What a treat to see the Russian A-Team competing essentially full difficulty and looking so good.  With the way they are preparing their team right now, you’d think there was a team title at stake at this year’s world championships – which of course there isn’t.  Even so, it will be great to see them fight for some individual medals in Antwerp, and interesting to see which four actually end up on the squad.  This team still has a lot of exciting things going on – even without Viktoria Komova in the mix right now.

Aliya Mustafina.  We have to remember she was just very recently hospitalized with the flu and was a question mark to even compete here, so the fact that she still put together a very strong four-event effort is a true testament to the kind of shape she is in.  I would say that overall she looks even better this year than she did at the Olympics – in large part because her beam has been more solid and her floor seems to be gaining a little more strength (although we didn’t see her best one here).  On floor we can give her a bit of a break since decreased endurance from her recent illness was likely a factor (she was in that corner a full 13 seconds before the triple full – not typical of her).  I have to say I like this floor routine much better than the one she competed in London – it has more of that “majestic” feel that makes her floor routines so special, whereas the one in London seemed a bit plain and ordinary to me.

Her DTY on vault remains very sturdy and reliable, and although that was certainly not the best bar routine we have seen from her (some tiny form breaks, a couple short handstands, close on a transition, and an easier dismount), with those tricky and valuable connections it still manages to remain world class.  I’d bet she’ll clean this up as this competition goes on.  And I didn’t get to see her beam routine from this meet yet, but a 15.2 indicates she is truly regaining her world champion form here.  Overall Mustafina has had a terrific year and looks on track to at least contend for the world all-around title – it remains to be seen whether her easier vault will keep her from gold.

Ksenia Afanasyeva.  She is unquestionably one of the most exciting gymnasts in the world right now.  She is truly a gymnast who has gotten better with age, and she continues to do so.  Many might have thought she would retire after her second Olympic Games last year, but instead she has been back in the gym maintaining incredible fitness, learning new skills, and improving her already magnificent tumbling.  Her tumbling is currently better than ever…she could easily twist that double layout, her whip-whip to triple has a new “quickness” to it that is helping her launch the triple full sky high, the 2 ½ to front layout is way more impressive than the 1 ½ to front full was (awesome save on that in this competition), and she is now nailing that double pike with ease (recall when she nearly put that to her head in the Olympic team finals last year).  Her turns are equally impressive – the only gymnast I’ve ever seen to do those specific turn combinations, and they help round out this routine to be, in my opinion, the best floor routine in the world.  My ONLY slight criticism is that sometimes it feels she may actually change floor routines a little too quickly…I would doubt that anyone had grown tired of that cool routine she debuted just a year ago, and she could have probably held onto it a bit longer.  But on the other hand, it is pretty neat to see a gymnast literally unveil new choreography every year, and her routines are always fascinating.  I just happened to like the 2012 one better.

I could tell a real difference in her vault – it had a straighter body and more rotation than she’s shown in the past, and I could definitely envision the Amanar that she can allegedly do now.  I have no idea what her second vault was, but it’s awesome to see her competing two vaults (I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this from her).  She’ll be in the finals here – will she throw the Amanar?  Is she a threat for a world medal on vault now?  I think she’s a shoo-in for the world team this year already, but with TWO potential medal opportunities, she’s even more so.  If she could finally put together a good bar routine like she used to do back in the 2007-2009 era, she could be an all-around threat.  With the best floor routine in the world, an Amanar on vault, and two Olympic finals appearances on beam, a solid bar routine could truly put her in the world all-around mix for the first time in her career.

Tatiana Nabieva.  It was really cool to see her back in competition and competing the all-around (I can’t recall her last all-around performance), but overall I don’t quite see things happening for her again yet.  Bars was certainly the highlight, and this has always been the event where she is most confident – but even still, this routine isn’t going to outscore Mustafina, Komova, or Grishina for that matter, so I don’t see this landing her on the world team.  I would love to have seen her DTY on vault which received a 9.05 in execution here, as this must have been a huge improvement over years past.  But with Paseka and Afanasyeva both outscoring her on vault right now, I don’t see this event putting her on any major teams right now either – unless she reintroduces an Amanar.  Floor was a bit of a mess as it always is with her – I’ve never quite understood her on this event.  She seems to have plenty of power to pull off some better tumbling passes, but she’s always going out of bounds, always having out-of-control landings, and typically has a little too much of a nonchalant attitude.  The triple full opener was quite nice, but unfortunately this was the only highlight of the routine.  It was good to see her hit a beam routine, but again this routine isn’t going to go too far on this Russian team.  Again, though, it was great to see her put four events together for the first time in a long time, and perhaps this will boost her confidence and lead to some greater things in the next couple of years.

Ana Dementieva.  All I saw was her beam routine, and what a routine it was!  One of her best ever in fact – reminiscent of the great work she was doing around 2010-2011.  It was clean and confident and had some awesome connections – and the double pike dismount looks better than the awkward triple full she used to do.  That 15.3 says a lot for considering her for the world team.  This would be the only event where she’d earn a spot though, so she’ll need to hit this routine in the finals as well.  As an all-arounder, she’s never been able to regain the form she showed in early 2011 when she won the European title.  Her tumbling and vaulting were her strongest ever during that time period, but she’s never shown it since.  She obviously had some trouble on floor here (13.55), and she didn’t compete vault.  She has made some good strides on bars over the last couple of years and put up a solid 14.25 – but again, this won’t go far on this Russian squad.  I look forward to a Dementieva-Mustafina beam battle in the event finals.

Maria Paseka.  She wasn’t shown on the broadcast and only competed vault.  Her 15.1 with a 9.3 execution score on a DTY was the highest vault score of the meet, and of course we’ll see her in the finals here.  With her known DTY, pretty strong second vault, and Olympic experience, she’s a world team contender for this event this year.  The Amanar will be a key though, so let’s look for it in the finals.

Great meet overall – such a pleasure to get a sneek peak of this team at this point in the season.  As far as worlds go, it’s looking like Mustafina and Afanasyeva are sure bets, Viktoria Komova is a question mark but a likely candidate if she returns in time, and Dementieva and Paseka are both in the mix.  It was interesting to see that Anastasia Grishina was not chosen for this competition, and I’m not sure why, as she did a very good job at the European Championships this year.  I would think she’d be in the mix for worlds as well – particularly if Komova is not ready.

More to come from the World University Games!