Olga Astafyeva, Vladislava Urazova, Viktoriia Listunova, and Elena Gerasimova
Over the weekend, I live blogged the junior and senior all-around competitions as well as the apparatus finals at the annual City of Jesolo Trophy in Italy. You can read the live blogs to find out everything that happened, so rather than rehash it all for you in a recap, I’m going to chat about my top ten moments throughout the meet. In no particular order…
1. Russian Juniors Getting Gold
As much as I love the Americans and seeing them dominate consistently over the past eight years, I was thrilled about the Russian juniors getting the team title at Jesolo. This is hands-down the most incredibly talented junior team the country has been able to piece together in a long time – my guess is the best since 2010 Euros, and you can either agree or disagree (and tell me your guess!) via our Twitter poll – and seeing them not only succeed here but excel points to huge potential for their future.
Even though they had a couple shaky moments on beam during the first day of competition, the gymnasts here were all fantastic on the event aside from the nerves getting to them, and on top of that, they had difficult vaults, gorgeous bars, and some of the best junior floor routines in the world right now.
In addition to winning the team competition, all four of these young ladies placed in the top eight here as all-arounders, with Vladislava Urazova taking silver with a fall on beam while Elena Gerasimova picked up the bronze. Viktoriia Listunova‘s fall on beam held her back to fourth place about half a point shy of the podium, while Olga Astafyeva finished eighth, and the team was also successful in event finals, grabbing a total of seven medals there, including silver on vault, gold and silver on bars and floor, and gold and bronze on beam, and their execution scores were nearly unbeatable on almost every event, with vault the one rough spot right now as a couple of the girls get used to their new DTYs.
I’ve long felt about Urazova and Listunova the way I felt about Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova a decade ago, and I want nothing but the best for everyone on this team going forward. To the people saying “they only won because the Americans weren’t at full strength,” shush your faces. Yes, the Americans lost leader Kayla DiCello on every event but bars and the other three were all making their international debuts here, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Russians looked beyond amazing in their own right and deserved this win.
2. Liu Tingting’s Brilliant Beam and All-Around Return
Guess what? Liu Tingting‘s beam gold at world championships last year was absolutely not a fluke. You know how I know? Because she was basically even better on the event at Jesolo not once, but twice, showing only the tiniest of wiggles across her all-around and event final performances to post scores of 14.967 and 14.800, winning the title.
Her routine is a literal embodiment of what the FIG wanted to see when they constructed the current quad’s code of points, with elegant skills, lovely form, fluid movements, and quick connections. She still doesn’t have any of the big acro elements that make mouths drop, but she more than makes up for it by knocking out multiple super difficult connections pretty much perfectly, with her switch leap to split leap to back handspring, front aerial to split ring jump to Korbut, and split leap to side aerial to split jump all even more impressive than someone who can chuck a standing full.
In addition to being a beam goddess, Liu also made her return to all-around competition at this event for the first time since winning the silver at Chinese National Games in 2017. Her performance at those Games made her a top contender as an all-arounder for worlds a month later, but then an injury caused her to scale back to just beam, which – along with bars – has been her focus ever since.
But now she has vault and floor back, and she looked excellent on both at Jesolo, in addition to also looking lovely on bars. While her difficulty on the two leg events isn’t anything spectacular, she almost stuck her lovely FTY in the all-around competition, and her form on floor is beautiful, so once she builds back her endurance, that should be a solid score for the team again.
3. Sunisa Lee’s Debut Domination
A few hours before Leanne Wong began her senior career with a big win at the American Cup in Greensboro, North Carolina, we got to see another international win from a first-year senior out of the United States as Sunisa Lee crushed the competition with a huge 56.466 in the all-around…with a fall on beam.
Lee, who made her international debut with the U.S. junior team at Gymnix in 2017, came into this meet with a ton of difficulty and proved to be more than capable of hitting it all, including a DTY on vault, her Nabieva to Pak to Maloney to Gienger series on bars, her layout and side aerial into two layout stepouts on beam, and both a double double and a double layout on floor.
A day after winning her all-around title, Lee picked up the gold on bars and floor as well as the bronze on beam, boasting the highest difficulty on bars and floor as well as the second-highest on beam, and she put up the highest execution score on floor.
In addition to handling one of the most difficult (and most balanced!) programs with ease, Lee is also capable of strong dance elements, and she’s a great performer, making her a total package competitor and a serious threat for worlds. She and Wong are going to make it incredibly difficult for some of the veterans this year, and it’s gonna be so fun to watch them spice things up.
4. Italy’s New Seniors
The long-awaited senior debuts of the Italian girls who ruled the junior scene in Europe for the past two years actually happened a week ago at a Serie A league meet, but this was to be the first time the fearsome foursome – Giorgia Villa, Elisa Iorio, and the D’Amato twins, Asia and Alice – went up against other national teams as seniors so it was a huge deal and I was most looking forward to seeing how they’d stack up, especially against the U.S. and China.
