Rune Hermans, Senna Deriks, Nina Derwael, Maellyse Brassart, and Axelle Klinckaert
Despite sending mostly B teams to this year’s DTB Pokal Team Challenge in Stuttgart, Russia, Germany, and Japan were considered the teams to beat going into the meet. It was the Belgians, however, who took everyone by surprise, topping the field by five points in qualifications and then winning the gold by more than three points in the final.
With a team of young Olympic veterans Nina Derwael, Senna Deriks, and Rune Hermans in addition to almost-Olympian Axelle Klinckaert, who bowed out of the Rio Games due to a last-minute injury, and Maellyse Brassart, a member of last year’s world championships team, the Belgian ladies completely blew away their competition and proved that qualifying a full team to the Olympics wasn’t just a one-time fluke.
To be quite honest, when several of Belgium’s 2016 Olympians and Olympic contenders announced their retirements from the sport, I began to get nervous about Belgium’s prospects as a team. The current crop of girls is a strong one, but with no upcoming juniors at the same level as those who were bowing out — like three-time Olympian Gaelle Mys and last quad’s big up-and-comer Laura Waem — I definitely questioned whether this team could make the Games happen again.
For them, however, this quad’s change to a four-man team is actually super beneficial, as the overall weaker level of depth in the country won’t matter so much, as long as they can get four strong all-arounders together when they need to. If everyone’s healthy for worlds next year, they have just as good a chance as anyone to make it in, something they proved with their strong and confident performances in Stuttgart.
Derwael was the strongest of the team coming into this competition, coming off of last year’s European title and world bronze medal on the uneven bars thrilled to make history for her country, but not yet fully satisfied or even close to reaching her full potential on that event and others.
At Stuttgart’s qualifications, Derwael led the field in the all-around and on bars, and despite a fall on beam in the team final, showed a remarkable level of confidence across all of her events. With a brand new 6.4 D score on bars, Derwael made her routine — especially the Derwael-Fenton to Ezhova to Chow to Bhardwaj series — look easy both days, though I was most impressed with her growing confidence on beam.
I think Derwael is super underrated on this event, because despite lower difficulty here, she is clean and avoids so many of the adjustment and lack of extension deductions that judges are going after this quad. A hit set from Derwael at a major international competition could make her a finals contender over girls with 6+ D scores who struggle with what Derwael is great at. I also love Derwael’s work on floor, where she put up excellent performances in both prelims and in the team final thanks to a lovely as always performance.
This was also one of the first times we got to see Axelle Klinckaert back in action at a high level after her 2016 injury. Klinckaert has competed at a couple of small meets since then, but opted out of worlds last year, not wanting to rush things, and it was well worth the wait. Competing all events but bars in both sessions, Klinckaert showed great power on vault and floor, hitting a big clean FTY while showing solid tumbling in a bizarrely awesome Harry Potter floor routine that only she could pull off.
Klinckaert did have a fall on her standing arabian in prelims, but she looked great in the team final, contributing a 12.5 — the fourth-highest of the day on this toughly-scored event with a solid and tidy set capped off with a great landing on her double pike. Overall, I think Klinckaert is in a great place after both the injury and a growth spurt, and she’ll definitely be an invaluable part of this team in the coming years.
Always kind of in the shadow of these two is Rune Hermans, who surprised as a first-year senior with an all-around finals spot at worlds before going on to become first alternate for Rio, stepping in for the injured Klinckaert just weeks before the Games. Hermans has been crushing it on the international scene over the past year in addition to winning the Belgian national all-around title in 2017, and this competition was another strong one for her.
Without a clear standout event in the way Derwael has with bars and Klinckaert has with floor, Hermans makes every event a standout. She has been internationally competitive on bars, beam, and floor, and though she tends to hold off on competing vault unless she really needs it, she has a reliable FTY that she can upgrade to a 1½ when she needs one.
In Stuttgart, Hermans was a top-earner on all three of her events, and despite some little mistakes in the team final, she looked excellent overall, with her beam performance in prelims a highlight, taking the top score of the day after showing a clean double wolf turn, side somi, side aerial to layout stepout, full turn to switch half, and nearly stuck 2½ dismount, one of the best sets I’ve seen her compete.
Brassart and Deriks contributed solid scores on vault in both prelims and in the team final, and while Deriks struggled on bars with a Jaeger fall in the final, her routine when she’s at full strength is generally a highlight for this program, just as Brassart’s floor is. As with the other three, this pair is looking likely to represent Belgium at worlds this year, and I’m excited to see them at full strength.
