Back in 2015, the Russian team would have given anything to have been able to send Angelina Melnikova to worlds. At 15, the junior unofficially won the Russian Cup, eclipsing the senior field by a tenth after an excellent day that included hit routines across the board, her work on bars and beam especially steady and flawless.
Melnikova had a dominant junior career that included multiple national titles on top of the European titles in the all-around and on beam. Once she became a senior in 2016, she added two more Russian all-around national titles — including an official Russian Cup win this time around — as well as the senior European floor title. She was exactly what Russia needed as they headed to Rio and was looking like the 2016 breakout star for the country that still depended heavily on its veterans.
But in Rio, Melnikova faltered in qualifications on beam and floor, and despite placing 22nd in qualifications, she was two-per-country’ed out of the all-around final and was the only Russian to not qualify for a single individual final. Returning to competition less than three months after the Games, Melnikova was a shell of the gymnast she once was, struggling through 2017 with occasional success — including another Russian Cup all-around win and the Euros gold on floor after a heartbreaking qualifications round that caused her, the reigning all-around champion, to miss the final — but it was mostly rough-going, with missed medal opportunities at multiple international meets, including worlds, her weakest overall performance of the year.
For a moment, it looked like Melnikova was going to be another Anastasia Grishina, the baby and weakest of the Olympic team who would try to find success in later years only to fade out before her time should’ve ended. But this year, Melnikova has been on the warpath, and after a weak start at the Stuttgart World Cup, where she missed the podium after a fall on beam, something must have clicked. She made it through the Birmingham World Cup with just enough of an edge to take the gold, she won three individual medals in a deep field at Jesolo, where she also missed the podium on floor by just a few tenths, and then a week later at nationals, she won the gold medals in the all-around and on every event but vault, where she placed a close second.
The turnaround is huge for Russia, especially at a meet that saw the comeback of two-time Olympic champion Aliya Mustafina just nine months after giving birth as well as the high-level domestic return of Mustafina’s 2012 teammate Viktoria Komova. Melnikova close to her top form with healthy veterans and some talented newcomers like this weekend’s silver medalist, Angelina Simakova, all point to a program that is healthy as heck right now, even with last year’s worlds stars Elena Eremina and Maria Paseka out with injuries.
In Kazan, Melnikova earned a two-day combined total of 113.497 in the all-around, posting a 57.732 on the first day of competition followed by a more realistic 55.765 in finals, hitting all eight routines across the back-to-back days. She looked fantastic, and overcame any little issues she had in each routine with grace and finesse, making her a standout for the Russians on every event, something she proved with four more hit routines in event finals.
If nothing else, I’m hoping her experience at nationals and in the competitions leading up to this meet help her realize a newfound sense of confidence that will help her not only perform well for Russia internationally, but also step up as a leader for the team as she turns 18 and becomes someone the younger generation can count on at major international competitions the same way she relied on Mustafina for emotional support at the Olympics.
Simakova was solid competition for Melnikova here, just a week after making her senior debut at the Tokyo World Cup, finishing fourth. Unlike most of Russia, Simakova doesn’t rely on a huge bars set to get her through the all-around; bars is actually relatively weak for her compared to the other top all-arounders in this field, with her talents trending more toward vault, beam, and floor. She has a good enough set to get her through, though, making it through her routine both days to help her stay afloat despite some mistakes on beam.
With a 55.432 on day one and a 54.665 on day two, Simakova managed to outscore the two returning queens of the sport by nearly a two-point margin. She also came back to win the silver on floor while placing fourth on bars and fifth on vault, making this a good if not excellent meet for her. I think she’ll find herself on the margins of the major teams this year if everyone else is in fighting shape, but if they’re not, Simakova is who I’d bet on to get the job done.
My cold, bitter heart was thrilled to see Komova fight her way through this competition to get the bronze one-tenth over Mustafina, who led after the first day but struggled on the second. Komova isn’t yet at full difficulty, but still showed up with lovely presentation across the board, and I think out of everything she did, I was most impressed with how her DTY looks on vault.
Her consistency on beam is still looking like it’ll be her weakness, with falls or mistakes in pretty much every stage of the competition, though I thought her all-around final set was very strong for her and she is definitely fighting now, as opposed to giving up when the going gets tough. For now, she’s in a great place to be a reliable contributor to this team, and she’ll only get better with time, making Euros and worlds a more than attainable goal for the season.
