Which Countries Have the Best Shot at an Individual Olympics Return? Part Three

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Giulia Steingruber

At this time next week, in addition to knowing the teams that will qualify to the Olympic Games, we’ll also know the majority of the individuals who will make it to Tokyo, through both the all-around competition and event final qualifiers.

This is one of the most exciting aspects of this world championships for me. Though teams will be named, we won’t actually know who will be on those teams until next year, but all of the individual spots awarded in Stuttgart will be nominative, meaning gymnasts will have their dreams come true — or end — next weekend.

Here, I’m going to profile all of the countries that earned individual spots in 2016, showing a look at those that will be most capable of returning to the Olympic Games and discussing the gymnasts I think could make it happen. In an upcoming post, I’ll also take a look at the countries that missed out on sending gymnasts to Rio, and see if they’ll be able to come back from that this year.

ROMANIA

Romania, Romania, Romania. Last quad, Romania missed out on a team berth at the Olympic Games for the first time in the modern history of the sport, and though changes have been made to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, unfortunately the majority are at the developmental level, with no magic fixes to get them back on track for 2020.

The program ended up sending Catalina Ponor to compete in Rio, and though Ponor stuck around for a bit following her third Olympic Games, she ultimately decided to retire at the end of her 2017 season. With Larisa Iordache also still not back after suffering an injury at worlds in 2017, the past couple of years have been all about Romania’s young seniors stepping up. Though they did a fabulous job counting all hit routines at worlds last year to finish 13th, they’ve been looking a bit weaker overall this year and it seems most likely that they’ll again only earn an individual spot rather than one for a full team.

Among the gymnasts competing at worlds this year, Denisa Golgota is most likely to qualify. Golgota was the top all-arounder from countries that didn’t finish in the top 12 at worlds last year, but recently she’s had some struggles, in both the all-around and apparatus finals at both European Championships and European Games, and then also at Romanian Championships last month, where she finished sixth all-around.

The only senior to come in ahead of Golgota at nationals, however, was Iulia Berar, who is injured and will miss worlds. She still has a pretty good shot of becoming Romania’s sole qualifier to Tokyo, but I’d also consider Ioana Crisan a solid challenger, with Maria Holbura also potentially capable of doing well on a good day.

SLOVAKIA

After a strong quad leading up to 2016, Barbora Mokosova earned an Olympic spot pretty easily, and I was thrilled to see her come back better than ever following the Games. 2018 was an especially great year for her, as she earned a total of six world cup medals on bars, beam, and floor, and she looked like she might be capable of earning a spot in the all-around final at worlds until a last-minute injury took her out of contention.

Thankfully, Mokosova returned earlier this year and has looked healthy and strong as she attempts to qualify to her second Olympics this coming weekend. With her scoring potential in the neighborhood of a 49-50, she should pretty much have a spot locked down, especially as the only other gymnast Slovakia is sending to Stuttgart, Chiara Bunce, will have a tougher time meeting the cutoff score.

SLOVENIA

The Slovenian contingent at worlds this year includes 2008 Olympian Adela Sajn, known for beam and floor but who is returning to the all-around for the first time in seven years; 2016 Olympian Teja Belak, known for vault but who is also returning to all four events for the first time since qualifying for the Rio Games; and Tjasa Kysselef, another vaulter who began bringing her all-around program back last year.

While these three all have really solid standout events that can help carry them afloat as all-arounders, none of them have enough practice in all-around competitions to make them super high contenders. I could see Belak and/or Kysselef slipping into the vault final to qualify that way, but they’re all going to be just a little below the expected cutoff based on how they’ve looked this year. I think it’s going to be tight for Slovenia to get back into contention, but I do think they could be capable of surprising, especially if Belak can bring back a serviceable floor routine to get into the 47-48 range.

SOUTH KOREA

I loved Lee Eun-ju sneaking into the Olympics last year at the last minute with almost no experience under her belt after most of the top competitors ended up injured and unable to attend. She ended up looking fabulous in Rio, and since then she’s had a remarkable international career, making the all-around final at worlds in 2017 before going on to win medals on bars, beam, and floor at this year’s Asian Championships.

