Marina Nekrasova finished one spot away from qualifying to the 2016 Olympic Games, but now, she could be one of the leading contenders for Tokyo.
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 have never sent gymnasts to an Olympic Games. There’s a total of 13 countries competing in Stuttgart that haven’t yet qualified any athletes to the Olympics, and we’re going to look at all of them to see if anyone has a shot at making history this weekend.
With the worst gymnastics luck of last quad, Marina Nekrasova finished exactly one spot away from qualifying to the 2016 Olympic Games. Scoring four tenths behind the final qualifier, Nekrasova was named the alternate for the individuals who were set to compete in Rio, but no one ended up withdrawing, and Nekrasova was out of luck.
This quad, though, I think things will be in her favor. Nekrasova has grown tremendously this quad, and whereas most former Russians go to Azerbaijan when they lose steam in their careers, the same move created a powerhouse gymnast out of Nekrasova, who has spent the last four years both improving her technique and upgrading her skills to make herself an incredibly strong contender for Tokyo.
As the sole competitor for her country this weekend, Nekrasova won’t have any internal competition for the spot, so getting Azerbaijan’s women’s gymnastics program to its first Games totally comes down to her, and I absolutely think she can make it happen.
The Cayman federation made its first appearance at world championships in just 2015, and then returned last year when Raegan Rutty was finally age-eligible to compete. Rutty, 17, has been the country’s best since she was a junior, and though her scores are a bit low compared to many other small programs, she’s made some important improvements over the years to cement herself as the country’s top elite ever.
Rutty’s scores won’t be enough to qualify her to Tokyo; however, Rutty is one of only two gymnasts competing at world championships who will be eligible to earn a tripartite invitation, an invitation extended by the tripartite committee to athletes from countries that have sent fewer than eight athletes to the last two Olympic Games.
Generally, the committee tends to choose whichever eligible gymnast has the stronger performance at worlds, and since there are only two this time around, she basically has a 50% shot. Right now, Milka Gehani of Sri Lanka — I’ll talk more about her later in this post — is also in the mix, and she’s historically stronger than Rutty, but anything can happen, and I won’t count Rutty out based on past scores alone.
I’ve been a fan of the Costa Rican program ever since I saw some videos of the young Ivanka Victory training Wevers-esque turns on beam and floor back in 2012. Though she had some excellent junior performances throughout her career, sadly, Victory ended up retiring before she could really do anything at the senior level.
Costa Rica made its worlds debut in 2011, and has competed twice since then, in both 2013 and 2018. Last year was when things seemed to turn around for the program, however. Luciana Alvarado, who had to miss worlds, showed tons of potential at Pan American Championships, and then when she returned at the Pan Am Games this year, she looked even better, putting up two days of super tidy and consistent work on all four events.
Alvarado is my favorite to get Costa Rica on the map for gymnastics, and she definitely has the scores that could make her capable of achieving this dream. The country is also sending Heika del Sol Salas, whose 46–47 range might put her a little behind, and first-year senior Camila Montoya, who represented the country well at the Youth Olympic Games, though her scores are closer to the 44–45 range, which would leave her also falling short.
Cyprus has been around for a couple of decades at this point, and is becoming vastly more well-known thanks to the success of Marios Georgiou over on the men’s side of things, but the women’s program is still growing, and as such, I don’t think the Olympics will be in the cards this time around.
Though Gloria Philassides and Anastasia Theocharous are young, they both boast vast experience at the international level, which is key to helping their composure in pressure situations like world championships. However, they’re both held back by a lack of difficulty, without which we can expect to see them around a 44–45 max, which will be a few points too low compared to others attempting to qualify.
Giulianna Pino, currently on the roster at UCLA (and also currently Danell Leyva’s girlfriend, for those of you who care about such things), was the first Ecuadorian gymnast to compete at world championships back in 2015, and despite competing only a couple of times at the elite level since then — once at Pac Rims in 2016, once at a challenge cup last month — she’s hoping she has what it takes to squeeze into the Olympic puzzle this year.
We don’t have much to go off of with Pino, as her only score in the past three years was a rough beam routine in Paris a few weeks back, but even as a regularly practicing elite last quad, she fell several points short of qualifying to the test event, so I personally don’t see it happening this quad, either…though I hope she can show a really good day of work in Stuttgart.
Not only is El Salvador attempting to make its first Olympic Games this quad, but the gymnasts here are competing at the country’s first world championships, making this historic for the program no matter what.
Alexa Grande, a Guatemalan gymnast who had a change of nationality approved in 2014, has been on the senior scene for years, while Paola Ruano, who trains at Brandon Eagles in Canada, made her elite debut at 17 last year, competing at Pan American Championships to qualify a spot at this year’s Pan American Games, where she earned a spot in the all-around final.
Ruano is the stronger of the two based on recent meets, but while her scores could get her super close to qualifying, if the expected cutoff is around a 47 or so, she’ll have a little work to do if she wants to sneak into the picture. But whether either gymnast qualifies or not, simply getting to world championships for the first time is a major achievement for a young and growing gymnastics program, and I’m excited to have them welcomed into the sport at its highest level.
Georgia began showing an interest in international elite gymnastics last quad, debuting at world championships in 2014. Since then they’ve had a few gymnasts on the international scene — some home-grown, others transplants from countries like Sweden and Russia — but no one yet has been at a high enough level to make an especially strong impact.
