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.
The Chinese women’s program has one of the most impactful new senior classes this year, with gymnasts who are capable of taking the team to an entirely new level. First-year seniors make up three-fifths of this year’s worlds team, and one of these seniors isn’t even someone I considered one of the top five new senior threats at the start of this year. They’re THAT deep.
Tang Xijing was the junior we all had our eyes on last year after seeing her kick butt at home (Tang was the national all-around bronze medalist and then the individual championships all-around and floor gold medalist as a junior in a field of seniors at both events) and abroad (Tang took the beam title at Asian Junior Championships in the spring, and then won the beam title at the Youth Olympic Games, where she finished fourth all-around and would’ve challenged Giorgia Villa for the title had she not fallen twice on beam).
This year, Tang has been quietly good, putting up a strong performance in her senior debut at Jesolo, where she won the silver on bars, and then finishing fourth all-around at nationals, where she won the silver on beam. At recent internal qualifiers for worlds, Tang was consistently at the top of the rankings, and she has tons of potential as an all-arounder who considers bars and beam her standout events. She’ll definitely be one to watch in Stuttgart and beyond.
Another big threat is Qi Qi, a strong vaulter since her early years as a junior who won the Asian Junior Championships all-around and vault titles as well as the Chinese national vault title last year, where she competed two different family vaults as a junior. This is relatively unheard of internationally, but in China they prepare them early, and her Yurchenko double and Rudi combo is super solid.
But what really makes Qi stand out is her floor. She has an incredible routine, with clean tumbling, lovely dance elements, and lovely performance value, and she’s capable of a mid-13 there, giving her an edge over last year’s “power’ kid, Liu Jinru, who had big scores on vault but couldn’t bring in usable scores elsewhere. With a relatively strong beam set and passable bars, Qi is essentially this quad’s Wang Yan, but with a bit more style and flair to her gymnastics.
At the start of 2019, I would’ve said my other top three gymnasts who could make an impact would be Zhao Shiting, who has struggled a bit this year; Yin Sisi, an alternate this year who had some decent floor work as a junior and has grown on bars and beam; and Yu Linmin, a vaulter with a DTY/Cheng combo who won titles at Asian Championships and the Zhaoqing Challenge Cup, but she’s not as clean as Qi, and she doesn’t compete anything else.
Instead, it’s Li Shijia who’s stepping up to the plate. As a junior, Li was one of a dozen “good beam kids” we’re used to seeing in China. They put up a couple of 14+ scores at home on the event, and then never make international teams because they don’t really do anything else. Li had obvious beam talent last year, finishing fifth on the event at nationals, but she was 13th all-around and the rest of her D scores were quite low, so she was easy to count out.
At nationals this year, Li busted out a DTY for the first time, and though it was a bit weak, it helped her qualify fourth into the all-around final, where she ended up finishing fifth after a clean day. She missed the beam final here, and was still low-key forgettable with many other exciting moments overshadowing her, but then a week later in the same city, she blew everyone’s minds when she hit the most perfect beam ever to get a 15 at a challenge cup, a score she bested when she got a 15.050 to take the gold in the final.
Li was second all-around at the recent worlds qualifier in China, finishing just behind Tang and ahead of Chen Yile in third and veteran Liu Tingting in fourth. These four plus Qi make up the team set to compete in Stuttgart next month, and I honestly think this is hands-down the most talented Chinese team we’ve seen since Beijing, and the three first-year seniors are a major part of that.
We’re going from a real high to a deeply upsetting low here from China to Russia, you guys. That’s okay, the Russians are saving its big debuts for next year, where we’ll see the likes of Vladislava Urazova and Elena Gerasimova turning the team around so fast, and I can’t wait for that. But for now…it’s kind of a dead zone.
Coming into 2019, my note for Russia was: “I mean…Ksenia Klimenko is really it, and I don’t even really consider her a threat for worlds unless she really ups her bars and beam. She’s fine, but her junior scores would put her nowhere near top three in the country on any event, and there’s no way she can be an international all-around threat considering she can barely do an FTY…but she’s still the new senior who will come closest to making the team because it’s such a weak class.”
Pretty much all of this still stands, except with Klimenko, she actually got weaker from year to year, which really hurts my heart. Her all-around scores have been in the high 40s in recent months, even at home, and though she started out the season looking promising on bars, they’ve since deteriorated, with her Russian Cup performance especially heartbreaking on this event.
My other note for Russia was: “I guess Anastasia Agafonova is okay; she’s done some good difficulty on bars,” and as it turns out, Agafonova has really started to come into her own, recently winning bars silver and beam gold at the Paris Challenge Cup with scores that have shown some incredible improvement in a short amount of time.
Agafonova, the 2017 junior all-around silver medalist, missed the 2018 season due to injury, and at her first meet back at nationals this spring, she looked vastly improved on bars, where she won the silver medal. She then picked up the gold on bars at the Osijek Challenge Cup in May, but when she competed only bars and beam at the Russian Cup last month, she was a bit disastrous on both and didn’t make either final. She’s always been a hit-or-miss kind of competitor, but this past weekend’s results in Paris inspired hope. She’s a Russian who hit beam two days in a row, which is outstanding in itself, and she also showed composure on her bars set, where her 6.4 start value is third-highest in the world.
