In the beginning of 2015, I don’t think that anyone knew what to expect from the Russian team. Despite the several medals they won during the year, it’s hard not to admit that 2014 was rather tough for them. They only won a bronze medal at the European championships, losing to both Romania and Great Britain and they lost plenty of their athletes to injuries. Because of that, their world team included gymnasts like Tatiana Nabieva, Ekaterina Kramarenko and Polina Fedorova, who weren’t really part of the country’s A team anymore. The Russian athletes definitely gave us a lot to celebrate during the year. Maria Kharenkova became the European beam champion in her first year as a senior, Daria Spiridonova won a European and a worlds bronze medal on the uneven bars, Aliya Mustafina earned plenty of medals during the year, Seda Tutkhalyan was one of the stars of the Youth Olympic Games, Alla Sosnitskaya exceeded everyone’s expectations with her progress and despite all the problems, the team won a bronze medal at worlds. However, we had lots of things to worry about coming into 2016, as Mustafina decided to take a short break from competition, Afanasyeva, Paseka and Komova were still fighting for their comebacks and none of the new seniors could really bring any massive scores.
In the absence of Aliya, 17-years-old Maria Kharenkova became the Russian national All Around champion while also taking the national title on balance beam. Alla Sosnitskaya won the vault title over Maria Paseka, who had a fall on her new Cheng and Daria Spiridonova, who revealed new combinations on her favorite event, easily won the uneven bars title over Ekaterina Kramarenko. Ksenia Afanasyeva, who was still coming back from injuries, won the floor title after scoring a full point higher than the silver medalist, Evgenia Shelgunova. Youth Olympic Games champion Seda Tutkhalyan made her senior debut at this competition but even though she grabbed a couple of bronze medals, she did not show enough consistency or difficulty to challenge for a spot in the Europeans team. Viktoria Komova showed some beautiful routines during the team and the All Around finals, but falls during the event finals prevented her from challenging for medals and she did not really have enough difficulty to challenge athletes like Kharenkova and Spiridonova on beam and bars. After this competition, the front runners for the European championships team were clear and a while later, it was announced that Maria Kharenkova, Ksenia Afanasyeva, Alla Sosnitskaya and Daria Spiridonova were chosen to go to Montpelier. Of course, there’s never a possible scenario where everything goes as planned for the Russian team and Alla Sosnitskaya, who was a medal contender in the All Around, the vault and the floor finals ended up injuring her ankle after podium training. This was particularly disappointing for her, since those championships were her chance to really shine individually. Her injury meant that the alternate of the team, Maria Paseka had to fly to France in the last minute. Without Alla, Russia only had one contender for an All Around medal, and Paseka did not even get the chance to participate in the podium training, so there were definitely some things we worried about at the point but at the end, Russia dominated the competition. During the vault finals, Maria Paseka and Ksenia Afanasyeva, who were both coming back from injuries, surprised the entire world by pulling amanars out of nowhere and challenging Giulia Steingruber, who was supposed to be a lock for the vault title. Paseka ended up winning the first Europeans title of her career while Afanasyeva finished third, earning her first European medal on vault. In the next final of the day, it was time for Daria Spiridonova to fight against the reigning European champion, Becky Downie for the uneven bars title. She won this fight and she earned a well deserved gold medal after hitting a gorgeous routine and nailing all her new combinations. Then, Ksenia Afanasyeva, reminded us all why she was the world champion on floor in 2011 by sticking three out of her four tumbling passes and delivering a stunning routine to win the gold medal over Great Britain’s Claudia Fragapane. The only disappointment of the competition, was Maria Kharenkova not really living up to the potential she showed during qualifications. She was excellent during the first day of competition, qualifying first into the All Around and the balance beam finals, fifth on floor exercise finals and third into the uneven bars finals, where she showed excellent progress. However, after a couple of minor mistakes, she had to settle for silver in the All Around and she fell during the two event finals where she had a chance to medal. This was particularly disappointing because Masha was basically competing against herself. A mediocre routine would easily give her the uneven bars bronze over Sanne Wevers and she was guaranteed a gold medal on beam if she hit. However, at the end of the competition, the Russian athletes went home with 5 medals, 2 of which were gold and proved that they are capable of achieving great results even without their leader.
