Derin Tanriyasükür, Sevgi Kayisoglu, Beyza Özen, Bengisu Yildiz, and Kardelen Paryaz
What better way to start the new year than going back and revisiting my favorite moments from the weird but wonderful 2020 European Championships?
One of the biggest debates surrounding Euros this year – aside from whether it would be safe to hold in the middle of a pandemic, of course – was about the legitimacy of this year’s results, as the women’s competition would include only 15 federations, less than half of the 35 that competed the last time a team competition was held in 2018.
Of the teams competing in Mersin, Ukraine had the best finish two years prior, ending up fifth in the final, while Hungary was next best in eighth, and then beyond these two was Romania, 12th in qualifications. Obviously teams that had last placed fifth, eight, and 12th wouldn’t normally be considered the three frontrunners for the podium, and it was clear that this wouldn’t be the case with everyone in attendance, but I’m pretty sure this was understood the second all of the top teams withdrew. It doesn’t make what happened any less “legit” just like Simone Biles not showing up to every all-around world cup or Pan American Games or Pacific Rim Championships doesn’t nullify any of these results.
Part of what makes gymnastics so much fun to watch is that the competition is always different, and that comes down to who shows up. Of course, we always expect the top teams and big names at the major meets like the Olympics, world championships, and other top international meets like Euros, but there are always going to be reasons for some to miss out, and in 2020, COVID-19 just happened to be the reason for many to miss out on Euros. You can look at it as it limiting the overall talent pool, but I chose to see it as an opportunity to follow the journeys of talented athletes and teams who are often overshadowed by stronger programs, and I found just as many reasons to fall in love with this year’s competition as I have in years past.
1. Turkey’s depth right now, and the team’s awesome success at home.
Though Olympians Göksu Üctas Sanli and Tutya Yilmaz are so well-known internationally, the Turkish women’s program is still quite new, having first sent gymnast to worlds only in 2006. They’ve relied on a core team of gymnasts at major international competitions for the past five or so years, but between since 2019, the team has seen a high number of incredibly promising gymnasts enter the mix, and Mersin offered an incredible opportunity for them to show it off.
In addition to Üctas Sanli, the senior team at Euros featured four first-year seniors, including Cemre Kendirci, Bilge Tarhan, Dilara Yurtdas, and Ece Yagmur Yavuz, who stepped in last-minute for 2020 Olympian Nazli Savanbasi, another young talent who qualified to Tokyo as a first-year senior in 2019. The junior team, meanwhile, featured 2005-born gymnasts Sevgi Kayisoglu and Kardelen Paryaz, both of whom are now seniors, as well as the 2006-born Beyza Özen, Derin Tanriyasükür, and Bengisu Yildiz.
Many of these gymnasts aren’t heavy-hitting international all-arounders, but if you compare them to those who competed at worlds last year with the hopes of qualifying as individuals to the Olympics Games, most are right up there, which is pretty exciting considering only a few years ago, Turkey could only say that about two or three of its all-arounders. In the senior qualifications, Tarhan and Kendirci both broke the 48 mark, while three junior all-arounders were all above a 46, with Kayisoglu the top for the group with a 47.365 for seventh place, and the country placed three seniors and three juniors into apparatus finals, which obviously wouldn’t have been likely at a fully-attended Euros, but was still more than I expected even in this field.
Most exciting for the Turkish squad was getting a number of medal moments at home, as Üctas Sanli took the silver on floor, while Tanriyasükür was a super out-of-left-field bars medalist with her bronze on that event. The medals were historic for both as the first continental medals for Turkish women in the sport, and their reactions made the moment so powerful.
Üctas Sanli, a 30-year-old mother who retired after competing at the Olympics in London, has been working her whole life for a moment like this, and she was at her best exactly when she needed to be, knowing that if she was going to win a medal at Euros, this would be her best chance. At so many competitions, we often see silver medalists pouting when they find out they’ll be missing out on gold, but Üctas Sanli’s reaction to getting silver was like she had just won Olympic gold. It was beautiful, as was the reaction from Tanriyasükür, the 14-year-old who was an outlier for making the junior bars final at all, let alone for winning a medal. Going up first, she had a long wait for the final results to come in, but when she realized that her tidy routine had resulted in the bronze, she looked stunned before bursting into tears.
