Cintia Rodriguez of Spain
Going into world championships this year, I thought the team situation in terms of who we’d see qualify to Tokyo would be crystal clear.
The same twelve teams that competed at the 2016 Olympics also finished in the top twelve at world championships in Doha last year, and based on who each team had competing in Stuttgart, there was still a clear difference between the top twelve — all of which were capable of around a 160 or higher — and everyone else.
With Brazil losing Rebeca Andrade over the summer, followed by dropping Carolyne Pedro from the team due to injury in the week leading up to the competition, I thought they’d be risky, but with veterans like Flavia Saraiva and Jade Barbosa bringing in big scores, as we went into the final subdivision with Spain the bubble team at a 159.021, I thought even with some mistakes, Brazil would still almost certainly pull it off.
At first, I thought they looked fantastic. Vault was a great rotation for them, or so I thought, with Saraiva and Barbosa both hitting doubles, and they counted three hit routines on bars. After seeing Saraiva hit beam, I even remarked in the live blog that I was “no longer worried about an Andrade-less Brazil.”
But then I realized the team put up only three gymnasts on beam, and I wondered where Barbosa was. “I guess they’re fine just putting up three?” I wrote, but I was confused about the absence of a fourth when they had Olympic qualifications on the line. All three hit, but the scores for Leticia Costa and Thais Fidelis were still quite low (though damn, Costa had some fantastic routines and I wish the scores could’ve reflected that!), and Barbosa typically put up much stronger scores. When they also only put up three on floor, counting a fall from Fidelis, I knew something was wrong.
In the arena, it’s really hard to know what’s going on outside of what you’re seeing right in front of you with no real commentary. I saw Barbosa hit a DTY, but didn’t see her landing, and based on her score, I assumed it was fine. What I didn’t see, and later saw in a video, was that she was low, that her knee still twisting into the mat, and that she was clearly injured.
With Lorrane Oliveira only capable of competing bars, Barbosa’s injury meant the team had to put up only three on beam and floor, and with lower-than-expected scores on top of a fall, it meant the team that was thriving under Valeri Liukin and had just a year earlier been capable of reaching a podium finish, having qualified fifth into the final in Doha, had dropped down to 14th — five points shorter than last year’s finish — and would miss Olympic qualification by a point and a half.
It was a devastating finish to what had been building up to an incredibly impressive quad for the Brazilian women. But in their sadness, another team was elated, with the Spanish women watching from the stands that evening and bursting into screams and tears when they saw the updated team standings following Brazil’s final routine.
I’ll say now that Spain didn’t qualify because Brazil failed. Spain qualified because Spain was incredible. Prior to their performance that day, I didn’t think the Olympics were possible. Their difficulty overall was a bit lower, and the other teams were just a bit too strong. Even the other bubble teams like Australia and Ukraine seemed more likely to qualify in the incident of an expected team dropping down.
Spain’s performance killed me, though. Starting on bars, the team was flawless from start to finish, getting a solid leadoff routine from first-year senior Alba Petisco before moving on to a beautiful and clean routine from Cintia Rodriguez, a sturdy and dependable set from Ana Perez, and a mind-blowing set from Roxana Popa, who hit her piked Jaeger, Ray to Pak, toe full to Maloney to Gienger, and full-twisting double layout like no time had passed, when in reality she had nearly a four-year gap between elite competitions.
Beam was a bit more disastrous with falls from both Perez and Popa, who came off twice. I thought whatever momentum they had begun to build on bars was dashed with counting two falls on that apparatus, but then the team was back with a phenomenal floor rotation, where Popa anchored with a routine that had me literally sobbing by the end, and with a 13.8 for her set, no matter how Spain finished as a team, it looked certain that Popa would make the floor final and qualify an individual nominative spot to the Olympic Games.
The Spanish women finished with a solid vault rotation, though they lacked any huge difficulty there, and they spent the rest of the day waiting to see how things would play out. All day, the teams expected to finish ahead of them did, until of course that final rotation, when Brazil just couldn’t hold on, giving Spain its first team berth at the Olympic Games since 2004.
