Valeria Saifulina, Angelina Simakova, and Varvara Zubova at Russian Junior Championships in 2015, where they topped the all-around podium in the espoir division.
I’m excited to kick off the first new seniors post of the year with the Russians, who potentially have a great number of gymnasts who can add depth to the program.
But every year that I’ve done this and have talked about the up-and-comers for Russia, it always works out so that maybe one actually ends up living up to the potential she showed as a junior, with everyone else kind of imploding and fading away. Tbt to Uliana Perebinosova and Daria Skrypnik and Ekaterina Sokova and Anastasia Dmitrieva…
I’m trying not to be a pessimist here. In a perfect world, all four of the exciting new baby Russian seniors will be saviors and heroes and the world will be a better place because they exist in it. So I’ll tell you who I’m excited to see, but keep in mind that maybe one of them will actually end up becoming a productive senior, because life is a mess. But enjoy the ride.
If I had to choose just one who will end up fulfilling the prophecy, it’d have to be Angelina Simakova. She was by far the best junior in the country last year, and though an injury forced her to miss most of the spring and summer — including EYOF, where she would’ve been a star — when she came back in the autumn, it was in a great, big way.
Angelina became the Russian espoir champion in 2015, when she was just 12. At that competition, she also won the gold medals on vault and floor, as well as the silvers on bars and beam, with a strong ability on all four. Unlike the majority of Russians who excel on bars, Angelina showed she could handle a bars set without being one of the country’s best on the event, but more importantly, she showed she was just as good or better on the rest, which is exactly what Russia needed.
In her first official season as a junior, Angelina was a little overshadowed by a superstar junior class, though she still managed vault and floor medals at nationals and earned a spot on the Euros team, competing all events but beam. She missed nationals last year, but won the WOGA Classic early in the year before going on to win vault and place fourth all-around at the Junior Japan International before winning the all-around, beam, and floor titles at Elite Gym Massilia.
After missing out on a team medal in 2015, Russia wants to get back on the podium at worlds and in addition to her all-around prowess, one way Angelina can do that is with her Rudi on vault. Though she can be a little inconsistent with hitting, she has the potential to score close to a 15 on a good day. If she’s hitting regularly this year, it’d be a no-brainer to throw her on literally any team, especially because she can also handle beam and floor, which have often been the team’s downfall.
Her floor is probably my favorite event of hers, with a combo of strong and upgradeable tumbling and great choreography that sets her apart from many of her teammates. But really, while she won’t be a standout against the world class bars gymnasts that make up the senior team, she helps out literally everywhere else in a way the team could actually use.
Russia has gotten a bit stronger in the non-bars department this quad, with several gymnasts — Elena Eremina, Maria Kharenkova, Angelina Melnikova when she’s healthy, Lilia Akhaimova, Daria Elizarova — proving that they can handle beam and floor if needed, but Angelina adds much-needed depth to that pool. You can never have too many, especially after seeing what went down in 2014 and 2015, so even if we have to get a bit pessimistic and say Angelina could only ever be a B team kid, that’s still a great thing. Russia needs a legit B team and they’re slowly building one. If Angelina doesn’t end up being the first one Russia calls up to compete, she will still end up being a vital member of the squad if she continues what she’s doing.
The fan favorite coming up in 2018 is definitely miss Varvara Zubova, she of the pigtails and dimples and cornrows and fabulous beam. Zubova has been on everyone’s radar since her espoir debut at Russian Championships in 2015, where she won the bronze all-around medal and gold on beam while looking like this:
Can you even!?!?!?!?!?!??!!!!!!
As the most adorable human alive, it didn’t really matter what Varvara — who quickly became known as Zubzub — did in the gym. Except then we all realized her beam was absolutely ridiculous. With skills like a walkover mount into a front aerial to front aerial to sheep jump, a triple flight series, a layout series, a leap series into a Korbut, and a double tuck dismount, Varvara was quickly sworn in as queen of the beam, even if her consistency level wasn’t exactly…a thing.
But shhh. We loved her anyway, because she’s literally the second coming of one of the 80s pixies who just bounced around on the beam like a woodland fairy on a tree branch.
And sometimes, Varvara really came through. After winning the espoir all-around bronze at Russian nationals in 2016, she became the youngest member of the Euros team that summer, narrowly missing out on the beam final, and then after winning a third national all-around bronze in 2017, she competed at EYOF where she surprised as the all-around bronze medalist in a field that she was not at all expected to stand out in.