Unfortunately for Agafonova, the bars/beam spot went to veteran Daria Spiridonova this year, but Spiridonova is rough on beam, and I’d actually much rather see Agafonova get to test the waters. They’ve already qualified a team to Tokyo, so there’s really nothing on the line here aside from medals, and based on how they’ve both competed recently, I’d say Agafonova has a better shot at both helping the team in the final and at fitting into the bars race.
The other notable first-year senior this year is Daria Belousova, who reminds me so much of Tatiana Nabieva and is a really fun gymnast, though she’s not one with a ton of difficulty or consistency. She did well at a few international tests this year, helping the team on three events at the DTB Team Challenge in March and then winning bronze on bars at the Korea Cup, but I think she’ll remain B-team at best.
Though the U.S. isn’t teeming with tons of majorly-impactful first-year seniors the way China is, the two who are most impressive both have a shot at getting onto the worlds team, which is a huge deal when you consider the overall senior depth in this country.
I wrote in my late 2018 notes that I was “feeling Sunisa Lee the most,” and despite some injury struggles along the way, she showed up at nationals looking absolutely ready to kick butt and take names, helping her reach silver in the all-around ahead of many wildly talented athletes.
When Lee first came onto the scene in 2016, she was known for her standout choreography and dance elements on floor, and she instantly made a name for herself both stylistically and with a 10th-place all-around finish at nationals, not bad for a first-timer. Over time, we’ve watched Lee become brilliant on all four events, with 2018 really her breakout year on the junior scene, as she began showing insane difficulty and combinations on both bars and beam, as well as difficult tumbling on floor in addition to adding a DTY on vault.
Lee’s lowest all-around score of a 56.466 this year is the 24th-highest out of over 5,000 all-around performances across the globe in 2019. Her combined all-around difficulty of 23.6 is second only to Simone Biles and is half a point higher than the third-highest (shared by MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey), and yet despite coming in with so many risky skills, she’s remained one of the most consistent all-arounders, making her impossible to ignore.
The other big first-year senior threat for the U.S. is Leanne Wong, who burst onto the scene in 2017 in a “where did she come from?!” moment, making the national team at her first nationals, and then in her second and final year as a junior in 2018, she won the all-around titles at both the U.S. Classic and U.S. Championships in addition to winning all-around bronze and three event silvers at Junior Pan Ams.
Wong, the 2019 American Cup champion who placed fifth all-around at nationals this summer after showing massive improvement on beam but struggling quite a bit on floor, is exactly the opposite kind of gymnast as Lee. She too has a ton of difficulty – her combined all-around start value is seventh-highest in the world – but where Lee’s is more flashy and in-your-face, Wong’s is far more quiet and understated, with floor the only event where she’s more of a trickster.
Though she has a great shot at landing on the worlds team, I don’t think her shot is as clear as Lee’s. Recent floor routines aside, she’s also mega-consistent, and she’s super clean with textbook technique on many of her skills, but she doesn’t really have the kind of standout events Lee has, putting her on the same page as several other solid but specialty-free all-arounders like Morgan Hurd and Grace McCallum, both of whom have been to worlds and have that experience as a major edge.
If the team could put up five all-arounders in prelims, I’d take these three plus Lee and Biles in a heartbeat, but with room for only three all-arounders and two specialists, Wong is really going to have to show major improvements on floor and show that she’s a top-three gymnast there and on beam. Still, Wong is heavily featured in the conversation for worlds, and whether she makes it or not, she’s been an incredibly impactful first-year senior with all she’s accomplished already.
Kind of shockingly, this is pretty much it for the big guns on the U.S. team. One of my favorites with big potential coming into 2019 was Jordan Bowers, though she unfortunately has been injured and had to switch gyms early on in the season, so we didn’t get a chance to see her make an impact at all. There’s also Aleah Finnegan, who showed a ton of improvement this year to factor onto the Pan Am Games team and earn a spot at the worlds selection camp, though she’s not one who’s likely to end up in Stuttgart.
Many of my low-key favorites who turned 16 in 2019 – Selena Harris, Abigail Scanlon, Jay-Jay Marshall, Ellie Lazzari – are no longer training elite, which was a bummer because even if none were likely to be majorly impactful on the international scene, all had super special qualities to their gymnastics and I was looking forward to watching them. As a trade-off, however, we got introduced to a gymnast whose first-year senior season also happened to be her first-year elite season, period! Faith Torrez stunned when she debuted at a qualifier earlier in 2019, and she continued to improve more and more, reaching nationals and earning a spot at the worlds selection camp, and it’s been so exciting to watch her journey.
This is the final look at how first-year seniors will impact teams at world championships this year, but in the coming weeks we’ll be looking at gymnasts competing individually in Stuttgart next month, and will be highlighting many first-year seniors along the way.
If you missed earlier editions of The New Senior Impact, you can find them all below.
- Edition 1: Czech Republic, Argentina, Poland, Switzerland
- Edition 2: Ukraine, Mexico, Spain, Hungary
- Edition 3: North Korea, Australia, South Korea, Romania
- Edition 4: Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Great Britain
- Edition 5: Germany, Brazil, Japan, France, Canada
Article by Lauren Hopkins