The American women’s team isn’t the only gymnastics powerhouse with five out of six returning Olympic veterans trying to make a run for London. Like the American squad that it battled with for gold in Beijing four years ago, the Chinese team also has five returning members from its historic gold medal winning squad from Beijing back in the Olympic mix – Jiang Yuyuan, Cheng Fei, Deng Linlin, Yang Yilin, and He Kexin. And just like Martha Karolyi and company on the American selection committee, the Chinese delegation isn’t quite sure what to do with them all.
With these five gymnastics legends all in the Olympic mix along with current Chinese stars like Yao Jinnan, Sui Lu, Huang Quishuang, Wu Liufang, and others, the Chinese Olympic selection process has become nothing short of a jumbled mess. The Chinese National Championships, which has been going on over the last several days and was expected to serve as the Chinese Olympic Trials, was supposed to help clear things up. As we all like to see with any Olympic Trials, many of us hoped that five Olympians would magically rise above the rest of the heap and declare their spots for London. With all of the questionable statuses of the returning Olympians and with several of China’s current big guns showing repeated inconsistencies over the last few years, it was anyone’s guess who those five might be.
Unfortunately, it still is.
This weekend’s Chinese Nationals ended up being nothing short of a “splat-fest,” akin to the forgettable 2011 U.S. National Championships in which nearly all of America’s top gymnasts fell prey to numerous spills and injuries throughout the competition. Things were already off to a worrisome start when China’s top all-around gymnast and Olympic medal contender Yao Jinnan suffered a potentially serious knee injury in training before the competition and was forced to withdraw (fortunately it sounds as though Yao’s injury ended up being less serious than originally feared). In the days that followed, which included a qualification day, an all-around final, and event finals, every Olympic contender suffered at least a major error or two.
When the dust finally settled, though, the results below are what we are left with:
AA Qualification Results
1. Tan Sixin 56.600
2. Shang Chunsong 55.400
3. Deng Linlin 55.300
4. Huang Qiushuang 54.550
AA Final Results
1. Deng Linlin 56.550
2. Jiang Yuyuan 56.100
3. Shang Chunsong 55.600
3. Tan Sixin 55.600
1. Cheng Fei 14.662
2. Li Yiting 14.562
3. Yang Pei 14.275
1. He Kexin 15.650
2. Huang Huidan 14.175
3. Tan Jiaxin 14.050
1. Tan Sixin 14.850
2. Zeng Siqi 14.675
3. Sui Lu 14.450
1. Sui Lu 13.825
2. Tan Sixin 13.700
3. Cheng Fei 13.625
Summarizing the Olympic veterans:
Jiang Yuyuan put together a decent meet in the all-around finals, but overall still had several large errors and looked a bit sluggish throughout the competition. Yang Yilin posted low scores overall and doesn’t appear to be in the Olympic mix at this point. Cheng Fei fell on her DTY the first day but hit two strong vaults in finals, including a pretty powerful DTY and an outstanding laid-out Podkopayeva that appears quite easy for her. Her floor still doesn’t have nearly the difficulty it once did (triple full, double pike, 1 ½ to front full, and 2 ½ twist) but is clean and appears slightly improved over her other recent competitions. He Kexin landed low on her dismount on day 1, but hit a much better routine in the finals to post the highest score of the entire meet – a very strong 15.65. With this score dominating the field and considering China actually lacks reliable 15’s on this event right now, He Kexin appears to be right back in the mix for the Olympic team. Finally, Deng Linlin was perhaps the biggest surprise of the meet and may be making a last-minute run for the squad for London, just as she did in 2008. Deng did fall on beam the first day and didn’t make the event finals, but overall she appears to have regained the spark she has lacked over the last two years – showing some very engaging floor choreography, her DTY back on vault, and similar beam work that won her the world beam title in 2009. Although she didn’t post any spectacular scores here, she was clearly one of the most solid gymnasts in the field, and given her Olympic experience and how integral a player she was on that gold medal squad in Beijing (hit 3/3 routines in the team finals there), I think she may now be a dark horse to make this team.