But then a few changes came. Following Serie A, Desiree Carofiglio replaced Alice D’Amato on the team, and then Villa broke her finger while training floor, putting Alice back on the squad alongside her sister, Iorio, and Carofiglio. It wasn’t exactly the start to the season they’d hoped for, and there were a few mistakes throughout the day keeping them a bit further behind than they would’ve liked, but I was thrilled to see Alice step it up and prove the coaches wrong by finishing fifth all-around (and first among the Italians) here, while Asia looked great on vault and Iorio put together two strong bars sets while also looking super confident on beam.
Villa will take the next three weeks off due to her injury, but she and the other three in the Brixia new senior group will all be expected to be the top contenders for European Championships next month. The team overall still has a lot to figure out on floor, which was passable when they were juniors, but now that they’re at the next level, it’s not going to hold up against other senior teams, which could make a veteran or two necessary.
It was still a good start here, though, with the young Italians coming within about four points of a pretty strong Chinese team, and I’m so excited to watch them make big strides this season as they work toward Olympic qualification.
5. China’s Floor Renaissance
Watching the juniors compete live for the first time, I was beyond impressed with how fantastic they looked on floor, with Wei Xiaoyuan and Guan Chenchen both super solid and tidy in their tumbling and dance elements, and Guan – who has a background in dance and a huge personality – was one of the best performers I’ve seen come out of the Chinese program in a really long time, with the most natural ability to sell her choreography while clearly having a blast out there.
I thought perhaps this particular pair of juniors just happens to possess a natural gift for the event, but then the seniors came out – most of whom we’ve been familiar with internationally over the past couple of years – and it was clear that China’s floor situation right now is about far more than just a couple of talented juniors.
Though the difficulty isn’t through the roof, all of the Chinese gymnasts looked remarkably improved in how they’re able to compete the event, with Zhang Jin‘s improvements most apparent to me, but I also loved how Liu Tingting and first-year senior Tang Xijing looked, while fellow first-year senior Qi Qi is a natural on the event, winning the bronze in event finals with Zhang in a close fourth.
Overall, China looks refreshed and happy, and I loved watching them hanging out with the Americans throughout the meet, with Guan becoming a special favorite among the U.S. girls. Linked by coaches like Liang Chow (who currently heads the Chinese program) and Jiani Wu (a coach for China’s 2008 Olympic team who was in Jesolo alongside her club athlete Gabby Perea), the U.S. and Chinese teams have gone from major rivals ten years ago to close pals now, and I adored seeing the mutual respect and support for one another throughout the weekend.
6. The U.S. Comebacks
Primed alongside Maile O’Keefe to be the biggest international team threats in 2018, injuries ended up taking down both Emma Malabuyo and Gabby Perea early in the season, leaving both unable to compete at the biggest meets of the year both within the U.S. and internationally.
With O’Keefe’s recent retirement from elite, I think a lot of fans questioned whether we’d ever see Malabuyo or Perea back at a high level again, and so I was thrilled to see both of them named to the national team and then to the Jesolo team at the most recent camp in Sarasota.
Malabuyo looks almost as good as she did when we last saw her, and possibly even better on beam, where she won the silver medal with her confidence high and her skills solid and clean. Her DTY on vault still looks pretty great, and the skills are clean and lovely on floor, but while she’s just a little short on some of her passes at the moment, this is something that can absolutely improve with a bit more time and experience.
Overall, this was an incredible return for Malabuyo; much better than I think most people could have expected given the low rate of return for the majority of seniors who get injured and miss an extended period of time. In the end, she walked away with the all-around bronze and silvers on beam and floor, quite the successful comeback.
Perea, meanwhile, looked really good even if her spot in the standings – 13th out of the 18 seniors who competed – doesn’t exactly suggest it. Partly held back by her vault and floor difficulty, she got further behind with nervous mistakes on bars and beam leading to falls, but despite what happened here, it was clear to see she’s capable of strong scores if she hits thanks to her clean work.
Also competing for the U.S. senior team was Shilese Jones, who made her international debut last year at Pan Ams. Jones was fantastic here on vault and floor, her best events, and her vault score of a 14.700 for her huge and gorgeous DTY was the top score on this event for the seniors all weekend. She unfortunately had a fall on bars, and her beam isn’t as strong as her other events, but on a super deep U.S. team, Jones continues to prove herself as part of that depth.
7. Belgium Upsetting for Bronze
All meet long, the junior team competition saw Russia holding onto first, the U.S. girls close on their heels in second, and the younger of the two Italian teams in third, but with the Italians ending on a particularly rough beam rotation, Belgium got work done on vault in the final rotation to wind up upsetting by nearly a point, a huge surprise to those of us who expected at least one of the two Italian teams to get on the podium.
