My favorite part of every year of covering gymnastics is seeing who ends up breaking down barriers to make a name for herself in the sport.
No year is this more exciting than the year directly following the Olympic Games. With so many of the previous quad’s top gymnasts retiring or taking extended breaks, the post-Olympic year is the perfect time to watch newcomers begin to leave their mark while many veterans step out into the spotlight after spending prior years in the shadows of teammates.
In my list of my favorite breakthrough stars this year, I included those who accomplished major medal feats, those who overcame significant obstacles to stand out internationally, those who came out of nowhere to do big things, and those who may not be among the best in the world, but who showed the potential to do big things for their countries.
Brooklyn Moors, Canada
Tbt to when Brooklyn was named to the Canadian worlds team and everyone freaked out. A first-year senior with almost no experience got in over a two-time Olympian?! How is this possible?!
Cut to Montreal where Brooklyn stole the show, winning over the Canadian crowds and everyone in the world watching from home with her confidence, poise, style, clean execution, difficult front tumbling, beautiful leaps, and breathtaking choreography. Even the Longines voters were wowed by Brooklyn, awarding her the Prize for Elegance, a huge honor generally reserved for well-known stars of the sport.
In addition to becoming the first Canadian gymnast to receive the prize, Brooklyn also placed fifth on floor, the best in Canada’s history. At only 16, Brooklyn has already accomplished more than most elites can tackle in a lifetime, and this is just the beginning. Brooklyn had fewer than two years of elite experience when she made waves at worlds, and there’s so much more she’s capable of.
Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos, France
Nothing was more gut-wrenching than seeing Melanie come back from injury only weeks before France’s Olympic team selection last summer looking good, but not quite ready enough to get a ticket to Rio. But no worries — Melanie quickly became someone the French team would never again leave behind, landing on podiums both domestically and internationally in late 2016 and early 2017, leading up to her bronze medal all-around finish at European Championships.
A super-balanced all-arounder with almost zero weaknesses who performs well with big, clean skills on every event, Melanie has the makings of a star gymnast for France. In addition to her Euros medal, she also finished fifth all-around at worlds, became the French national all-around champion, and won two world cup medals, and she’s just getting started.
Nina Derwael, Belgium
When Nina was a junior, it was clear she was going to do big things for Belgium someday. While her senior career didn’t get off to the best start after an injury kept her out of the Olympic test event, she was still a frontrunner for the Olympic team, and performed admirably on both days in Rio, with her 19th-place all-around finish Belgium’s best ever at the Games, and she came within tenths of making the bars final.
This year was where Nina really started to shine, making history over and over again. She became Belgium’s first-ever European champion when she took the gold on bars in Cluj, earned the country’s best all-around finish ever at worlds where she placed eighth, and then became the first Belgian woman to win a medal at world championships when she snagged the bronze on bars. With even more planned upgrades and as she builds on her incredible experiences this year, Nina has the potential to be a gymnastics legend in Belgium and I’m so excited to see what else she’ll do.
Morgan Hurd, United States
The second Morgan stepped out onto the competition floor at the Nastia Liukin Cup in 2014, every gym fan immediately fell in love. She brought tons of talent, energy, and brilliance to her performances throughout her junior elite career, and sported a never-give-up attitude even on tough days when she started competing as a senior.
After finishing sixth all-around at nationals, it was a happy surprise to see Morgan named to the worlds team, and while nearly everyone questioned whether she’d be able to make the podium in Montreal, Morgan simply kept her nose to the grindstone, worked hard, and made it happen in spite of all odds against her. The transformation she underwent from the start of the season to standing on the worlds all-around podium with the gold medal around her neck was inspiring, and as if that wasn’t enough, she also picked up a silver on beam.
Morgan proved that anything is possible if you work hard and fight for it, and in the process, she cemented herself as one of the best gymnasts not only in the U.S., but in the world. That in itself is impressive, but to have the confidence to make it happen with only six months of international experience at 16? Bananas.
Georgia-Mae Fenton, Great Britain
After struggling through a career hampered by injuries, including one that took her out of European Championships at the last second this season, Georgia finally put herself on the map this year as one of the most talented and inventive bar workers out there.
Though she didn’t end up making the final at worlds, her qualifications routine was SO good and absolutely should’ve made it in, but instead she was first reserve, just one-third of a tenth away. But either way, she brought her best routine possibly of her life right when it mattered, doing everything she could to make that final, and bringing me to happy tears when she finished with the happiest smile on her face. The final didn’t happen this time around, but she showed the world that she can do big things in this sport, and got a skill named for her in the process.
Kim Su Jong, North Korea
Whenever we see a North Korean excelling internationally, it’s generally because she is able to master a single event. I can’t remember the last time I saw a strong all-arounder come out of the North Korean program, and then Su Jong appeared at this year’s Asian Championships, surprising in her first competition outside of her country to take the bronze medal.
Naturally, I was intrigued, and the videos I saw of Su Jong did not disappoint. Su Jong, who also won the silver medal on vault and the gold medal on floor at this competition, possesses a light and energy that you don’t normally see from the North Korean gymnasts, who seem to focus more on the technical aspect of their performance than on engaging a crowd. But Su Jong was everything I never knew I wanted from North Korea, performing her routine spectacularly while also doing some huge tumbling, like a triple full to punch front, which she finished with the sassiest bit of choreo ever.
Su Jong also has an excellent Yurchenko double, a super clean bars set (where she competes a clear hip full to Tkachev, clear hip half to straddle Jaeger, and a lovely full-in dismount), and lovely lines on beam, though she had a fall at Asian Championships. I have never in my life been so excited about a North Korean all-arounder before, but this kid has the potential to be a game-changer for them and I can’t wait to see what else she can do.
