The Olympic teams (so far) — Thoughts from Luba of Gymnovosti — Must-click links

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, June 19, 2021

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The Olympic teams (so far)

We have just over a month until the Tokyo Olympics (!), and the group of 98 female gymnasts who will compete there is quickly coming together. Countries have a deadline of July 5th to name teams and submit them to the FIG, so these next couple of weeks will be packed with trials, press releases, and, of course, controversy.

Here’s where we stand with the 12 countries that qualified teams to Tokyo:

USA — This week, Jade Carey confirmed that she intends to accept her apparatus world cup spot once it’s awarded (while we’re here, read Lela Moore’s defense of Carey on Fansided), so the U.S. will name four other athletes for the team and one individual after the conclusion of Olympic Trials on June 24–27. Speaking of trials, we have start lists, and Riley McCusker is slated to do the all-around.

China — The Chinese team and one individual will be named at trials, which are ongoing:

We have preliminary results from Golden China, alongside rumors that Li Shijia is injured. Fan Yilin has already qualified an individual spot by winning the apparatus world cup series on bars. 

Russia — The four-person team as well as the two individuals representing Russia were provisionally named at the conclusion of the Russian Cup. Viktoria Listunova, Vladislava Urazova, Angelina Melnikova, and Elena Gerasimova were named to the team, and Anastasia Iliankova and Lilia Akhaimova will compete as individuals, though it looks like the last three names could be shifted around according to the selection committee’s whims. 

The Russian Cup reaffirmed what we already knew about this talent pool — that Listunova, Urazova, and Melnikova are the top three gymnasts in the country and absolutely should go to Tokyo. Listunova won the all-around with four clean routines in the final:

She did an incredible job, earning a 57.965, and I hope (expect, really) to see her on the all-around podium in Tokyo. She also showed her new floor choreo, which was a monstrosity, and we’ll just leave it at that.

Urazova came in second with a 57.333 and won the bar (with a 15.100!) and floor titles; meanwhile, Melnikova had a great all-around aside from her fall on beam to land in third, and she also earned medals on every event. Neither has the execution to match Listunova, so I think we’ll see the two battle it out for the second all-around spot.

Gerasimova came in fifth but was named to the team over fourth-place Akhaimova, presumably because the former would make for a higher-scoring team, as her beam score contributes more than any of Akhaimova’s scores from the Russian Cup. Akhaimova, meanwhile, is pretty consistent across all four events and would work well as an individual and a built-in alternate. Iliankova only competed on bars for a 14.933 event final score and isn’t a contender for the team, but she hit in all three competitions, and I see her as someone who can make the bars final if one of her teammates falters in quals. 

Overall, I feel good about this team. I think everyone who deserves to be at the Olympics is going, and the four athletes chosen for the team competition will have a great shot at silver. Full results at The Gymternet. Check out my interview with Luba Baladzhaeva below for more insight into Team Russia.

France — France named their team — Marine Boyer, Mélanie De Jesus Dos Santos, Carolann Héduit, and Aline Friess — at the conclusion of trials held on June 10–11.

All of these athletes have great all-around potential and bring a lot of experience to the table, including Marine Boyer, who gets high scores on beam and floor and came in second at the recent nationals. Same goes for De Jesus Dos Santos, a veteran of the sport who most recently won the beam title at Euros and will likely bring in a high all-around score. Friess is someone we’ve barely seen since she excelled in the all-around final at 2019 worlds, but if she does what she’s capable of in Tokyo then we can expect her to contribute a lot on vault, where she scored a 15.000 in qualifying at worlds. Heduit, meanwhile, scored a career-high 55.050 to win the French national title this year. France didn’t make it to the team final in Rio, but if they do what they’re capable of then I think they can be solidly in the middle of the team final pool.

Canada — This week, Canada named a four-person team and zero individuals because they were screwed out of a spot due to COVID. The team includes Ellie Black and Ava Stewart, who were obvious choices after their performances this year, Brooklyn Moors, and Shallon Olsen

All of Canada’s competitions this year were virtual, so none of these athletes have really been tested this year in a real competition setting, but they’ll benefit from Black and Olsen’s experience — both have been to an Olympics — and Moors has plenty of experience internationally and via NCAA. 

