There’s no doubt that Aliya Mustafina has been the absolute star of Russian gymnastics during this quad. That doesn’t mean that the other members of the team have not shined. We all enjoyed Grishina’s successful 2013 European championships, Maria Kharenkova’s European gold medal on beam, Daria Spiridonova’s excellent results on the uneven bars and Ksenia Afanasyeva’s and Maria Paseka’s success at this year’s European championships. However, whether it’s about becoming a world champion on the event that had been her nemesis for an entire year, winning world medals without fulfilling the requirements or pulling out difficult combinations out of nowhere, Aliya has been the most discussed and the most successful athlete of her country. She has also carried the entire team on her shoulders since her very first year as a senior. Even in 2010, when Russia had a fair amount of depth, she was the one who did not have a major mistake during the finals and dominated the individual finals. The same happened in the Olympics when she held it together and managed to stay on every apparatus when her teammates were falling apart and she became Russia’s only gold medallist in artistic gymnastics. In 2013, when all her fellow Olympians were out of the competition due to injuries, Mustafina was Russia’s only realistic medal contender. She once again handled the pressure and left Antwerp with multiple world medals, including one gold on balance beam. The following year, she participated at the 2014 European championships despite not being healthy so her team could have a chance to make the podium and she was the absolute leader of the Russian team at worlds once again. After all those years of Aliya saving Russian gymnastics over and over again, it’s hard to image the country’s team without her. And yet, it is confirmed that she is not going to be part of their 2015 world championships team. There have been rumours about her not being in full elite training for weeks and now and Valentina Rodionenko confirms that the world and Olympic champion is going to stay home, taking care of her body so she can be ready for the Rio Games. Apparently, Aliya is struggling with some back pain that has been bothering her for some time now while also dealing with her knee injuries and she’s not in the shape an athlete needs to be in order to compete at the sport’s highest level. Mustafina has proven herself competition after competition and I have no doubt that if she set her mind into Rio she will manage to shine once again. The question is: what can Russia do without her? There’s no doubt that this is a big loss for the team but thankfully, they still have a fair amount of decorated, world class athletes and the team includes Olympic, world and European medalists and champions.
Οn vault they will have at least one amanar from Olympic bronze medalist and European champion Maria Paseka. Masha is never going to be on Biles’ or Maroney’s level but everyone has to admit that she has come a long way since that 2.25 twisting yurchenko that got her a medal in London. Now, she gets the 2.5 rotations around without a problem and she has very secure landings. Of course there’s lots of room for improvement on her form and her block but worse amanars than hers have received high scores internationally, so there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be scoring in the low – middle 15s. Τhen we have Universiade champion and European medalist Ksenia Afanasyeva, who showed a decent amanar at Montpellier. However, she did not compete that difficult skill at the Russian cup so we can’t be sure that she’s still capable of it. In that case, her strong double twisting yurchenko would still be valuable to the team. Unfortunately, world finalist Alla Sosnitskaya wasn’t able to get her Cheng back after her ankle injury and she even struggles with her double twisting yurchenko. After how she performed at the Russian Cup it’s not very likely for her to make the team anyway which is a shame because she could help them so much if she was at her top shape. She is not on the provisional worlds team and this is perfectly understandable. We have two more double twisting yurchenkos from European Games finalist Seda Tutkhalyan and Viktoria Komova. Seda’s is a bit untidy in the legs but it’s solid and powerful. Vika is still dealing with ankle problems, just like she has for her entire career so it’s uncertain if she’ll compete that vault. Maria Kharenkova and Daria Spiridonova have solid full twisting yurchenkos that could be used in qualifications if needed. That means that Russia potentially has two amanars and two double twisting yurchenkos on this event and this is a line up that any country besides USA would envy. Even in the worse case scenario, their vault rotation will still include an amanar and two double twisting yurchenkos so they don’t really have a problem on this event. Of course, Aliya’s DTY is one of the most consistent ones out there and it has scored above 15 in the past but she’s definitely not irreplaceable on vault.
One would imagine that the absence of the Olympic and European uneven bars champion would be detrimental for the country’s line up on this event but this is not the case. Of course, having Aliya on this event would improve the team’s total significantly and a line up of Komova – Mustafina and Spiridonova would bring tears of joy to my eyes but as long as Russia still has a world and a European champion on their line up they have no reason to be worried. Both Viktoria and Daria have fabulous routines, with gorgeous inbar stalders, high flight elements and beautiful swing and they are capable of scoring above 15. Viktoria has had some trouble with her upgrades but she has always been consistent on bars so hopefully she will be ready by worlds. The line up could be completed by Maria Paseka, who surprised us all with how great she looked on this event during the Russian Cup. She is capable of a spectacular opening combination, where she link 6 high level elements together. This is a new set for her and she will still need to prove that she can hit it consistently but she definitely has the potential to be part of the line up and to deliver a score in the high 14s. Her teammate, Alla Sosnitskaya performs the exact same routine but since she had problems on the other events at Russian Cup and she’s still on top shape yet it will be hard for her to make the team. European finalist Maria Kharenkova hit the routine of her life during the qualifications at Montpelier and she got a high score for it. However, she never delivered a similar set during the rest of the year. She has gorgeous lines and toe point but she has been rather inconsistent and she had to take out her inbars due to back problems. If she has those elements back, she has a great routine with a high scoring potential but there’s still a question mark on whether or not she’ll be able to do that. Seda Tutkhalyan is not a super star on this event but she is capable of a solid routine that could be used in qualifications.