Behind Belgium, the Swiss ladies got an upset over both Japan and the host team Germany in the final, thanks largely to an excellent performance from Giulia Steingruber, though the others on this team — Fabienne Studer on vault and bars, Ilaria Käslin on beam and floor, and new senior Leonie Meier contributing on all four — were also solid, not counting any falls into their total.
With her vault downgraded to a huge and powerful FTY, Steingruber brought in a great score there and also showed strong work on floor, hitting a double layout, tucked full-in, front tuck through to a near-stuck double tuck, and a double pike, also nearly stuck, to finish with a 13.433, the highest of the day. Steingruber also led the meet on beam and got her job done on bars in the final, and she was almost equally solid in prelims, finishing third all-around on that first day of competition.
For Japan, falls counted on bars and beam in the final held them back quite a bit. Hitomi Hatakeda, who was excellent in prelims, unfortunately wasn’t as strong on beam in the final with some uncharacteristic wobbles and missed connections, and her teammate Yuki Uchiyama struggled both there and on bars, though both performed well on floor. Kiko Kuwajima also showed solid work on floor and in general, though bars is a noticeable weak spot for her, and so a few bad handstands — some arched, some way short — held back her total there, but overall this could be considered a hit day for her.
The German ladies came into the final rotation with a lead over Belgium, but with the tight scoring and a couple of falls on beam, they ended up dropping to last place. Otherwise, this was an incredible day for the Germans, none of whom are really first-choice A teamers with the exception of the always solid Kim Bui, putting up a super strong bars set here. Carina Kröll was also solid on her events, bars and beam, while Emma Höfele brought in strong scores on vault and floor, but both Isabelle Stingl and Michelle Timm struggled on beam, and those two falls at the end of their day ended up keeping them from the podium.
As for teams that didn’t make the final, none was more surprising than Russia. They didn’t bring the absolute top available competitors to Stuttgart, but you’d think a squad with Olympic and world medalists in addition to the most physically fit floor worker Russia has seen in years wouldn’t have a problem against historically far-weaker A teams from Belgium and Sweden and fellow A-B team mixes from Germany and Japan.
But struggle they did, though I don’t think they really cared all that much, judging on their social media reactions, which showed them enjoying the sights and some candy once their qualification performance was finished. If anything, this seemed to be nothing more than an early season warmup for them, as they have a few more months to prepare for Euros than they usually do.
Lilia Akhaimova was excellent on both vault and floor, hoping to get the bump from B team to worlds team contender this year, especially now that Elena Eremina is out with a back injury. And without her inbars or any suitable replacements for them, Viktoria Komova — who wasn’t credited for some of her toe-on skills since she had more than three in her routine — looked mostly great on bars, putting up the fourth-best score with a 13.65, and despite some mistakes on beam — a big wobble on a punch front tuck and a super low squatted landing on her double tuck — she actually looked pretty great as a whole, with her standing arabian and clean leaps definitely the highlights.
2017 world bars finalist Anastasia Iliankova made it through the toughest stuff in her opening series — the Shang, followed by the Hindorff to Pak to Maloney — but as she transitioned from the Maloney into the clear hip half, she was quite shy on the handstand and attempted to regroup before eventually hopping off. Back on for a half pirouette into the Ezhova, she didn’t quite get near the form she needed, bending her knees and piking down pretty heavily, and she also fought through a handstand before the toe full into her dismount, making this just rough all the way through in addition to counting a fall on beam, which was unfortunate as she looked excellent in podium training.
Then we have Maria Kharenkova, who came back with such a vengeance last fall but was denied a spot on the worlds team. Kharenkova had a couple of severe wobbles throughout, most noticeably on her punch front, but she also had to fight through her jump series, her full turn, and a ring leap in addition to showing a few other tough spots in this set, and she balked her dismount, performing just a layout with her knees bent. Her floor was better, with a stuck double layout, a solid 2½ to front tuck, a slight stumble on her double tuck, and a somewhat low landing on her double pike, but she kind of botched the switch ring half in her leap pass and wasn’t credited for it, taking her D score down a notch.
Overall this team isn’t actually all that weak, and I could see at least three of them legitimately on this year’s worlds team, but I’d wager that they’ll all look vastly better in October than they did here, so I’m not too worried.
Other nations that competed at this year’s Team Challenge included Spain, the Netherlands, and Norway, while Badem-Württemberg, the state in which Stuttgart lies, also sent its top gymnasts, including 2012 Olympic vault finalist Janine Berger, who performed well on bars. Tisha Volleman of the Netherlands looked strong on all four of her events, and I was really impressed with Spain on bars.
Full results from this competition are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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