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Meanwhile, the youngest athletes of the Russian team all showed some fantastic potential at the country’s Junior championships, with the top three Rio eligible juniors, Angelina Melnikova, Daria Skrypnik and Ekaterina Sokova all winning at least one gold medal. It was clear that most of their routines were overscored, just like it’s usually the case at most countries’ national competitions, but this did not change the fact that those girls all had an excellent level of difficulty and they could potentially help the team in the future. Natalia Kapitonova, who was also born in 2000, showed some stunning work on the uneven bars and balance beam, where she even performed a double Y turn, but she did not quite have the start values to compete against her three teammates. The Tokyo generation also gave us lots of things to celebrate, with Elena Eremina (2001) winning the All Around bronze medal and the vault title and Angelina Simakova (2002) and Varvara Zubova (2002) posting strong, solid scores.
At that point, the future of Russian gymnastics looked bright. They had two absolutely decent amanars and they could potentially have three vaults with 6.3 + start values once Alla Sosnitskaya came back from her injury. Afanasyeva was back to contribute to their floor line up, Spiridonova was putting huge scores on bars and Aliya Mustafina would soon come back after her break. Fans became even more optimistic after the four nationals trophy, where the youngest members of the Russian team had an excellent competition. For the first time in her senior career, Seda Tutkhalyan actually hit four strong routines to win the All Around title and proved that she was determined to be part of the discussion in the future. Junior Angelina Melnikova, who was coming back from a hamstring injury finished right behind her and first year senior Anastasia Dmitrieva completed that podium sweep for the Russian team. Evgenia Shelgunova showed a great level of difficulty on balance beam while junior Ekaterina Sokova performed one the most difficult and solid routines of the year and showed upgraded tumbling on floor. The main reason why this competition was so exciting had nothing to do with the fact that Russia beat Italy, Romania and Colombia. This was expected, and the results of a friendly meet don’t really matter when you look at the biggest picture. The point was that for the first time during the quad, Russia had depth! If everything went wrong and they were struck by injuries in the next couple of years, they wouldn’t have to put a semi retired Tatiana Nabieva on their worlds team or use Daria Spiridonova on their floor line up. They would actually have young, promising gymnasts who could contribute to the team and gain some valuable experience. (gif credit: jordynslefteyebrow)
After quite a few different team announces, it was finalized that both Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova would make their international comebacks at the European Games, along side Seda Tutkhalyan. After two years of expecting for Vika’s return to the international stage, gymnastics fans were not too eager to get excited over those news because… it’s Vika. She could probably find a way to injure herself while boarding on the plane to Baku. Thankfully, Viktoria, Aliya and Seda all stayed healthy and they easily won the team title over Germany and Netherlands. Unsurprisingly, Aliya Mustafina dominated the competition, winning gold medals in the All Around and the uneven bars and a silver on floor exercise. Seda Tutkhalyan had an excellent performance during qualifications and she earned a silver medal on vault. Unfortunately, she lost a beam title that could have easily been hers when she fell during the finals, showing that her consistency issues were not behind her. Viktoria did not manage to qualify into any individual finals due to the one per country rule and she had a couple of mistakes during the first days of the competition. She hit her foot on the low bar during her van leeuwen, she had a rather mediocre double twisting yurchenko and her floor routine was painful to watch, but she showed world class difficulty and she proved that she is indeed planning to come back on top.
One month later, Maria Paseka and Russia’s B team won the gold medal at the Summer Universiade, while also grabbing three of the event titles and winning multiple medals. Paseka won gold on vault and silver on bars, Ekaterina Kramarenko won the uneven bars title, Daria Elizarova won a bronze on vault, and silver on floor and Polina Fedorova had an excellent competition, earning the silver on beam and the gold on floor. Russia’s junior team also earned the gold medal at the EYOF, where Daria Skrypnik dominated the competition, winning the All Around and the uneven bars title and earning a medal on every single event. Her teammate, Anastasia Ilyankova finished third in the All Around and the uneven bars and Elena Eremina was the vault bronze medalist. At that point, Russia had two amanars, three routines that could score well above 15, plenty of high level beam sets and even some powerful tumbling on floor. Afanasyeva was back, Komova was back, Mustafina was back and even things could only get better from now on.
