The Chinese National Games wrapped up in Tianjin yesterday, with results showing not only that the current seniors are looking ready to challenge for medals at worlds this year, but also showing that there’s a ton of strength at the junior level, which could help China a great deal this quad.
As we previously announced, early results here as well as earlier competitions this season have determined China’s worlds team, which includes Liu Tingting and Luo Huan competing in the all-around, Fan Yilin on bars, and Wang Yan on vault, beam, and floor.
In Tianjin, all four of these confirmed why they were selected above anyone else, with Liu, Wang, and Luo placing second, third, and fourth all-around, respectively, (Wang and Luo both earned the same score of 55.333 but Wang won the tie-breaker), while Fan won bars and in two of her three routines, posted scores of 14.933, fourth-best in the world among seniors so far in 2017.
With Wang consistently performing at the same level as Luo in the all-around, it would make sense to send Liu and Wang as the all-arounders and then bring a second vaulter, like Liu Jinru or Wu Jing, but while both of these gymnasts have high start values, neither is really clean or reliable enough to challenge for a medal, while Luo could make both the bars and beam finals if she hits. It’s one of those things that could go either way, but I can see why they’d want to save Wang so she can be at her best on her strongest events rather than also have to focus on competing in an all-around final where she won’t have a chance at a medal, and so Luo absolutely makes sense as the second all-arounder even if she’s not as strong a medal shot on any event.
As the country’s top senior all-arounder at these Games, Liu, who turned 17 this week, earned a 56.001 in finals with a low DTY on vault, a good bars set, though one not as tidy as you generally see from the top Chinese bar workers, and a clean floor routine, hitting a triple full to punch front, a 2½, and a double tuck with a bounce back, on top of excellent leaps throughout the entirety of the routine, getting a respectable 13.5.
But beam is Liu’s event, and she was about as good as she gets in her all-around set. With a perfect punch front mount, Liu went on to show a host of beautifully fluid connections, including her front handspring to front tuck, switch leap to ring leap to Korbut, split leap to side aerial to split jump, and front aerial to ring jump to back handspring, before finishing up with a switch ring and a double tuck dismount. She got a well-deserved 14.867 for this routine, with a huge 6.5 D score, and that’s not even the best she can do.
Unfortunately, she’s not always this on top of things. She missed several connections throughout her other routines at this competition, getting a 14.067 in qualifications, a 14.367 in team finals, and a 14.1 in event finals, with her D scores ranging from 6.0 to 6.4. While her beam perfectly encapsulates what a beam routine should look like when fully maximizing the many nuances of the current code, a CV-heavy routine is a huge risk. She’s only reached her full D score of 6.6 once this season, and she averages about a 6.2 over her ten routines in 2017. But still, this is higher than most could hope for on a good day, and all she’ll need at worlds is that one routine in finals to be as good as this all-around routine was in Tianjin. If I could pick someone to win gold this year based on a combination of difficulty, ability, and aesthetic, she absolutely is it.
After winning all-around silver and helping her province, Guangdong, to team gold, Liu looked a little tired in event finals, finishing eighth on bars with a 12.3 after losing her rhythm in her front pirouettes sequence before hopping off, placing fourth on beam with a 14.1 after some missed connections, and then winning the bronze on floor with a 13.4 for a clean routine. But based on how the rest of her week went, she’s looking to be China’s star in Montreal next month.
Wang, also 17, will be the team’s other star in addition to its leader. With the Olympic Games last summer the best overall performance in Wang’s career, she certainly knows how to hit when it counts, proving this yet again at National Games with gold on vault and floor, bronze in the all-around, and a silver medal with Beijing in team finals, where she contributed on all four events.
As always, bars is Wang’s weakness, though despite low difficulty and not looking as naturally strong on the event as some of her teammates, she still manages solid routines that focus on her strengths, including both a Weiler kip and a Weiler half right at the start in addition to a fabulous double-twisting double layout dismount, an upgrade for her, and she’s one of only a handful who have competed it in the two decades it’s been around.
The rest of her work is great, though, which is why they’re having her go for all three of her remaining events. Beam was going to be a bit of a toss-up between Wang and Fan, with Fan capable of about the same level of difficulty, though Wang proved to be the far better choice in Tianjin. Her all-around performance was her strongest, earning a 14.133 for a punch front pike mount, punch front tuck, switch leap to ring leap to Korbut, beautiful layout series, and a stuck triple full dismount.
Wang’s combined vault difficulty of 11.4 ties her with a couple of other gymnasts for the highest D score in the world, but all of those who match her aside from Jade Carey are also from China and won’t compete in Montreal, putting her in a pretty good position to challenge for a medal. Of course, difficulty isn’t everything, and she is notorious for form errors and finishing short, which she did on both vaults in event finals in Tianjin. Her tsuk double was a little piked with loose legs, her chest down, and two steps back, while her Rudi was super short with a large step forward. Luckily for her, though, with the exception of Rebeca Andrade, none of the other top vaulters are exactly beautiful right now. Form issues or not, she’s still one of the best shots for the worlds podium.