As you probably understood, I’m rather optimistic about vault and bars but I definitely can’t say the same thing about the always notorious balance beam. In fact, I get nervous just thinking about this rotation. It’s not like Russia doesn’t have depth on this event. In fact, they have some of the most difficult routines in the world right now. European champion, Maria Kharenkova has a high layout, a beautiful front tuck and a very impressive switch ring + ring leap combination while European Games finalist Seda Tutkhalyan is the only athlete in the world competing a round of into a ridiculously difficult layout full. World and Olympic finalist, Viktoria Komova is capable of a stunning standing arabian and her technique and form is second to none. However, Masha has not been very solid on beam, scoring much lower than she has the potential too, Vika has wobbled her way through every beam routine she has performed this year and the routines Seda has hit during her junior and senior career can be counted on the fingers of one hand. If Russia decides to use those three on their line up, it’s going to be an “all or nothing” rotation which is going to give us plenty of heart attacks. It could turn out great and it could turn out horrible, and given Russia’s history on this event in the past, the second possibility seems slightly more likely. Thankfully, there’s a safest option. Olympic finalist Ksenia Afanasyeva has produced some excellent routines in the past but she’s just getting back on this event after her injuries. She hit all three routines she performed during the Russian cup and personally, I would feel much more comfortable to have her on a team final line up. I have to admit that she doesn’t have the same scoring potential as her teammates, but she is very likely to score somewhere between 14.1 – 14.5, while Seda and Vika are very likely to score close to 15 and very likely to score close to 13 at the same time. Meanwhile, the lovely Daria Spiridonova is finally living up to her potential on this event. It was always clear that this girl showed great promise. Her leaps were gorgeous, her onodi and her kochetkova were lovely and she had beautiful fluidity and lines. The problem was, that she would never actually stay on the apparatus. However, during the Russian Cup she hit more routines that she has hit during her entire career (not really… but you get the point) and it looks like she’s finally turning into a reliable beam worker. I’m not too eager to proclaim her a rock on this event before she competes at a couple of international meets first but I’m definitely happy with the improvement she showed this past week.
The only event where there is a real problem of depth for Russia is floor exercise. Thankfully, 2011 world champion Ksenia Afanasyeva is back to help the team here. Her new choreography is rather disappointing compared to the elegant routines we’ve seen from her in the past but she still has a great start value and at the end of the day, artistry barely wins you any points right now. Alla Sosnitskaya, who was one of the team’s most valuable floor worker last year is not nearly ready to perform on this event. She didn’t manage to hit a single routine during the Russian Cup and in fact, her performance during the All Around finals, where she landed three of her tumbling passes straight on her knees, was the most terrifying things I have seen during the quad. The two Marias could contribute on the line up with solid but not spectacular scores. If Kharenkova gets her full difficulty back she has a good start value but she usually lands her tumbling passes very short and doesn’t get massive execution scores. Paseka is just getting back on the event and doesn’t have a great start value yet but she can hit her routine consistently. She’s not set to do floor on the provisional team but that could potentially change. Seda Tutkhaylan is actually a great tumbler with fantastic potential on the event. She has fun choreography, difficult turns, and strong tumbling. She starts with a double layout and I hope her two whips into a piked full in is going to come back but even if it doesn’t, she has a respectable 6.0 start value and despite the many flaws in her form, she could score in the middle – high 14s. However, she has had trouble landing her tumbling passes on her feet and staying in bounds. As a result, she scores lower than athletes she could have easily beaten. Viktoria Komova showed very difficult tumbling passes during the European Games (double layout, 1.5 + double Arabian, triple full) but it looked like she was in serious pain each time she landed one of them. Now, her ankles are giving her trouble once again and she is rather unlikely to compete on floor during the world championships while Spiridonova lacks power and she doesn’t have great difficulty or perfect execution on this event. Between Afanasyeva, Tutkhalyan, Paseka and Kharenkova, Russia could have one routine in the high 14s and three more in the low 14s. This is by no means a disaster, but if one compares it to USA’s potential to have 4 routines that can score close to 15, they realise that Russia has a significant disadvantage. Aliya, who has been a world and Olympic medallist on floor, would be really valuable on this event and she would improve the team’s total by several tenths.
To conclude, there are some athletes who carry their entire team in their shoulders, athletes whose loss would absolutely destroy their teams. Some examples are Giulia Steingruber, Ellie Black, Roxana Popa, Larisa Iordache and maybe even Wang Yan. Those athletes are irreplaceable simply because their countries don’t have other gymnasts with similar start values who can compete instead of them. This is not the case for the Russian team, at least not this year. Without Roxana Popa, Spain’s scoring potential would be more than 5 full points lower than it was last year. Without Giulia Steingruber, Switzerland wouldn’t be able to even dream of placing in the world’s top 20 and without Larisa Iordache, Romania would simply not be a top team anymore while Russia is undoubtedly in the top 4 even without Aliya. Don’t get me wrong. Mustafina was an extremely valuable asset to the team and her loss definitely hurts the Russia’s scoring potential but that doesn’t mean this is the end of Russia’s medal chances, especially right now, when both Romania and China are having problems. In fact, Aliya’s value has more to do with her consistency than with her difficulty. It’s not about the numbers. It’s not about how Aliya’s start value on floor was a 6.2 while Kharenkova’s is only a 5.8. It’s about the fact that the team could count on her, that even when others fell she would stay calm and save the day. This is definitely something that Russia is going to miss but their weakness is not lack of difficulty, it’s lack of consistency and this is obviously not a new problem for them. Of course, consistency is what makes the difference between a bronze medal and a fourth place, but at the end of the day, the truth is that Russia still has the potential to be on the podium and to even win a silver. Whether or not they’ll live up to this potential is up to them.