Varvara has proven multiple times throughout her career that she knows how to step up when needed, so while I do see her as a future heartbreaker, she definitely has plenty of room for improvement and will at the very least be a solid B team option.
Next on the list is Valeria Saifulina, who became known as the go-to junior vaulter this past year. Like her teammates above, Valeria debuted as an espoir at the junior championships in 2015, finishing in the silver medal position sandwiched between Angelina and Varvara. She showed an early talent for vault and floor here, with decent work on the other events, though sat out most of 2016 with an injury before returning early last year.
It was a rocky start to Valeria’s comeback, with a rough all-around performance and falls in both of her Jesolo finals, but at junior nationals, she placed a promising fifth place all-around while topping the vault podium, making the EYOF team for that event and winning the gold with a 14.149 average for her DTY and Yurchenko 1½ combo.
Valeria missed out on a medal at Junior Japan, however, because she’s not exactly the most reliable, and I don’t think she’ll really be someone who will make teams at the senior level without major upgrades or cleanups. Her DTY is serviceable at best, so when you have someone like Maria Paseka with an Amanar and Cheng, and then the up-and-coming Angelina with a Rudi, a DTY alone will not get you on a team. But again, B team. A program is nothing without one. Thinking positively.
My fourth and final pick for the Russians this year is Aleksandra Shchekoldina. How do I describe Aleksandra Shchekoldina?
Aleksandra has been kind of hit-or-miss in her career, but then casually showed up at the Voronin Cup in December, actually hit all of her routines, and won the title with a score that would’ve given her the senior title over Angelina Melnikova. She was kind of a late bloomer as a gymnast, debuting in the same espoir group that included the three podium finishers on this list back in 2015, but comparatively not doing as well with an 11th-place finish. Beam was the sole final she made there, and she fell in the final, leaving without any medals.
She remained at the espoir division at nationals in 2016, placing second all-around and medaling on all events but floor this time around, a major improvement, but just as our hopes started to lift, she got injured, competing weak routines on just two events at nationals this year before falling apart at Massilia, where her DTY showed promise and helped her to the vault title, but the rest of her events were disastrous, leaving her unable to crack a 50 in the all-around.
And then Voronin happened. The best meet of her career roughly two weeks before becoming a senior. At Voronin, Aleksandra finally brought (almost) everything together at once, and the kid does have skills that have to be taken into consideration. Like the DTY, and on floor she opens with a double double and dismounts with a triple full on floor, both of which are fab.
But then you have to consider Massilia, where she fell on a Memmel turn after hitting the double double.
And when she wasn’t hitting at Voronin, she was doing this:
So you really have to question what she’s doing with her life at times like these, and that’s why while I want to be fully sold on her and what she can bring to the team, I’m like, not all that convinced. She has the talent to be the Next Big Thing, but can she actually get to that point? Like her hit-or-miss junior career, what she’ll do as a senior is impossible to predict. I want to love her and say she’ll be a star with a little work, but I’m also terrified that she’ll go to worlds and get stuck in the ceiling while vaulting or trip over a mat and break her ankle between rotations.
With Aleksandra, I’ll wait and see what she actually does this year before making any wild predictions. I hope we’re happily surprised and she ends up being a key member of the program, but I’m not going to get my expectations up.
Overall, there are about 12 other Russians with extensive domestic experience reaching the senior level this season. I really like Viktoria Gorbatova, who medaled on bars and beam at nationals this year but isn’t a top contender on either just yet, and Ksenia Kamkova has her moments, but would be B team at best without serious upgrades.
There’s no Aliya Mustafina circa 2010 or Viktoria Komova circa 2011 in this group, but there is potential for an Elena Ereminas circa 2017 or two, and that’s a great thing. We watched Elena blossom from good to great this year, culminating in one of the best collective Russian worlds performances in years.
These slow-but-steady introductions to the senior level are always my favorite, and they often lend to an athlete’s longevity as a top-level contributor to a team. While not all of these four will end up being major players in 2018 or beyond, all of them have the potential for great awakenings as they gain experience, and they will all add valuable depth to Russia’s talent pool, leaving the country with a greater number of strong options should a top choice end up not working out.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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