Aliya Mustafina surrounded by our reaction to her return
Nearly two years after winning her second Olympic uneven bars title at the Rio Games, and only nine months after the birth of her daughter, Alisa, the queen Aliya Mustafina will return to competition at this week’s Russian Championships in Kazan.
Mustafina, 23, has been Russia’s most prolific competitor in last decade, exploding onto the scene with five world medals in her first year at the senior level before going on to win seven Olympic medals in her London and Rio appearances. She toyed with retiring a few times last quad, but after getting married and having a child, Mustafina was more motivated than ever to come back to training, and made nationals a goal.
It’s hard to know what we can expect to see from Mustafina at this point. She has joked on social media about how we shouldn’t judge her too much based on what she does here, and for good reason. A comeback after two years is hard on its own, but throw a baby into the mix? I don’t think I have to express how difficult that is.
Going in with bare-bones expectations, I’m sure Mustafina will surprise us with her composure, skill level, and mental game, and in a field that has been historically rough at this competition, I don’t doubt that she could make multiple finals or even win medals. But also keep in mind that Mustafina knows what she’s doing in this sport, and won’t bring her A-game until she really needs it. Basically, this meet is nothing but practice for her. If she does well, great, but if she doesn’t, she will when it’s required of her.
A majority of Mustafina’s Olympic teammates across both quads will compete here, with 2012 teammate Viktoria Komova — who made her comeback at the Voronin Cup in December and got some international experience early this season with the team challenge in Stuttgart, where Russia failed to make the final — the most notable in terms of being a big deal, though bars and maybe beam aside, I think she’s in the same boat as Mustafina in terms of being back but not at full potential. She looked fantastic on bars last month, but doesn’t yet have full difficulty, and her beam is good, but not in a place that would make her a must-have for a team.
From the 2016 squad, we’ll see Angelina Melnikova, Daria Spiridonova, and Seda Tutkhalyan, with Melnikova looking likely to snag the all-around title if she hits. Melnikova has actually been looking pretty great in recent competitions, with an all-around win at the Birmingham World Cup followed up by three event medals at Jesolo this past weekend, where she also placed fourth all-around. She’s looking more consistent than ever, but more importantly, she no longer looks like she’s going to break at any moment, and when she does make mistakes, they’re flukes, not a result of her being so tired she’s on the verge of collapse. A healthy Melnikova is capable of great things internationally, and I’d love to see her come back from last year’s nationals — where she imploded, placing 11th all-around — to win big here.
Neither Spiridonova nor Tutkhalyan have been close to top form following the Rio Games, though Spiridonova did have a few lovely bars performances at Universiade last summer, where she won the gold on bars, and I think she can pull herself together if the team really needs her to. Tutkhalyan hasn’t competed since last year’s nationals, where she placed fourth all-around and won the vault and beam titles, but she seems to have fallen out of favor with the Rodionenkos and likely won’t be at the same caliber this year, though as a long-time fan, I hope she turns things around and becomes a threat once again.
At Jesolo over the weekend, Anastasia Iliankova competed her first all-around program since 2016, winning the bronze medal as the strongest Russian in the field, beating teammate Melnikova by half a point. Because she became such a bars talent as a senior, it was easy to forget that at the junior level, she was quite the all-around threat, even with a comparatively weak vault, so she’s a definite contender for this year’s title in addition to putting up a big routine on the uneven bars, as is Angelina Simakova, who placed fourth all-around in her senior debut at the Tokyo World Cup last weekend.
But the biggest threat for the title will possibly be Russian-born, WOGA-trained Irina Alexeeva, a first-year senior who turns 16 on Friday. Alexeeva has been in gymnastics limbo her entire career, as without full citizenship in the U.S. — where she only has a green card — she isn’t eligible to compete for the country or take part in national team camps, while the Russians were reluctant to add her to the roster given that she didn’t come up through their centralized system.
After Alexeeva’s great success at several open international competitions — including bronze all-around medals at both the WOGA Classic and International Gymnix this year — Russia seemed more willing to take her on, giving her the nod to come compete in Kazan this week. Alexeeva has solid difficulty on bars, beam, and floor, but most notable is her consistency on the latter two of these events, with her beam capable of huge scores when she hits, while her floor set is all at once clean, difficult, and solid.
It’s for these events that Russia will want to jump at the chance of bringing her in, especially with Elena Eremina out with injury this season. The program has tons of gymnasts who look like they could be options here, but they generally don’t work out in competition, mostly due to falls and large mistakes that drag the team numbers downhill. But with someone like Alexeeva in the mix, Russia could have a shot at improving its numbers there, which would mean a better chance at closing the gap with the U.S. as they go into worlds this fall.
Maria Kharenkova, Lilia Akhaimova, and Eleonora Afanasyeva are three of those hoping for non-bars spots on future Russian Euros and worlds teams, and it’s also where new senior Varvara Zubova is hoping to make herself a standout, though none of these is a ‘perfect’ gymnast for these spots in the way Alexeeva could end up being. Kharenkova and Afanasyeva have struggled when given international assignments in recent months, Zubova’s has great beam difficulty but struggles to hit it, and though Akhaimova will only compete bars here due to injury, she generally has an excellent and athletic floor set that scores well, but she can’t do the same on beam (and while she can vault, this event is the least of the team’s concerns, so it won’t be a major point in her favor in the future).
Also still on the radar among those who could be thrown into international competitions are Uliana Perebinosova, Viktoria Trykina, and the always-present Tatiana Nabieva, who is now sporting an Illuminati-esque tattoo, which is…for some reason not shocking.
Several will miss out on this competition, including most notably the 2017 world vault gold medalist Maria Paseka, who is dealing with her ever-present back pain. I was looking forward to the senior debuts from both Aleksandra Shchekoldina and Valeria Saifulina, but both are currently injured and weren’t able to make it back in time, and of course, Elena Eremina is out for the season with a back injury that will cause her to be out of competition for more than a year.
A full list of competitors is below. The women begin competing tomorrow, April 19, with the team competition also serving as the qualifier for the all-around and event finals, which will be held from Friday through Sunday. A complete schedule and streaming information can be found on Gymnovosti.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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