Surprisingly, 2015 had been a great year for Russian gymnastics fans. Even without Aliya Mustafina, the Russian team dominated the European championships, qualifying at least one gymnast to every event final and winning multiple medals, three of which were gold. After that, they were also the stars of the European Games, where they easily won the team gold and plenty of individual medals. Ksenia Afanasyeva was back, Maria Paseka was back, Viktoria Komova was back, there were three 6.3 + vaults in the team and Russia even had some depth. But of course, this was too good to be true and now, just before worlds, Maria Bondareva retired, Aliya Mustafina is not competing, Alla Sosnitskaya is still coming back from an injury, Ksenia Afanasyeva is suffering from a kidney infection and things don’t look nearly as promising as they did a few months ago. However, this is neither the first nor the last time Russia struggles with health problems just minutes before the world championships. For one more time, they will have to work with what they have and try their hardest to win as many medals as possible. The country’s 2015 world championships team includes two times Olympian, world and European champion Ksenia Afanasyeva, World and European champion and Olympic medalist Viktoria Komova, Olympic medalist and European champion Maria Paseka, European Games champion Seda Tutkhalyan, European champion and world medalist Maria Kharenkova and European champion and world medalist Daria Spiridonova.
The captain of the team is two times Olympian and world champion Ksenia Afanasyeva, who is now a veteran in the sport at the age of 24. She has had a very rough time during this quad, missing the last two world championships due to injury. Considering her age and her health problems, Ksenia’s future didn’t look too bright but she somehow managed to get over all the struggles and return to competition looking stronger than anyone could possibly expect. She made her comeback at the DTB Team Challenge, where she posted strong scores on vault and floor. After that, she competed at the Russian championships, winning the gold medal on floor exercise and proving that she deserves a spot in her country’s European championships team. At Montpelier, she had an incredible competition, exceeding everyone’s expectations, bringing back her amanar and becoming the European bronze medalist on vault and the floor champion. Her performance at the Russian Cup was equally impressive since she hit every single routine she performed and won three individual medals, a gold on floor, a silver on beam and a bronze on vault. Ksenia is Russia’s best floor worker and the country’s most experienced and consistent gymnast right now. And yet, we are not certain that she will actually compete at Glasgow. Apparently, she had some kidney infection recently and it is unknown whether or not she will be ready to show her routines.
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Ksenia will be joined by her Olympic teammate Viktoria Komova, who also had to deal with several problems during this quad. The 2012 Olympic silver medalist never intended to take a long break from gymnastics after London. She wanted to continue competing so she could win that All Around gold medal that she’s been chasing for her entire career. However, her health didn’t let her go after that dream, since she has been sick and injured for the last two years. In fact, there has never been a year during her entire senior career, where Vika was healthy enough to focus on her training without any distractions or pain. Despite struggling with ankle problems this year, she was able to finally return to major international competitions after a long absence. She started her year at the Russian championships, where she posted great scores on bars and beam during team and all Around finals, but she made mistakes during the event finals and was left off the podium. Then, she finally got her chance to compete at a major international competition for the first time since the London Olympics, when she traveled to Baku for the European Games. She didn’t have the best competition of her life and the 1 per country rule prevented her from qualifying into any individual final, but she helped her team win the gold medal and she finally got her chance to go out there and show us what she’s been working on. A while ago, she competed on the uneven bars at the Batumi International, where she won the gold medal and she participated in the Russian Cup, where she did not qualify into bars finals after an uncharacteristic fall during qualifications. However, she proved that she is one of her country’s best on this event by showing some fantastic routines after that. Viktoria is not the same gymnast she was in 2012. How could she be? She has been sick and injured for so long and she has barely competed in any big competition for the entire quad. However, she still has this beauty and grace that made the world fall in love with her in the first place. She will probably not be ready to compete on all four events at Glasgow, but if she does, she will easily make it to the All Around finals while she’s also a contender for the bars and beam finals. All we can do right now, is to keep our finger crossed that she will not trip on a mat during training and she will finally be able to return to the world championships for the first time since 2011.
