The Japan Junior International is a competition which is held every two years in Yokohama, Japan. To me, it’s always one of the most exciting meets of year, since it gives us the chance to take a look promising young athletes from all around the world. We have the junior European championships and EYOF, where we often get exciting showdowns between the Russians and Romanians, we have the Pacific Rim Championships, where the Americans and the Chinese fight for medals but we don’t often see junior athletes from the 4 strongest gymnastics countries, all competing against each other. However, USA, Russia, China and Romania, all send two of their top juniors to the Junior International, which is a unique opportunity to watch the best junior gymnasts from the best gymnastics countries in the world in the same arena. Some notable gymnasts who have attended the event in the past are Rebecca Bross, Aliya Mustafina, Viktoria Komova, Lexie Priessman, Amelia Hundley, Nastumi Sasada, Emily Little, Bailie Key, Andreea Munteanu, Maria Kharenkova and Wang Yan. This year we will enjoy athletes from Australia, USA, Russia, Romania, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Great Britain and Germany It’s important to note that all the names mentioned come from a nominative list so it’s possible to see changes in the roster as the competition comes closer.
Australia will be represented by Emily Whitehead. This is definitely not a surprising choice, since Emily proved herself as the best gymnast of the country when she won the All Around, uneven bars and floor exercise titles at the national championships, while also grabbing a silver medal on beam and a bronze on vault. She also participated in last year’s Pacific Rim championships, where she qualified to floor finals and at this year’s Jesolo Trophy, where she placed fourth on her best even, the uneven bars. She really has massive potential on this apparatus, where she performs a powerful maloney + pak combination, a van leeuwen, a high jaeger and a double front dismount. If she works on her handstand a little bit she can certainly challenge for a spot in Australia’s line up here. Her beam routine also includes some difficult elements, like a front tuck, a switch ring and a sheep jump. She hits 180 degrees on her splits effortlessly, but she doesn’t have a strong dismount yet. On floor, she shows some promising forward tumbling, like a double front tucked and a double front twist but what really won me over with her routine is the round of into the straddle jump and the valdez. It’s so old school, I love it. Her vault is a layout tsukahara. I’m not sure if she has enough difficulty to challenge for a medal at this competition, but she could make it to bars finals.
Germany will be represented by two beautiful gymnasts who will be trying to leave their mark and prove themselves as contenders for the 2016 Olympic team. They both competed at the FIT challenge earlier this year and they have more style and elegance than lots of their senior teammates. The first of them is 15-years-old Lina Philipp, who finished 5th All Around at nationals. You have to watch out for her on floor. She doesn’t have any spectacular tumbling passes, but her 2.5 twists and her double front twist are beautifully executed and she has impressive flexibility and lovely toe point. I also adore the choreography at the beginning of her routine and her ending pose. She shows her great flexibility on beam, where she connects her switch leap with her switch half and she performs a Y turn. Unfortunately, her acrobatics are not nearly as clean as her dance skills and she desperately needs to keep her legs straight during her aerials. Those bent knees, along with the short handstands are hurting her execution score on bars as well. If she manages to improve on those areas she could have a solid routine though. She already has impressive skills and combinations like a maloney + bail + toe on full and a jaeger. Her vault is a full twisting yurchenko.
Lina will be joined by european team member and junior national bronze medalist on beam, Carina Kroell. Just like her teammate, Carina is a graceful gymnast, with nice flexibility but slightly messy execution. She has a lots of things to clean up on beam, but I live for her beautiful split mount. She is a joy to watch on floor. Her double saltos are a bit low and some of her leaps need a bit more amplitude but her choreography is absolutely lovely. She has the classical style we all love and a beautiful ending pose. On bars, she is capable of a gienger, a jaeger and a double front dismount.
Romania is also sending two Rio eligible but relatively unknown athletes. My favorite of them is 2014 Gymnix beam bronze medalist Stefania Orzu. She is a crowdpleaser on floor, with a dynamic and energetic choreography and sky high leaps. Unfortunately her tumbling passes (double pike, double tuck, 2.5 twists, double full) are not particularly difficult. She shows good potential on balance beam, where she performs a beautiful low to the beam pose, two back handpsrings into a layout step out and a double turn. She looks very confident on this event and she works with great rhythm and aggressiveness. However, she has a lots of work to do on the two remaining events. Her bars are very Romanian and this is obviously not a good thing. Most of her handstands are short, her swing is labored and her form is quite poor. On top of that she doesn’t have much difficulty while her vault is only a yurchenko layout. Her best chance to win a medal is the balance beam, but she will need a few other people to make mistakes in order to end up on the podium.
