The American women have been the most dominant team in the sport of gymnastics since 2011, when a group of five mostly inexperienced young ladies went out on the floor, nailed 12 routines, and earned gold for Team USA, a first in four years after missing out in Beijing and in Rotterdam.
Since then, the team has won every world and Olympic team competition, with its margin of victory growing and growing as they continue getting stronger, and in Stuttgart tomorrow, they’re expected to easily go for a seventh title after leading the field in qualifications by over five points.
Led by Simone Biles, who qualified first into the all-around final in addition to all four event finals and is on track to become the most decorated women in gymnastics history with her anticipated medal haul this week, the U.S. women looked flawless on its first three events — floor, vault, and bars — and even though they faltered on beam, seeing back-to-back falls early in the lineup before the judges obliterated Kara Eaker’s beam difficulty score, they still posted the second-best beam score in the world, and they qualified gymnasts into nine out of an available ten individual finals.
Now, personally, I don’t think the team competing in Stuttgart is the best team that the U.S. could’ve put together. I think it’s clear that Tom Forster’s modus operandi has been to take the top all-arounders and call it a day, reportedly because individual coaches find this a more “fair” way to select teams with depth so great as this country has.
There are several other options that could’ve created more balance or led to a higher team score, but that said, it doesn’t really matter that the absolute best possible team isn’t in Stuttgart, because this team is still pretty excellent, and even if tomorrow isn’t perfect, it will still be enough. With the highest difficulty and some of the best-executed routines in the world on all four events — even bars, a “weak” event for the team this year, is second-best in the world — Biles, Eaker, Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum, and Jade Carey are going to rely on their experience, their talent, and their passion to do what they’re capable of in tomorrow’s team final.
After such a long history of being relatively untested internationally, it could be fun to see this super exciting Chinese team push them a little, however. With Liu Tingting at the helm, China put up an impressive 169.161 in qualifications, counting a 14+ on every apparatus but floor, which has long been the weak spot for this team.
If the Chinese women could get floor routines to match everything else they’re doing, they’d be right on the heels of the U.S. women. Coach Liang Chow is working on it with them, and they’ve definitely improved in recent years, but for now, they’re going to focus on continuing to put up killer scores on the other three events, which will make them the biggest threat in the world for silver.
In addition to Liu, China has all-arounders Tang Xijing and Li Shijia in the mix, both first-year seniors who were phenomenal in their world debuts this weekend, as well as fellow first-year Qi Qi with strong performances on vault and floor, while Chen Yile, recently back from an injury, takes care of bars and beam. Together, this is a pretty perfect team, with a mix of power, difficulty, beauty, and elegance that exemplifies artistic gymnastics, and I hope to see them at their very best in a tough three-up three-count final.
Based on a domestic meet in August, I expected the Russian team to more or less implode in Stuttgart, and yet they showed up and counted 12 hit routines in qualifications to earn a 168.080, beating last year’s qualifications score by nearly three points thanks to three strong vaults, three gorgeous bars sets, and dependable work on beam and floor.
Like floor for the Chinese women, beam is kind of the Achilles heel for the Russians, and they also have some weak spots in their floor lineups, though I think Angelina Melnikova and Lilia Akhaimova getting those high 13 to low 14 marks are more than enough to make them stand out from other programs, and the work they do on vault and bars can almost make you forget that the team had a sub 40 on beam.
The team this year features the inexperienced Anastasia Agafonova, who was kind of fantastic in her major international debut, and Aleksandra Shchekoldina, who had rough performances on beam and floor but nailed her vault, as well as 2016 Olympian Daria Spiridonova, who has been struggling since Rio but seems to have gotten her act together this past month. She’s competing only bars here, but it’s a huge set, as one of only three routines that broke a 15 in qualifications.
Given that the team did have some falls in qualifications, and given that the team final is historically Russia’s favorite time to fall apart, I’m going to commend them for a beyond brilliant prelims, but I’m still going to wonder if they can pull it off a second time in a row in the final. I hope they can, because they truly showed on Saturday that they deserve to be on that podium, but we have an incredibly strong group of teams going into the final, and there are a few who would love to see Russia falter so they can increase their chances of pushing past them for a medal.
