Melnikova, Zhang Win World All-Around Titles

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Angelina Melnikova

The all-around competition at world championships was a thrilling one for both the women and the men, with Angelina Melnikova becoming the first Russian – and non-U.S. – champion in the women’s field since 2010, while China’s newcomer Zhang Boheng won the men’s title in his international debut just one one-hundredth ahead of 2020 Olympic all-around champion Hashimoto Daiki of Japan.

Gold was Melnikova’s to lose here, though some nervous wobbles on beam and a few other small errors held her score back a few tenths compared to what she managed in prelims, while U.S. gymnast Leanne Wong conversely had one of the best performances of her career to add tenths to her own score. Still, it wasn’t enough of a drop or increase for the rankings to swap, with Melnikova holding on until the very end and winning the title with just under three tenths.

Despite the little mistakes, Melnikova’s performance was stunning and solid, with one of her better bars performances a highlight of the day. While there were some bobbles on beam, it was still a very strong set, and my favorite routine in her program, and she had hops on all of her floor passes as well as on her Yurchenko double, but both were still good enough to give her exactly the boost she needed ahead of Wong, finishing with a 56.632 to Wong’s 56.340.

Melnikova is now the third Russian to win a world all-around title, following Svetlana Khorkina in 1997, 2001, and 2003, and then Aliya Mustafina in 2010, who was the last non-U.S. gymnast to earn the most coveted individual gold medal at a world championships or Olympic Games. The win comes on the heels of Melnikova leading the Russian women to team gold ahead of the United States at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, also ending a decade-long reign held by the American women.

Of course, there are reasons for this, and this is just a fact about something the Russians did, not an insinuation that the American WAG program is dead. I don’t think you can call a program that has two young and internationally inexperienced gymnasts both wind up on the all-around podium in their worlds debut, especially coming up as seniors during a period of turmoil in both USA Gymnastics and in the world, anything but a thriving one. With nearly all 18 gymnasts who qualified to the U.S. Olympic Trials and all six members of the Olympic team either going to college, taking breaks, or retired, only six were left to challenge for the four spots on the worlds team.

These two talented but inexperienced gymnasts went up against the strongest currently competing gymnast in the world, an athlete with eight Olympic and world medals to her name, a 21-year-old with six years, two Olympic teams, and now four world championships under her belt. And one of them came within under three tenths of grabbing the gold, a gymnast who has been largely inconsistent and whose struggles at most domestic meets this year keeping her from being seriously considered for the Olympic team.

I had low expectations for Wong here, not because she’s not a strong gymnast, but because I didn’t think she could hit eight-for-eight under the pressure of being at a world championships. Even at the trial meet that decided the team, Wong placed only third all-around due to mistakes. It was clear she had the potential to land on the podium in Kitakyushu, but could she actually do what she needed to get there?

Repeating her excellent prelims performance in the final was something I didn’t think would happen, and yet Wong proved me wrong by not only repeating it, but improving on it with some of the best gymnastics I’ve seen her do. She looked confident and even relaxed from start to finish, doing one of the cleaner Yurchenko doubles on vault (though she lost some execution for directional issues, a lack of power, and a hop to the side) along with the strongest bars and beam work I’ve seen from her this year. She posted the highest beam and floor scores of the session, with her floor especially strong and controlled, and the silver medal behind Melnikova was a massive win.

Then there’s Kayla DiCello, whose two-day Olympic trials score was just a point back from her placing in the top five to land a spot on the team, and who led the worlds trial meet by over a point. A first-year senior in 2020, DiCello made her senior international debut at the American Cup early that year, winning the silver medal behind Morgan Hurd, but then the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down a week later, leaving DiCello’s young career in limbo. She came into this season as the youngest legitimate prospect for the Olympic team, and though she has had moments where she’s fallen or had mistakes in meets, she never has meltdowns, and always comes back from her mistakes looking just as strong as she did before.

DiCello looked excellent in prelims, scoring similarly to Wong, and I thought the obvious choice for the gymnast who could best challenge Melnikova, given Wong’s consistency struggles. But unfortunately, it was DiCello who ended up making the mistake in the final, coming back from the putting up the best vault of the competition to struggle with her form going from the Maloney into her Tkachev, coming in too close and falling. Like she always does, DiCello bounced back with a mostly strong beam performance and her typically excellent tumbling on floor, where she had the top execution score of the competition on this event, and her total score of 54.566 was still enough to take the bronze by a point.

So yes, the U.S. didn’t win gold, and their decade-long reign is now over, but seeing athletes who were B team options a few months ago when there was more elite-level depth come out and perform the way they did here against one of the best all-arounders in the world is a true indication of the U.S. strength. USA Gymnastics has a lot of issues as an organization, but there is still an endless amount of talent in the pipeline, and even if it’s not quite at the same level as the top gymnasts currently competing internationally, it’s still enough to matter in the hunt for medals.

We also saw a fall from Vladislava Urazova in this final, so she wasn’t able to take advantage of DiCello’s fall to end up on the podium, and she finished fourth just as she did in Tokyo this summer. On top of missing her layout stepout mount on beam, Urazova downgraded to a Yurchenko full on vault, also taking some potential out of her score, she had some handstand deductions on bars that held her back there, and she doesn’t have the highest difficulty on floor, so she was not in the same position DiCello was to medal with a fall.

The rest of the field, with the exception of China’s Wei Xiaoyuan, wasn’t likely to challenge for the podium without major disasters from those at the top, but with Wei falling on bars and not able to bring in strong execution on her remaining events, it left her out, with her finishing in sixth with a 52.699, and coming up behind Naomi Visser of the Netherlands, whose fifth place finish is the top Dutch all-around performance at a world championships in history (prior to her, Verona van de Leur’s ninth-place ranking in 2001 was the best). Visser earned a 52.832 with hit routines across the board, her floor especially lovely to watch.