Her teammate Denisa Stanciu also has fantastic flexibility and presentation. She uses Roxana Popa’s 2013 music on floor and she does a great job selling her routine to the crowd. Her leaps and jumps are gorgeous and especially her switch ring is to die for. She has a lovely unique mount on balance beam, where she once again performs fabulous dance elements and a side aerial into a back handspring. She also doesn’t show difficult work on vault and bars. A recent Romanian news piece said that Maria Holbura will be the athlete who will joing Orzu at Japan so I’m not sure which of the two athletes will actually end up competing.
The host nation’s best hope for a medal is 15-years-old Nagi Kajita. She was only 52nd at the Japanese championships, after having a meltdown on bars and a rough beam routine but she is capable of posting big scores internationally. She proved that at the WOGA classic, in the beginning of the year, where she won the silver medal in the All Around. She is a quite solid All Arounder with a full twisting yurchenko on vault and a promising bars routine. On this event, she performs an inbar half into a jaeger, a stalder full and a sky high full in dismount. I would love to see her adding an extra twist and performing a fabrichnova in the future. Her swing is a bit labored but her lines are beautiful and her leg form doesn’t leave much to be desired. Her best event is probably the balance beam. Her routine includes a switch ring, an 1.5 Y turn and a 2.5 twists dismount and all her leaps and her aerials are beautifully executed. She starts her graceful floor routine with 2.5 twists into a front tuck and she continues with a double front twist. She is also capable of intricate dance elements, like a gorgeous memmel turn and a ferrari. Nagi is a contender for the bars and beam finals.
Hong Kong is also sending two gymnasts to this competition. Cheung Ho Yat is born in 2001 and therefore not eligible for the Rio Olympics but Chun Mei Cheung will have a chance to try to qualify for the Games. As one would expect from such a small gymnastics country, those two athletes don’t really have world class difficulty. Cheung Ho Yat’s most notable skills are her pike yurchenko on vault and her sheep jump and front aerial on beam. She has lovely toe point though. Chum Mei Cheung shows easy routines on bars and floor but her beam is promising. She performs a side aerial, a front aerial into a korbut and a wolf jump into a yang bo. She is a very flexible athlete, capable of a gorgeous switch ring on floor and I hope she can have a good competition.
Unlike most countries, Russia is not using this competition to give some experience to their Rio eligible juniors. Instead, they are sending two athletes who won’t turn senior until 2001. Despite their young age, both Elena Eremina and Anastasia Ilyankova show impressive level of difficulty and are capable of challenging for medals. They both represented Russia at the recent EYOF and helped their team win the gold medal. Elena also grabbed a bronze medal on vault. Before than, she had had a very succesful performance at the Russian junior nationals, where she placed 4th All Around and won a gold medal on vault, a silver on beam and a bronze on bars. She has a nice combination of power, grace and flexibility which makes her floor routine very enjoyable to watch. I’m not a fan of the vocals in her music but her tucked full in and her 2.5 twists into a front tuck are very well executed, her leaps are gorgeous, her choreography is pretty and her memmel turn shows fantastic flexibility. She also shows great potential on bars, where she should be able to have a typical Russian routine until she turns senior. Right now she starts her exercise with an inbar full + maloney + pak combination and she connects an inbar half with a sky high straddle jaeger. Her beam routine is very promising since it includes a beautiful back handspring + layout step out + lay out step out flight series, gorgeous leaps and turns and a double tuck dismount. She is capable of a powerful 1.5 twisting yurchenko on vault and I’m hoping to see DTYs from her soon enough. Elena is a strong medal contender for the All Around, the uneven bars and the balance beam final while she could probably also challenge for the floor podium if others make mistakes.
Anastasia Ilyankova gave us a great performance during EYOF, winning bronze medals in the All Around and the uneven bars as well as a gold medal with her team. Before that she had earned two silver medals at the International Gymnix. It’s important to note than Nastya was still coming back from an injury at EYOF and she should be in a much better shame now. She is a very promising gymnast, with great style and artistry who excels on bars and beam. Her uneven bars routine, which is pretty different from the programs we usually see from Russia, includes a shaposhnikova + clear hip full + tkatcev combination and a hindorff into a pak salto. Her flight elements are high and her form is very clean so she should be able to challenge for the bars title. On beam, she performs a gorgeous side aerial + layout step out combination and a round of into a layout. Once she upgrades her dance elements she will definitely be one to watch on this event as a senior. I’m also hoping to see her bringing back the tumbling passes she did not perform at EYOF. If she does, she could have a very respectable floor routine with a tucked full in, a 2.5 + front tuck combination, a double front twist and a double pike. Her vault is a full twisting yurchenko. If everything goes well, Nastya could leave Japan with medals on the All Around, the uneven bars and maybe balance beam.