I came into this competition with the lowest of expectations for Mustafina, and when she made it through her first day of competition with the second-best all-around score (though sitting in third place due to a tiebreaker loss) of 55.432 after a full day of solid, clean, and surprisingly difficult routines, I was more than pleasantly stunned. While not at full difficulty on any event, and with her beam acro series still sketchy at best, she looked great at what she was doing, and I was especially surprised to see her bring back close to her full difficulty across vault and floor. Her DTY on vault wasn’t great, but she went for it, and she proved to be a stronger vaulter than dozens of other gymnasts who didn’t just give birth.
Going into the competition, Mustafina posted multiple times on social media that she hopes her fans wouldn’t judge her for what she was expecting to be a weak performance, but I think she blew her own mind in addition to the minds of everyone watching on that first day. Her subsequent performances weren’t quite as strong, with a balked DTY turning into a crashed 1½ to kick off her all-around finals performance, where she also struggled with her series on beam, putting her in fourth place with a combined score that ended up a tenth behind Komova’s.
In the bars and beam finals, she placed sixth and fourth, respectively. On bars, she tucked her knees on her Jaeger, came up short on several handstands, and crashed her under-rotated full-in dismount, all of which just showed how tired she was at the tail end of a lengthy competition. And on beam, she worked through some wobbles in addition to putting her hands down after her switch half to Onodi and coming up short on her double tuck dismount, though her front aerial to back handspring series looked much more fluid than it had earlier in the competition.
Overall, given the circumstances, I give the first stage of Mustafina’s comeback a solid A-. It far exceeded every expectation I had for her, but I definitely got a bit greedy after her first day of competition, built those expectations all the way back up, and then was bummed to see her falter during finals even though I know I shouldn’t be anything but amazed. I am amazed, and enthralled, and in awe. Her only problem right now seems to be endurance, and this will come with time. At this stage, I wouldn’t want to throw her into a demanding Euros or worlds schedule, but a few months down the line, I don’t think she’ll have any problems with her preparedness.
The junior Euros stars of 2016, Uliana Perebinosova and Anastasia Iliankova, ended up fifth and sixth here, with Perebinosova wildly exceeding my expectations for her after two solid days of competition, scoring a 53.965 in prelims and a 53.066 in finals, making for the best work we’ve seen from her in the past two years. Unfortunately, event finals didn’t go her way, with a couple of falls on bars, where she was hoping to break into the medals, but I think that was more fatigue setting in than anything else, and I was overall impressed with the competitive level she showed here.
Coming off of an all-around medal at Jesolo in her first full program since 2016, Iliankova was hoping to perform well enough to fight for a podium spot here, which seemed like a manageable expectation even with her lower-difficulty vault. Iliankova had a very strong first day of competition, earning a 54.298, but mistakes throughout her performance in the final brought her score down considerably to end up nearly a point behind Perebinosova.
Iliankova also didn’t fare well in event finals, fighting through a bars set that saw a wild clear hip half to Ezhova, which caused her to begin her rhythm over, in addition to a crashed toe full to full-in dismount, landing her in seventh place with an 11.433. Her bars have noticeably deteriorated in quality since worlds last year, which is definitely frustrating to see, as even her hit routines end up looking a little off, but hopefully she’s just holding back until she needs to be in top form. She also placed seventh on beam after falling on her side aerial to layout stepout series, walking away from this meet with no ranking higher than sixth (even including the team final, as she’s part of the weaker Siberian district).
Aside from the Mustafina comeback, the other big news at this meet was Irina Alexeeva finally getting herself to a national meet. The WOGA gymnast on everyone’s radar since she was nine and who won the U.S. Classic junior all-around title a couple of years back despite not being a U.S. citizen is now a first-year senior, and the Rodionenkos finally let her compete in Russia.
Under a ton of pressure to impress the national team staff while in Kazan, Alexeeva — who traveled with coach Ryan Roberts — ended up seventh all-around with a 53.732 in prelims and a 52.399 in finals after some mistakes in her first two days. In prelims, Alexeeva’s struggles came with multiple wobbles, a crashed double pike dismount, and a lack of attention to her form on beam, though she looked fantastic elsewhere, and in the final, she hit beam but dealt with mistakes on bars and floor, though her combined score of 106.131 was just a tenth behind Iliankova’s.
