Only three teams competed in the first two subdivisions of women’s qualifications at world championships on Saturday evening, but one of them set a high bar that could prove tough to beat.
Competing in the first of 10 subdivisions, the U.S. women seemed to be at a slight disadvantage, as scores tend to build over the course of the competition. There’s also the fact that the team struggled to reach the scores in Tokyo that they were pulling in at home in 2021, so would potentially strict judging hold the team back even more? And beam is always tricky to tackle, so we had to wonder if the women would be able to fight through the nerves and put together something solid.
The team’s start on floor was a sign of great things to come, with Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey at their best to bring in scores of 14.1 and 14.066 – both of which should easily make the final – while Shilese Jones added a 13.8 and Skye Blakely notched a 13.6. The party continued on vault, where a slightly weak Yurchenko double from Leanne Wong earned a 13.766, followed by a 14.2 from Jones, a 14.466 from Chiles, and then a 14.6 from Carey on her Cheng, with Carey and Chiles again leading the list of athletes qualifying into the final, both by nearly a one-point lead.
Bars is where the first sign of weakness came as Blakely missed her Ricna, leaving the team to count a low-ish 13.333 from Carey, though Chiles brought in a 14.066 and Jones anchored with a 14.566, second-best of the day, and the team pulled out a respectable 41.965, better than what most teams – with the exception of China and Italy – have managed in major international competition this year.
As expected, beam was the team’s weak spot, though the three who hit – Blakely with a 13.733, Jones with a 13.2, and Carey with a 13.133 – are currently leading the field. But as solid as Chiles has been on this event this season, not missing a beat on either routine at nationals or at worlds trials, she unfortunately struggled here, falling twice to get just an 11.366. It was especially devastating knowing (a) she could have brought in the second-highest score for the team to potentially challenge for the final, and (b) that she had been doing so well earlier in the meet, it looked like she might actually top the all-around qualification rankings for the U.S. women, and instead she ended up more than a point back from securing a spot.
Even with the three hit sets counting, the team only brought in a 40.066. Despite coming in nearly two points lower than the team’s other events, however, it’s not all that dire – only three teams (China and Italy again, along with Brazil) have scored higher in major team competitions this year, and the score is more than two points higher than the U.S. team at Pan Ams pulled in. In fact, the team’s total score of 167.263 was nearly seven points higher than its total qualification score at Pan Ams, almost entirely due to Jones, Carey, and Chiles.
These three athletes combined counted 11 of the team’s 12 scores tonight, with Blakely’s beam joining them. In a way, this is awesome and proves how next-level these athletes are, but at the same time, it’s also a little concerning that only three athletes are performing at this level right now, and that the team score could drop significantly if any of the three had to be replaced. At least there are nearly two years until Paris 2024, so I’m not too worried as there’s still a lot of time to build depth – and no mid-quad worlds team has ever fully resembled the Olympic team for the U.S. But I do hope higher-level depth and consistency both become more of a focus for the new team leaders over the next couple of years, because while this team pulled out a big performance today, other programs are catching up, and even if the team ends up leading the field in qualifications, the final will be a whole new ballgame.
Belgium got off to a bit of a rough start on beam, beginning with a fall from Nina Derwael on her mount, which wasn’t exactly the way she had hoped to launch her comeback. Still, it was a very nice routine otherwise, and she came back to lead the field on bars with a 14.7, though she was docked a couple of tenths with her Derwael-Fenton mixed grip released not caught properly – something the judges are actually paying attention to this quad.
Lisa Vaelen, a standout at Euros with a fifth-place all-around finish and fourth-place finish on vault, was mostly very strong tonight, and despite a fall on bars, she’s currently fourth in the all-around with a 52.432, just behind the Americans. She’s also third on vault with a 13.499 average, and put up the top beam score with a 12.7 and top floor score with a 13.2.
Also competing for Belgium were Maellyse Brassart, currently seventh all-around with a 50.699, Jutta Verkest, currently eighth with a 49.565, and newcomer Yléa Tollet, who stepped onto the team as a last-minute replacement for the injured Noémie Louon. Though this was Tollet’s debut with the Belgian team, she did a nice job with a Yurchenko full on vault and a promising routine on floor. The team ultimately ended up with a 156.063, which was actually about half a point higher than their team scores at Euros thanks to Derwael’s return, but I think it will fall short of the benchmark for making the final.
The Spanish team lost three top-performing gymnasts to injury in the lead-up to worlds, including two in the last week alone, so a weaker performance was expected here as three would-be alternates ended up competing. It was great to see the team match the scores they got with a stronger team at Euros on vault and floor, though bars and beam were both a bit rough, and they ended up held back to a 149.162, which is probably about five points shy of what they’re capable of at full strength.
Still, there were many bright spots, including 16-year-old team leader Laura Casabuena putting up a personal best all-around score of 52.032, which included a beam routine that earned a 12.966 and was awarded a 5.7 difficulty score (she’s currently right behind the Americans in the rankings there), a bars set that had the crowd rooting for her, and a strong Yurchenko full along with a beautifully-performed floor routine that earned a 13.2.
Casabuena didn’t start gymnastics until she was seven years old after watching the 2012 Olympic Games. She didn’t compete elite until the last month of her junior career, earning a 43.100 at nationals in December of 2020. And she didn’t make her international debut until four months ago at a challenge cup, where she surprised to make two finals before going on to become the national all-around silver medalist, and national champion on beam and floor. The improvements she’s made over the past two years have been incredible, and even what she’s accomplished in just the past few months has been outstanding. She’ll probably be on the bubble for making the all-around final here, but she’s just getting started this season, and will absolutely be one to watch going forward.
Other all-arounders for Spain included Emma Fernandez in 10th with a 48.566 and Paula Raya in 12th with a 46.931, while Maia Llacer, initially an alternate, competed bars and floor, with her bars score of 11.066 ending up counting, and Laia Masferrer, who stepped in at the very last minute, competed vault and beam, with both scores counting to the team total.
On the individual front, Ana Barbosu of Romania had the best performance, earning a 52.233 all-around (currently fifth) with four hit routines, though she had to fight through some mistakes on beam, wasn’t super controlled in her landings on floor, and the judges were very strict with her form on bars, likely keeping her out of any apparatus finals she was hoping to make.
2020 Olympian Lihie Raz of Israel had a mostly good day, bars aside, to earn a 49.432, which is currently ninth. She was strongest on vault, where her Yurchenko double earned a 13.7 and she averaged a 13.416 to currently sit in fifth, and on floor, where she earned a 12.833. Behind her, Andreea Preda of Romania stands in 11th with a 48.098, Ofir Netzer of Israel is 13th with a 46.866, Alais Perea of Ecuador is 14th with a 46.766, Thelma Adalsteinsdottir of Iceland is 15th with a 46.132, Milca Leon of Venezuela is 16th with a 45.332, Sasiwimon Mueangphuan of Thailand is 17th with a 44.899, and Hildur Gudmundsdottir of Iceland is 18th with a 44.065.
Teja Belak of Slovenia was my biggest bet for individual athletes slipping into apparatus finals, but she sadly sat her handspring front layout full on vault, averaging just a 13.116, which will likely not be near enough to get her in.
Article by Lauren Hopkins