Even with the beam falls, Spain was just so good elsewhere, it was clear they would be a legitimate contender. Without those falls, they would’ve finished in that 160+ range where we expected to see all of the top teams wind up, and I think with a fully hit day, they’d even have a chance at upsetting some of the other top-twelve teams, especially as they continue getting stronger in the coming months.
While Spain was the happiest shock for me at this year’s worlds, we also then got the double-whammy of a team final podium upset, as the Italian women — who qualified into the team final just 0.034 ahead of Germany after struggling on beam in qualifications — came back to win the bronze, making this the first time Italy reached the podium since they last won bronze in 1950.
I’ve been following the four core members of this team since they first competed together at Gymnix in 2017. In my recap of that meet, I discussed the potential of Giorgia Villa, Elisa Iorio, Asia D’Amato, and Alice D’Amato, and said, “I would be thrilled to see this exact group of gymnasts headline the country’s Olympic team in 2020.”
Since then, these four have always been named to teams together, including at Jesolo and the European Youth Olympic Festival in 2017, another run at Gymnix and Jesolo as well as European Championships in 2018 (where they beat Russia to win the team gold), and at Jesolo and Euros this year. It’s been clear that the four were tasked to be Italy’s 2020 Olympians back when they were just 13, and in the ensuing years, they continued training together to create a well-oiled machine that was destined for greatness, and having watched that all play out, a team medal was absolutely within their grasp this year.
I wrote in 2017 that the team was a little unbalanced, with huge vault and bars rotation, but then a severe drop-off on beam and floor. I’ve always considered Vanessa Ferrari or Lara Mori the perfect person to level them off at worlds this year, but as both are focusing on an individual qualification path through the apparatus world cups, they ended up going with Desiree Carofiglio, not quite as talented on beam, but an incredible floor worker who brought some big scores in both qualifications and the team final in Stuttgart, making her integral to the team’s podium finish.
Beam is still rough, however, and counting two falls in qualifications nearly cost the Italians a team final spot, with Iorio coming in to save the day as the anchor. In the team final, a pretty great floor rotation with all scores above 13.3 combined with big scores on vault and bars made them likely to upset China for the podium, based on China and France counting multiple falls throughout the competition.
The upset was possible if they could survive beam, however. As the final event for the Italians, it was a nail-biter, but Villa led off with an excellent routine, followed by Asia D’Amato with a super solid set of her own. Iorio needed just an 11.367 for Italy to medal, and though she had a fall early on in her set, she still came out with a routine that was otherwise excellent, getting an 11.933 to sneak in for bronze.
A shocker based on the team’s qualifications performance, but not at all a surprise based on the past two years of this team putting in the work that would bring them exactly to this moment. In a sport where hoping for even one standout junior to kill it at the senior level often leaves fans in despair, to see all four grow from the little standouts at Gymnix to a bronze medal-winning team at world championships was beyond my wildest dreams for all of them.
I’d imagine the four will continue to be the four favorites to make the Olympic team next year, and while they’ve definitely grown in their beam and floor ability over the past couple of years with some really nice potential on both events, I do hope they can continue to make that a focus going into Tokyo.
Of course, the United States topped the podium with the gold, led by Simone Biles with the team’s top scores on vault, beam, and floor, while Sunisa Lee had the top bars score (she also came out of this meet with a bronze on this event as well as the silver medal on floor, making for a pretty excellent senior worlds debut!), Jade Carey had the second-biggest numbers on vault and floor (Lee two-per-country’ed her out of the floor final, but Carey was good enough on vault to get the silver), and Kara Eaker overcame the beam drama that befell her in qualifications — where her D score came in drastically lower than expected and an inquiry served to decrease it even further, taking her out of the final — to put up a strong set under pressure.
Though clearly the strongest team, mistakes from Grace McCallum on bars and a fall from Lee on beam were a bit of a bummer, making these the first missed routines in a major international team final since 2010, and their 5.801-point lead was the program’s narrowest since 2015.