I’m hoping this meet will mark the turning point for the next stage of the Turkish women’s program, and that the talented young standouts at this competition will continue to grow and be able to bring the team to the next level. After finishing 30th as a team at world championships in 2018, I can absolutely see them getting to a place where this quad, they’ll be able to make the top 24 to qualify a full team to the pre-Olympic worlds.
2. Valentina Georgieva winning a medal in her international debut with two incredible vaults.
One of my favorite things about watching Euros this year was getting to see ‘unknown’ gymnasts make finals, and discovering a bunch of new favorites I’d never gotten to see before. Bulgaria was most intriguing for me, as only one of the four who competed had major international experience – Viktoria Chakova at EYOF last summer – while one had never competed internationally at all. Chances are, none would be topping the all-around podium, but I was still excited to see some brand-new talent from a country we so rarely see in the spotlight.
One of the Bulgarians, Valentina Georgieva, made the vault final with a fall on her Yurchenko 1½ in qualifications…but with a 1½ in her arsenal, the 14-year-old was one of only three juniors in the final with a vault more advanced than a full, so she had a pretty good shot of getting on the podium if she could get the vault to her feet. Even if she wasn’t the greatest vaulter out there, difficulty is everything in a junior final, and it seemed that’s what the Bulgarians were betting on.
Finally getting to see her vault in the final, my mouth dropped. She was hands-down the best vaulter in this competition, and that includes basically all of the seniors as well. Not only did she hit the 1½, she absolutely crushed it, taking a large step forward in the landing, but her form in the air was NCAA-worthy, with a fantastic block and her legs glued. Her Yurchenko full was just as gorgeous, and she even opened up to flare out the landing, taking just a slight hop back.
In the end, Ana Maria Barbosu of Romania ended up getting the win thanks to her difficulty – with a Yurchenko double and tsuk full, her combined difficulty was at a 10.2 compared to Georgieva’s 9.6. But their final averaged scores were less than two tenths apart, a testament to just how brilliant Georgieva was. Georgieva has been training a double, but I’m glad they didn’t push it for this meet, and I’m certain with her talent, power, and technical excellence, she’ll get there in the coming years, and I’m so excited for her to someday join the ranks of other small program gymnasts who have become international vault superstars.
3. All of the historic first medals.
Again, you can come at me with the “but this wouldn’t have happened in a fully attended Euros!” all you want, and my response is, I really don’t care. Fully attended or not, every gymnast who medaled here still counts as a European medalist, and those who were ended up making history as the first medalists for their federations made me so very happy.
I’ve already talked about Turkey, but as a reminder, junior Derin Tanriyasükür became the first Euros medalist for this program when she got her bronze on bars, and then later in the day, Göksu Üctas Sanli followed it up by becoming the country’s first silver medalist with her placement on floor. In the senior competition, there was also Barbora Mokosova winning a first-ever medal for Slovakia when she edged out Larisa Iordache for the bronze on bars, and then Lihie Raz became Israel’s first WAG medalist with her bronze on floor, while in the junior competition, Sara Sulekic won the silver on bars to become Croatia’s first WAG medal.
Of course, with so many of the top teams out of commission this year, that meant historic team medals as well, with the Ukrainians winning gold as a team for the first time in their history, 16 years after last winning a team medal when they took silver at the 2004 European Championships in Amsterdam, while Hungary won a team medal for the first time here with their finish in the bronze position.
4. Luxembourg’s awesome team competition in senior qualifications.
With only eight teams contending for six spots in the senior team final, the fact that Luxembourg – which is not exactly known for having a strong program, as they only have a couple of gymnasts who compete internationally on a regular basis – could actually be a team finalist became kind of a running joke around the gymternet.
It turns out the joke was on us, as the team’s performance in qualifications ended up being a highlight of the competition. With only three gymnasts on the squad, it meant they’d have to do a three-up three-count qualifications round, super risky when all other teams had at least four – if not five – that they could use to drop a score.
