Russia’s Olympic Future is Bright

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Viktoria Listunova, Vladislava Urazova, and Angelina Melnikova

With everything that happened during the all-around and apparatus finals at Russian Championships, the most exciting was witnessing a thriving WAG program again, one that not only boasts super strong talent at the top, but one with actual depth that will make any selection process this year incredibly difficult.

Viktoria Listunova, the program’s newest superstar, would not have been part of the Olympic conversation had the Games taken place last year, but with 2005-born gymnasts now eligible, the entire trajectory of her career has changed. Instead of waiting to debut at 19 in 2024, she’ll instead get to compete just months after her 16th birthday, and though it’s of course concerning for anyone to make an adjustment this drastic, Listunova proved this week that she has more than enough confidence, strength, and talent to make the transition an easy one.

After leading all-around qualifications by more than a point, Listunova came back to secure the gold in the final even with a weaker overall performance, earning a 56.598 for a 114.164 two-day total. Her Yurchenko double on vault looked a bit rushed, missing the knee form and the height she showed in prelims, which made the landing a bit sloppier, and she missed her front handspring front tuck series. Instead of getting distracted, however, Listunova gave us “angry beam” for the rest of the routine, nailing a switch leap to switch ring leap, front aerial to split ring jump to back handspring, Kochetkova, and a double tuck, with barely any obvious faults.

That’s the kind of competitor she is, always – so focused, to the point of being lethal. Her mistakes aren’t ever nervous ones, and when she doesn’t hit something with robotic perfection, you can see on her face that she knows it. When she kills it in Tokyo this summer, some commentators will undoubtedly bring back the “Russian diva” discourse, but she’s no diva, nor is she a robot – she’s simply a brilliant athlete who knows exactly the job she’s there do to, and only when it’s done will she let her guard down.

In addition to her all-around gold, Listunova medaled on all four events over the weekend, getting the beam gold with a 14.5, and the silvers on vault (13.766 average), bars (14.833), and floor (13.9). Yes, she was about as excellent as her scores suggest, with her faults only minor, and though we should always take the Russian national scores with a grain of salt, I have a feeling international judges are going to love her almost as much as the Russians do.

Listunova’s biggest competition here was Vladislava Urazova, who made a valiant attempt at snagging gold after falling in prelims, but another fall on beam in the final, in addition to a few weak spots on floor, held her back. Still, her day two score was nearly eight tenths higher than Listunova’s, with her vault and bars giving her a solid edge early on, and she was the only other gymnast at this meet to surpass a 57, reaching a 57.365 (yes, with a fall) to total a 113.664 two-day score.

In the final, Urazova improved her Yurchenko double, showing a great block and a good position on the landing and only small form issues in the air. Her bars work was brilliant, with her inbar full finishing a little late into the Maloney to Pak to van Leeuwen combo, but her transitions were otherwise fluid and clean, as was her inbar half to piked Jaeger, and her nearly-stuck toe full to full-in.

Aside from missing the landing at the end of her back handspring mount straight into a back handspring layout stepout flight series, the rest of her beam routine was fantastic, with a switch leap to full Y turn to full pirouette, front aerial to split jump to Onodi, triple and double wolf turns, side aerial, and 2½ dismount. On floor, she showed off a perfect Memmel to illusion combo before hitting a solid triple full, but then she landed her 2½ to front tuck and front double full with steps out-of-bounds, and she came into her double tuck a bit slow, cowboying it and landing low, but avoiding a fall.

Urazova also made appearances in three apparatus finals, winning the gold on bars with a 15.0 and the bronze on floor with a 13.7, though she struggled on beam, putting up just an 11.933 for seventh place.

I feel like Urazova is more the quiet contender, a little more subdued than her younger counterpart, sort of like Nastia Liukin to Listunova’s Shawn Johnson in 2008. She has a bit more grace and maturity in who she is as a competitor, and while she is clearly cunning, it’s less obviously so. While Listunova has often been the favorite between the two, Urazova is equally talented, and I think if she puts everything together when it counts, she might be surprising a lot of people who didn’t see her coming.

As if the growing rivalry between the team’s two newest prospects wasn’t great enough, we still have Angelina Melnikova, the 20-year-old veteran of the team who overcame a rough start to this quad, becoming the program’s only reliable constant as last quad’s top gymnasts have retired and this quad’s top newcomers have fallen behind.