Diana Varinska, Ukraine
The life of a Ukrainian gym fan is all about getting so excited for juniors and then crying forever because the second they turn senior, it’s all downhill from there. I tried not to get my hopes up about Diana, who knocked everyone’s socks off with her EYOF performance, but I just couldn’t help myself, and when she kicked off her senior career with a win on bars at the world cup in Baku, I finally felt validated in my adoration.
With some injury issues, Diana hit a few rough patches this year, but she showed up at worlds looking as good as we could hope to see her, and even though she had some downgrades throughout her routines — including bars — she still managed to qualify seventh into the all-around final with an excellent prelims performance as well as into the bars final, where she finished sixth.
Unique skills and tricky combos on bars are Diana’s specialty, but she proved to be quite good as an all-arounder this year, and has a talent on beam that sometimes is overshadowed by her lack of consistency, but hopefully as her confidence grows, so will her potential there. Ukraine has a strong team going forward this quad, with Valeriia Iarmolenko and Valeriia Osipova also standing out at worlds on top of some very talented upcoming juniors, so I’m hoping Diana will lead the charge at worlds next year and in 2019 as they fight to qualify a full team to Tokyo.
Elena Eremina, Russia
Elena is such a breath of fresh air for the Russian program in so many ways, I get emotional when I talk about her. She is an incredible talent, but beyond that, she is genuinely having fun out on the floor, she is an enthusiastic fan and friend to her competitors from all over the world, and she has something going for her that Russia has been without for quite some time — consistency.
As great as Elena’s year and medal haul was, with the silver on bars at Euros before she went on to win the silver on bars and bronze in the all-around at worlds, nothing stands out to me as much as her consistency does. Elena rarely faltered, especially on bars, where she hit every single routine — all 12 of them! — in a six month period. And at worlds, where she performed a total of ten routines between qualifications, the all-around final, and her two event finals, she didn’t fall once, which is probably Russia’s best record at a major international competition ever.
I love everything about Elena, and like so many others on this list, the potential in her to do even more is so great. At 16, she’s already accomplished what most veterans have only dreamed of doing, and yet she’s capable of doing so much more.
Jade Carey, United States
Nothing thrilled me more than the rise of Kayla Williams from level 10 to world champion in six months back in 2009. When Jade, whom national team coordinator Valeri Liukin scouted as a level 10 back in 2016, seemed likely to make the same thing happen this year, I couldn’t wait to see if she could pull it off.
Jade didn’t end up becoming a world champion, but she did win two silver medals at world championships in her very first international competition, which came only two months after her very first competition at the elite level, period. Can you say talented? And not to take away from what Kayla did in her day, but the field this year was so strong on both vault and floor, it makes what Jade did all the more remarkable. Her huge vaults — an Amanar and a tsuk double — and crazy impressive tumbling actually look easy for her, meaning there’s potential in her for upgrades in the future.
Helmi Murto, Finland
I didn’t know much about Helmi when I first saw her compete this year, but when she won the bronze medal at Finnish nationals — her first competition in two years — she definitely piqued my curiosity. Helmi missed her senior debut season due to injury, but when she returned it was as one of the country’s best, making the worlds team and winning the bars title at Northern Euros in the process.
Many of Finland’s best gymnasts tend to peak when they’re a bit older, and the country’s top three international competitors are all in their early-to-mid 20s. For Helmi to compete at their level at 17 is huge, and as she continues to grow in the sport, I think she can do big things for this country. At the moment, her routines when hit are NCAA-esque, with clean and polished skills. I especially love what she can do on bars, and hope that’s where she continues to shine as she adds to her difficulty in the future.
Mai Murakami, Japan
If you’ve been following gymnastics for a few years now, you’ve probably always known Mai. After not making the Olympic team in 2012, Mai stuck around and improved a ton, though she still faced many setbacks last quad, including not making the worlds team in 2015. But when gymnasts on that team got injured, Mai — the second alternate — stepped up to the plate and hit a grand slam, contributing on every event to help her country place fifth in the team final before going on to finish sixth in the all-around.
This was the turning point in Mai’s career, leading to the national all-around title in 2016 and an automatic berth on last summer’s Olympic team, where she made two individual finals while helping her team finish fourth. Coming off of her Rio high, Mai refused to slow down, dominating at home all season before showing up to worlds where she made history as the first Japanese gymnast to win a gold medal on floor. Murakami was also a frontrunner to win the all-around title at worlds, and even though a fall kept her off the podium by a tenth, her fourth-place finish was Japan’s best since 2009.
It may have taken her five years at the senior level to have her breakthrough moment, but Mai refused to give up even when all odds were stacked against her. Seeing her finally make it happen at the age of 21 after seeing her get close year after year was SO much fun, and no one deserved that floor title this year more than she did.
Note: When I included Mai, a veteran who achieved something major after years in the sport, I thought “should I also include Ellie Black?” because she was in a similar position as someone who got her start as a senior competitor two quads ago only to just now get a medal at worlds. But I actually included Ellie as one of my breakthrough stars in 2014, back when she stepped up as a true leader for the inexperienced Canadian team in Nanning while also killing it at the Commonwealth Games and winning world cup and Pac Rims medals in the same season. Since then, Ellie has made history for Canada numerous times, including a best-ever fifth-place Olympic all-around finish in 2016, so even though this was the year she finally got her world medal, I don’t consider that her “breakthrough” moment in the way I consider it Mai’s. I wasn’t going to explain this, but figured I might get some comments about “leaving Ellie out” when in fact I already included her as a breakthrough star three years ago. 🙂
Who were your favorites who really stepped up and made a name for themselves in 2017?
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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