Though the team would end up missing the team final to Croatia by just 0.635 after a few rough floor landings and then a fall from top gymnast Celeste Mordenti on her Yurchenko full in the very last spot in the very last rotation, their fight up to that point had been stellar, especially for a team that had to start the meet on bars and beam. They were fabulous on both, and though they lacked some difficulty (especially on bars), they had some really nice skills, especially on beam, where Lola Schleich had a fabulous side aerial to layout stepout and gainer full dismount, Chiara Castellucci had solid punch front elements, and Mordenti showed lovely extension on everything.
As a whole, this is a very young team without much international experience at all, and even in a year like 2020, they weren’t expected to make the team final…but the fact that they did so well and came so close was incredible, and I hope we get to see more of them.
5. Larisa Iordache’s successful international comeback.
Though Larisa Iordache looked great at national championships in November, I have to admit, I was a little nervous for her going to Euros so quickly after just returning to the sport for the first time in more than three years away, but Iordache proved I had absolutely nothing to be concerned about as she absolutely smashed it in Mersin.
There was no all-around competition for seniors here, but if there had been, she would have won it by nearly two points with a 54.565, and if you want to compare this to a busier year, this would have placed her fourth in last year’s all-around final, just half a point from the podium. Iordache also led the young Romanian team – made up of all first-year seniors aside, Iordache aside – to the silver medal, and she won three apparatus medals, including the silver on vault and then two gold, on beam and floor.
Iordache had pretty much zero major issues in any of her performances, with her only lower-than-usual score coming on floor in the team final, when she balked her third pass, doing just a double full instead of her usual 2½ to front tuck, causing her to miss a front tumbling element in her routine which took her difficulty score down considerably…but as I talked about in the team final recap, I’m glad she had the state of mind to balk rather than risk the pass and possibly get injured. She was also hoping for a bars medal, and ended up missing out narrowly by just half a tenth, finishing fourth, but that was more due to the strength of the bars field and not due to anything negative on her part.
These two blips do not mar a comeback that was ultimately a massive success, however, and Iordache is really only about 75% back in terms of where I’m hoping to see her when it comes time to qualify for Tokyo. She’s still got a bit more difficulty to add on beam and floor, and a bit of polishing to do as a whole, but I’m so impressed with everything she’s done thus far, and this is just the beginning. Assuming everything happens as expected with Tokyo, I believe Iordache will easily get there, and on a personal level, I’m just so happy she was able to overcome years of being so injured that doctors told her she may never be able to compete again, and so happy we get the joy of watching her do the impossible again.
6. Ukraine using its depth to stay solid and confident to win gold.
Though the Romanians came in as the stronger program with the gold medal theirs to lose, the problem was that the talent was more concentrated in a smaller number of gymnasts, whereas Ukraine was able to spread the wealth across the entire team, and seeing them take advantage of this depth to get a narrow upset in the team final was such a major statement.
With Romania, it was clear that Larisa Iordache was the star, the one the federation would rely on to contribute the bulk of the team’s score, but Ukraine had an entire team of stars, led by three veterans – 2016 Olympian Angelina Radivilova, 2020 Olympic qualifier Diana Varinska, and 2018 Youth Olympic Games bronze medalist Anastasiia Bachynska – and two first-year seniors, Anastasiia Motak, and Yelizaveta Hubareva, both of whom competed at junior worlds in 2019.
Everyone on this team could fill pretty much any role, to the point where even the team’s best on certain events weren’t safe to make “their” finals if they made mistakes because the others were good enough to step in and take over, which is why Varinska missed out on the bars final, and with Radivilova struggling on vault and Bachynska and Motak struggling on floor in qualifications, the team was able to seamlessly slip Hubareva into their places.
Hubareva was the one gymnast I wasn’t sure how they’d use coming into this competition, especially in the team final. I figured she’d be a qualifications gymnast only, but she ended up being vital to the team on two events in the final. In qualifications, she went up on vault and bars, and though her vault difficulty is the lowest on the team, they opted to use that over Radivilova’s risky start value in the final as well, which was definitely a surprise. More surprising, though, was the choice to use her on floor in the final, where she put up the second-best score for the team after not competing it at all in qualifications.
