The Youth Olympic Games officially kick off with qualifications tomorrow, and several of the top juniors in the world right now are in Buenos Aires hoping to contend for the top prizes.
Traditionally, Russian gymnasts have dominated the Youth Olympic Games, with Viktoria Komova kicking off her major international career with one of the best performances of her life at the Games in 2010, while Seda Tutkhalyan followed in her footsteps to take home two gold medals in 2014.
Russia has another super strong talent this year in Ksenia Klimenko, a back-to-back-to-back national all-around champion who dominated at the European Youth Olympic Festival last year and won the bronze medal in the all-around at European Championships this August. She excels on bars, which tends to be her highest-scoring event in addition to being her most consistent, but she’s solid on all four events, and internationally, she has picked up gold medals on every event but vault, where she has just a Yurchenko full.
But all-around gold won’t be an easy mission for Klimenko, who is matched against some gymnasts who are true game-changers for their countries, most notably Giorgia Villa of Italy and Anastasia Bachynska of Ukraine, both of whom have bested Klimenko in international competitions this year.
Villa is Italy’s best up-and-comer since Vanessa Ferrari. She’s been a standout in the Italian program since the age of 12, when she could put up scores that matched some of the top seniors in the country. Just five months after tearing her Achilles in 2017, she came back to compete bars at nationals, winning the title ahead of every senior in the field, and this year she’s put up the best all-around scores at every Serie A meet in addition to winning the all-around and bars titles at nationals, placing second in Jesolo, and then winning the all-around and beam titles at European Championships, where she also picked up silver medals on vault and floor.
Like Klimenko, Villa is a tremendous talent on every event, and though her beam and floor aren’t particularly difficult, she is capable of matching pretty much everyone in this field on both, thanks especially to clean execution and a sassy style that always makes her a crowd favorite. With a nonstop, jam-packed bars set, she can sometimes get a bit nervous and lose tenths due to mistakes there, but when she hits, she’s fantastic and will hopefully have a great meet in Argentina.
Bachynska, meanwhile, topped the field at the Youth Olympic Games qualifier held for European gymnasts back in June. Her nerves can often work against her, especially on bars, where she tends to let little mistakes build up and create bigger ones that she can’t overcome, but she’s clean enough there when she hits, and she’s solid on beam and floor in addition to boasting a fabulous Yurchenko 1½ on vault, so if she can keep it together in the all-around final, she’ll easily be in contention for a medal at the very least, even if it doesn’t end up being gold.
The biggest surprise at Euros who is looking to also sneak onto several podiums here is Amelie Morgan of Great Britain. This year’s junior national all-around champion, Morgan took home a total of five medals in Glasgow this summer – including silver in the all-around – and upset some of the continent’s top junior competitors, including Klimenko and Bachynska.
Morgan makes herself a true threat on beam, where her gorgeous lines and tidy skills lead to big E scores, and she’s mostly consistent on that event as of late. With a new DTY on vault and hit sets on bars and floor, Morgan is absolutely another one to watch for the podium, even if she doesn’t have the flashier tricks you’ll see from some of the other gymnasts here.
Someone you may not have seen much from is the Chinese contender, Tang Xijing. At the Asian Junior Championships this spring, Tang was hoping to be a threat for the all-around title, but a rough bars performance in qualifications held her back, causing her to miss the final completely. Still, she made the beam final where she stunned with super high difficulty and a beautiful performance that got her the gold with a 14.350, and when we saw her next at Chinese Championships a couple of weeks later, she hit her bars and picked up the all-around bronze in a heavily senior field.
Her confidence building, Tang competed at China’s Individual Championships last month, where she won the all-around gold in addition to also winning gold on floor, and she also did really well on bars, though a mistake in beam finals held her back from medaling there. If Tang can fight through her consistency issues, she’ll definitely have a shot at sneaking onto the podium, and I hope we get the best of what she can offer on beam, because she has a true shot at winning that title in Buenos Aires.
One of my favorite competitors competing here is France’s Carolann Heduit. One of the youngest gymnasts here, Heduit is a huge trickster with potential for the most difficult bars and beam sets in this field. She surprised to win the silver medal ahead of the Russians and Italians at the YOG qualifier in June, and though she was injured and couldn’t compete vault or floor at Euros, she was phenomenal on bars and got the bronze medal.
These six will be the top contenders to watch in the all-around and event medal battles, but there are several others to follow as those with tons of potential for upsets thanks to sturdy all-around programs and standout skills.
I’m very interested in seeing how Lee Yun-seo of South Korea does here. The bronze all-around medalist at Asian Junior Championships, Lee is fantastic on bars, though she doesn’t have a ton of difficulty on beam or floor. I don’t want to call her a podium contender in the all-around, but can definitely see her making the top five on a good day, especially if others struggle.
Emma Spence of Canada should also be a strong talent here. She had quite the turnaround over the past year, going from not making the national team Gymnix roster in March of 2017 to winning national all-around silver just two months later. Now one of the top juniors in the country, Spence repeated her all-around silver this year, and she has also represented Canada on the international stage at Junior Japan, Gymnix, Pac Rims, and Pan Ams, making several finals at each.
Turkey is sending a fantastic young all-arounder named Nazli Savranbasi, who is capable of reaching a 50 in the all-around and is definitely one to watch for the future; Csenge Bacskay of Hungary is super talented on vault and can also put together a strong all-around competition when needed; Tonya Paulsson of Sweden is textbook on bars; Kate Sayer of Australia is a solid vaulter with a lot of consistency in her all-around program; and Olivia Araujo of Argentina is lovely on beam and floor.
Finally, Milka Gehani doesn’t have a ton of difficulty on any event, and she might end up placing close to the bottom in the all-around rankings here, but her junior career thus far has been incredibly promising, and she’s hands-down the best gymnast Sri Lanka has ever seen. I’m over the moon to see her get this opportunity to compete at a major international event, and hope we can someday get to also see her at a meet like worlds or the Commonwealth Games.
A full list of competitors is available here. As for the schedule, qualifications are happening one day at a time, beginning with floor tomorrow, and continuing with vault on Monday, bars on Tuesday, and beam on Wednesday, while the all-around final will be held on Friday with event finals happening over the weekend.
I’m intrigued to see how the one-event-per-day qualifications end up affecting the competitors. It could either go in their favor, as they’ll only be competing 90 seconds max per day with lots of time to rest and prepare between events, but on the other hand, they won’t be able to use the momentum from one performance to carry through to the next, which is often key in a successful all-around showing. I’m sure most will be fine, and will savor the chance to have it pretty easy, as far as competitions go.
Edit: Carolann Heduit is injured and will no longer be competing.
Article by Lauren Hopkins