Australia’s first-year senior standouts Kate Sayer and Elena Chipizubov in the center, with Romi Brown and Emma Nedov
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.
It’s always super hard to find out information about the North Korean juniors, who don’t really compete internationally outside of the Asian Junior Championships…which the federation didn’t attend last year. Two of the 2003-born gymnasts competed at this meet in 2017, though, and the country also sent a couple of gymnasts to the Doha World Cup last week, so we at least have a basic sense now that we’re a few months into the year.
My favorite of the first-year seniors is Sim Hae Won, who has a strong bars set and should fit in well with the group of seniors that did so well last year. The team overall has been making big strides, especially in terms of finding balance across all four events rather than getting by with a big vault or two and not much else, and Sim is a gymnast who fits in well with this balance as a generally solid all-arounder.
The other two to watch out for are An Chang Ok and Kim Son Hyang, both of whom are good enough to be considered for upcoming teams when compared to a couple of the seniors who were on the roster last year. A team with star all-arounder Kim Su Jong leading Pyon Rye Yong on vault and Jon Jang Mi on bars should continue to be the core of any team for North Korea, but Sim, An, and Kim should be squarely in the mix to add depth and help fill out the remainder of the squad.
It’s been a long time since we’ve truly seen incredible incoming new senior classes from Australia. Last quad was all about veterans, and though we’ve seen a couple of girls born in the late 90s and early 2000s start to come into their own over the past year or so, the national program has been lacking in junior depth on top of being unable to transition most juniors to the senior level.
This year is a WILD change in that respect, however. The country has enough promising first-year seniors this season to practically field a full team, a majorly exciting prospect considering they were barely unable to make this happen at worlds last year after a few last-minute injuries. It might be too soon to fully give credit to Mihai Brestyan, who took over national operations in 2017, but it’s certainly not a coincidence that so many of the girls who were 13 or 14 when he joined the program are now prepared to excel as seniors.
The two biggest talents to reach the senior level this season are Elena Chipizubov, who recently won bronze on beam at Gymnix and is an absolutely gorgeous performer, and Kate Sayer, who competed at the Youth Olympic Games last year and is strong on vault and floor. I think these two will be most likely to earn team spots as we continue into the 2019 season, but I’m also really excited about Sidney Stephens and Miriana Perkins.
While all four are still a bit lacking in difficulty compared to some senior teammates, I think the Australians generally tend to grow into the sport like a fine wine and am sure that another year or two will bring all of these gymnasts into a truly competitive place. Two years is far too soon for Brestyan to bring the team from not qualifying in 2016 to magically being a top contender, and I still don’t think they’ll be quite at the level to make it to the Olympics as a team this quad…but the seeds have been planted and Brestyan seems to be pushing for lasting changes rather than a quick overnight fix.
To end on a bummer note, Isla Ross – the 2017 junior national champion and 2018 runner-up for the title – had been one of my favorite newcomers this season, but sadly she announced her retirement at the beginning of the year due to a constant barrage of injuries. I’m sad I can’t add her to this list of fantastic up-and-comers, but hope she’ll be happy in her post-retirement life.
The pool of new seniors isn’t all that deep for South Korea, which has just two 2003-born gymnasts likely to break into the mix.
One of these gymnasts is the exciting young uneven bars standout Lee Yun-seo, who represented her country at the Youth Olympic Games last year before making her senior debut at the American Cup last month. Lee has immense difficulty on bars, and she should be able to make any team she wants during her senior career thanks to her skills there, so expect to see her at both the Asian Championships and at worlds this year.
Also reaching the senior level in 2019 is Eom Do-hyun, the beam bronze medalist at last year’s Asian Championships as a junior. Eom debuted at the Melbourne World Cup in February, where she made the beam final. She’s a good gymnast overall, largely on par with a couple of last year’s top seniors, so expect her to be a team contender as well.
Something we have to consider with South Korea is that FIG president Morinari Watanabe had a meeting with both their federation and the North Korean federation, where they discussed the possibility of joining forces for the 2020 Olympic Games.
If this is serious, I’d imagine they’d need to make the decision by the time we get to worlds, where they’d also need to compete under the same flag in order to qualify a team…and if they do compete under the same flag at worlds, the united Korea will have an incredible chance at qualifying to the Games. On their own, both countries will be borderline, and while they both have some standout athletes, neither is quite whole enough to make it…but combined, they’ll be a serious threat.
I was super impressed with how the young Romanian team was able to show up at worlds last year, hit every routine, and place 13th, just one spot away from an Olympic team spot had it been the qualifying year. It seems a lot has gone down since then with injuries and retirements, so it’s hard to say if they’ll be able to be as successful this year, even if Larisa Iordache manages to make it back…but their new seniors this year unfortunately won’t add much in the way of helping them once again get back into the top 12.
This is a super ‘off’ year in terms of new seniors for Romania, with the country’s most talented juniors over the past couple of years all born in 2004 or later. Ana Maria Puiu, who competed at the Youth Olympic Games, and Iulia Berar, who won the silver medal on beam at Jesolo last year, are the strongest they’ve got coming up in 2019, but a 50 in the all-around would be considered a great day for both.
Considering the Romanian senior program currently has about three competitive seniors, it’s possible both Puiu and Berar will have a shot at getting some experience at this level, perhaps even at worlds. I believe both started the year injured, which is partly why neither was selected to compete at Euros, but Berar reportedly returned to training last week, so you never know.
Hopefully they’ll at least get a shot to be tested, but if not, there’s always next year’s new kids.
Article by Lauren Hopkins