A big challenge for the All Around gold medal should come from China’s Liu Tingting. Liu is one of China’s top junior athletes and she is expected to be a strong contender for next year’s Olympic team. She did not win any individual medals at the recent nationals because she struggled during finals but she was second All Around during qualifications, beating world team member Shang Chunsong and Chen Siyi. She has also attended international competitions, like the 2014 Pacific Rim championships, where she placed 5th All Around and won a bronze medal on bars. What makes Liu so valuable to team China, is the fact that she is a balanced All Arounder, with strong routines on all four events. She still needs to work on her double twisting yurchenko, but she is one of the few athletes in China who are capable of that vault and she keeps it clean in the air. On floor, she already has a tucked full in and a beautiful triple full as well as difficult dance elements, like a semenova and a double L turn and a ring jump full. Her music and choreography really are lovely and she could leave her mark on this event if she upgrades in the future. Her bars and beam are up to the standards of her country. She has a beautiful beam mount and a spectacular front handspring into a front tuck combination and a gorgeous switch ring into a sheep jump. On bars, she executes her chow to pak and her maloney to gienger with great form but she still needs to work a bit on her pirouettes. She enters this competition as a strong medal contender on every event, but especially in the All Around, bars and beam and I’m sure she won’t leave Japan empty handed.
Tingting will be joined by her promising teammate Lu Yufei, who placed 10th AA and 6th on uneven bars at this year’s national championships. She is a gorgeous gymnast who won the hearts of gymnastics fans with her dance on floor. Her routine really is a delight to watch. Her choreography is so cute and pretty and she is not afraid to show off to the crowd. Her leaps are great and her tumbling is also not bad, since she is capable of a triple floor and 2.5 twists into a front pike. She is equally stylish on beam, where she has some fantastic skills like a layout, a switch ring, a front aerial + sheep jump and a 2.5 dismount. The event where she really shines is the uneven bars. At the age of 15, she is already capable of a clean tkatcev + gienger combination, a gorgeous piked jaeger and a spectacular double double dismount. She performs a full twisting tsukahara on vault. Lu is a relatively new face to the world of elite gymnastics and I’m not sure if she can challenge for a spot in China’s Olympic team, but I would absolutely love to see her winning medals at the junior international. Bars and beam are the events where she could have a chance to do that.
As usually, the top contenders for the gold medal will come from USA. Those two athletes are not only from the same country but also from the same gym. Of course, we are talking about the beautiful Laurie Hernandez and Jazzy Foberg from MG elite, who won the gold and the silver medal at the recent national championships. After missing the entire 2014 due to injuries, Hernandez had a fantastic comeback in 2015 winning every competition she entered, including the Jesolo Trophy, the US Secret Classic and the National Championships. In addition to her All Around titles, she also won multiple gold medals in the event finals. She is capable of a double twisting yurchenko on vault, a much improved bars routine which includes a downie, a ricna + pak and an endo half and a switch ring on beam. On floor, she performs a double arabian + stag and a awsome front layout + double front twist + front tuck combination and she knows how to perform better than anyone else in the entire world. This is the second time she is competing at the Japan Junior International and the last time she took part in the competition in 2013 she won the bronze medals on tha all around and on vault. Laurie is the best junior of the best country in the world and she is a frontrunner for the All Around title. However, that doesn’t mean she is guaranteed to get a gold medal. She is not in a situation similar to Simone Biles’, where she could end up on the top of the podium even if she has mistakes. She actually doesn’t have a significant advantage in difficulty over some of her competitors and she will need to have a great competition in order to post the highest score. The good thing is that Laurie has been extremely consistent and she has barely had any mistakes during the entire year. Laurie has a great chance to win medals on every single final. The All Around is probably her best chance for a gold.
(photos by John Cheng)
During nationals, Laurie beat her teammate Jazzy Foberg for about a tenth of a point. She actually said that she wished she had received a lower score so the two of them could have tied. Now, about a month later, the two athletes will be facing each other again in the international stage. After a rather disappointing first year as an elite, Foberg has had an amazing last couple of years. winning plenty of medals including the All Around and uneven bars gold at the 2014 national championships, the vault gold at the 2015 Jesolo Trophy, the balance beam gold at the 2015 US Secret Classic and the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and All around silver medals at the 2015 nationals. With a double twisting yurchenko on vault, a maloney + gienger, a van leeuwen and a tkatcev on bars, a chusovitina and a silivas on floor, Foberg, has the most impressive difficulty of the entire competition. With the exception of her slightly messy full twisting double layout, she executes all those massive skills with clean form and she has been fairly consistent through the year. She just struggles to keep her tumbling passes in bounds at times and that’s one of the things that cost her a medal on floor at nationals. With her strong start values and solid execution, Jazzy will be trying to be on the top of the podium this time. In addition to the All Around title, she is a strong contender for the gold medals on every single event.