Filipa Martins of Portugal and Alice D’Amato of Italy rounded out the top eight, with Martins missing her van Leeuwen on bars but looking otherwise strong to earn a 52.199, while D’Amato had weak performances on both bars and beam, getting a 52.082.

In addition to finishing in the top eight, Martins also broke her own 14th place record as the top Portuguese all-arounder at a world championships, and others who shook up the history books include both Shin Solyi and Lee Yunseo of South Korea, whose 11th and 13th place rankings top Park Jisook’s 18th place finish from 1987; Emma Slevin coming in as Ireland’s first all-around finalist to set the record at 19th place; and Marlies Männersdorfer becoming Austria’s first woman to make a final under the current qualifying format, though Gertrude Kolar still holds the all-around record after winning bronze in 1950.

The men’s competition offered an exhilarating fight between Zhang, who ultimately became champion, and 2020 Olympic champion Hashimoto Daiki. The two were back-and-forth throughout the competition, with Zhang taking an early – and tiny, with the pair just 0.05 apart – lead on floor. Both men then fell on pommel horse, though Hashimoto’s routine was still strong enough to push him over the top by a significant margin, though Zhang fought his way back to just 0.016 behind Hashimoto after rings, where both put up excellent performances, though Zhang’s was stronger in both difficulty and execution.

This pattern followed on vault, with Zhang’s handspring randi just outscoring Hashimoto’s kaz double full to put Zhang again 0.05 ahead of Hashimoto, and then he earned another three tenths on top of that on parallel bars, crucial given that Hashimoto is the superior gymnast on high bar. Zhang was excellent in his final routine of the day, just coming up short on the dismount, and though Hashimoto was better, scoring a 15.133, his total of 87.964 ended up being 0.017 shy of Zhang’s 87.981, such a negligible separation that it’s clear both were deserving of gold.

Though with Hashimoto already getting the Olympic title this summer, I was happy to see Zhang get a win after being excluded from the Olympic team team, making him the fifth world all-around champion from China after Li Xiaoshuang (1995), Feng Jing (2001), Yang Wei (2006-2007), and Xiao Ruoteng (2017).

The battle for bronze was no less exciting than that for gold, but as expected, 18-year-old Illia Kovtun of Ukraine, already an Olympian but really only just getting started, ended up putting together an excellent performance to take it with an 84.899. Kovtun is too far behind on rings to come in as a top competitor right now, but he showed that with his overall calm and clean gymnastics, he can be lacking in difficulty in one area but more than make up for this elsewhere.

Even on vault, where he had the least difficult skill – a Yurchenko double – among the top competitors, he was gorgeous and stuck the landing, earning the highest execution score of the meet with a 9.5. His four stronger routines all hit in the mid 14s, so on a day where there were many falls and other mistakes from those who have more difficulty, Kovtun proved that hitting is what matters, and only months into his senior international career, he is now Ukraine’s second world all-around medalist in history, following Oleg Verniaiev, who was the first with bronze in 2019.

I was surprised and thrilled to see Yul Moldauer of the United States finish in fourth place with an 84.365, a massive improvement from his qualifications ranking and score despite putting his hand down on his rings dismount. The rest of the routines he put up were excellent, though, including a 14.5 on floor, a 14.866 on pommels, and a 14.9 on parallel bars, and he was able to achieve the best all-around result for an American MAG athlete since fellow Oklahoma Sooner Jon Horton won bronze in 2010.

Rounding out the top eight were Ahmet Önder of Turkey in fifth with an 84.232, doing strong work throughout the day but coming up short on vault to score a bit lower than he’s capable of (though his finish breaks his own record for Turkey’s best all-around performance in history, with the previous being his ninth place ranking in 2017); Shi Cong of China in sixth with an 84.057, having to count a fall on pommels and a drop out of a handstand on parallel bars; Joel Plata of Spain in seventh with an 83.365, who was fantastic and put up his country’s best performance since 2007; and William Emard of Canada in eighth with an 83.256, with his ranking Canada’s best world championships all-around performance in history for men’s gymnastics.

Unfortunately, Adem Asil was a bit off in this competition, and after qualifying in bronze medal position, he finished only 11th, with a rough landing on vault and some weak handstands on parallel bars his biggest downfalls on top of his typically lower pommel horse score.

Caio Souza also had a rough end to his competition with some weak landings on floor and then a fall on pommels. After three events, Souza had the lead over both Zhang and Hashimoto, but starting on his three best events – rings, vault, and parallel bars – he was able to take advantage of his early high scores only to drop significantly in the rankings while finishing up on his weak spots.

In addition to the above, Robert Tvorogal broke his record as Lithuania’s top world all-arounder by finishing 15th today, an improvement from 17th in 2017; Luka van den Keybus in 16th was Belgium’s best all-around performance since Georges Wiernicks won the silver medal in 1903; Nikolaos Iliopoulos tied for Greece’s best all-around finish by ranking 19th, matching Christos Lympanovnos in 2006; and Alexander Benda tied for Austria’s best all-around finish by ranking 24th, matching Willy Welt in 1950. Benda is also Austria’s first MAG all-around finalist under the current 24-man qualification system.

Next up are event finals, with women’s vault and uneven bars happening alongside men’s floor, pommel horse, and rings on Saturday afternoon.

Both Hashimoto Daiki and Zhang Boheng have withdrawn from today’s finals, with Hashimoto focusing on parallel bars and high bar tomorrow while Zhang is done completely, so we’ll get a few reserves in the men’s competition, including Kaya Kazuma of Japan on floor, Harutyun Merdinyan of Armenia on pommel horse, and  Marco Lodadio of Italy on rings. There have been no changes to the WAG start lists at this time.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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