Though Lee is one strong option for Tokyo, her teammate Yeo Seo-jeong could also snag that spot. Though known for vault, where she is the only female gymnast to have ever competed the handspring front double full, Yeo was both the top all-arounder for South Korea last year in addition to also finishing fifth in the vault final, so she could qualify either way, but if she finishes as the top-ranked South Korean gymnast again this year, she’ll earn her 2020 spot that way.

There’s also first-year senior Lee Yun-seo to consider. Though Lee isn’t as strong as the other two here, Lee has a gorgeous bars set, placing fifth there at last year’s Youth Olympic Games. If Yeo has an off day in the all-around, I think either of the Lees has the potential to step up and get that spot, which would leave Yeo eligible to earn a spot of her own on vault, which would be ideal for this rising program.

SPAIN

Throughout most of last quad, the favorite for an Olympic spot in Spain was Roxana Popa, who became a senior in 2013 and had phenomenal performances at worlds both then and a year later. Unfortunately, Popa got injured shortly after Nanning, and though she attempted multiple comebacks, complications and further injuries kept her from being able to return in time to challenge for 2016.

Popa finally returned to club competition this year, turned heads when she finished fourth all-around at nationals, and then dropped jaws at a few international meets in the lead-up to worlds. I’d say she’s about the second- or third-best Spanish gymnast right now if everyone is hitting, but I’m excited that after such a letdown last quad, we’ll finally get to see her back on an Olympic journey, and even if it doesn’t work out, I’m thrilled she at least gets to try.

Ana Perez was an underdog compared to Popa last quad, but as Popa began to slip out of contention, Perez stepped up her game, easily earning the country’s Olympic spot at the test event. She’s gotten even better this quad, winning three Spanish all-around titles in a row to come in as the one to beat at worlds this year. She’s strong on all four events, and recently unveiled a double double on floor, and I think unless something goes wildly wrong, she’ll be earning the country’s Tokyo berth.

Also competing for Spain are Cintia Rodriguez, a stunner on beam and floor who could also fit in as a top all-arounder for the country on a good day, and newcomers Alba Petisco, Marina Gonzalez, and Alba Asencio, the likely alternate.

SWEDEN

Last quad, Jonna Adlerteg had been hoping for a return Olympic spot after making her debut at London 2012, but a massively ill-timed injury at a world cup took her out of contention, and she was forced to end her season just a few weeks before the test event, giving teammate Emma Larsson the opportunity to qualify.

Larsson qualified shortly after the Rio Games, but Adlerteg kept at it, returning to competition in 2017 and sticking to bars for the next two years before finally bringing her all-around program back at nationals this year, where she finished third with some mistakes. She looked much-improved at a friendly meet a few months later, and if she has a solid competition, I can see her qualifying that way…but even if she misses out on an all-around spot, if she can make the bars final and finish in the top three among any gymnasts who aren’t there competing for a country that qualifies a full team to the Games, this would be another opportunity for her to seal the deal for Tokyo.

The other Swedish gymnast competing in Stuttgart is Jessica Castles, who trains in England alongside fellow international transplants Danusia Francis of Jamaica and Chiara Bunce of Slovakia. Castles has been a terrific addition to the Swedish program, winning the national and Nordic all-around titles last year, and then qualifying to the all-around final at European Championships and to the floor final at European Games this year. It could honestly go either way with her and Adlerteg in the all-around, but in a perfect world, Castles would outscore Adlerteg in the all-around while Adlerteg makes the bars final and qualifies that way. *fingers crossed*

SWITZERLAND

Two-time Olympian Giulia Steingruber has made history time and again, becoming Switzerland’s first European all-around champion in 2016, and then a few months later, becoming the first Swiss female gymnast to win an Olympic medal with her bronze on vault in Rio. Steingruber then went on to win another vault bronze at world championships a year later, and she was gearing up to a great 2018 season until a knee injury at a friendly meet just a few weeks prior to Euros took her out of contention.

