Mélanie De Jesus Dos Santos
I’m kicking off this year’s world championships previews with a focus on the individual competitions, and then will see how podium training goes before conquering the teams because while there’s a lot I want to say right now, several teams are still in a position to decide alternates and play with lineups, which – for some teams – could change everything.
Now that Simone Biles is back, the all-around competition has a clear frontrunner, unlike last year where it wasn’t clear who would win, and where about five gymnasts came into the final from qualifications with the potential to take the title.
This year, Biles is miles ahead of the rest of the group. She boasts the top four all-around scores in 2018 and her lowest score, a 58.700 from the U.S. Classic, is a point higher than anyone else’s highest score this year, which kind of puts things into perspective. Her difficulty is through the roof, obviously, but she is also so well-conditioned and fit right now, and her technique is beyond words. Even on events where she hasn’t been historically a standout, like bars, she has actually made noticeable improvements that will keep her E scores super competitive even among the top bar workers in the world.
As in 2016 and beyond, the question this year won’t be “will Biles win” but will rather be “by how much will she win.” If you think this makes the sport less exciting, I guess you’re right in the sense that knowing who’s going to win a competition before it begins isn’t the most thrilling story, but you’re also watching the best gymnast of all time make history by going after her fourth world all-around title, so…I guess it’s a pretty solid trade.
Even with Biles more or less assured to take the gold, barring any injuries or wild disasters, the competition for silver and bronze will be just as good as last year’s podium rush was, especially with most of last year’s best returning.
The biggest question right now is who from the U.S. will end up battling for a medal. Reigning world champion Morgan Hurd won the silver medal behind Biles at nationals this year, and she’s the most complete all-arounder on the team behind Biles, without a single bad event. But while Riley McCusker doesn’t have the strongest floor, she more than makes up for it with a killer, gold medal-worthy bars set, and she’s done clean-up work on vault and beam that put her and Hurd on the same level.
I’m thrilled to see the improvements McCusker has made to get where she is right now, especially after spending the majority of her first senior year dealing with injury, which also kept her out for most of this year. I think Hurd is the more complete package, and at full difficulty, she’s second only to Biles, which definitely gives her an edge both as the second-best American and in the international field as well, but McCusker is technically perfect in so many of her skills, it’s going to be super close in qualifications and impossible to definitively call at this moment.
Outside of the U.S., my top picks for the podium are Mai Murakami of Japan, Ellie Black of Canada, Mélanie De Jesus Dos Santos of France, and Angelina Melnikova of Russia. All four have had fantastic years, winning their respective national all-around titles while also doing well on the global stage, and if they hit in the final, it’ll be hard for anyone to break into this pack.
Murakami placed fourth in the 2017 final, where a fall on beam took her from potentially winning the title to sitting just a tenth from the podium. She hasn’t competed much internationally this year, but she finished second to Hurd at the American Cup and won the Tokyo World Cup a month later, and her floor routine has been all but unbeatable this year, with rock-solid tumbling, cleaned-up dance elements, and major attention to detail that will actually make her competitive against Biles in that final.
With a clean DTY and hit bars and beam, Murakami is my favorite for the podium outside of the American field, but she’ll have to fight to control the nerves that took her out of the running last year if she wants to pull off a medal.
Last year’s silver medalist, Black has had some pretty fantastic outings in 2018, winning the all-around title at the Commonwealth Games and then dominating at last month’s Paris Challenge Cup, where she picked up a medal on each of the four events, including gold on beam.
Black is interesting in that she’s not always the cleanest in everything that she does, and her total difficulty is a few tenths behind the rest of those in my predictions, but she has confidence to spare and knows how to get the job done when needed. In the most stressful settings, Black is always cool and collected, so I can see her missing some beam connections or not catching a bars release in qualifications but then coming back to crush it in the final.
We didn’t see De Jesus Dos Santos on the podium last year, and while she wasn’t at the very top of the field in Montreal, she also wasn’t far behind. This year, she’s spent a lot of time and hard work upgrading and fixing some problem areas, and this shines through on literally all of her events. Her floor has grown especially strong, and as the top all-arounder in qualifications at European Championships, she has proven herself against some of the strongest athletes she’ll face in Doha.
A year ago, it looked like Melnikova was on her way out, with injuries causing her to make heartbreaking mistakes over and over again, leaving her in a shocking 16th place in the Montreal all-around final. Now happy and healthy, Melnikova has been killing it this year, boosting her confidence with a win at the Birmingham World Cup, which set her up for fantastic performances at the two big Russian domestic meets before she led her team to gold at Euros in August.
Melnikova was the second-best all-arounder at qualifications in Glasgow, just behind De Jesus Dos Santos, and she was absolutely phenomenal in the team competition before also going on to win silver on vault and bronze on bars. Considering how nervous and bummed she looked at worlds last year, I really didn’t expect to see her ever come back to a competitive place, but she has clearly been through some major growth as a competitor and person, and I’m excited to see her continue to shine in Doha.
These are my top “sure bets” for the all-around competition, but as always, we can expect some surprises, and there are plenty of ladies capable of knockout performances that could potentially change the world order.
My favorite newcomer this year with that potential is Chen Yile of China. The all-around and beam champion at this year’s Asian Games, Chen would be in my top group if it wasn’t for her lack of difficulty on vault and floor. The 16-year-old is great on bars, but not in the sense that she’s a traditional top Chinese bar worker, and her standout event is beam, where she’s fluid and lovely with the ability to medal in that apparatus final. These events should keep her afloat, but with just an FTY on vault and weaker tumbling on floor, she’ll have to be at her very best while relying on issues from other gymnasts to reach the podium.