Alexeeva came back in fighting form for the event finals, though, winning the silver medal on bars with a clean routine that scored a 14.066, not bad given that this generally isn’t her standout event, though the Rodionenkos apparently weren’t super impressed, because all of their top bar workers made mistakes and Alexeeva wouldn’t have medaled had they all hit. On floor, though, her score of 13.333 got her the bronze, and this is where she actually has the most to offer, given Russia’s struggles here. It was a good and difficult set, with just a few minor fatigue-driven errors, which I think can be forgiven considering her travel exhaustion, the lengthy competition, and the fact that this was her national debut for any country.
In June, Alexeeva will return to Russia for the Russian Cup with the hope of being selected for a spot on the team heading to Glasgow for Euros in August, and she said she’d absolutely accept an offer to train at Round Lake, but for now she’s back in Texas, training at WOGA and finishing up the school year. She’s rumored to be looking into Stanford for NCAA, with the 2020-2021 season her likely point of entry, so it’s unclear how any affiliation with the Russian program — like going to live and train at Round Lake — would affect her NCAA career, but I’m just excited to see her getting out there with the opportunity to finally participate with a national program after spending years dealing with citizenship issues in the U.S.
Rounding out the top 15, Daria Elizarova placed eighth all-around with a 105.263 total after two mostly decent days, first-year seniors Viktoria Gorbatova and Ksenia Kamkova were ninth and tenth with scores of 104.664 and 101.797, respectively, Daria Spiridonova was 11th with a 101.565, Tatiana Nabieva was 12th with a 101.430, first-year senior Varvara Zubova was 13th with a 100.364, Viktoria Trykina was 14th with a 99.898, and Polina Fedorova was 15th with a 99.197. Notably outside of this group was Daria Skrypnik in 18th with a 97.164; despite starting out the meet in a solid tenth place after a mostly solid day in prelims, she had somewhere in the neighborhood of five falls in finals, finishing second-to-last out of 24 gymnasts with just a 45.832, which was heartbreaking especially given what a promising, dominant junior she once was.
Of these, I was excited to see lots of good work from Gorbatova and Kamkova. Neither came into this season as one of the must-watch new seniors, and they’re still not exactly first-string A-team kids, but I was pleasantly surprised to see them end up with respectable finishes, and Kamkova ended up walking away with the silver on beam after a solid set while Gorbatova finished fifth and sixth on bars and floor, both super strong considering she wasn’t expected to make much of a wave here and yet she ended up finishing ahead of gymnasts like Mustafina and Iliankova.
Spiridonova is sadly slipping further and further away from her peak form, even on her strongest event, and Zubova can’t hit beam for the life of her, something I should have realized was going to happen when I first noticed her in 2015, but I couldn’t help getting my hopes up because I just loved her set so much.
In the vault final, Trykina ended up winning the gold with slightly weak form on both her DTY and Lopez, edging out Melnikova by a tenth and a half, and Nabieva, the gift who keeps on giving, won the bronze with a step back out of her messy DTY and then a good landing on her Podkopayeva. Another veteran, Fedorova, came back to win the beam bronze with a decent performance in a field that saw lots of mistakes, scoring the same 12.866 as Mustafina, but winning out on the tiebreaker that saw Mustafina finish fourth.
A few gymnasts who didn’t compete in the all-around final also snuck into event finals, including Eleonora Afanasyeva, who finished fourth in the vault final just a third of a tenth behind Nabieva with a weak DTY, Seda Tutkhalyan, who competed all but floor in prelims and finished seventh in the vault final with loose form on her FTY and Lopez, and Maria Kharenkova, who competed only on beam and floor in prelims, and finished eighth in the beam final due to falls.
Overall, I think this was one of the better Russian Championships in recent history, mostly thanks to Melnikova showing up and proving herself in a way, but also in the happy little surprises we saw from both newcomers and veterans. While there’s still a clear divide between “the best” and “the rest” in Russia, I think they have a healthy level of depth that allows them to have a large A team while also being able to continue working with a solid B team. They’ve always been able to put together a top-tier team for major competitions, but I’d feel confident about them bringing a B team to Euros and still being able to reach the podium. Even with some disappointments here and there, overall this was a great meet highlighting a team that should easily be able to qualify to the Olympics at this year’s worlds, whether they decide to rely on a couple of veterans or not.
Other news to report from this competition was that of Ksenia Afanasyeva‘s official retirement. After cutting her 2016 season short as she dealt with kidney stones and other medical issues following a surprise vault bronze at Euros, Afanasyeva has toyed with coming back, including after giving birth to a son last year, but Valentina Rodionenko told the press at nationals that she is now officially done as a gymnast, but will continue working at Round Lake as a trainer and choreographer, contributing to the success of the program on floor.
Full results from the competition are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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