After coming in fourth following prelims due to a fall on beam, Melnikova put together a much stronger performance overall in the final, winning the bronze medal with a 111.262 combined score with a 56.064 total for day two. She went to her steady Yurchenko double to start the competition, just crossing her ankles a bit and hopping forward on the landing, and then on bars, though she went short in her toe full to only get it halfway around, her quick thinking and experience saved this from being a larger deduction, as she simply swung down out of the toe half and then back up and another half turn around to get right back in rhythm, not missing a beat.

Melnikova had a small wobble at the end of her switch leap mount to switch leap to split leap beam series, and then another wobble on her transverse split jump half, causing a fall, but the rest was clean, and her floor was fantastic, with one of her best full-twisting double layouts where she really savored the stick, and then just small hops on the double layout and front full before finishing with a solid double pike. Her apparatus finals were also strong, with wins on vault (14.299 average) and floor (14.4), and the bronze on bars with a 14.666, her best performance on the event all week with no major errors.

Despite how well she did this week, and despite making every world all-around final this quad to finally get the bronze medal in 2019, nationals pointed to the most bittersweet aspect of having high-level depth – Melnikova seems likely to miss out on yet another Olympic all-around final thanks again to the two-per-country rule. Nothing’s a guarantee, of course, but it became clear that she would really need to rely on falls or mistakes from Urazova or Listunova to finish ahead of either in qualifications.

With mistakes from some of the other competitors here, Elena Gerasimova – who was excellent in the final – wound up fourth, helped mostly thanks to her superb work on beam. She’s not bad on the other events, but just not as good as the others, with a loose Yurchenko full on vault, a more labored bars set (though it does have its standout moments!), and a more junior-level floor routine, opening with a usually short and messy triple full, and then continuing with a 2½ to front tuck, double tuck, and double full, all of which have little errors throughout.

But her beam is so good and so consistent that I’m actually starting to push for her taking one of the team spots over Lilia Akhaimova, who has long been considered the top contender for that fourth spot. Gerasimova scored a 14.266 on all three of her beam routines here, winning the silver in event final, and her skills are so polished, even when she’s not a hundred percent on, she’s still better than the rest. In the all-around final, she had a great front handspring to front tuck, and then just a slight wobble (and iffy knees) on her side aerial to layout stepout. Her switch leap to sheep jump could use a bit more amplitude, but she had a strong front aerial to split jump to Onodi, triple and double wolf turns, and a 2½ dismount, a little sloppy with a hop forward.

The consistency she brings to beam could be far more valuable to what Akhaimova – who finished seventh all-around with a 51.265 finals score and then withdrew from the apparatus finals to take precaution due to a minor nagging injury – could bring on vault and floor. With a watered-down floor routine in the final, Akhaimova was short on every pass, ultimately crashing the arabian double front in her third run. The last time she got a 14.0 on this event in international competition was at Cottbus in 2017, with her worlds scores hovering in the low-to-mid 13s between 2018 and 2019, while Listunova, Urazova, and Melnikova have all consistently earned high 13s and low 14s on international stages.

Is Akhaimova really necessary, then? Her Rudi on vault hasn’t looked much better than what she’s been doing on floor, and even if is healthy and hitting, her form is so weak, she maxes out at a mid-14, roughly the same as the other three can pull in with Yurchenko doubles. Even if she can eke out a few more tenths on both, is that really as valuable as something like the kind of consistency Gerasimova can bring on beam?

A team final with Listunova, Urazova, and Melnikova handling the majority of the workload while Gerasimova subs in for one of them – probably Melnikova, but potentially either of the other two depending on how training and qualifications go – on beam is ideal on paper. I do get nervous about putting first-year senior competitors under the amount of pressure it requires to do all four events in a three-up three-count Olympic team final, so having someone like Akhaimova on hand to fill in for one of them on vault and the other on floor could put them more at ease, but at the same time, I don’t think Listunova and Urazova have any qualms with competing under pressure and I trust both of them to hit all four events more than I’d trust Akhaimova to hit her two.

According to Valentina Rodionenko, she is considering the obvious three plus Gerasimova, Akhaimova, and Yana Vorona – who ended up dropping from third in prelims to sixth overall after crashing her Yurchenko double and three of her four floor passes in the final – for European Championships, adding that if healthy, Akhaimova has the “greatest chance” of getting the final spot on a four-person team.

Hopefully Akhaimova is able to recover in time for Euros or the Olympics so she can compete at full difficulty and full consistency, but I worry that not taking Gerasimova to Euros would be a mistake if she ends up being the better option for Tokyo. If that happens, she’ll have virtually no senior international experience going into the most important meet of her career, an obvious disadvantage.