However, when it was time for the Russian Cup, things weren’t looking nearly as good as they could have. Viktoria Komova’s ankles were bothering her again, Ksenia Afanasyeva had lost her amanar, Alla Sosnitskaya had not recovered from her injury yet and most importantly, Aliya Mustafina’s status was a question mark. After a warm-up at the Batumi international, where Shelgunova, Tutkhalyan, Spiridonova and Dmitrieva took the 4 top spots in the All Around, Viktoria Komova won the uneven bars gold and Ksenia Afanasyeva returned on the balance beam, it was time for Russia’s last national competition before the world championships. The Russian Cup certainly was one of the weirdest competitions of the entire year. Junior Angelina Melnikova posted the highest score of the day during the All Around finals. However, since she was technically not old enough to compete, her win was not official. Uneven bars specialist Daria Spiridonova, who had hit about 5 beam routines during her entire career ended up qualifying first into the All Around finals and actually winning the All Around title! So, at that point, the unofficial Russian Cup champion was a junior, and the official All Around champion was a bars specialist, and I have no idea which of those things were worse. Nevertheless, Spiridonova showed impressive consistency and she actually hit every single routine she performed during the three days of competition, besides her bars set during the uneven bars finals. Because of that, Alla Sosnitskaya, who was supposed to be a vault and floor specialist, ended up winning the gold medal on the uneven bars. This was a big surprise, especially since she had almost killed herself on floor, where she landed three tumbling passes on her knees the previous day. There were no surprises regarding the remaining event champions, with Maria Paseka winning vault, Maria Kharenkova winning beam and Ksenia Afanasyeva winning floor, while also grabbing a balance beam silver. I really enjoyed watching Daria Elizarova during this competition. She will probably never be in Russia’s A team again, but she showed some excellent work, especially on bars and floor. Meanwhile, Anastasia Cheong attempted a whip + double layout combination and Anastasia Sidorova returned to competition after not competing as an elite athlete for ages. 2012 Olympian Anastasia Grishina, also competed for the first time since injuring her knee in 2014 and she showed watered down, but beautiful routines. Neither of the two Anastasias was expected to be competitive, but it was great to see them getting out there and showing some difficult skills. Other highlights of the meet was Seda Tutkhalyan falling on a freaking sissone after nailing her round of + layout full combination and Tatiana Nabieva falling on an L turn before sticking a round of + layout flight series. Aliya Mustafina did not participate in this competition and at that point, her status was unknown. She stated that she was still hoping to go to worlds but there were rumors about a potential retirement and it looked like she had not been on full training, so it was hard to know what to expect from her. On the junior side, the lovely Elena Eremina, who will turn senior in 2017, won an All Around bronze medal at the Japan Junior International, while Anastasia Ilyankova, who is also born in 2001, won the gold on the uneven bars after some major struggle on balance beam. (gif credit: mustafinesse)
After a season full of ups and downs and lots of drama surrounding Mustafina’s status, a team of Ksenia Afanasyeva, Viktoria Komova, Daria Spiridonova, Maria Kharenkova, Maria Paseka and Seda Tutkhalyan was selected to represent Russia at the Glasgow world championships. After quite a few different announcements, Evgenia Shelgunova was announced to be the alternate of the team, instead of Aliya Mustafina and Anastasia Dmitrieva, who would be a better choice in my person opinion.
About a weak before worlds, we knew that Aliya, who has been carrying Russian gymnastics for the entire quad, would not compete, Vika would not be ready to perform on floor and Ksenia was suffering from a kidney infection. We also knew that there was only one person on that team who could score well above 14 on floor and that Russia’s beam line up would include three very inconsistent gymnasts, so it was hard to be optimistic about the situation. And yet, despite all those problems, those 6 athletes got it together and gave us a gorgeous performance during qualifications, finishing second besides USA and qualifying multiple athletes into the event finals. It was clear that they were one of the strongest countries in the world and they just had to not completely fall apart in order to earn a medal. But, well, when it counted they did absolutely fall apart. Seeing Russia having a meltdown was certainly not a surprise, but that didn’t make it any less disappointing. I would feel much better about this whole situation if they had lost the bronze medal to a country with similar scoring potential but this was not the case. They were guaranteed a spot on the podium as long as their performance was not disastrous, they could have definitely challenged for silver, they could have even finished less than three points behind USA if they hit but instead, they ended up in the fourth place, losing to a team they could have easily beaten. This is not to say that Great Britain only won because Russia had mistakes. They gave us a brilliant performance, showing excellent difficulty and execution and they 100% deserved this historic bronze medal. I was crying tears of joy when they won because at that day, they clearly performed like world medalists and Russia did not. (gif credit: mustafinesse)
After a disappointing fourth place finish, the Russian athletes came back strong to dominate the first day of the event finals, when Maria Paseka earned the vault title and Viktoria Komova and Daria Spiridonova tied for the gold medal on the uneven bars, along with Fan Yilin and Madison Kocian. The following day, Ksenia Afanasyeva delivered an excellent floor routine to place second behind Simone Biles. At this point, a silver medal on floor behind Simone is more like a second gold, so this was an excellent achievement for Ksenia, especially considering that she almost did not compete at worlds. Things were not as great on balance beam, where Viktoria Komova wobbled on every single element of her routine and Seda Tutkhalyan had a costly fall, but this wasn’t really a surprise to anyone.