On floor, Wang looked fantastic all week, though again some form errors will hold her back a bit despite her big 5.7 D score. She’s competing a double double to open her routine, and also has a 1½ through to triple full to punch front (awesome, but the triple is always about a quarter short), a 2½ to punch front, and a double full to finish, which seems easy and random compared to the rest of what she does. I know she’s had quite a few injury issues this year, so it’s possible she’s holding back a bit and will be able to show a bit more at worlds, but while she’s pretty consistent here, she could be just on the outskirts of the final depending on how everyone else does.
17-year-old Fan competed everything but vault in qualifications at this meet, and while her bars were stellar, she got just a 12.633 after falling on her layout series on beam, and then sitting her 1½ to punch front on floor, a routine that earned an 11.467 for being weak in general. In team finals, she hit beam, but stumbled forward on her half-in double back dismount off bars.
Thankfully, Fan brought back a fabulous set for the final, winning gold with a 14.933 for her Komova II to Pak to Chow to Gienger, and then an inbar half into her intricate front pirouette series directly into her dismount, everything done expertly. Her routine is impossibly quick but efficient, lasting just 24 seconds from start to finish, but packing in enough big skills to get her to a 6.3 D score in that amount of time, the second-highest in the world.
Fan was initially planning on retiring from gymnastics following the National Games, apparently returning to training with her provincial team rather than with the national team, mostly due to a lackluster performance at nationals earlier this year. But even if she’s no longer where she was a year ago as a whole, her bars are absolutely world-class and worthy of a medal this year, so I’m glad she’s able to stick around just a little bit longer.
Now let’s talk about Luo. The 17-year-old alternate for last year’s Olympic team, Luo has been killing it all season, winning three world cup medals, three medals at Asian Championships, and she’s this year’s national champion in the all-around and on bars. And yet, she walked away empty-handed at the National Games.
In the context of the worlds team, she’s the weakest, if only because the other three have such impressive standout events and she’s just kind of there. She’s an all-arounder who can call bars and beam a strength, though she’s not an outright bars or beam specialist. She did well enough at National Games, with her fourth-place all-around finish and sixth place on bars in the final, where she showed her weakest routine of the meet, just a 13.967 after catching her Jaeger way too close, though she’s capable of mid-14 scores when she hits.
Luo skipped the beam final, with Zhejiang province handing her spot to Li Qi in a decision that resulted in gold for the junior (and an all-junior podium!). Luo fell in her team finals performance on beam, but her all-around performance was excellent, earning a 14.533 to make her the only senior beam gymnast to come even slightly close to Liu. This routine was mostly great, with a switch leap to ring leap to back handspring, a layout series with a big wobble but a fight to stay on, a front aerial to split jump to Onodi to stag ring jump, and a double pike with a bounce back.
It’ll be hard to see Luo at worlds as someone with a shot at more than all-around and beam finals at best, mostly because her own teammates will overshadow her in all of the places where she stands out the most. But that’s okay. Not every single team is going to have every single gymnast make a final, and on basically any event, if her teammates make mistakes but she hits, she steps up as China’s #1 for that final. With no one else a realistic medal threat to take that spot, she’s a good second-in-command in case someone on the team ends up freezing up in competition.
I think if Liu Jinru were a bit more of a guarantee for a medal, she could’ve taken that spot, especially coming in as the national and Asian champion this year. But while her scores are strong, they’re not earth-shattering, she struggles with consistency often, and she has literally zero other events. If you’re a one-event specialist, you better be super on your game, and Liu just isn’t.
With a fall on her tsuk double, Liu ended up placing sixth on the event at National Games, and that just isn’t safe enough to take along for worlds. In the future, maybe she’ll be strong enough to be a vault specialist at the Olympics, but Luo is someone who could be part of the meat of the team for several years to come. If the Chinese program is looking to build a lasting team situation and not just maybe get a single vault medal here, Luo is the right choice.
Shang Chunsong was another gymnast in contention for a worlds team spot, but the federation didn’t name her when they released the team earlier in the week, and she didn’t help her case with a fifth-place all-around finish and no event medals (the 21-year-old veteran was fourth on bars, fifth on beam, and eighth on floor after sitting both her opening 3½ to punch front and then her 1½ through to triple full to punch front).
Though she was hoping to continue through to Tokyo 2020, Shang is likely going to join the wave of post-National Games retirements, which also includes 2016 Olympic medalist Tan Jiaxin and worlds medalists Huang Huidan, Bai Yawen, and Chen Siyi, none of whom made any individual finals here. Additionally, Yao Jinnan attempted to come back so she could finish out her career at the National Games, but she was too injured to go on and instead announced her retirement on Weibo. While Shang could keep going, it seems her coach is kind of being forced out of the national team, and she wouldn’t continue on without him.