It was a more than a year before we got to see Steingruber back in competition, but her return at nationals this year was super promising. Even though she wasn’t quite at a hundred percent, she looked fantastic to nearly sweep the competition, and then a week later she finished second at a friendly meet in the Netherlands with a score that showed she will once again more or less be a lock for the Olympic Games.

If for some reason Steingruber ends up unable to qualify, Ilaria Käslin is itching to get a spot of her own, and we’ll also see Stefanie Siegenthaler hoping for a shot, with Caterina Barloggio and Anny Wu also competing on the team.

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO

After all of the drama that went down with Trinidad & Tobago between Thema Williams, who recently won a lawsuit against the federation after they pulled her from the Olympic test event at the last minute in 2016, and Canadian-based Marisa Dick, who stepped in to earn the spot and compete at the Rio Games to become one of the most hated people in the country, I was a bit bummed to see neither gymnast continue this quad, especially with no other gymnasts on the rise. After making its first appearance in women’s gymnastics at the 2016 Olympic Games, they won’t be challenging for a second, though they do have a MAG competitor competing in Stuttgart this week.

TURKEY

Turkey is one of those lucky countries that is sending not one, but two Olympic veterans to contend for a spot in Tokyo, with 2012 Olympian Göksu Üctas Sanli and 2016 Olympian Tutya Yilmaz both hoping to get a return trip alongside talented first-year senior Nazli Savranbasi.

Üctas Sanli initially retired after her Games, getting married and having a baby before deciding to come back a month before the Rio Games. Though it was too late in the process for her to earn an Olympic spot in 2016, she quickly became a standout for the country this quad. Both Üctas Sanli and Yilmaz, who has competed on and off this quad, generally stick to beam and floor, but they bring their all-around programs back occasionally, with Yilmaz hovering somewhere in the 48-49 range on average while Üctas Sanli is slightly behind, around a 47-48.

Both of those ranges would fit in with the expected individual cutoff of around a 47, a score 15-year-old Savranbasi is also capable of achieving. Savranbasi can be a bit hit-or-miss with her performances, but on a good day, she’s right up there with the two veterans. I think the odds are on Turkey’s side with three gymnasts who can all score well enough to get to Tokyo, but exactly who will make it will come down to how everyone does in the moment.

UKRAINE

Last quad, Angelina Radivilova — née Kysla; she’s since married MAG standout Igor Radivilov — was easily Ukraine’s best. As the sole competitor at 2015 world championships, she qualified a test event spot for her country, and then six months later, she vastly improved her performance to easily snag a spot at the Rio Games.

Radivilova was back competing less than two months after the Olympics, and she’s largely been a top talent for the Ukrainian program this quad, though over the last couple of years, the introduction of new seniors — Diana Varinska in 2017 followed by Anastasiia Bachynska this year — put Radivilov slightly in the shadows.

Varinska and Bachynska, both of whom finished in the top seven all-around at European Championships this year with Varinska winning bronze in the all-around and on beam at European Games where Bachynska won the title on floor, have what it takes to completely turn Ukraine around. They’ve gone from 27th as a team in 2014 to one that could legitimately challenge for the top 12 this year, largely due to what these two have been able to bring to the team to complement Radivilova, Yana Fedorova, and Valeriia Osipova.

Should Ukraine not qualify a team, it’ll be either Varinska or Bachynska who qualifies as an individual, though it’ll break my heart to see only one of them get this opportunity, as both have been so phenomenal for this program. As I’ve said with other countries, in a perfect world, Bachynska would get the all-around spot and Varinska would make the bars final to qualify that way, but since bars has been a little spotty for Varinska, it’s not a guarantee that she’ll get in.

UZBEKISTAN

Seven-time Olympian Oksana Chusovitina is of course the story for Uzbekistan. A gymnast for 37 years, the 44-year-old is nearly three times as old as the youngest seniors competing in Stuttgart this weekend, and though she’s mainly stuck to vault this quad with just a few beam and floor performances sprinkled in, she’ll be competing all four events this weekend to increase her chances of qualifying to her eighth Olympic Games after debuting with the Unified Team in 1992.

