As one of the biggest competitions of the season thus far, the Flanders International Team Challenge in Belgium brought us so many great routines in addition to surprise wins, big upgrades, and major comebacks. We watched tons of videos from the event, and can’t wait to chat about the can’t-miss moments.
Naomi Visser’s Huge Win
At worlds last year, Naomi Visser‘s super-solid performance took her from young newcomer to seasoned pro, but this weekend, she rose even further, posting one of the top all-around scores for gymnasts from the Netherlands this quad with a 54.533. Visser was clean and solid on every event, and she continues to prove that she’s one of the country’s top bars options.
This was the first meet of the year for Visser, who is expected to compete at European Games later this month, and should also be a frontrunner at Dutch nationals in just a couple of weeks. She now has a triple full to punch front on floor, her stalder full to Chow to Pak to van Leeuwen on bars is divine, and even though beam has traditionally been her weakest event, she seems to have a newfound confidence there after worlds, and she showcased what was probably the strongest set of her career this weekend.
With the Dutch squad mostly about the veterans over the past several years, it’s great to see a talented up-and-comer actually break into the mix instead of falling off like so many have. As someone who just a couple of years ago looked like she wouldn’t end up getting there, I love that she has pushed so hard to bring in important upgrades and to make herself a must-have on every event in a team competition.
Nina Derwael’s Record-Breaking Bars D
As if being a world champion with the highest bars difficulty in the world isn’t enough, Nina Derwael set the bar even higher with a 6.7 D score, the highest in the current code. Derwael added a Downie to her set, which means she now opens the routine with a G skill (the Nabieva) immediately followed by two Fs (the Downie and then her eponymous skill), and she ditched the Bhardwaj in favor of a Pak to van Leeuwen, getting her even more in connection bonus.
The routine went off almost without a hitch when she debuted it, but at the end of her marathon of crazy skills and connection work, she had to take an extra swing before going into her dismount. With her high difficulty, she still easily posted the top score with a 14.833, and she was able to up this to a 15.233 on day two, so I’m sure we’ll see this get close to a 15.5 as she gets more numbers in leading up to worlds.
Because the FIT challenge also served as Belgian Championships for the seniors, Derwael – who placed second all-around in the FIT competition with a 53.898 – was named the senior national champion for the second year in a row, and among the Belgians, she had the highest score on bars as well as the second-highest scores on beam and floor, where she’s still not at a hundred percent after dealing with a recent foot injury.
The Return of Lieke Wevers
After about 18 months away from competition, Lieke Wevers is finally back…and she looks fantastic! Wevers had the fifth-best all-around score at the FIT Challenge with a 52.198, a hugely impressive feat given that this was her first time competing the all-around since Rio!
In her 2017 return, Wevers stuck only to beam, so I’ve been desperately awaiting a new floor set from her. Her music is actually the same, which I’m honestly more than fine with as it suits her perfectly, but her choreography has changed a bit, and she’s added a third tumbling pass to increase her acro difficulty, performing a double tuck, 2.5, and a front full.
Wevers looked especially strong on bars here, where she had a 13.466. Her beam saw a stumble and fall on her double spin as well as a few other balance issues, but she was lovely, and her side somi to transverse straight jump full was all I’ve ever wanted in a connection. Overall, given her length of time away, her comeback was more than a success, and she should have no problem fitting right back into the Dutch team picture going forward.
Belgium and the Netherlands Testing Depth
I think my favorite thing about this meet was getting to see so many young talents from both the Belgian and Dutch programs, with so many first-year seniors taking part on both sides.
As this was the Belgian Championship meet for the seniors, behind Nina Derwael in first place, we saw first-year senior Jade Vansteenkiste (who recently surprised to make the floor final at Euros) finish second followed by 2016 Olympian Senna Deriks in third. Vansteenkiste showed excellent work on vault and floor, which should really help the team given Axelle Klinckaert‘s continued problems with injury, while Deriks is showing improvements on beam and floor after dealing with injuries of her own, limiting her to bars for much of this quad.
The dependable Maellyse Brassart was fourth for Belgium, and first-year senior Julie Vandamme was fifth, while first-year seniors Margaux Daveloose and Fien Enghels didn’t compete the all-around, with Daveloose doing all but vault after a recent injury, and Enghels sticking to her two best events, bars (where she was second-best in the entire FIT competition with a 14.200) and beam. Also competing was veteran Dorien Motten, who hit vault and also performed on floor.
I also have to mention just how great the juniors were. With Noémie Louon, Lisa Vaelen, and Stacy Bertrandt traveling to junior worlds later this month, all three were in top form here, and could be a surprise as one of the top teams in Györ. Louon was gorgeous on bars and beam, while Vaelen continues to be strong on vault and floor, and Bertrandt was solid on all four, making them one of the more well-rounded teams going to junior worlds and putting them in a good position to challenge for a high ranking.