It was definitely a surprise, and possibly even a risk, to use a gymnast in a three-up three-count final who hadn’t been tested on that event previously, but the Ukrainians knew what they were doing, and I love that they chose to take advantage of their depth rather than rely too much on one gymnast to bring in the bulk of the team score. Ukraine didn’t use a single all-arounder in the team final, putting up Bachynska, Motak, and Varinska on three events apiece, while Hubareva competed two, and Radivilova competed one, and it paid off in the end, keeping them consistent enough between qualifications and the final to take advantage of multiple mistakes made by the Romanians on the day it counted.
7. All three of my junior beam faves making the final.
This is mostly a highlight that was just really fun for me personally, but coming into this competition, I was super excited to see three of my favorite junior beam kids in the international spotlight. Because it’s beam, I was kind of conservative with my expectations here, and figured that while I would have loved to see all three make it into the final, I’d be happy with just one…but at the end of the day, they all got in, two by the skin of their teeth, and this ended up being my own little thrilling moment of the meet.
Who are the three? Tara Vella Clark of Malta, who qualified fourth with a 12.200, Greta Mayer of Hungary, who qualified ninth with an 11.733, and Lucie Marikova of the Czech Republic, who qualified 10th with an 11.666 (Mayer and Marikova both made it in thanks to the two-per-country rule dropping Romania’s Maria Ceplinschi and Iulia Trestianu, who were sixth and seventh, respectively). I’ve followed all three of these gymnasts over the past two seasons, with Vella Clark first standing out to me when she made the Mediterranean Championships beam final in 2019, while Mayer jumped onto my radar thanks to her high beam difficulty at a few national meets in 2018 and 2019, and Marikova was a standout at the Olympic Hopes Cup in 2019.
In the final, there were falls from both Vella Clark and Marikova on their triple flight series, but despite these struggles on these difficult combos, both were otherwise so composed, fluid, and lovely. Vella Clark is a picture of elegance and precision, who was especially gorgeous on her aerial skills as well as on her Y turn, while Marikova held perfect toe point on her switch leap to split jump to Korbut. They both just move so well, and have so much promise on this apparatus, even though it didn’t work out for the best here, I hope that just getting the opportunity to compete in a major international final will give them the inspiration to keep going at a high level in the future.
Mayer, meanwhile, struggled in qualifications to the point where she nearly missed the final, but her finals routine was brilliant, and she ended up earning a much-deserved silver medal with the highest difficulty score in the junior competition. With a punch front pike mount, quick connections, cool choreo, and a huge double pike dismount, Mayer had a routine that wasn’t “just asterisk Euros good” – this was the kind of routine that legitimately could have medaled in a fully-attended junior competition this year, and she then went on to win a bronze on floor one rotation later.
8. Ana Barbosu getting the sweep in the junior competition.
Getting excited about really talented young juniors and wanting to see them dominate at the big competitions is nothing new. Actually seeing it happen? The rarest of rare. Yet that’s exactly what happened with Ana Barbosu, the 14-year-old Romanian who won six gold medals in Mersin to sweep the junior competition in her first year of junior eligibility.
A year earlier, Barbosu became the Romanian junior champion a month before turning 12, and then went on to win bronze in the all-around and on floor at senior nationals, gold in the all-around and on three events at individual nationals, all-around gold at the Swiss Cup junior competition and in her age division at the Horizon Cup, and then all-around silver at the prestigious Top Gym Tournament, where she also won silver on floor and bronze on bars and beam. In 2020, Barbosu swept the golds in her age division at nationals, and she was also the silver all-around medalist in the open all-around competition, and what was evident across all of these successes was something so rare – she basically never, ever fell.