An other fan favorite heading to Japan for this competition for the second time in her career is Catherine Lyons of Great Britan. The previous time Catherine participated in this meet was in 2013, when she was just starting to make a name for herself. Now, she returns as one of the most famous and loved junior in the world. She is the British and English All Around national champion as well as the junior European floor champion and she has plenty of fans from All Around the world. Unfortunately a stress fracture took her out of contention for the EOYF team which really is a shame because she could have dominated the competition. Hopefully, she will manage to win a couple of medals now in order to make up for that. We haven’t seen her competing since her injury so we can’t be sure what skills she will be competing. She has successfully trained double twisting yurchenkos in the past but expecting her to debut a new vault the first time she competes after a stress fracture would be unrealistic. However, I expect to see an impressive bars routine from her. She was always promising on this event, showing fantastic amplitude during her gienger and double arabian dismount. Earlier this year, she attempted a maloney + shang combination despite not having performed a shaposhnikova or a tkatcev variation in her career before. Unsurprisingly, she struggled with this combination and she eventually took it out of her routine. Now, that a leg injury gave her more time to work on bars, I hope to see her competing those skills separately. On beam, she shows the most beautiful switch leap into ring leap combination you will ever see, a front aerial into a gorgeous sheep jump and her stunning unique Y turn. She has trained upgrades on floor but once again, it’s safe to assume that her injury has slowed down her progress on this event. However, it certainly hasn’t affected her fantastic artistry and expression so her floor should still be one of the highlights of the competition.
(photo credit: Alan Edwards, Yoshinori Sakakibara)
When is comes to the All Around battle, we should not count Canada out. They will be represented by rising stars Megan Roberts and Jade Chrobok. Megan is born in 2000 and therefore is eligible for the Rio Olympic Games. She showed tremendous improvement between 2014 and 2015 and this year has been very succesful for her since she won a bronze medal on floor at the Jesolo Trophy, silver medals on vault and floor at Gymnix, All Around bronze, vault and floor gold at the Canadian championships and gold medals on the all around, vault, bars and floor at Elite Canada. One of the main reasons why she has earned so many All Around medals is her powerful double twisting yurchenko on vault. It’s a relatively new skill for her but she already seems to be comfortable with it and she performs it better than most junior gymnasts. She is also excellent on floor, where she is capable of a powerful piked full in and a high double arabian. I also love her choreography at the end of her routine. The skills she performs on balance beam are not particularly exciting, but she has attempted a spectacular Patterson dismount. I’m not sure if she will try that at Japan, but it would certainly be an amazing skill. On bars, she’s capable of a maloney, a jaeger, a ray and an arabian double front dismount. She still has a long way to go on this event but her releases are high and her level of difficulty is not bad for a country like Canada, that struggles a bit on bars. With her impressive skill level, Megan is a strong contender for the All Around and the floor exercise podium and she has a very realistic chance to win the vault title.
Megan will be joined by her younger teammate Jade Chrobok, who was born in 2001. She may not be eligible for Rio, but if she continues to improve she could be one of the leaders of the team during the next quad. This year, she tied for third on floor at the Jesolo Trophy, she won bronze medals at bars and the All Around at Gymnix and she became the Elite Canada balance beam champion and All Around silver medalist. At the age of 14, she is already capable of a fantastic beam routine, which includes a side aerial into a layout step out, a double turn and a double pike. Canada could definitely use a start value like hers on this event. She is also very promising on bars. She doesn’t have a huge difficulty value but she starts her exercise with an incredible and original inbar piked tkatcev and then she performs a sky high straddled tkatcev before she finishes with a double front dismount. She needs to clean up her forrm and to upgrade her routine, but if she builds on the skills she already has and add more variations of inbar stalders in her routine she could have a great start value in the future. On floor, she performs two whips into a double tuck and 2.5 twists into a front tuck. The only event I could see her medalling at the Junior International is the balance beam, but she is certainly one to watch in the future.
Some less well known athletes who are registered to compete are Koko Dabashi, who was fourth on floor at Japanese nationals and her teammates Natsumi Hanashima and Kiko Kuwajima as well as Yeo Seojeong from South Korea. You can find the list of the competitors here