Featuring Noémie Louon‘s beautiful bar work, Stacy Bertrandt‘s tidy and lovely performances on beam and floor, Lisa Vaelen‘s big vault, and Jutta Verkest delivering on bars and floor, the Belgians came in with some relatively weak difficulty, but they were very well put-together here without a single bad event.
A bunch of last year’s top Belgian juniors stepped up to the senior level this year, so it’s great to see that they’re able to continue bringing really strong up-and-comers into the mix. With their senior program barely able to send a full team to worlds last year, I’m glad they’ll have a steady stream of young talent coming up in the next few years, and this team did what Belgium always does best, which is hitting under pressure to surprise everyone.
8. Chiaki Hatakeda’s Potential
The gymnast who debuted a quad twist on floor when she was just twelve is now Japan’s top junior competitor. While she’s no longer throwing the quad, Chiaki Hatakeda is still a powerhouse on floor with a triple full in addition to some other strong tumbling, but she’s no longer just about floor now.
Hatakeda also has a beautiful Yurchenko 1½, a big beam set that she caps off with a triple full, and an uneven bars routine that’s of the “good enough” variety even if she’s not a natural there. In that sense, she’s like a mini Mai Murakami, and while she still has a ways to go before she might be a future senior team contender, she’s super promising and beyond fun to watch.
In Jesolo, Hatakeda ended up tenth all-around, and she was the only junior Japanese gymnast to make an apparatus final, getting into three of the four, with her fourth-place finish on beam her best for the weekend.
Even if Hatakeda doesn’t end up being ready to break onto the senior team next year, I can see her totally coming into her own as she gets a bit older, and truly believe she’ll represent the future of Japanese gymnastics.
9. The Italian Babies
There were two Italian junior teams here, one with girls who are preparing to reach the senior levels in the coming year or two, and another with a few of the more experienced gymnasts in addition to some newbies, like the 2006-born Angela Andreoli and Giorgia Leone, with Leone making her elite debut here.
I didn’t pay super close attention to the scores at this meet, so when I saw an Italian team consistently in third and then finishing fourth, I assumed it was the team with more of the veteran juniors, the ones with the greater international experience, and I was happily surprised to see the wee ones stepping it up.
Despite two falls in her program, Andreoli, who turns 13 this year, handled some incredible difficulty like a seasoned veteran, like a triple flight series and a double pike on beam, and she proved to be a fabulous performer on floor with sassy choreo and lots of sparkle. Even with the falls, she still managed to finish with a 50.034 in the all-around, placing 16th, so I can’t wait to see her with a fully hit day.
Camilla Campagnaro, one of the “older” team juniors, was the strongest here overall, but I found Veronica Mandriota to have some lovely qualities to her gymnastics, while Alessia Federici unfortunately fell on beam and put her hands down on vault, but she was wonderful on bars and floor, with her bars vastly improved compared to previous routines, and she expressed herself very well on floor.
10. Konnor McClain and the New U.S. Juniors
Watching Konnor McClain‘s international debut here was like watching the making of a star. Having watched her on YouTube since she was practically a toddler, I’ve loved seeing her grow up into the elite program over the past few years, and this meet marked her true coming out party.
In the all-around competition, McClain was picture perfect all meet long, winning the title by about a point with a 56.167 total, showing a huge and gorgeous DTY for a 14.800, beautiful handstands and super clean work on bars for a 13.967, a stunning beam set with a fierce standing arabian and an excellent layout series for a 14.133, and strong work on floor, where she showed a double layout, a 1½ through to double pike, a 2½ to front tuck, and a double full, all of which looked great.
After winning the all-around, McClain competed in all four apparatus finals, winning the gold medal on vault as well as bronze on bars and floor, and while she came in as the top contender for beam gold, she unfortunately fell twice there to wind up sixth. It was her one showing of weakness in an otherwise superb national team debut, and I loved that going up against the amazing Russians meant that she really had to work for every medal she got, whereas in previous years, the U.S. gymnasts have more or less been able to coast right to gold against far weaker competition.
This was also the international debut for Ciena Alipio and Sophia Butler, both of whom were added to the national team at the recent camp, with Alipio falling on bars but otherwise looking great, winning the silver on beam and the bronze on vault for excellent work on both, while Butler missed her Onodi on beam, but performed an entertaining “Cell Block Tango” routine on floor and made the finals both there and on bars.
After traveling to Jesolo, the fourth member of the U.S. junior team (and the “veteran” as the girl with about a year of national team experience under her belt), Kayla DiCello, unfortunately had to withdraw from every event but bars due to a minor injury they didn’t want to exacerbate with hard landings. DiCello did a solid job with her performance there, and more importantly, she really stepped up as a leader for this wildly inexperienced team.
Full results from the competition are available here, as are all of the live blogs. Enjoy!
Article by Lauren Hopkins