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The third London Olympian heading to Glasgow next week is Maria Paseka, who is having the best year of her career so far. Just like her teammate, Maria has never been healthy for her entire career. It’s actually a miracle how she managed to stay in one piece and fight for that vault medal at 2012. Since then, every time she tried to come back, she had an other injury to set her back. She has actually never been to the world championships because she has never been healthy enough to compete. This is why I find myself rooting for her. It seems like the universe is against her, she’s always unlucky, she’s always injured, she’s always hurt and yet, she’s always determined to continue competing. No matter what happens, you can always count on her to come back with her legs heavily taped and show new skills and routines. She is now 20 years old and she’s finally getting her chance to shine. She started her year at the Russian championships, winning a silver medal on vault and a bronze on the uneven bars. However, she wasn’t selected to compete at Montpelier because her teammate, Alla Sosnitskaya showed better potential and consistency. When it was time for compete though, Alla ended up getting injured and Maria had to fly to France in the last minute to replace her. She didn’t have much time to prepare, she didn’t even get to attend podium training, but this didn’t prevent her from being one of the stars of the competition. During qualifications, she managed to qualify to both event finals she was hoping to, but she never got to compete in bars finals because of the two per country rule. This means that vault was her only chance to win a medal for her country and she really did her absolute best. To everyone’s surprise, she debuted a brand new Cheng and she competed her amanar for the first time in the year, showing the highest start value of the competition and winning the gold medal over Giulia Steingruber. And when everyone thought that she wouldn’t possibly impress us more, she stunned the world once again at the Russian cup, where she won a gold on vault and a silver on floor, while also showing one of the most impressive uneven bars routines of the competition. Paseka will never have the cleanest form or the best execution, but she is one of the most improved and determined athletes of the year and I hope she has a brilliant competition at the first ever world championships.
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Her trained partner, Seda Tutkhalyan is also going to represent Russia at worlds at her first year as a senior. In my opinion, Seda is a ridiculously promising gymnast with amazing potential. After being one of the stars of the Youth Olympic Games, she had a shaky start of her senior career at the Russian nationals, where she won three bronze medals but without posting great scores. Her results were simply not enough to compete against her teammates for a spot in the Europeans team so she never got the chance to compete at Montpelier. A couple of months later, she proved herself at the Four Nations Trophy in Torino, where she won the All Around title after an excellent competition. After that, she represented Russia at the Baku European Games, where she proved that she is a world class athlete that should not be counted out. She had an excellent competition at team finals, helping her team with the gold medal and qualifying into the vault and the beam finals and she earned a silver medal on vault. At the Russian Cup, she finished second in the All Around, the vault and the uneven bars finals despite having several mistakes. Seda is obviously a very inconsistent gymnast but she has come a very long way since she first started competing internationally. If she actually manages to hit she could definitely be her country’s top All Arounder and of course, she has a great chance to qualify into the beam finals. I’m not sure if Russia would trust Seda on the world team if everyone was healthy. But now, she has a brilliant chance to prove herself and I hope she grabs it with both hands.
Then, we have second year senior Maria Kharenkova, who started her year brilliantly. She became the Russian All Around champion at nationals, where she also won the gold medal on balance beam and the bronze on floor exercise and she was one of the country’s top gymnasts heading to Monteplier. There, she had an excellent performance in qualifications, qualifying first into the All Around finals and making it into bars, beam and floor finals. Unfortunately, a couple of errors during the All Around prevented her from beating Giulia Steingruber and she had to be satisfied with the silver medal. Then, she had a disappointing performance during event finals, falling on both bars and beam where she could have easily medaled. More recently, she competed at the Russian Cup, winning bronze on the All Around and the floor exercise and winning the balance beam title. I have always loved Masha but I would be lying if I said I didn’t expect more from her. She is one of the best beam workers in the world, but in my opinion she has the potential to achieve so much better results on the other events too. I still expect her to add an extra half twist to her vault, to show more power on floor and to polish up her uneven bars routine. In Glasgow, she could be one of Russia’s All Around and balance beam finalists.
The last member of the team is the lovely Daria Spiridonova who recently surprised us all by winning the All Around title at the Russian Cup. Of course, the fact that an athlete with a FTY and weak tumbling on floor ended up winning the gold medal is not exactly great for Russia, but it is definitely a fabulous achievement for Daria herself. Before this amazing success, she had won the uneven bars title at both the Russian championships and the European championships, and she had become the All Around bronze medalist in Batumi. She also won two major national medals on balance beam, a silver during nationals and a bronze during the Russian Cup. Spiridonova has shown great progress this year, upgrading her bars routine and improving her consistency. She is one of the top contenders for the uneven bars title at Glasgow and hopefully, she will be able to deliver in the other events too. The alternate of the team -at least for the time being- is Evgenia Shelgunova who has missed most of the season due to injuries. She competed at Torino, helping her team win a gold medal and at the Russian Cup, where she finished fourth in the All Around. balance beam and uneven bars.
