The Breakthrough Stars of 2017

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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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25 thoughts on “The Breakthrough Stars of 2017

  1. As a brazillian I just can’t leave Thaís Fidélis out of this list. After finishing the year as the leading gymnast at the world cup ranking on floor and on beam. Than she also became Brazil national champion, placed fifth on the floor final in Montreal, after finishing last in the all alround final. So a very successful year for a first year senior! But I got say your list was very interesting and correct, and it was very nice to see other gymnast outside the major lists also showing a lot of promise ! Note: Eremina for president in Russia !

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    • She was definitely someone I considered! But I feel like 2017 will be even bigger for her. With some gymnasts, you just know that this year was like THEIR year. With others it’s like this was a good year but I just feel like Thais still has an even bigger breakthrough coming, if that makes sense? Like Zsofia Kovacs last year, I was like “wow what a breakthrough year” but now I want to say it again this year based on what she did at Euros! Thais had a fantastic year but I just know more is coming and will probably end up featuring her next year!

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  2. I would put Kovacs on this list (if she hasn’t been on before). She was on the radar last year, but I think her second place finish in the all-around at the European championships was definitely a breakthrough for her and her country.

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    • Her surname is actually Kim! The North Korean names have the surname first, and then the two names after that the given name. But in general, Korean surnames are suuuuuper common. There are something like 300 surnames compared to over a hundred thousand in the U.S., so it’s common to see a few dozen people all with the same last name (Hong, Kim, Park, Lee, etc) and not have even the slightest relation. On the North Korean national team alone there are four Kims, and there are six Kims on the South Korean team! And probably zero are related.

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  3. Although not a breakthrough star on the same level as the others, I’ve got to say I’ve REALLY been impressed with Akhaimova this year. A solid B-teamer slowly moving up the ranks with strong scores on Russia’s weakest events (VT and FX) is definitely impressive. Like I said, not “worth” putting on this list but I figure she deserves a shoutout in the comments section 🙂

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    • YES! I remember when she did floor at Russian nationals one year and I was like WHY aren’t they giving her a chance?! and someone on Tumblr said something about how they’ll never give her a chance because she’s not worth it since she’ll never be a “star” for them. But sometimes teams don’t need STARS. They need Lilias, who can come in and hit regularly and look solid and strong and just show up when the STARS are otherwise unable to. She had a superb season and I’m SO glad they finally gave her a chance!

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      • Agree. Russia have these potential very good gymnasts coming out, but there are ” old stars” coming back. I wonder if this would not have a ” ponnor efect” in Russian gymnastics, demotivating the new talents that will never have a chance for not ” being a star”.

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        • I think Russia is a mix between the U.S. and Romania, where they want the veterans to come back, but they don’t take it on faith that the veterans are going to solve every problem, and so younger gymnasts keep working hard and when the veterans don’t end up working out (like with Ksenia Afanasyeva and Viktoria Komova in 2016), they had backups who were good enough to help them still get the silver medal. The U.S. is more like “meh veterans can come back if they want but we don’t NEED them” and Romania is like FULLY relying on veterans (or one single veteran), so Russia has that medium where they want strong veterans to keep working to add depth, but if they don’t work out, they’re still putting energy and resources into developing athletes, which is why girls like Lilia and now Eleonora exist. Lilia likely will not make any major teams this quad if all of the ‘stars’ do what they’re capable of, but we said the same thing back in 2014, and then that year they ended up having a million injuries and needed Kramarenko and Nabieva on the team, which no one saw coming. That’s a huge advantage for Russia, compared to Romania, who would go from a potential top team to having zero athletes when their top girls got injured.

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  4. I’ve tried searching here and on Google for your previous “breakout stars” articles but I’m obviously searching wrong! Did they have a different name or something I should be searching with?

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  5. What about Tabea Alt? Of course she was last years at the olympics, but there she was an unknown gymstast and since 2017 she´s a very popular gymnast, isn’t´t she?

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    • Yeah, I considered Tabea, and obviously she also had a fantastic year, but I cut it off at ten and she just wasn’t one of those who made that final cut. Not because she didn’t have a good year, but just because there wasn’t room for everyone, and I wanted to include a few gymnasts who did big things within the context of their country even if they didn’t necessarily become huge stars or whatever. But yes, this was obviously a great year for Tabea.

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    • Also, when I considered “breakthrough stars” I didn’t just say “okay here are the ones who won medals, they all get on this list.” There are plenty who won medals at big competitions who didn’t make this list, and it’s because I kind of looked at the whole picture and not just medals. Like Brooklyn didn’t win any medals at worlds, but she started out this season as a first-year senior with zero international experience and ended up shockingly getting a worlds spot over a two-time Olympian and everyone was pissed about this, but then she was incredible on floor and made the final against all odds, and got so much international recognition from judges, coaches, and other gymnasts who were all freaking out over her. Even Morgan was like “omg her floor is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” So I looked for moments like that, and while Tabea was awesome on beam to win a medal, I didn’t have that whole story aspect with her that I did with others. She dominated domestically all season and was a lock for worlds, and then showed up and did what was expected of her in making the final. The medal was a cherry on top, and it was incredible to see Germany take two beam medals when two years ago at worlds they missed Olympic qualifying because of beam, so that in itself is an awesome story…but I felt like Tabea’s story in itself wasn’t one of breaking through barriers to get to that point whereas everyone else on the list was more someone who came up out of nowhere or who struggled to have a major win after years at the senior level…stuff like that. It doesn’t diminish what Tabea and others in her position did, but I wouldn’t consider her stardom in the sport a “breakthrough” moment if that makes sense? It’s still superb, but in a different way. And also I could’ve included a ton of others similar to Tabea, but didn’t end up doing it because then this list would’ve been like 20 people long 😉

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  6. Emma Malabuyo had a breakout year. Of all the juniors in the world, to me she is the only one who really started to show herself ready for the big stage for the first time (I wouldn’t call this a breakout year for, say, O’Keefe, since she was already on the radar last year. For EM, I mean specifically it happened to her this year).

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