That would hold true for her in Mersin, where she hit all eight of her routines without a single mistake larger than your typical steps on floor or short handstands on bars, and even these were rare. She was mostly polished, technically proficient, and most importantly, confident as hell. When she stepped up to the vault runway or onto the beam, you could see in her eyes that she was going to hit, but even when she was hitting routine after routine and winning medal after medal, she took her success in stride with a coolness about her that is just so badass to possess at 14.
The best thing about Barbosu’s success here is that she still has one more year on the junior scene, and even if 2021 won’t have a ton going on as COVID-19 continues to play out, at least this means she should have a relatively normal transition into her senior career in 2022, and we’ll probably still get to see her at a few domestic or smaller international meets as a junior.
9. The Croatian junior team.
The biggest issue for Croatia’s senior team is that so many of the gymnasts typically compete as specialists (and almost none of them regularly train bars at a high level), so trying to put together a group of five where you could find three who could do well on all four events was an impossible, almost MAG-like puzzle. Not so for the junior team, which included three all-arounders that were impressively strong for Croatia, and which put up a qualifications score of 141.963, besting the senior team’s qualifications score by nearly two points!
This was largely due to bars, where Croatia had two juniors qualify into the final, where one – Sara Sulekic – won a historic silver medal with an excellent Ray and clean van Leeuwen, far beyond what I’ve ever seen this country put out on this event. The other finalist, Nika Kukuljan Frleta, qualified third, but finished sixth after falling on a muscled stalder half, but she was a gorgeous baby Nastia with her long lines, hyperextended knees, a lovely arched Pak, and the blonde hair and bubblegum pink leotard to complete the look.
Both were absolutely gorgeous on this event, and showed so much promise, and Sulekic also ended up finishing fifth all-around, sixth in the vault final, and eighth in the floor final, making this a super successful meet for her. She becomes a senior in 2021, and should be one to watch on an individual level this quad, as her all-around score of 48.532 here comes close to what Olympian Ana Derek can put up when she’s at her best.
Kukuljan Frleta should also be capable of a similar all-around score with a hit beam set (she had a couple falls in qualifications) and will also be one to watch on the apparatus world cup circuit for bars when she becomes a senior in 2022, and then the team also had Katerina Strinic here on all four events, Antea Ercegovic showing potential on vault (she finished seventh in the final with a clean Yurchenko full and a handspring pike in the final) and floor, and Emi Matoscevic rounding them out on bars and beam.
10. Two-time European champion Zsofia Kovacs.
Hungary is always a tricky program to figure out on the individual level, because they tend to hold back a bit at their domestic meets, and then when you see them a few weeks later at an international competition, they’re going for broke.
Take Zsofia Kovacs. At nationals over Halloween weekend, she had a 50.100 in the all-around. At Master Championships two weeks later, she upped her all-around score by a couple of points with improvements on bars, beam, and floor, but she was falling on her Yurchenko full. Of course she’d show up at Euros a month after that with the best Yurchenko double in the field and win gold on vault. Bars was looking a bit more likely just based on her previous routines and what the rest of the competitors looked like on this event, but even there she was able to make some improvements to ensure that she’d win the gold, and now we officially get to say “two-time European champion Zsofia Kovacs.”
Beyond Kovacs, this was also just a really successful competition for the Hungarians in general. Zoja Szekely, who can be hit or miss with her difficult bars set, killed it all week in competition and ended up with the silver medal in finals, and she also finished seventh on the floor final, while veteran Dorina Böczögö, who was a last-minute addition back onto the team after initially withdrawing, finished eighth, and Csenge Bacskay ended up fourth in the vault final. These four plus first-year senior Mirtill Makovits, who had lovely bars sets in both qualifications and in the team final, also snagged a historic first team medal for Hungary with a bronze just under three points behind the Romanians.
The juniors were just as awesome. I’ve already talked about queen Greta Mayer absolutely killing it to win medals in both the beam and floor finals, and the team also saw finalists in Kira Balazs, who finished eighth on vault, and Anna Szmirnov, who was fifth on bars. Like the seniors, the juniors snagged a bronze in the team competition, with Flora Beke and Nora Peresztegi rounding them out, and they also finished under three points behind the silver medalists.
Article by Lauren Hopkins