Xiao Qin and Cheng Fei have had remarkably similar careers.  Both were part of China’s heavily favored Olympic teams in Athens 2004, where both teams performed disastrously and finished off the medal podium entirely.  Neither Xiao nor Cheng earned individual medals at those Games (some argue Cheng deserved a floor medal), yet both went on to dominate the world on their specialties over the entire next quadrennial – Xiao on pommel horse and Cheng on vault – winning three consecutive world titles each.  Both earned the ultimate Olympic redemption in Beijing 2008 as part of China’s side-by-side Olympic team champions.  Following Beijing, both gymnasts competed at one of the Chinese nationals in 2009, yet neither were part of China’s world team in London that year, and neither were seen in competition in 2010.  And now in 2011, the Olympic bug has likely bitten both of these world and Olympic champions, as both have made impressive comebacks to the sport and are competing at this weeks Chinese National Championships.

Xiao Qin

The pommel horse phenom who took the world by storm with his impeccable swing in the early part of the decade had a disappointing first Olympic outing in Athens in 2004.  As the overwhelming favorite for the pommel horse gold, he succumbed to pressure and fell during the preliminaries, failing to even make the finals.  Despite nailing this same routine in the team final, his heavily favored team had an overall disastrous performance and finishing a shocking 5th, while the Japanese overtook the Americans for the Olympic team gold.

Xiao more than redeemed his Athens Olympic woes over the next quadrennial, winning a stunning three consecutive world pommel horse titles from 2005-2007 and finally taking the Olympic gold in 2008.  He and his teammates also won every major team title of that Olympic cycle, regaining their expected spot on top of the world podium in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

In 2009 it appeared that Xiao Qin had officially handed over the pommel horse reigns to his successor, the equally phenomenal Zhang Hongtao.  Although Xiao did compete at the National Games that year, he wasn’t a part of the world squad in London, where Zhang won the world title with a swing and technique similar to his Olympic champion predecessor.  When Xiao didn’t show up much in 2010 other than an exhibition performance here and there, it appeared the gymnast whom many consider the greatest pommel horse swinger of all time was finally satisfied with his world and Olympic medal haul…until this past week.

Xiao Qin showed up at this week’s Chinese Nationals looking every bit as good as he ever did on his specialty – gliding through a flawless marathon set with world class difficulty and pencil-straight body line:

Xiao Qin Pommel Horse 2011 Chinese Nationals

He scored a whopping 16.05, yet interestingly was outscored by Zhang’s 16.3.

Xiao will likely need more than just pommel horse to be included on China’s next world or Olympic team, and in fact his other events may be what potentially separates him from Zhang Hongtao.  Xiao also competed high bar for Team China in 2008, and has had multiple world event finals appearances on this event:

Xiao Qin High Bar 2008 Olympics Team Finals

He is potentially very good on parallel bars as well:

Xiao Qin Parallel Bars 2009 Chinese National Games

Cheng Fei

The soon-to-be 23-year-old is not only China’s most successful vaulter of all time, she’s China’s most successful gymnast of all time, with five world championship golds and one silver, and one Olympic gold and two bronzes.  Her three consecutive world vault titles from 2005-2007 catapulted her into a league of her own on this event, and she’s shown equal brilliance on floor as well – though less consistently – with some of the most difficult and well choreographed routines in the world and one world title in 2006.  And one of her Olympic bronzes in 2008 actually came on balance beam, indicating that Cheng Fei is far more than a floor and vault specialist – she’s three events deep and has been one of the biggest reasons for China’s resurgence as a serious team medal threat over the last seven years.  Notice that Cheng was part of the Chinese women’s first ever world champion team in 2006 as well as first Olympic champion team in 2008.  Without her, four of her Olympic champion teammates from 2008 slipped to a world bronze in Rotterdam 2010.

Had Cheng not torn her ACL in 2009, we might well have seen her continue on the world stage these past two years.  Her plans for returning to competition have remained uncertain ever since, and it wasn’t until her recent announcement of her plans to compete at this week’s Chinese Nationals that her fans could officially celebrate.  China’s greatest female gymnast of all time is back:

Cheng Fei Vault 2011 Chinese Nationals

Cheng Fei Floor 2011 Chinese Nationals

Cheng’s body does appear quite different than it did even just three years ago, and thus Mother Nature may be her toughest competitor during this attempted comeback.  But these vaults alone put her in serious contention for a world team spot, as even these efforts – which are substandard for Cheng Fei – could earn a world vault medal today.  And though her floor difficulty here is far below what she’s shown in the past, China isn’t overloaded with hot tumblers right now, and she can likely upgrade enough to be used in a team final.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and remind ourselves of why so many fans first fell in love with this one-of-a-kind gymnast:

Cheng Fei Floor 2004 Olympics Team Prelims