Hopefully we do see her end up sticking around. Even while her National Games competition wasn’t ideal, she was named alternate for the worlds team, and she still had a pretty strong performance despite no super high scores. She’s kind of in the same boat as Luo right now, and given that she was injured twice this year, she’s clearly not in top form.
Sticking around means contending not only against the current crop of seniors, but also against the up-and-comers, the juniors at this meet who picked up a total of seven individual medals in the mixed field.
The top junior is Chen Yile, the 15-year-old from Guangdong who has only been with national team coaches Wang Qunce and Xu Jinglei for about a year and a half, going from virtually unknown on her provincial team to a national all-around star in that time.
Chen won the all-around title with a 56.434, and then went on to also win the silver medals on beam and floor while also helping lead her province to gold. In all, Chen competed 15 routines over the span of National Games, and she had not one fall or major mistake, despite her “whole body shaking with nerves” during her routines. Despite her nerves, Chen looked remarkably composed and solid in competition, and is so good on all four events, she is absolutely the gymnast to keep an eye on going forward into this quad.
If I had to pick a highlight for Chen, it would be beam. What else?! Like her Guangdong teammate Liu Tingting, Chen is remarkable there, hitting strong scores all week. Her event finals routine included a nice layout series, switch ring to Korbut, front aerial to split jump to stag ring jump, switch leap to ring jump, and a triple full dismount, getting a 14.433 in a stacked beam field.
The beam podium was actually a juniors-only club, with the phenomenal Li Qi taking the gold with a 14.8 while Tang Xijing — who stepped in for Wang Yan — getting bronze with a 14.233.
I know I went on about the beauty and fluidity of Liu’s routine earlier, but the 2002-born Li actually might be even better. Opening with a switch leap mount, Li continued to hit a perfect switch leap to sheep jump to back handspring, gorgeous layout series, switch half to Korbut, front aerial to split jump to Onodi to stag ring jump, and a stuck triple full dismount. It’s a stacked 6.4 routine done super well, with barely a tenth of a second between all of her connected skills.
Seriously, China is killing the beam game this quad, and bronze medalist Tang fits into the picture as well. A 2003-born gymnast from Beijing, Tang’s set is out of a massive 6.5, and includes a roundoff layout stepout mount, floaty layout to jump series, a switch leap to ring leap to Korbut that had a bit of a pause but a good recovery, a split leap to front aerial to stag ring jump, and another triple full dismount, taking a bit of a jump forward out of it. She didn’t look as composed as the others, but she’s a bit younger and still doing the same incredible skills, and with so much room to grow.
Moving away from beam, another one of my must-watch juniors here included the vaulter Yu Linmin of Fujian province. Yu actually could fall into the same trap as Liu Jinru someday, as she’s fantastic on vault, but doesn’t really have anything else, which will absolutely hurt her on a five-person worlds team and even more so on a four-person Olympic team.
Another 2003 baby, Yu has tremendous power, vaulting a Yurchenko double and a Cheng, both of which look great. She stuck her DTY in qualifications, getting a 14.467 with some slightly loose leg form in the air, and while her Cheng is still a bit weak, you have to remember: she is a 14-year-old doing a vault that no seniors are competing at the moment. Even with a super low landing and a stumble forward in event finals, Yu managed to outshine most of the seniors, winning the silver medal with a 14.350 average, and I can’t wait to see the little improvements that will come as she gets a bit older and more powerful.
Finally, 2002-born Du Siyu of Beijing was one of the stronger junior all-arounders, finishing ninth with a 52.767 after a fall on beam. She vaults only an FTY, and her floor is pretty weak, but she’s another one of those who gets by in the all-around thanks to her generally strong bars and beam, and even in a stacked bars final with very few mistakes from the top contenders, she managed to win the silver medal with a huge 14.533 for her routine.
Du’s bars in finals included a Chow to Pak, Maloney to giant full to Jaeger to Gienger, the usual front pirouette work, and a nearly-stuck double layout, all done cleanly with no major errors. With a 6.2 D score, she has one of the more difficult sets in the country, and like her junior teammates, it’s a routine that can be played with and improved in the current years.
As excited as I am about this year’s worlds team, I think I’m more excited about the juniors like Chen, Li, Tang, Yu, and Du, all of whom look like they’re absolutely ready to fill the multiple gaps left by the retiring seniors who ran the show last quad. Just this group of five covers the bases pretty much everywhere, and if you sent them to Montreal right this second, they’d already be a solid team of medal contenders. Now with a couple more years to fine-tune and finesse before Tokyo, I’m so excited to see how they continue to grow, and think China could have an incredibly successful quad.
Full results from the National Games are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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