and the bronze on floor at Gymnix.
Padurariu is phenomenal across all four of her events, and when she hits, has the skills and routines that make her a huge threat here, even with such tough competition from countries that historically outperform Canada. Now if only we can figure out how to forge her birth certificate so we can get her to Montreal for worlds…
This meet will mark the international debut for Canada’s other junior in attendance, Emma Spence, who has had a whirlwind rise in the sport this year, going from qualifying elite to winning the silver all-around medal at nationals in the span of just a few months. Spence is full of talent and personality, and while her difficulty isn’t quite up there just yet, it’s been climbing all season, with bars and beam her strongest events.
The host country will send Soyoka Hanawa, Chiaki Hatakeda, Ayaka Sakaguchi, and Yuna Endo, all of whom should perform well enough, with Hanawa and Hatakeda the standouts. I was surprised to not see Mana Oguchi on the list, especially after such a strong showing both at home and internationally earlier this summer, so she must be injured because I otherwise can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to show her off.
Hanawa will be one to watch especially in the vault final, where she’ll probably be the sole junior competing two different-family vaults, a Yurchenko double and a powerful Rudi, a fabulous level of difficulty for a junior that would put her in contention for a vault medal at worlds this year.
Other gymnasts who will attend include Emelie Petz of Germany, who swept her division at nationals this year and won the silver medal on floor at EYOF, but generally struggles with consistency and would need to be at the top of her game to contend here; her teammate Kim Ruoff; Denisa Golgota of Romania, who excels on vault and floor; Shin Sol Yi and Yeo Seo Jeong of South Korea; and Lim Sze of Singapore.
The Junior Japan International begins with the all-around competition on September 17 followed by event finals on September 18 at the Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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