But again…it’s a 5.801-point lead, with what was essentially two falls. If anything, the decline in the team’s lead was more about other programs getting better than the U.S. getting weaker. The U.S. women actually scored nearly a point higher this year compared to last year, thanks to the additions of Carey and Lee, but Russia increased its team final score by four points year-over-year, and China with multiple falls this year was about two points higher than China last year.
The international outlook is much-improved overall, with teams like France, Italy, and Canada especially strong right now, as all three look to be at their best in the history of the open-ended code. These three, along with China’s increased difficulty and Russia’s sudden ability to be pretty strong and consistent, are raising the bar, whereas the U.S. has been on a slight decline after hitting its peak in Rio.
But the U.S. is still clearly miles ahead of the rest of the field, and that won’t change anytime soon. Even if they had to replace Biles with alternate MyKayla Skinner, they would’ve had a sizable lead in this final, and they still have a half dozen gymnasts left at home who could’ve legitimately medaled in the world all-around final. Big scores is part of why the U.S. has been so good, but depth is the real reason, and as long as they can keep that depth, the other teams around the world are going to have a hard time overtaking the program.
I came into this competition with the lowest of low expectations for Russia, not to be mean, but because based on the Russian Cup, the situation was…concerning. But somehow, the Russians ended up looking kind of excellent, thanks to Angelina Melnikova finally living up to the potential she had as a junior along with Lilia Akhaimova coming in with her big numbers on vault and floor, while Daria Spiridonova showed a resurgence in her bars ability, first-year senior Anastasia Agafonova brought in beautiful bars and beam work, and Aleksandra Shchekoldina was on hand to round out vault and floor.
The team wasn’t without issue, having to count falls from Agafonova and Akhaimova on beam in the final while Shchekoldina struggled a bit in qualifications, but overall, given that this isn’t a complete A-team, they were pretty remarkable in both the quality of their routines and in the fact that they were able to get some pretty great scores out of girls who wouldn’t be considered for the team with everyone healthy.
Melnikova gets a special mention as basically the Biles of this team. After a rough period in 2016 and 2017, last year’s overall good performances seemed almost flukey, but this year she proved that she is the real deal, a true total-package gymnast with grace, style, power, beauty, and consistency. Melnikova is killing the game right now, and came away with much-deserved all-around and floor medals in addition to contributing four routines to the team silver, and my favorite thing is after it was clear her ring shapes and layout on beam weren’t doing her any favors, she redid her construction and the judges now love her on that event, giving her a 13.766 in the team final and then a 14.0 in the all-around, pretty much her highest international scores of this quad, and by quite a lot.
China was my favorite for silver this year, and they didn’t disappoint in qualifications, putting up their typically gorgeous bars and beam work while also getting big numbers on vault and increasing their potential on floor, scoring a 169.161, a full four points higher than last year’s qualifications.
The team was an incredibly young one, led by Liu Tingting with three first-year seniors as well as Chen Yile, who made her worlds debut at 16 last year, and was happy to make it back on bars and beam this year after dealing with injuries. In the team final, Liu ended up being the one to break down, falling twice on bars and then again on beam, taking China off the podium completely as the team missed by just about half a point.
Liu came back for a great floor performance, however, and she put up a beam routine in the apparatus finals that was gorgeous, though with Biles doing the routine of a lifetime, she wasn’t able to hold onto her throne and went home with silver as a consolation prize. The younger gymnasts were all excellent in the team final, however, with Chen doing gorgeous work on bars and beam, Qi Qi balancing her out with big scores on vault and floor, and Li Shijia doing great work on beam, and Tang Xijing — who won silver in the all-around to become China’s first all-around medalist since Yao Jinnan won bronze in 2011 — put up the team’s biggest numbers on bars and floor.
China is full of talent right now, and what’s more is that they all look super strong, both mentally and physically. Despite missing the podium this year, I think at full potential, they’re the second-best program outside of the U.S., and hopefully they’ll be able to keep up the growth going into Tokyo.