I’m also thinking this will be another huge year for Nina Derwael of Belgium, the back-to-back European bars champion who surprised in Glasgow this summer when she won the silver medal on beam and placed third all-around in qualifications. Derwael made history for Belgium in Montreal last year, both with her bronze medal on bars and with her eighth-place finish in the all-around final, and while she doesn’t have the most difficult program overall, she’s so clean and gorgeously extended, she more than makes up for the difficulty she lacks on her weaker events.
With Murakami the queen of the Japanese program, I think her teammate Asuka Teramoto often gets overlooked, but she looked incredible at the recent All-Japan meet, and I think she’ll also be one of the ladies to keep an eye on in Doha. Her work on vault and beam makes her a major threat if she hits these, and though her bars difficulty isn’t super high, she’s also remarkably clean and solid there, and I can totally see her rising to the occasion here to potentially also make herself a threat.
The Brazilians have several strong options on the team this year, with Flavia Saraiva my favorite for a strong all-around finish after her commanding all-around bronze finish at the Pan American Championships last month. With beam and floor her standout events, Saraiva also has a hit-or-miss DTY that could help or hurt her in the final, though her bars are a bit too weak to make her a top contender. Still, she should have a relatively strong finish, and I’m so happy to see her back at the world level after missing out last year.
Jade Barbosa is the other likely all-arounder for Brazil, but I’m not sure if Rebeca Andrade – who only competed vault and bars at Pan Ams – is ready yet, especially with her history of injuries limiting her in training as of late.
For Russia, I believe we’ll see Irina Alexeeva and Angelina Simakova in the all-around alongside Melnikova, and I think Alexeeva has the edge over Simakova to make the final thanks to her consistency and even spread across the four events. China’s Zhang Jin (who surprised to win the Stuttgart World Cup earlier this year) and Luo Huan (the back-to-back national all-around champion who placed second to Chen at the Asian Games in August) should also be in your sightline, with Luo likely to be the one alongside Chen in the final.
Brooklyn Moors will be the top all-around bet for Canada after Black, and I’m hoping Ana Padurariu is healthy enough to make her the third option in qualifications, though she could be held back to just bars and beam, which is what she has held herself to since injuring her foot at Elite Canada early this season. France should have Marine Boyer and Lorette Charpy as solid all-around prospects behind De Jesus Dos Santos, Kim Bui and Elisabeth Seitz are my picks for the German team’s finalists, with the two going back and forth as the country’s best this year, and for the Netherlands, Vera van Pol and Tisha Volleman have been looking strong, but young senior Naomi Visser has had moments of greatness this year and could also potentially make it to the final.
Great Britain’s situation will be interesting, as this will be Ellie Downie‘s return to the all-around for the first time since winning the European title last year, so I’m not sure what to expect from her, though Kelly Simm, Georgia-Mae Fenton, and Alice Kinsella have all stepped up as all-arounders this season, and the country should absolutely see two gymnasts make the final. Italy is in an even more interesting position, though Lara Mori should have a strong finish, and I’m excited to see if the team’s newer options – like Sara Ricciardi and Martina Basile – can step it up.
There are also some question marks with the Hungarian team. Dorina Böczögö is back and better than ever, and first-year senior Nora Feher has been looking super strong this season, but last year’s European silver all-around medalist Zsofia Kovacs hasn’t been herself since returning from an injury. I think they could potentially get two into the final, but the question of which two will just depend on how Kovacs is looking and on who hits in qualifications.
Romania almost gave fans a heart attack when Denisa Golgota began dealing with pain at nationals, but it seems she’s back and ready to compete, and if all goes well, she’s the country’s best shot at the final. The rest are kind of all over the place, with the top two juniors outscoring the seniors at nationals, but I love Nica Ivanus and Laura Iacob, so hopefully they put something good together to be somewhat competitive here.
Finally, Spain has Ana Perez in strong fighting form to be the most likely to make the final, but Helena Bonilla and Cintia Rodriguez have also been on fire this season; Switzerland has Ilaria Käslin leading the team with the potential to make it in, but I’m also excited for new senior Leonie Meier to also put up a fight; and Ukraine should see Diana Varinska make it in, with Valeriia Osipova also hoping to get close.
The others I’m most excited to see as potential all-around finalists in Doha include Frida Esparza of Mexico, this year’s national champion who trains at Head Over Heels in California; Martina Dominici of Argentina, who dominated at the South American Games in May; Kim Su Jong of North Korea, the Asian Games bronze medalist who is breathing fresh life into this program with her outgoing personality and clean routines on all four events; Aneta Holasova of the Czech Republic, who surprised to win a bronze medal on floor at the Paris Challenge Cup; Jessica Castles of Sweden, a first-year senior who was a standout all-arounder on the Northern European scene this year; Georgia-Rose Brown of Australia, who showed so much improvement at the Commonwealth Games this year and is always so lovely to watch; Danusia Francis of Jamaica, who looked incredible at Pan Ams last month; and Caitlin Rooskrantz of South Africa, who has been limited by injury over the past two years but recently came back with an excellent performance at nationals, where she won three golds.
I’m also pulling for Filipa Martins of Portugal, who has been sticking mostly to bars and beam this year but should make the final if she does all four events; Elina Vihrova of Latvia, a first-year senior who has spent much of 2018 dealing with injuries but will hopefully live up to her potential here; and Yeo Seo-jeong of South Korea, who stands out on vault but has a super difficult all-around program and could make it happen if she hits (and if she doesn’t, Lee Eun-ju and Yun Na-rae might do it in her place).
The women’s qualifications at world championships will be held October 27-28, followed by the team final on October 30, the all-around final on November 1, and event finals held November 2-3. We’ll come back to you soon with previews for the apparatus and team competitions, as well as what you can expect from the men, who begin on October 25.
Article by Lauren Hopkins