After fighting back from an injury that kept her out of gymnastics for nearly four months, and then spending a year in limbo due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Emily Whitehead returned to competition today for the first time in two years to win the all-around title at the Oceania Championships and qualify a nominative berth to the 2020 Olympic Games.
Whitehead, 20, was a highly anticipated first-year senior in 2016, but a torn calf muscle in podium training at Pac Rims kept her out of the Olympic Test Event, and she wasn’t able to return to the all-around until the following year. She became an integral member of the Australian women’s program this quad, winning bronze on vault at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and contributing on all four events at world championships later that year.
In 2019, after finishing fourth all-around at nationals and hoping to make her second worlds team, Whitehead suffered a back injury that left her unable to compete in Stuttgart. It took her months just to work her way back to doing handstands again, and when COVID struck, it made her future in the sport all the more uncertain.
Coming into the Olympic qualifier, Whitehead was a bit of an underdog for the spot given her lengthy absence, but a strong Yurchenko 1½ got her off to a great start, and thanks to a great bars and beam, she ended up trailing Georgia-Rose Brown by just half a tenth going into the final rotation. On floor, she performed a stunning routine, and ultimately won the competition with a 51.900 to Brown’s 51.550, upsetting for the Oceania title and the Olympic spot by a mere three-and-a-half tenths.
Brown also had a strong day overall, finishing second in the continental competition ahead of Breanna Scott with a 49.550 and Macy Pegoli with a 48.100.
The competition also acted as qualifications for the all-around and event finals at Australian Championships, with different sets of judges responsible for the two different competitions, though the gymnasts only had to perform once. In Australia’s competition, Georgia Godwin – who qualified to the Olympics via the all-around at world championships in 2019 – led the field with a 55.683, followed by Whitehead with a 53.158, and Brown with a 52.108.
In the men’s competition, 2016 Olympian Mikhail Koudinov, the sole gymnast from New Zealand vying for a spot, bested all four Australian men to win the Oceania all-around title while punching his ticket to his second Olympic Games. His score of 82.450 came in half a point ahead of Mitchell Morgans, who earned an 81.950. First-year senior competitor Jesse Moore was third with an 81.750, followed by Clay Mason Stephens with a 79.200, and Michael Tone with a 76.350.
Koudinov, who excels on high bar, is most known for his daring attempts to get the full-twisting Gaylord I named for him at world championships in 2017. After falling on it twice in qualifications, he got back up to the arena chanting his name before finally catching it and landing ‘The Koudinov’ in the code of points. A member of every New Zealand team at the Commonwealth Games going back to 2006, when he was just 14, Koudinov last competed at the Games in 2018, where he finished 15th in the all-around final.
As with the women, the meet also served as the first day of men’s competition for Australia’s national championships, determining the all-around rankings in addition to qualifying gymnasts to event finals. Morgans and Moore took the top two spots on the podium with domestic scores of 81.400 and 81.050, both slightly down compared to their Oceania scores for the same routines, while Heath Thorpe – who was not selected to contend for an Olympic berth – upset for bronze with a 78.750, leading the field on floor and vault.
Article by Lauren Hopkins