After qualifying fourth with a score that made them just as competitive as the Russian and Chinese teams, France unfortunately counted some falls in the final, leaving them in fifth place, though Mélanie De Jesus Dos Santos looked incredible aside from her mistakes, and first-year senior Aline Friess has been on the most insane rise I’ve seen in a long time, with worlds one of the best competitions of her life. Despite the disappointments here, I believe in France, both in this team and in its future, and I’m excited to see what’s to come.
Great Britain came back from missing the team final last year to finishing sixth this year, with just a few mistakes in the final, but overall they seem to be on the right track for Tokyo, and as a special treat this year, both Downie sisters snagged individual medals, with Ellie upgrading to a Cheng to win the bronze on vault while Becky finally got a medal on bars, winning the silver medal at her seventh world championships since 2009.
The Canadians weren’t quite as strong this year as they were in Doha, counting some falls on beam in addition to not being at full strength on bars, with Ana Padurariu dealing with a growth spurt that reportedly had her a bit frustrated throughout podium training, keeping her out of the lineup for the team final. But overall, even a relatively ‘weak’ performance from them now is still better than a strong performance from them last quad, thanks to some beautiful routines and the continued leadership from Ellie Black, who unfortunately ended her meet with a rough landing on vault in the all-around final — where she finished fourth, adding insult to injury — but it doesn’t seem super serious, and she’ll continue to lead the team in 2020.
The Netherlands was also a bit off here on beam, normally a strength for the program. Kind of hilariously, they’re a vault and floor team right now, with two DTYs and some excellent floor scores from Eythora Thorsdottir and Tisha Volleman, who killed it in the team final. Naomi Visser is continuing to prove herself as a fantastic all-around talent, and though Sanne and Lieke Wevers have been held back a bit by injuries, they’re still lovely as ever, and hopefully will have it fully together by next year.
In addition to Spain and the eight teams we saw in the final, the other programs that qualified to the 2020 Olympic Games were Germany, Belgium, and Japan. All had good but not great meets, though all finished in the 161-range with the bubble programs back a solid two points or more, so none was really at risk of missing out (though Japan in 11th place after looking like a podium contender last year was a bit of a shock, thanks to Mai Murakami missing out due to the federation’s weird qualifying rules).
Aside from Brazil, Australia and Ukraine got closest to the Olympics, and I honestly think the whole first subdivision bad luck made it impossible for them to get close. While beam judging remained pretty consistent throughout the two days of competition, I think bars especially went from super tight to rather kind of loose, and I have no idea how Diana Varinska only got a 7.733 E-score on the event when much weaker routines that came later scored around an 8.4 or higher.
I’m not saying these teams “deserved” it more than others, as both had their own struggles and lacked the difficulty that most of the teams in the top twelve had, but I do think both programs could’ve added a point or two on a more even playing field, and I wish there was a solution to make the subdivision issue more fair…like, instead of a random draw, the team’s finish at the previous world championships should determine the order for the subsequent worlds.
Also of note was Romania not only missing out on the Olympic Games, which was expected, but finishing 22nd out of 24 teams, its worst team finish at world championships in program history, a stat that’s coupled with the fact that this was also the first year since 1970 that the country didn’t have a gymnast in an individual final (and in 1970, it was by default, as the all-around results weren’t determined by a separate final, though Elena Ceampelea placed 17th that year and would’ve technically been in a position to make a final, had one existed).
It’s clear Romania has been on the decline over the past five years (or really, much longer, though they were able to hang on thanks to veterans pulling them through). After finishing a shocking 13th in 2015, it was strange last year when another 13th-place finish was a happy surprise, as they were expected to do much worse. But this year, putting up four all-arounders and counting many mistakes, 22nd was the sad reality for a program that used to be a constant threat for gold just a decade ago.
The federation is now frantically figuring out how to change things for the better, because the next step is missing out on qualifying a team to world championships at all. They have some talented up-and-coming 2004-born gymnasts, but overall the program is in such bad place, I don’t trust them to take these juniors to the next level as seniors, as has been the case for every once-talented junior since about 2013. We’ll see if they’re able to make something work, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.
Article by Lauren Hopkins