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Perhaps the loudest statement made at this week’s European Championships in Montpellier, France was made by the Russian women.  This is by far the strongest this team has looked in quite some time….certainly since the 2012 Olympics, and I may go so far as to say since 2010 when this team won the world title.  Not to take anything away from Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber, who undoubtedly delivered the competition of her career by winning the all-around gold and individual medals on floor and vault, but this Russian Resurgence is big news.

Had it not been for Maria Kharenkova’s uncharacteristic fall in the beam finals – after leading the qualifications – Russia would have swept the event finals.  Seeing Ksenia Afanasyeva and Maria Paseka BOTH stand up Amanars in the vault finals yesterday was a pleasant surprise, and Dara Spiridonova has quietly become one of the best and most consistent bar workers of the modern era.  But it was Afanasyeva’s brilliant floor performance today that capped off a wonderful European Championships and one of the most impressive women’s floor finals I can recall.  Her gorgeous tumbling, trademark elegant presentation, and perfectly stuck double pike in the last pass all solidified her statement that she is not only back and primed for her third Olympic Games next summer, but that Russia is putting together its strongest team in years.

The four Russians who competed this week in Montpellier – Ksenia Afanasyeva, Maria Kharenkova, Dara Spiridonova, and Maria Paseka – are obviously prime candidates for this year’s world championship team.  Add in former world and Olympic champion Aliya Mustafina and this already strong team rises to another level.  The 6th spot could go to 2012 Olympic all-around silver medalist Viktoria Komova if she’s ready – otherwise 2014 world team member Alla Sosnitska would seem a likely contender given her strong potential on floor and vault, events where this team can always use a couple of big scores.

Could a six-member team from Russia challenge the United States this year?  It’s probably still too early to tell, but it’s pretty obvious they’re the only team with a reasonable shot at it.  Romania is still too weak on bars to envision this happening (and the comebacks of Olympic champions Catalina Ponor and Sandra Izbasa unfortunately won’t change this), and China doesn’t have the power on floor or vault right now to pose any kind of serious threat.  Russia is the only other team besides the U.S. that is putting together four balanced events as a team.  I could see them putting up a team finals lineup that would look like this:

Vault

Paseka

Afanasyeva

Komova or Sosnitskaya

 

Bars 

Mustafina

Spiridonova

Komova or Kharenkova

 

Beam

Mustafina

Kharenkova

Komova or Afanasyeva

 

Floor

Afanasyeva

Mustafina

Komova, Kharenkova, or Sosnitskaya

 

That’s a strong team!  I’d say the U.S. would still be the clear front runner (particularly having Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman both back in the mix), but this Russian team could make it an intriguing competition – rather than the blowout it would be otherwise.

Here’s a look at a routine from each of the four Russians from this week’s European Championships in Montpellier (Afanasyeva’s event finals routine not yet available so her qualifying routine is shown):

That “Cheng” on her first vault certainly isn’t pretty, but it’s a huge start value and extremely valuable for Russia. Her Amanar has improved and this one looked quite easy for her.

She’s become an absolute master of the inbar and pirouetting combinations, and she hits this routine every time. Love the Pak salto to immediate Shaposhnikova-half turn – hers is probably the best I’ve seen.

It was a shame to see her fall in event finals but she hit in both qualifications and the all-around. She still has a little polishing to do, but I expect this will be a routine Russia uses at worlds this year – they don’t have many other consistent routines on this event right now.

Awesome! This routine is better choreographically than her last two…although I don’t think she has quite matched her 2012 masterpiece yet. I expect she will unveil yet another new routine next year in preparation for Rio. She’s an incredible gymnast who has only gotten better with age…not since Svetlana Khorkina have we seen a Russian with this type of longevity. She definitely deserved this win – I think the judges got the medalists correct here.