In the beginning of the year, we all thought that Russia would have a fabulous vault line up that could even compete against USA. This is definitely not going to happen, but the country still has some very difficult skills on this apparatus. The star of the team on this event is obviously the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist and 2015 European and Universiade champion Maria Paseka, who has one of the highest start values in the world. She has upgraded both her vaults and now performs a surprisingly improved amanar and a messy but solid and well controlled Cheng. With those two elements, Maria is one of the top contenders for the vault title. 2013 Universiade champion and 2015 European bronze medalist Ksenia Afanasyeva surprised us all when she debuted an amanar at Montpelier. I just couldn’t believe that an athlete who was never renowned for her vaulting and who was just coming back from an injury, was actually capable of such a difficult vault. And it actually didn’t look half bad, considering that it was the first tim she was competing it. However, Ksenia only competed a double twisting yurchenko at the Russian Cup and she didn’t seem to have enough height to add an extra half twist. Russia always knows how to upgrade on vault just before a major competition begins so if she was healthy I would still expect her to trhow the 2.5 twists, but given her health condition, this is far from a sure thing. Seda has also trained an amanar in the past but she has never competed it. She is in the same training group with Paseka and Sosnitskaya, who have both pulled out 6.3 + vaults out of nowhere in the past, but I get terrified just by thinking of the possibility to see her attempting this skill in Glasgow. Viktoria performed a double twisting yurchenko at the European Games and hopefully, she will be healthy enough to compete on this event. If she could execute that vault as well as she did in 2011, she could definitely score above 15. It’s needless to say, that bringing the amanar back, is out of the question for her. Maria Kharenkova and Daria Spiridonova both perform clean full twisting yurchenkos. Evgenia Shelgunova has shown a double full in the past but this year, she has only competed yurchenko fulls.
The uneven bars have always been Russia’s strongest and this year is no exception. One would imagine that the absence of the Olympic uneven bars champion would be detrimental for the team’s line up but this is definitely not the case. In fact, every single team member, with the exception of Afanasyeva who is not training on bars anymore, has a world class routine. Maria Kharenkova showed excellent progress on this event at the European championships, where she scored a 14.7. She has gorgeous lines and toe point, and she’s capable of difficult combinations like a Komova 2 + pak, a van leeuwen and an inbar half into jaeger. I have to admit that she only hit one single routine during Europeans and then, she had to downgrade her difficulty due to back problems. I hope that she will upgrade once again, but even if she doesn’t, she should definitely be a reliable back up for qualifications. Seda Tutkhalyan also has a strong routine which includes a spectacular maloney + bhardwaj combination, a van leeuwen, a toe on full + tkatcev and a beautiful double font dismount. She only added a full twist to her pak salto at the event finals of the Russian Cup so I’m not sure how consistent she is with this skill, but I definitely enjoy her on this event. Her training partner, Maria Paseka has achieved miraculous progress on this event. She always showed potential as a junior (she had actually qualified at the junior Europeans uneven bars finals but they pulled her out in favor of Komova and I’m still mad about it) but her injuries and her decision to focus on vault prevented her from reaching her full potential until now. However, she showed a fabulous routine at the Russian Cup, where she performed a magnificent maloney + clear hip full + tkatcev + pak + van leeuwen combination and a double front dismount. She has some form errors throughout the exercise but she’s absolutely spectacular to watch. Then, we have the Youth Olympic Games, European and World champion Viktoria Komova, who has always been magical on this event. Her swing is so fluid, she just flies from the one bar to the other with incredibly grace, her form is beautiful, her lines are stunning, her toe point is lovely and she has fantastic amplitude and technique. This year, she has been playing around with some new upgrades that she’s not comfortable with yet. If she connects her pak salto to her van leeuwen and dismounts with a double double, she could have a massive 6.9 routine. However, there’s no point in doing that unless she can hit those skills consistently so I really hope she doesn’t take any unnecessary risks. Surprisingly, Vika is not the best uneven bars worker of the team. This title belongs to World medalist and European champion Daria Spiridonova. Her routine is quite similar to Vika’s (and to most of the top routines we’ll see in Glasgow) but she has a special style that sets her apart. Her swing is aggressive and graceful at the same time, her handstands are usually perfect, her flight elements are high and clean, her inbar stalders are beautiful and she usually sticks her full in dismount. With a routine like that, Daria is one of the top contenders for the uneven bars title. The alternate, Evgenia Shulgunova performs a toe on full + van leeuwen, a maloney + clear hip + tkatcev and a piked tkatcev into a messy pak salto.
