As announcements of the six-member squads for the world championships from various teams around the world continue to trickle in, we get a better and better sense of how the competition in Tokyo might shape up. The “Big Four” in women’s gymnastics over the past 30 years have been Russia, China, Romania, and the USA. Though we’re still waiting on final team announcements for Romania and the USA, we do have six names for the other two top contenders for the women’s team battle – China and Russia:
A big surprise for the Chinese team was leaving 2010 world team member Huang Qiushuang as the alternate. Although Huang has been notably inconsistent in international competition – particularly on beam and floor – most of us still expected that her strengths on vault and bars would have been enough to land her a spot in Tokyo. She has, after all, been consistent on these two events, and she did finish 4th in the all-around at last year’s worlds. Nonetheless, this team does still have four DTY’s on vault without her, and the consistent Wu Liufang can easily fill Huang’s role on bars for this team.
This team may not be quite as flashy as the one that won gold in Beijing three years ago, but I’d say it is a little stronger than the one that won bronze in Rotterdam last year. Yao Jinnan is a superb all-arounder who brings a particularly valuable floor routine to the team, and Tan Sixin has delivered some of the most impeccable and spectacular beam routines you’ll seen anywhere in the world. Wu Liufang will be a perfect lead-off gymnast on both bars and beam, where she has consistently produced clean, stylish, and high-scoring routines in international competition. Sui Lu, the most consistent Chinese gymnast of the current quadrennial, has gained tremendous maturity and confidence since 2008 and will likely anchor this team on beam and floor, where her world class routines will challenge for medals. He Kexin hasn’t lost her stuff on bars and can still bring a huge 16+ score to the team tally, and Jiang Yuyuan seems to be regaining the form she showed at the worlds last year, where she stepped up her game to win the all-around silver medal. All in all, this Chinese team is fantastically well-rounded and shouldn’t be counted out as a contender for the team gold.
Many Russian fans likely expected former world champion Ksenia Semenova and possibly even two-time Olympian Anna Pavlova to be part of the squad, but their spots went to younger Russian rising stars Paseka and Belokobylskaya. Though Semenova did perform solidly in last year’s world team finals, she’s been on a downward spiral since Beijing, and unfortunately this year she hasn’t put up any scores that could be used by the Russians on any event. And although Pavlova has been competing her same strong vault and a pretty solid beam routine, she certainly isn’t the gymnast she once was and still seems to favor her knee quite heavily.
Paseka and Belokobylskaya both have brilliant potential and classy Russian style. Belokobylskaya is a wonderful all-arounder but will likely contribute most on floor, particularly if Komova isn’t at full strength yet on this event. The same is true for Paseka on vault, where her powerful, straight-body DTY looks capable of an Amanar. One of the bright spots on this team will surely be Dementieva, who has exploded as an international star this year, winning both the European all-around crown and the Russian Cup title. With beefed-up tumbling, a new DTY on vault, more difficulty on bars, and continued brilliance on beam, she could potentially compete all four events for Russia in the team finals and will be a contender for an all-around medal. Viktoria Komova has been groomed as the next great Russian queen, but has been hampered all year by an ankle injury that kept her out of the European Championships. She did perform watered-down tumbling and vaulting at the recent Russian Cup, and it remains to be seen if she’ll contribute on these two events in Tokyo. Her main role for the team may be trying to fill the void on bars and beam left by the injured world champion, Aliya Mustafina.
Two wild cards for team Russia always seem to be the hot-headed daredveil, Tatiana Nabieva, and the beautiful yet unpredictable Olympian, Ksenia Afanasyeva. Nabieva hasn’t quite developed into the reliable all-around contender she’s capable of, but she’s got one of the biggest and coolest bar routines in the world and is capable of an Amanar on vault. And Afanasyeva actually led the recent Russian Cup after Day 1 with a fantastic four-for-four effort, only to falter on her nemesis, the uneven bars, on Day 2. She’s likely to contribute in Tokyo on floor, where she delivered a clutch routine in the world team finals last year, and beam, where she made the 2008 Olympic event finals and seems to perform well under pressure.
Despite the loss of world all-around champion Aliya Mustafina, this Russian team is just as strong as the one that won gold in Rotterdam, if not stronger. With its risky skills, innovativeness, and exquisite beauty, this team will be one of the thrills of the competition as they attempt to defend their world team title.
Where will the USA and Romania fit in? Look for world team announcements for these two additional major players in the coming weeks.