This team is pretty well balanced — Black is good on all four events, Olsen excels on vault and contributes to the team on floor, and Moors does the all-around, excelling on vault and floor. Stewart, meanwhile, is a 2005 baby and an all-arounder who brings in high scores on bars and beam. Still, I wish they could have sent another all-arounder on the team instead of Olsen and sent her as an individual to make the vault final, as she did in Rio, so the team could have more of a buffer zone on the other events. Alas, no.

Netherlands — The Dutch trials are ongoing, with one held last weekend and another set for June 25th. The big story from the recent trial was Sanne Wevers’ bar routine, which was very rough but featured a nabieva except with a clear hip entry and a half twist:

This will apparently be valued an H. Wevers also competed beam, where she was a bit wobbly but did her billion-part turn series, for a 13.467. Wevers is dealing with an injury of her left foot, and it’s not great to not be competing all four events at this juncture, but still being able to win beam puts her solidly in the mix here.

Elze Geurts won the all-around with a 53.034, which is frankly remarkable, as the 26-year-old has been in the program for years and has never scored that high, plus she’s fought back from two Achilles tears. She also made a statement on vault, where her DTY earned a 14.667. Lieke Wevers won bars with a 13.6 for a clean routine with no dismount, also coming in second in the all-around with a 52.033 despite her shoulder being injured, and Naomi Visser and Tisha Vollman filled out the top four. Meanwhile, Eythora Thorsdottir scratched the competition with an ankle injury, but hopes to return in time for the second trial.

We’ll get a clearer picture of what this team looks like in the next trial, especially who is ready in the midst of all these injuries, but I think the information we’ve gleaned from this one is GEURTS. For the other three spots, I’d say there’s not enough depth here to leave home someone who’s injured, which is … unfortunate. Meanwhile, Vincent Wevers has been cleared to travel to Tokyo. Full results are here.

Great Britain — The federation infamously named their four-person team last week, including Jessica and Jennifer Gadirova (check out this article on them), Alice Kinsella, and Amelie Morgan

I could see this team doing well, but they’ll for sure be missing those 14+ scores the Downies brought to the team total. The Gadirova twins are almost brand new — there’s very little international experience between them, not including Jessica’s breakout performance at the 2021 European Championships. Both are pretty even across all four events, though, and they’ll have much to contribute to their team in Tokyo. Kinsella, meanwhile, has plenty of experience, missing out on the Rio team but making three worlds teams since then. She’s been a steady force throughout the long trials process, placing in the top three on most of the events she competed in over the course of the six trials. Similarly, Morgan is pretty even across all four events.

Italy — Italy will send a team along with whichever Italian athlete wins the apparatus world cup series on floor — currently, Lara Mori and Vanessa Ferrari are in contention. For the team, it looks like Italian nationals are happening soon, so we’ll have more info on the makeup of Team Italy later.

Germany Elisabeth Seitz, Sarah Voss, Pauline Schäfer, and Kim Bui were named to Team Germany after placing in the top four at last week’s trials (Results via The Gymternet). This team selection was kind of a no-brainer … the four chosen are all veterans who’ve been on top of the German program for quite some time. In fact, someone did the math:

Notably absent is Rio bars bronze medalist Sophie Scheder, who sadly falls in the “we need four all-arounders, so, sorry” category. Seitz and Voss will likely make the all-around final, and Schafer and Bui will fill in vault, bars, and floor scores, but this team has a bit of a weakness with beam.

Belgium — Belgium held a trial on June 5th, with their top 10 athletes participating. There, Noémie Louon won the all-around with a 52.666, followed by Jutta Verkest, Maellyse Brassart, and Charlotte Beydts

Nina Derwael only did two events there, but she’s essentially a lock especially after her performance at Osijek (more on that below). The team will be decided after the conclusion of the Flanders International Team Challenge on June 26–27.

Japan — Japan was the first country to name their Olympic team, including Murakami Mai, Hatakeda Hitomi, Hiraiwa Yuna, and Sugihara Aiko. Urara Ashikawa will compete as an individual after winning the apparatus world cup series on balance beam. 

Japan went with the strategy of bringing their top four all-arounders, and this team looks very strong. Murakami is obviously the star here, with a shot at the all-around podium and event finals, and she brings in high scores on all four events. Hatakeda has especially high scores on bars, and she and Sugihara may end up fighting for a second spot in the all-around final. Hiraiwa doesn’t have a lot of international experience but consistently brings in high scores on vault.

If this team does what they’re capable of then they have a great chance of improving upon their sixth-place finish in Rio, and with Murakami on board they are obviously way better positioned than that time they inexplicably left her at home.

