At world championships in 2018, three countries – the United States, Russia, and China – qualified full teams directly to the 2020 Olympic Games, while an additional 21 countries qualified full teams to this year’s worlds, where another nine teams will earn their spots in Tokyo.
Some of these teams are pretty much solid as-is and won’t need any additional help improving their ranking, but a few teams this year have the potential to climb a bit thanks to the arrival of some top junior competitors becoming seniors in 2019.
This series is going to look at all of the top 24 programs around the world to see just how the first-year seniors could impact their teams, starting with the lowest-ranked nations in Doha and going all the way up to the top. We’ll also look at some of the new seniors from countries that didn’t qualify full teams, but that could potentially make an impact for their countries as individuals.
When announcing the teams for European Championships last year, the Czech federation was super excited about the potential of several gymnasts on the senior team, but when it came to talk about the juniors, they straight up said not to expect anything at all. Harsh, but there was some truth to the criticism, as the team ranked just 19th, down nine spots after finishing 10th in 2016, and the best-ranked individual athlete was 55th in the all-around, scoring below a 45.
While a few new seniors this year do show potential on some events and will at the very least add some depth to the senior ranks, no one is capable of much more than a 45 in the all-around or a low 12 on a single event, far below the potential of the current top seniors.
The country’s top new seniors are Jasmina Hnilicova, Natalie Riantova, and Natalie Klakova. I love Hnilicova, thanks mostly to her “Uptown Funk” floor routine, but her difficulty is quite low and she struggles a bit with her form on every event. Klakova has some promising work on beam, and she was the best of this group at nationals last year, placing sixth all-around, but she tends to struggle with consistency, and Riantova is the strongest vaulter with a handspring front tuck in addition to showing the nicest lines and extension on bars, but again, difficulty. It’s too low there – and everywhere – for her to realistically contribute as a senior.
I think the core Czech team of Aneta Holasova, Dominiqua Ponizilova, Lucie Jirikova, and Kristyna Brabcova will remain the same this year, with Eliska Firtova and Sabina Halova close behind, and Veronika Cenkova also a strong option, especially if we see her fully back from injuries. Unfortunately for the new seniors, there’s very little room for them to contribute unless they figure out major upgrades or improvements, but of course it never hurts to have depth. A 10 on bars is better than no one going up at all.
Now this is a team that could really end up benefitting from its up-and-coming talent. The Argentinian program is in really good shape right now, especially after Martina Dominici joined the senior ranks in 2018, but there were still some gaps to fill on last year’s worlds team, and there are several new seniors this year who could be game-changers for this country.
With Argentina hosting the Youth Olympic Games last year, and with several super-talented 2003-born gymnasts in the mix, I was really excited to see who would end up getting the spot. Ultimately it went to Olivia Araujo, who was seventh all-around and fourth on bars at Junior Pan Ams, though unfortunately she got injured on vault in qualifications and we didn’t get to see her shine in front of one of the craziest home crowds ever.
Araujo doesn’t have sky-high difficulty anywhere, but she has an elegance beyond her years, her lines on bars are outstanding, and when she’s on, she can be very clean in her skills. She does sometimes struggle with getting leaps at 180, especially on beam, and this year you could see some nerves kicking in occasionally, leading to some lower scores, though it’s clear that there’s something special there, and she definitely has the potential to oust a couple of the seniors who made worlds in 2018.
Another gymnast with that potential is Abigail Magistrati, who most recently placed third all-around at nationals, where she also won gold on vault with her new Yurchenko 1½, an important upgrade considering the highest difficulty on the worlds team was a 4.8 with a pair of tsuk fulls from Dominici and Ayelen Tarabini. Magistrati also won vault at the South American Junior Championships in October, where she debuted her new vault with a super solid landing, and if she can keep perfecting this over the next nine months, this could very well be her ticket onto the worlds team.
In addition to her vault success late in 2018, Magistrati also made several international bars finals, including at Pac Rims and Junior Pan Ams, and while a 4.4 D score seems low, it’s actually higher than three of the four seniors who competed the event at worlds and there’s still room for upgrades (her double layout dismount is also fantastic). She’s also relatively consistent on beam, where she mounts with a back tuck and is generally credited with a 4.9-5.0. I’d consider her the one with the biggest potential for Stuttgart, and hope to see her continue to make improvements.
Last year’s junior national champion Luna Fernandez is also one to watch, especially on floor, where she truly shines. Though she’s the weaker of these three in terms of overall difficulty, she is tall, flexible, and super elegant, and she has the cleanest skills – especially dance elements! – of the bunch on beam and floor, though her bars are a bit more labored than the other two, and that along with vault could be the difference-maker for who ends up being an option in 2019.