Enter Maria Kharenkova. The once Olympic hopeful for Russia and the 2014 European beam champion, Kharenkova missed out on making the Russian team in 2016, and when she returned the following season, she was at a lower level of difficulty and a bit weaker overall, leaving her out of the conversation for any future Russian international teams.
That didn’t deter Kharenkova, however. She kept training and competing, sticking mainly to beam and floor last year, but this year when it became likely that she’d be allowed to represent Georgia internationally, Kharenkova returned to the all-around, finishing 14th at the Russian Cup with routines that could very well make her a contender for an Olympic spot if she can hit in Stuttgart.
Indonesia debuted at world championships in 2011, but it wasn’t until they returned four years later with the first-year senior Rifda Irfanaluthfi, a known fan favorite for her wonderful beam and floor performances, that they actually had a shot at qualifying for the Olympic Games.
Unfortunately, Irfanaluthfi fell short of qualifying to Rio, though she came very close, and with many planned upgrades in the mix, it wasn’t long before she was back and better than ever, winning five individual medals at the 2017 Southeast Asian Games, including the all-around and beam titles, in addition to two challenge cup medals and the Asian Games silver medal on floor.
As the sole competitor for Indonesia this year, Irfanaluthfi — who has been a little off this season — is definitely feeling the pressure to qualify on her second try. Her all-around score at worlds last year would’ve made her one of the stronger individual challengers, and would almost certainly guarantee her a spot this year, so hopefully she’ll be in top form here in Stuttgart.
While the Nigerian program has been on the international scene for several years, on the women’s side, they mainly stick to competitions in Africa, and they’ve never before been to world championships, making this a major first for the program.
One of the Nigerian women competing here, Amenaghawon Melvin, made her debut at the African Games back in 2015, and she returned to the Games this year, competing on three events. We’ll then also see the international debut of Annabel Agba, a 17-year-old British gymnast who has competed elite domestically for years, but has recently been given the go-ahead to represent Nigeria internationally.
Agba’s scoring potential is a lot stronger than Melvin’s, though I think even a best-day kind of scenario for her would leave her a few points behind…but nonetheless it’s exciting to see another new country on the books at this level, and as is the case with most programs, the best is yet to come.
This year marks Serbia’s fourth appearance at world championships, with Aleksandra Rajcic a veteran of the program, having represented the country both in 2015 and in 2018. Though Rajcic fell short of qualifying on her first go-around, she’s had some impressive work since then, and she’s actually a really natural bars gymnast, so hopefully she’ll be able to make it through a clean and solid performance.
Unfortunately I don’t see her or her teammate Kristina Zivadinovic qualifying, however. Rajcic’s all-around scores this quad have been in the lower 40s range, while Zivadinovic — who made her international debut at Osijek this year — has yet to compete the all-around on a major stage, so it’s hard to say where she’ll wind up…though based on her beam and floor scores at Osijek, I’m going to say that she won’t be among the frontrunners for qualifying as an individual.
One gymnast that I’m so incredibly excited for this weekend is Milka Gehani. I still remember my jaw dropping at Gehani’s debut at the Junior Commonwealth Championships back in 2016. She finished tenth all-around there, but her score of 48.550 was about ten points higher than any senior Sri Lankan gymnasts had earned in the same quad, and I just knew in that moment that she would mark a turning point for the program.
Internationally, Gehani has twice competed at Asian Junior Championships, earning a spot at the Youth Olympic Games in 2018, where she finished 28th all-around, but was a promising 15th on vault. She hasn’t competed internationally yet as a senior, but while her all-around scoring potential will likely be a bit lower than most, Sri Lanka is eligible for the tripartite spot alongside the Cayman Islands, and I think Gehani has an incredible shot at earning this honor.
Sri Lanka has competed at worlds three times in the past, all in the early 2000s, but Gehani will be the first to represent the country at worlds in nearly 15 years, and she could also very well become the first to represent the country on the Olympic stage in Tokyo.
On the major international scale of competitions in elite gymnastics, we rarely see Tunisia on any lists for the women. One gymnast did compete at the Youth Olympic Games back in 2014, but no Tunisian women have ever competed at world championships until Chahed Sakr will take the stage this weekend.
Sakr, 18, has competed at several African Championships as well as this year’s African Games, where she won the bronze on vault and finished sixth on floor. Sakr hasn’t competed the all-around in over three years, generally choosing to scrap bars in favor of her stronger events, so it’s unclear if we should expect her to do all four this year, or if we’re just going to see her on the other three, but I think based on her other events, even if she added in a basic bars set, her total score would be much too far back to make her a contender for the Olympic Games.
Two gymnasts have represented Uruguay at worlds previously, in 1999 and then again in 2015, and 17-year-old Pierina Cedres will become the third this weekend, with the hope of qualifying as the first female gymnast from her country to an Olympic Games.
Cedres, who made her international debut last year in her first year as a senior, finished 15th all-around at South American Championships this year, which she followed up with a 32nd-place spot at the Pan American Games a month later. At both meets, she scored in the 43-44 range, so she won’t be a top competitor here and like many others in this category of gymnasts from programs that have never before earned an Olympic spot, getting to world championships is a big part of the battle to become seen and known on the international circuit, and hopefully she and the others in her situation will do well enough to show their federations and national sports institutes that gymnastics is worth the funding and resources for the young athletes who often have to find their own way to competitions like this.
Article by Lauren Hopkins