As for the Netherlands, we saw several first-year seniors step into the limelight here, including Sara van Disseldorp, Vera Jonker, and Laura de Witt, all of whom performed very well. De Witt, who beat Tisha Volleman and Kirsten Polderman to take the IAG SportEvent title last month, recently took over Céline van Gerner‘s spot at the European Games, so it seems the federation is taking her super seriously right now, and both van Disseldorp and Jonker are right at her level, which could make things interesting for several of the team’s current bubble gymnasts, like Polderman and Sanna Veerman.
Australia in Great Shape
Out of every team here, Australia was the one that made me say “wow.” The team has been on a bit of a downfall over the past five years, going from a favorite for major team finals to not cracking the top 12 since 2014. As one of the only countries here to send an A team, the Australians came within about a tenth of winning gold behind the Netherlands, earning a 159.296 team total, which – for perspective – would’ve had them in tenth at worlds last year, and is a six-point improvement on the score they got in Doha (and a two-point improvement from last year’s Commonwealth Games, where they had a much healthier and more complete team).
Led by the veteran Georgias – national champion Godwin and runner-up Brown – the team also included beam and floor queen Emma Nedov, the solid and steady Emily Whitehead, and relative newcomer Kate McDonald, who reached the senior level in 2016, but just recently made her major international debut at last year’s Pac Rims, where she won bronze on bars. All five performed well here, as did individual competitor Elena Chipizubov, and with over 60 all-arounders in the mix, Australia managed to place four gymnasts in the top 12, better than any other country participating.
It wasn’t a perfect day, but the Australians continue to make so many improvements each time we see them, I think some of the teams that so easily placed in the top 12 at worlds last year should be nervous about the rise of this team. They’re not super flashy and they lack huge vaults that make many other teams so successful, but they’re getting to be so unbelievably clean and consistent, all they’ll need to do is hit in qualifications and hope other teams make mistakes, and bam, they’re back at the Olympics.
Also, a special shoutout to Nedov’s beam and floor. The way she performs each of her skills on these events is textbook, like the kind of routines we get from Pauline Schäfer on beam that could rival the execution of any NCAA gymnast. Her 13.866 on beam here was the top score of the day on this event, and her floor was also phenomenal, earning a 13.033.
Romania on the Rise
As another “on the cusp” team from 2018 having placed 13th just a few points outside of the top 12, the Romanian seniors weren’t quite as polished here as we would hope, but I believe that children are our future, and was thrilled to see so many of the young ones here really stepping up to lead the way.
In the senior field, I was super surprised by Ana Maria Puiu, who was kind of an underwhelming junior, but she was fantastic here, putting up the top score for the Romanian seniors with a 51.833 with especially great work on beam and floor. She even topped Denisa Golgota, who only performed an FTY and had a big crash on her arabian double front on floor, though she debuted a double double to take the place of her iffy full-twisting double layout, which was a plus. Without the fall, Golgota would’ve been in the mix for the top three all-around, looking “great for Romania” on bars as well as excellent on beam, so minor struggles aside, I’d chalk that up to a success.
The real talent in this program lies with the juniors, however. Led by gold medalist Ioana Stanciulescu and silver medalist Silviana Sfiringu, the Romanian juniors took gold in the junior team competition, and these two also helped the program reach silver in the combined team competition on the following day (despite the minor beam meltdown, because #Romania).
I don’t think the Romanian seniors this year have much of a chance at qualifying to the Olympics without the return of Larisa Iordache in her September 2017 form, which is looking less and less likely as the months tick by, but what we can be excited about is the fact that the program has been slowly and steadily rebuilding, and hopefully next quad – if the current juniors continue to rise and some current young seniors stick around to help guide them – we could see the beginnings of a resurgence for Romania.
Canada’s B Team Looking Strong
Canada has the makings of a dream team for worlds with the likes of Ellie Black, Ana Padurariu, Shallon Olsen, and Brooklyn Moors looking fabulous at nationals a couple of weeks back, but the fight for the fifth spot is looking wide open, and all five gymnasts who competed at the FIT Challenge could be in the mix.
Led by 2016 Olympian Isabela Onyshko, who was sixth all-around here with a 52.031, the Canadian team featured a solid mix of veterans – fellow Olympian Rose-Kaying Woo was also on hand here, as was 2018 worlds alternate Laurie Denommée – as well as newcomers, with Emma Spence and Quinn Skrupa making senior international debuts.
All five are so different and bring wildly different talents and styles to the table, though with Canada’s biggest needs coming on vault and bars to fill some gaps left by the four likely to compete in Stuttgart, I didn’t see anyone here who quite fits what they’re looking for (Brittany Rogers, come back!). Still, we did see five incredibly capable gymnasts who could end up getting the nod even if they don’t perfectly fit the puzzle, and I could see a gymnast like Onyshko making it to balance out Olsen with her talents on bars and beam, or someone like Spence getting the job as someone who could go up on all four events and look great.
That said, it’s also absolutely beyond my wildest dreams to know that Canada has so much depth, their B team finished fourth here above several A teams with a score that would’ve put them 13th at worlds last year, for perspective.
Article by Lauren Hopkins