Surprise standout Aline Friess of France
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.
If I was writing this at some point between 2015 and 2017, I would be shrieking about how Emelie Petz is going to be the next big thing for Germany. Unfortunately, injuries began limiting her near the end of her junior career, causing her to regress in her abilities while keeping from contending at several major international meets, including last year’s Youth Olympic Games.
Petz, who swept the German Junior Championships twice, is still probably the top first-year senior out of Germany when healthy, but that’s the problem – it’s hard to catch her in good shape. She did manage a solid all-around performance at a Bundesliga meet this year, and both her vault and floor sets make her incredibly beneficial to the German team, but whether she’ll be able to pull it all together in time for worlds this year, or the Olympics in 2020, is going to be hard to predict.
With Petz not at a hundred percent, I’ve really enjoyed watching the rise of Lisa Zimmermann, who was a surprise to replace Petz as the country’s Youth Olympic Games competitor last year and has really grown in her ability since then after a rather lackluster junior career. She won’t be a first choice for teams with her current difficulty, but she’s a good enough backup option, and she even made the European Championships all-around final in April with solid performances on all four events.
Overall, having seen the 2003 class come up from the espoir level to the senior level over the past four years, Petz has always been the one real standout, with Zimmermann only recently gaining traction, but that’s honestly about it for the Germans. There are a few other first-years on the roster, with Sidney Hayn and Leonie Papke the most notable, though neither has competed yet this year and it doesn’t seem likely they or anyone else will be in the mix.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen one or two first-year seniors get called up to compete internationally for Brazil each year, but no first-year seniors have really worked out since the Flavia Saraiva and Rebeca Andrade days, and that’s looking to be the case again in 2019.
The strongest among Brazil’s new seniors are probably Ana Luiza Araujo and Laura Rocha, both of whom made several international teams in 2018, with Rocha getting the Youth Olympic Games spot (though she didn’t make any finals in Buenos Aires, a stark contrast to this competition serving as Saraiva’s breakout meet in 2014).
Neither has competed yet this year, however, nor have any other first-years, and the only 2003-born gymnast to compete at nationals was Bianca Tavares, who placed 16th with a score of 45.001, making her unlikely to get even a trial assignment, let alone contend for a major team.
While it’s a bit of a bummer to see a top country like Brazil without any major prospects, not all hope is lost! The country has a 2004 class with tons of potential, so fingers crossed that we’ll get to see them break onto the senior scene in the coming years.
There are no superstar standouts from Japan this year, but that doesn’t mean they’re lacking in young talent. Not even close!
My two favorite first-years in 2019 are absolutely Ayumi Niiyama and Urara Ashikawa. Niiyama recently placed fifth all-around and fourth on floor at Asian Championships in addition to hitting excellent domestic results this year, and while Ashikawa has struggled a bit in all-around meets, her beam is absolutely fantastic, with everything you could dream of seeing in a routine on this apparatus.
Also in the mix to be threats in the future are Chiharu Yamada, Mikako Serita, and Yuna Endo, all of whom have achieved solid results both nationally and internationally. Yamada was the country’s Youth Olympic Games competitor last year, and though she missed out on the all-around final there, she has since grown a ton in her ability, adding a DTY to her skills in addition to becoming more consistent overall, so my hope with her is that we’ll continue to see solid growth.
Overall, despite no A-team kids at the moment, Japan still has one of the deepest classes of first-year seniors among every country I’ve covered so far, and while there’s still a bit of a disconnect before these young gymnasts and the veterans who continue to represent the country on major international teams, this group isn’t too far away at all, and I think we can expect a couple of them to jump into the Olympic race as surprise threats.
I came into this year thinking one thing about the French first-year seniors, but as the months have ticked by, the two I initially thought might have the biggest impact based on junior international results have ended up being a bit overshadowed.
My biggest pick for France’s 2019 breakout star initially was Carolann Heduit, who first caught my attention with her fantastic work on bars and floor at Jesolo in 2017. Heduit also added a DTY to her arsenal as a junior, helping her to some of the country’s top junior scores over the past few years, including the second-best score at the European Youth Olympic Games qualifier last year.
Unfortunately, Heduit is in a situation similar to Petz’s in that injuries, especially over the past year, have really limited what she’s been able to do. After her injury in 2018 caused her to miss the Youth Olympic Games, Heduit downgraded several of her skills – including her vault – which limits her overall scoring potential, and then on top of that, she has also struggled a bit with consistency this year, finishing just sixth at nationals in addition to falling behind her two teammates at the European Games as well.
One teammate she has finished behind a few times this year is Aline Friess, who was a good but not super high-level junior, though a recent upgrade to a Rudi on vault is huge for Friess, and that combined with hitting bars, beam, and (a super expressive) floor in the all-around final at last week’s European Games meant a fourth-place finish less than a tenth away from the podium, beyond what pretty much anyone could have expected from her even just a couple of months ago.
Célia Serber, Claire Pontlevoy, Julia Forestier, and Aglaé Adam-Cuvillier are also strong first-year seniors for France this year, and though none of these are currently matching the level of the seniors on any event to make themselves threats for worlds team, all four add tremendous depth to this growing program, which now has about a dozen gymnasts who can all reach a 50+ in the all-around, a major asset when top gymnasts have to be replaced by alternates.
Of these, I think Serber has the greatest potential, though she’s been a bit inconsistent this year, and Pontlevoy has an ambitious bars set, though I think she’ll need to work on her form a bit before she could reach an internationally-competitive level there.
As the team that has had the biggest rise in the sport over the past few years, finishing an incredible fourth-place at worlds last year and almost upsetting for the podium, it seems likely that Canada will continue relying primarily on those who have been so successful in the past year – Ellie Black, Ana Padurariu, Shallon Olsen, and Brooklyn Moors, all of whom have made history for Canada at worlds in 2017 and 2018.
However, while none of the 2003-born Canadians are in a place to break into this bubble, there are a few who are close and who will provide invaluable depth as backup options going forward.
The best of these is Emma Spence, who won a vault medal at the Youth Olympic Games last year, and who consistently finishes in the top eight domestically as a senior. She fits solidly in with the B team squad at the moment, traveling with other gymnasts at her level to last month’s FIT Challenge, where she placed 16th among the 61 all-arounders with the third-best Canadian score, just behind the more experienced Isabela Onyshko and Laurie Denommée.
Spence is solid and consistently improving on all four events, so while she’s not a top contender, I’d definitely include her as a valid replacement option, and I’d also put fellow first-years Quinn Skrupa, who has tons of difficult skills and innovative connections in her routines, and Mia St-Pierre, a solid vaulter, in the mix.
Beyond this group, Canada has a ton of internationally experienced new seniors who all have the potential to hit clean routines, with about 20 or so gymnasts who have recently competed at the elite level becoming seniors this year. Ilka Juk, Lucia Jakab, and Imogen Paterson are a few of my faves, and whether they break into the international ranks as seniors or not, I love that Canada is pretty much the only country outside of the U.S. that has a few dozen kids with elite experience at any given time.
Coming Up Next
We’ll round out our look at the top full-team programs going to worlds this year with the countries that have already qualified to the Olympic Games: the United States, Russia, and China. Though they can rest easy knowing Tokyo 2020 is a done deal, all three countries have first-year seniors who will threaten for worlds this year and possibly even the Olympic Games next year.
Article by Lauren Hopkins