As an all-arounder, even though she doesn’t have the biggest skills on the majority of her events, Chusovitina is capable of around a 50 if she hits everything, which should be more than enough for her to qualify. If she doesn’t get in through the all-around, however, she’s also likely to make the vault final in Stuttgart, where a top-three finish among countries that didn’t qualify full teams would mean the legend could earn a berth this way. Had the 2018 standings been used for Olympic qualifications, Chusovitina would have qualified as a vaulter, and I think with two separate paths for her, we’ll absolutely see her continue to make history and blow minds in Tokyo.

Also competing for Uzbekistan are Ominakhon Khalilova and first-year senior Indira Ulmasova, both of whom have some impressive international credentials on their resumes, though neither is quite capable of coming close to Chusovitina.

VENEZUELA

After three Olympic Games, and despite toying with a comeback this quad, Jessica Lopez — who made history for Venezuela by qualifying into the uneven bars final in Rio — made her last appearance in the sport at a Bundesliga meet at the end of the 2016 season, and she has since taken a role as a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Denver, her alma mater.

Taking Lopez’s spot as Olympic hopefuls this year are Katriel de Sousa and Milca Leon. Sousa would be the most likely of the two to keep Venezuela in the game at the Olympics, but her all-around scores have hovered around a 44-46 range over the past two years, so I worry that this won’t be enough, and that Venezuela’s run will come to an end. On paper, Leon could probably get close to the expected cutoff score of about a 47, but unfortunately, though her difficulty is quite strong, she tends to struggle with hitting, and I’m afraid it’s going to be incredibly difficult for her to be rewarded with the scores she’ll need to earn a spot.

VIETNAM

Phan Thi Ha Thanh, a two-time Olympian who was the first to qualify a WAG spot for Vietnam when she won the bronze on vault at the 2011 World Championships, retired following the Rio Games in 2016, but she inspired a generation of Vietnamese talent in the sport, and several of these gymnasts will be on hand to attempt to keep Vietnam at the Olympic Games going forward.

One of the gymnasts vying for a spot is Tienna Nguyen, who trains at Zenith Elite in the United States. Nguyen actually reached the elite level as a junior in the U.S. in 2015 and then again in 2017, but at the end of her junior career that year, she got a FIG license to represent Vietnam going forward, and she’s been making waves for the country internationally, recently winning a beam medal at the Mersin Challenge Cup.

Averaging around a 46-47 all-around, Nguyen’s score of 47.399 at worlds last year would’ve been the second-to-last qualifying score for the Olympic Games had last year served as the qualifier, so as Vietnam’s top contender, she’s going to be cutting it super close, and is going to need a truly outstanding performance this weekend to secure a spot.

Also representing Vietnam on the quest for Tokyo are Do Thi Van Anh, whose scores tend to be in the 45-46 range, and Tran Doan Quynh Nam, who is actually quite a good beam and floor worker, but her bars scores hold her back at around a 44-45 range on average, making it difficult for her to challenge.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

8 thoughts on “Which Countries Have the Best Shot at an Individual Olympics Return? Part Three

    • Really? How about the US who has arguably the 5-6 best all around gymnasts in the world and can only bring four of them to Tokyo and two of those to the AA?

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      • Oh seriously, I’m sick of whining about the US not getting “enough” gymnasts. The Olympics and the world championships are about seeing athletes from around the world. If I want to watch 20 US athletes, I’ll watch US Nationals or Classic.

        It can be disheartening for a program to only have one spot. And I look at situations like Iordache vs Ponor last Olympics and how depressing that was. Not to mention that gymnasts who become senior in 2020 are basically screwed without a team.

        Yes, I feel sad for talented gymnasts in the US who don’t make world and Olympic teams (although many of them do go on to successful collegiate careers at least, something that isn’t an option in many other countries). Yes, I feel bad that people as talented and amazing as Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas get two-per-countried at the Olympics. But does it really have to be all about the freaking US?

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Even simone says she’s definitely not competing the AA at 44 like chuso….The fact that she’s still getting medals in elite competitions at 44 is unbelievable. QUEEN! lol..

    I want to see her doing gymnastics past 50s maybe we will see her in US in 2028?

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