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The 2008 Olympic all-around bronze medalist and one of China’s most beloved gymnasts from that gold medal squad in Beijing has struggled to regain her form over the last three years.  Yang Yilin, known as a standout on uneven bars in 2007, became one of China’s cleanest and most consistent all-arounders in 2008 just in time to grab the last spot on the Olympic all-around medal podium behind Americans Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson.  In addition to the all-around bronze and the team gold, she won another bronze medal for a sizzling performance in the controversial uneven bars event final behind teammate He Kexin and Nastia Liukin.

In 2009 she underwent a significant growth spurt and struggled with a back injury, and despite being the highest ranked all-arounder in the world, finished a disappointing 6th in the all-around and 8th in the balance beam finals at the worlds in London.  Her struggles continued in 2010; though her vault appeared as strong as it had in Beijing, her other three events were clearly not at her Olympic level.  She was somewhat surprisingly named to the 2010 world team, where she did compete fairly solidly in the preliminaries on vault, bars, and floor, and delivered a strong vault for the Chinese team in the team final.  But she and three of her Olympic teammates who had struck Olympic gold just two years prior had to settle for a world bronze, and Yang’s days of individual glory seemed to be fading into the past.

Today Yang’s overall gymnastics look is as lovely as ever – with the same exquisite line, impeccable form, and beautiful artistry that made her popular among both judges and fans in Beijing – and her vault is still as strong as it ever was.  But she clearly lacks the spark we saw from her in Beijing, and her difficulty on three of the events is a notch or two lower.  She finished a disappointing 8th all-around at the Chinese Nationals this week with a 53.25 – nearly five points behind winner Tan Sixin.  Many of her fans would love to see her be a part of the Chinese squad in both Tokyo this year and London 2012, but she’s going to have to really reignite that Olympic fire if she hopes to be there.

Yang Yilin Vault 2011 Chinese Nationals

A gorgeous vault!  This is the one event that hasn’t gone downhill for Yang, and in fact her height has likely helped make it a bit better than it was three years ago.  This vault does help keep her in contention for a world team spot, though several of China’s up-and-comers have some decent Yurchenko double fulls as well.  And having Cheng Fei back in the mix won’t help out Yang’s chances much here either.

Yang Yilin Bars 2011 Chinese Nationals

What an exquisite line, but what a disappointment to see her jump off the bar like that without even attempting a cover-up.  The double front with knees together is certainly nice, but it’s hard not to compare this to the Yang Yilin that many thought should have won Olympic gold with this routine:

Yang Yilin Bars 2008 Olympics Event Finals

Yang Yilin Floor 2011 Chinese Nationals

Actually this is a step up in the difficulty from what she’s shown over the last two years, so perhaps she is gaining a little bit of strength in her tumbling back.  I’d like to see a bit more energy and enthusiasm though – she just seems to be lacking in steam.

Yang Yilin Beam 2010 Asian Games

This was the best beam routine I’ve seen her do since Beijing, though interestingly she was left off the event entirely at the 2010 worlds.  I haven’t seen a beam routine yet this year.

Is Yang’s best gymnastics behind her, or is she pacing herself for a powerful resurgence in time for London 2012?  I think she still has the look and the potential to be a player for Team China, but she’ll need to make her move very soon.  Just over a year left before what will likely be her last Olympic opportunity.