One of these teams is France, which was in a similar situation last year, only to count falls in the final, leaving them in fifth place. This year, the core team of Mélanie De Jesus Dos Santos, Lorette Charpy, and Marine Boyer is back, they’ve added the incredible up-and-comer Aline Friess, and although they had to bring in a last-minute replacement in Claire Pontlevoy due to an injury, she ended up being an even better option for a team situation, as she can do both a Yurchenko double as well as a 14+ bars set, meaning Boyer didn’t have to compete bars as she would have with Coline Dévillard on the team.
France posted a 166.713 in qualifications, just putting up a few low numbers on beam and floor, and they have some room for improvement as well. I just hope that the pressure and thrill of the team final doesn’t affect them like it did a year ago, because if not, I do think they have an incredible shot at medal, and I’d like to see them not lose out on that opportunity due to nerves.
The next four teams we’ll look at — Canada, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Italy — all qualified within a point of one another, and behind them, Germany, Belgium, and Japan were all within a few tenths of this top group that ultimately made it into the top eight. It was a super difficult qualifier, and I think any one of these teams can make improvements in the final to increase their standings and possibly even contend for a medal, especially if higher-ranked teams have mistakes.
Canada, which had its best-ever team performance in Doha last year with a fourth-place finish, qualified fifth here with a 162.922. Ellie Black was excellent, and can still add in some tenths on floor, Brooklyn Moors was gorgeous on floor, Shallon Olsen brought in her Cheng on vault, Ana Padurariu put up solid routines on bars and beam, and Victoria-Kayen Woo was exactly the utility player the team needed, with lovely work on all four events. Hopefully with a few tweaks, the Canadians will be able to improve on an already great team total, and maybe we’ll see them match or even beat last year’s ranking.
The Netherlands — featuring all-arounders Eythora Thorsdottir, Naomi Visser, and Lieke Wevers alongside Tisha Volleman and Sanne Wevers — got off to a rough start on beam, normally the team’s best event, but they quickly picked themselves back up and forged on through the remaining three events to finish a surprising sixth. The team can add in somewhere in the neighborhood of 4–5 points on beam if they hit, which is insane and would make them a legitimate contender for the podium, so let’s hope they can do what we know they’re capable of tomorrow.
Great Britain also had a bit of a rough day in prelims, though they managed to drop many of their biggest mistakes to count mostly hit routines. If Ellie Downie is in a better place, the team can potentially add a couple of points back from her alone, and they’ll also be looking for a hit floor from Taeja James and a little more finesse from the beam squad to get them to a better place. Georgia-Mae Fenton and Becky Downie will be sure to put up big bars numbers, while Alice Kinsella has a bit more she can do on beam and floor to make sure the team can put up a great final.
Finally, Italy. Oh, Italy. A weak floor team, Italy was still able to put up two decent numbers there before Desiree Carofiglio did her job with a brilliant routine to nearly make the final, and then it was smooth sailing when the young squad moved on to vault and bars, hitting for all 14+ numbers across both — even with the scores they dropped. But then came beam, which included falls from Carofiglio, Giorgia Villa, and Asia D’Amato, though Elisa Iorio fought through her own set to hit her routine, adding more than a point back into the team total, securing them a spot in the final.
This group, which also includes Alice D’Amato, is so talented and so experienced, but also so young, and it was clear they were feeling the pressure this weekend. Hopefully they’ve had some time to decompress and realize that even with multiple falls, they’re still one of the best teams in the world. Making the final was a massive achievement in itself, but I hope these young ladies can prove that they can be brilliant in this kind of situation, because we all know what they’re capable of (hint: MEDALS) and we just want to see them at their very best.
The team final begins at 2:30 pm in Stuttgart tomorrow (or today, since it’s already October 8th and I clearly need to go to bed). If you’re in the U.S., this is 8:30 am ET, or 5:30 am PT.
Article by Lauren Hopkins