Vorona is another strong contender for the team if she can get her nerves under control, and one who could benefit from a trip to Euros over Akhaimova. Despite the mess that was her all-around finals performance, she was excellent in prelims, and she hit beam well on both days (though unfortunately, she fell in the apparatus final, scoring a 12.6 for fourth place; she was also sixth on bars with a 13.8). The advantage she has over Gerasimova is a much stronger vault, but what she lacks on both of her best events is that consistency and confidence that Gerasimova has in droves.

Notably not in contention for the Euros team, highlighting just how much depth the program has right now, is first-year senior Maria Minaeva, who had some problems with most of her floor passes in the all-around final – including sitting her front layout to double front opening pass – but otherwise had a strong day. She’s very good, and has a ton of potential for the future, but is still very much a “junior” competitor in many ways, so despite finishing fifth overall (with a 53.099 for her finals score) and fourth in the bars final (with a 14.5), she just doesn’t yet make sense for a senior team.

The other gymnast not in contention for Euros, but who is still a likely candidate for an individual spot at the Olympics, is Anastasia Iliankova, who hit bars for a 14.9 in prelims, but then had a fall on her Chow in the final, finishing seventh with a 13.6. Still, she’s been mostly consistent here, and with Lyu Jiaqi dropping out of the world cup series after Baku in 2019, Iliankova was second behind Fan Yilin to nearly secure the nominative spot for herself. She was also the European champion in 2019, and so I think despite a fall here, she has a strong history over the past few years that should keep her front of mind for Tokyo.

Other competitors in the top 12 were Olga Astafyeva in eighth with a 105.396, Elena Eremina in ninth with a 103.263, Arina Semukhina in 10th with a 103.099, Varvara Zubova in 11th with a 102.565, and Aleksandra Shchekoldina in 12th with a 102.499.

The final also had a number of notable former national-level standouts, including Daria Belousova in 16th with a 102.265, Uliana Perebinosova in 17th with a 102.230, Daria Skrypnik in 18th with a 99.896, Irina Komnova in 21st with a 99.298, and Valeria Saifulina in 23rd with a 97.931.

Some people have asked me why gymnasts like these continue to compete, knowing they’re long past a point where they’d make a major team, but I’m thrilled they’re sticking around because that B- and C-level depth is just as important as top-level depth, and it’s something Russia often hasn’t been able to rely on. Gymnasts like Eremina or Perebinosova would be pretty far down the line as replacements for the Olympic team, but if something were to go wildly wrong and the team needed alternates for their alternates – 2014, anyone? – it’s good to know they finally have a limitless number of options. Tremendous depth beyond what’s “necessary” is why the United States has been so successful, and I love that Russia has built a similar level.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

11 thoughts on “Russia’s Olympic Future is Bright

  1. Pingback: Russia’s Olympic Future is Bright – SportUpdates

  2. Hi Laura,
    thanks again for your great work.
    I think Yana Vorona was third after qualifications (according to your result list), even it is was very close.
    Have a good start into the week 🙂

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  3. I think that if Biles is for real done after Tokyo, then Urazova and Listunova can help push Russia over the US in the next quad, especially since Melnikova has indicated her intent to stick around. They also have really talented 07 babies as I understand, so to have this much top level depth in addition to a still young, high scoring B team and some talented juniors to boot is very exciting. The new generation has the most promise that we’ve seen since 2012 and I’m hoping that they can accomplish what the previous teams have missed out on.

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  4. I hope melnikova makes AA and isn’t 2 per countried. Don’t you think she has more upgrades coming compared to Listunova and Urazova? Her floor alone has much more potential .

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    • I think she can definitely score a bit better than she did here, and I think she definitely has a chance to oust either of the others in qualifications…I think this is a place where her experience could come in and really give her an edge, but no matter what happens, it’ll be such a bummer because all three are incredible and deserve to be there!

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      • Melnikova getting an individual medal is literally my number one wish for the Tokyo Olympics (preferrably in AA, but FX would be fine too). I think if she manages to upgrade floor and vault (to a Cheng) she might be able to make AA finals. And of the other two I hope Urazova makes it, as I prefer her style compared to Listunova’s.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, the Cheng would be super important for her…and then if she’s consistently hitting bars at a 14.5 or so unlike in the AA competitions here where she struggled with hitting her feet on day one and then missing her toe full on day two…she’ll get there, I think!

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    • Between Melnikova, Urazova and Listunova, I can’t choose … It’s like the Russian team doesn’t need any other gymnast. If all of them hit, they are the best trio for each event.

      Liked by 1 person

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