Spain — Spain is hosting a national competition this weekend and several of their national team members, including Roxana Popa, will be competing at the FIT Challenge, so presumably we’ll get team news very soon. Unfortunately, Ana Perez is injured, according to The All-Around.

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Five at the IX: Luba Baladzhaeva

Luba Baladzhaeva is editor-in-chief of Gymnovosti, a site devoted to translating gymnastics news from around the world (but especially Russia) into English. Luba kindly talked to me about her work and her impressions of the Russian Olympic team.

First, tell me about your blog. Why did you start it?
I started following the sport back in 2010. At the time, there were few specialized gymnastics resources. You had to hunt for gymnastics articles and even when they were good, there weren’t enough of them.

Now it might feel like a distant past because we are frankly spoiled with the amount of gymnastics coverage we get, both in the regular media and in the specialized gymnastics media.

I am kind of a news junkie. I originally come from Russia and I used to work as a news agency reporter there. Early on, I dreamed of having a news website that would publish only gymnastics news and would publish them every day, several times a day. That was my original vision for Gymnovosti and it’s even reflected in the name — Gym + “novosti” (“news” in Russian). Unfortunately, such a website would need a full-time staff. It’s impossible to produce that much content alone, especially while working a full-time job in a different field. So, my focus shifted to another area.

I am a native Russian speaker and a lot of good gymnastics happens in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Many interviews with gymnasts come out in Russian but they rarely reached the English-speaking audience because of the language barrier. Yes, there’s Google Translate that allows for any page on the web to be translated in a matter of seconds, but those translations are rarely good. And there wasn’t one place that would collect all those interviews and put them together. I am a professional translator, so getting those interviews translated into English for the fans from all around the world became the main mission of the website. It now has readers in almost every country and in this way, I’m trying to make gymnastics from the FSU countries more available to fans everywhere.

What do you think of the Russian Olympic team? Is it the team you would have chosen?
It was hard to make predictions about the Olympic team before March this year since we haven’t seen most of the Russian gymnasts compete since 2019. The Russian Championships and then the European Championships made the teams more or less clear. On the women’s side, there are three standouts — Listunova, Urazova, and Melnikova — and no one is getting close to them. Some of the potential maybes in 2019 either retired (Daria Spiridonova, Maria Paseka) or got injured (Aleksandra Schekoldina, Angelina Simakova), so there aren’t that many options to choose the fourth person from. On paper, Lilia Akhaimova is a very good choice — she has high difficulty on vault and floor, exactly where the team needs it, and she has more experience than new seniors. But she’s been struggling with consistency on her two best events. Elena Gerasimova is now the top contender for the fourth spot and the only competitive score on that team she can offer is on beam. It might not seem like much but the other three gymnasts often have issues on beam. So, if the coaches are afraid that falls on beam can happen again at the Olympics, they will take Gerasimova just for that one event.

Overall, I think the team will be similarly competitive with either Akhaimova or Gerasimova and it’s a pity the team size doesn’t allow for both. They are likely both going to to Tokyo but one will be a specialist. In any case, the team will be competing for a medal. They can’t beat the USA right now, but will put up a fight for the silver medal.

I asked who she thinks Rodionenko will choose for the final team, and got some insight into how team selection actually works.
Valentina Rodionenko doesn’t really select any teams. She is a de-facto spokesperson for the national team because other coaches don’t like talking to the media and she does. And she has a certain amount of power on the team. But there is a large coaching team that includes MAG and WAG head coaches and the whole team head coach and they make the decisions. Russian gymnasts go through a series of verifications throughout the season, all verifications are judged and scored. We don’t hear much about it because videos or results are not released to the public but all of it is documented. Since sports are financed by the government, there are various procedures the national team has to follow. So, even though it might sometimes seem to the fans that Valentina Rodionenko just picks gymnasts names out of a hat, that’s not how it really works.

The gymnasts come back to the last pre-Olympic training camp next week. The camp is not just for the named teams but also for other national team members and they will participate in all the training and the verifications as well. So, the final selections will very much depend on how gymnasts do at this camp and who’s the healthiest/least injured.

How does this team compare with past Russian Olympic teams?
I would rank the women’s team around the same as the 2010 team that won gold at the World Championships. The three top gymnasts on the team are among the best gymnasts in the world. The only reason they can’t really fight for the gold is that the US has the best gymnast in the world that adds a couple of points to any team score.

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Written by The IX Team