Although this is still somewhat of a convoluted Olympic mix, below I’ve listed my current picks for this Olympic team:
Yao Jinnan: China’s best gymnast and a major player for this team on all four events. As long as her knee turns out okay, she’s an absolute lock for this team and an all-around medal contender in London.
Sui Lu: The current world beam champion and world silver medalist on floor, and one of China’s most consistent and successful gymnasts of the quadrennium. Her big scores on these two events are essential for this team, and if healthy, she’s also a lock for London.
Huang Qiushuang: A major player for China throughout this qudarennium, Huang has been criticized for being horribly inconsistent at the “Huang” times. When she suffered three total falls in Tokyo, many thought it would be her final chance, but given how well she has rebounded since and how inconsistent this entire team is right now, Huang is still one of their very best. She’s a potential contributor on all four events, and has looked better on beam and floor recently than she ever has. I think she’ll be on this team.
He Kexin: The 2008 Olympic and 2009 world bars champion appeared to lose her confidence when she fell in the 2010 world bars finals and had an emotional meltdown. He Kexin has appeared to be on a downward spiral since, and though she made the 2011 world team, she faltered in qualifications and wasn’t even used in the team finals. With her huge 15.65 in this weekend’s national championships and considering this team’s desperate need for big scores like this, I think He may have just earned a trip to her second Olympic Games.
Deng Linlin: I would have never thought this gymnast, who showed almost no impressive gymnastics in 2011, would end up on this Olympic team. But Deng has a history of peaking at the right time, and it looks like she may have been saving herself for this very moment. She still has a little ways to go to prove she can post some big scores, but she does have the potential for a 15 on beam, which would go quite nicely with Sui Lu’s and Yao Jinnan’s big scores. She could also be a solid table-setter for both vault and floor, just as she was in Beijing four years ago.
Jiang Yuyuan: One of China’s stars in Beijing 2008 as well as Rotterdam 2010 has had quite an up-and-down quadrennium, looking anywhere from an unpredictable wreck to one of the world’s very best. Unfortunately right now she is somewhere in between, and I don’t know that she looks quite sharp enough to make this team. When she’s at her best, though, she’s a potential team player on all four events, so she’s an ideal alternate at this point. If Deng Linlin isn’t quite showing enough scoring potential and Jiang gets back on her game, this would be an obvious switch.
Cheng Fei: The soon-to-be 24-year-old and most successful vaulter in history is almost showing she could make her third Olympic team – but not quite, in my opinion. Her vault would bring a few tenths to this team, but her floor just doesn’t quite have the difficulty to make any significant contributions. If she throws a more difficult vault – like an Amanar, her own “Cheng,” or even a “Mustafina” (half-on, layout front full off)- it might be a different story, but right now I think she would be a reasonable alternate and could be substituted if they had an injury to one of their other vaulters.
Shang Chunsong: She’s the tiny gymnast who showed a huge Tcatchev-Gienger combo at this year’s Pacific Rim Championships. While many have assumed that Wu Liufang, Tan Sixin, or Huang Huidan would each be in contention for this team as a bars/beam specialist, all three of these gymnast had some trouble this weekend, and Shang Chunsong currently looks better. Shang also competed a rarely seen triple full to punch front on floor this weekend, and her strength on this event is a potential asset as well.
Wu Liufang, Huang Huidan, and Tan Sixin would be the next three contenders, in my opinion. Tan Sixin certainly had some noteworthy results here, including the top all-around score on Day 1 and the gold on beam in the event finals, but after seeing her bomb so badly in the world team finals in Tokyo last year and continue to make many mistakes in international competition since, I have a hard time seeing them put faith in her for the Olympics. Even this weekend, she missed bars in the event finals and had a rough floor routine in the all-around.
I don’t know when the Chinese delegation plans to announce their final picks, and they certainly may need more time after all of the major mistakes in these national championships. With a solid Yao Jinnan and Sui Lu, this team will be much, much stronger than what this competition seems to suggest. And if they find a confident and consistent group of five Olympians, they could certainly still challenge for the medal podium in London. They’ll need to get it together quickly though, as the Americans and Romanians in particular seem to be reaching peak form, and we know the potential of the Russians as well.
I’ll post some selected videos next!