I’m almost too afraid to even write about Russia’s rotation on the next event, the balance beam. This is an apparatus that could potentially secure a medal for Russia. But this is also an apparatus that could kill their chances to come anywhere near the podium. They are freaking beautiful, they really are. They have elegance, they have gorgeous leaps, they have interesting routines full of unusual skills, they even have a layout full in their line up. But that doesn’t mean anything unless they can actually stay on the beam. Maria Paseka has not competed here for years, so she will obviously be the one not to perform during qualifications. Thankfully, there is one athlete in the team who can consistently hit her routine, and this is two times Olympic finalist Ksenia Afanasyeva. She performs one of the most beautiful tour jete halfs in the world, as well as an aerial round off, a back handpsring + layout combination and a 2.5 twists dismount. Her teammate, Daria Spiridonova, has always been terribly inconsistent. In fact, until recently, the beam routines she had hit on this event could be counted on the fingers of one hand. However, she didn’t make a single mistake during the Russian Cup, hitting her kochetkova, her onodi + front aerial and her stunning switch ring and her beautiful switch leap + ring leap combination. If she can perform like that at Glasgow, she can definitely help the team but the question is, can she do that? Viktoria Komova has always been breathtaking on this event. Nobody in the world right now can perform a front tuck or a standing arabian as well as she does, nobody can float during a layout step out like she does and no one can perform a sheep jump better than her. But the best technique in the world is not going to save your score when you wobble after every skill and Vika has been very shaky during her comeback. The same can be said for Seda Tutkhalyan. She really is a fierce beam worker. She performs a high layout, she hits her splits during her switch leap + switch half and her switch ring, she is the only person in the world doing a round of into a layout full and she gets good height during her double pike. However, during her career she has fallen more times than she has stayed on. Thankfully, Maria Kharenkova is much more reliable. She has also had her falls and mistakes during the year (oh Masha, the 2015 European title was yours to lose) but she usually performs well during team competitions. Some of her most notable skills, are her layout, her front tuck and her switch ring + ring leap combination. Russia has five athletes who could realistically qualify into the beam finals, but only one of them can actually be trusted to deliver every single team so their beam rotation will certainly not be easy to watch. Beam has always been Shelgunova’s best event and she performs a round of + layout, a side aerial into a layout step out, a switch ring and a front aerial + sheep jump combination. I certainly love the construction and the variety of her routine, but I wish she could polish up.
As we’ve seen, the Russian team actually has a good level of difficulty on the three first events. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about their floor exercise line up. World and European champion Ksenia Afanasyeva is their absolute star here. She has a fantastic start value because she performs both difficult and well executed tumbling passes, like a double layout and two whips into a triple full, as well as difficult leaps and jumps, like a ring jump full, a double L and a Semenova. She has always been renowned for her elegance and her artistry but the new routine she debuted at the Russian Cup did not really leave up to her usual performances. I secretly hope that she will get new choreography for worlds but this is probably unlikely. Seda Tutkhalyan is an other great tumbler in the Russian team. In the past, she has performed high rated elements, like a double layout and two whips into a piked full in. I always
enjoy watching her on floor, because she has energetic, lively choreography and she’s not afraid to sell it to the crowd, but she often receives mediocre execution scores due to her form errors. Her teammate, Maria Paseka has shown a double layout and two whips into a triple full in the past. However, at the recent Russian Cup, her tumbling passes were a 2.5 twists + front full combination, an 1.5 into rudi and a double tuck. Of course, we can all understand why a gymnast who has been through multiple injuries is not throwing F rated skills, but the fact is that Maria’s start value is not enough for her to score much above 14. Maria Kharenkova also watered down her routine due to injuries, but hopefully she will compete her hardest tumbling passes (double arabian + stag, 1.5 + double pike, two whips + triple full, double tuck) in Glasgow. However, her low landings always hurt her execution score. Daria Spiridonova, who performs a triple twist, a double tuck, a 2.5 + front layout combination and a double pike, is not expected to contribute on this event. Shelgunova performs difficult tumbling passes, like a double layout, a piked full in and a triple twist but her form and her leaps leave a lot to be desired.
Now, the biggest question regarding this team is whether or not Ksenia Afanasyeva will be able to compete after her kidney infection. Her absence would be detrimental for the Russian team’s scoring potential on vault and floor. Unless Shelgunova has her double twisting yurchenko back, Russia would have to count a yurchenko full during qualifications and if Komova is not ready to compete on vault, they could even need to count a full during team finals too. On floor, there’s no athlete with Ksenia’s start value. Shelgunova or Paseka could deliver a decent score, but they are definitely going to lose several valuable tenths. Russia’s alternate has changed several times and they do have much stronger gymnasts than Shelgunova. For example, Alla Sosnitskaya would be extremely valuable to the team if she could compete but apparently she is not ready yet. First year senior Anastasia Dmitieva is capable of a (low) double twisting yurchenko and a strong floor routine which includes a double layout, a tucked full in and two whips into a double tuck. She was supposed to be the alternate of the team but unfortunately, she was replaced with Shelgunova.
There’s no doubt that the Russian team will qualify into the team finals. Unless they have several falls on multiple events, they should be able to make it. If Afanasyeva is healthy enough to compete, the bronze medal is theirs to lose. If not, their situation is definitely not ideal. I think that even without their team captain, they still have a better scoring potential than Romania or Great Britain, but they certainly can’t afford falling multiple times, like they usually do in team competitions. In fact, in that scenario, one single fall could be the difference between the bronze medal and the fourth place.