Also turning senior this year is Lucia Esposito, who was consistently a little behind the other three this year, but still has some major potential to add depth to the team. Esposito was especially strong in 2017, helping the team to gold in addition to winning a floor medal at the South American Youth Games, and she was a part of pretty much every major international team this year as well. She does great work on beam and floor, and should also be solidly in the mix of those with the ability to help change this team.
In 2019, Dominici will continue to be the star of this program with the veteran Tarabini continuing to lead with her awesome attitude and incredible beam and floor work, but I think the rest of last year’s key seniors will be in constant competition with several of the up-and-comers. They’re not quite ready to contend for a full team spot at the Olympics, but some new additions and a hit performance in Stuttgart could see them break out of the top 20.
The Polish team is in a similar situation as the Czech Republic’s, with several rising seniors in 2019, but none of whom really has the potential to get an event score beyond a high 11 on a good day, making it super unlikely for any of them to break onto the senior team, which has been dominated by Marta Pihan-Kulesza, Katarzyna Jurkowska-Kowalska, and Gabriela Janik for the past four years.
These three make up the core Polish team, and while they’ll occasionally bring in some younger talent to help out in a four-up three-count situation, as they did with Wiktoria Lopuszanska at Euros and worlds this year, the country has yet to seriously include anyone else on its Olympic prospect list in quite some time. In fact, if one of these three gets injured or takes a break, the federation often doesn’t even bother with sending a full team to big events, and will instead just focus on the ones who are healthy, sending them as individuals because they know they have no one who comes close to replacing the missing link.
The junior ranks in Poland last year were mostly filled by a group gymnasts born in 2004 and 2005 who might someday have what it takes to join that top group, but no one who can do it this year. The country’s junior Euros in 2018 saw only 2004-born gymnasts, which is shocking considering most other nations relied primarily on those born in 2003. But the top 2003-born gymnast at nationals last year, Wiktoria Kucner, placed seventh all-around with a 39.617, and in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any of this year’s new seniors break a 41 at all, making the situation pretty dire.
For Poland, I think the four who competed at Euros and worlds in 2018 will be exactly the four we see at these competitions this year, and if someone gets injured, I could see them scrapping the team competition entirely in favor of just focusing on trying to qualify an individual or two to the Games.
With the injury to Giulia Steingruber in 2018, the Swiss team was in an interesting position. Without Steingruber, they didn’t rank quite as high as they’ve been able to in the past, though they still had a pretty solid mix of veterans and strong newcomers to balance them out, and the country still put on a mostly calm and confident performance at worlds.
I think that while it will be difficult for any up-and-coming juniors to break into what is a relatively solid team right now, especially because the bulk of last year’s junior talent was in the 2004-born group, I really like Nina Ferrazzini, the junior national champion on floor who had the country’s top finish for juniors at Euros last year, ranking 30th in the all-around.
Ferrazzini doesn’t have a ton of difficulty on any event, but on floor, she’s working at a similar level of ability as any of the seniors (minus Steingruber, of course), and she still has plenty of room to grow. She’s a great performer, and her tumbling is fantastic, including a front tuck to 2½ in her middle pass.
Her bars are basically a solid level 10 set, beam isn’t her best though it’s more than passable when she hits, and she has an FTY on vault, on par with the current seniors (again, Steingruber aside). When compared to last year’s senior team, she’s basically another Anina Wildi or Stefanie Siegenthaler, so while she’s not an automatic lock for me, she could definitely give some of last year’s on-the-bubble gymnasts a challenge.
The rest of the new seniors probably won’t be much of a threat without big improvements. I do enjoy watching Francesca Nocita on floor, and I’ve also enjoyed some routines from Alena Sommer and Alessia Pagnamenta, but unfortunately a lack of difficulty for all three will make it difficult for them to climb the ranks, and none of the new seniors for Switzerland made the country’s national A team, with Ferrazzini, Pagnamenta, and Sommer all part of the B squad instead along with fellow first-years Jennifer Borriello and Nadina Spiess.
Coming Up Next
Our next post in the series will feature Ukraine, Mexico, Spain, and Hungary, all of which have potential to break into the top 16 this year, with Ukraine potentially even capable of qualifying a team to the Olympics if they hit thanks to a really solid foundation plus the long-awaited addition of new senior Anastasiia Bachynska. Mexico also has a few surprises up its sleeves, and both Hungary and Spain will add some depth to their rosters that could see them improve as well.
Article by Lauren Hopkins