The year ended with some minor competitions, like the Arthur Gander Memorial, the Massilia Cup and the Top Gym. None of those meets were ideal. Anastasia Dmitrieva had some mistakes at the Arthur Gander Memorial, Angelina Melnikova won the All Around title at Massilia but fell in both event finals she qualified and Daria Skrypnik had a rough competition, missing out on medals she could have easily won. Natalia Kapitonova won the uneven bars title of the competition with a lovely routine and proved herself as a contender for next year though. A couple of weeks later, Angelina Simakova and Uliana Perebinosova traveled to Belgium for the Top Gym. Despite her lack of experience, Uliana won silver in the All Around and bronze on vault and floor. Angelina had falls that prevented her from winning a medal in the All Around, but she came back strong to win balance beam gold and vault and floor silver at the event finals. Russia did not win as man medals as they could have in those competitions. They could have easily won the team title and placed 1 -2 on bars at Massilia, while also grabbing medals on beam and vault but at the end of the day, those meets were just an opportunity for their athletes to gain some international experience and show us what we can do, and all the junior athletes who participated showed some excellent potential.
If we could delete the disastrous performance at the worlds team finals, 2015 would be an incredibly successful year for the Russian team. They dominated both continental championships of the year, they produced three European and three world champions, they had their veterans back and overall, they had some excellent moments but failing to win a team world medal is hard to ignore. However, the same thing that makes this loss so frustrating is also giving me hope for the future. And this is that Russia could have easily won that bronze medal over Great Britain. They are not in a situation similar to Romania’s, where they don’t have depth. They are an extremely talented team, full of world class gymnasts and their results through the year prove that. The have achieved excellent results in individual finals, they just struggle to deliver as a team when it counts. This is what has always been their weakness and this is what they need to work on.
Next year, Russia should have a deep field. Ekaterina Sokova, Daria Skrypnik, Angelina Melnikova and Natalia Kapitonova are the four Rio eligible athletes who could leave their mark in 2016. I’m not sure if any of them will actually get a ticket to Rio, but they should definitely challenge the current seniors at national competitions and win some international medals. Melnikova, who is the Junior European champion, is definitely the strongest one of the group. She is a balanced All Arounder, with a world class bars routine and excellent potential on all the other events. Unlike most of her teammates, she has been fairly consistent, so this is something that makes her very valuable to the team. EYOF champion Daria Skrypnik is a magical uneven bars worker with a double twisting yurchenko and great potential on beam and floor. She will definitely need to upgrade and show a team finals worthy routine in at least one more event, but I’m very excited to see what she can do next year. Until recently I considered Ekaterina Sokova the top contender among the current juniors, because she is promising on the two events where Russia is lacking, beam and floor. However, it seems like she struggled with an elbow injury, she did not participate in the Russian Cup and she was not included in the Rio training squad. This was quite surprising, but we still have 8 months until the Olympic Games, and anything can change during that time. Along with the addition of those four athletes to the senior team, we can also expect comebacks from Aliya Mustafina, who will most likely return to full training at February, and Alla Sosnitskaya.
For the time being, it looks like Viktoria Komova, Daria Spiridonova, Ksenia Afanasyeva, Maria Paseka and hopefully Aliya Mustafina will be front runners for the Olympic team. Daria may be an one event specialist, but she’s freaking spectacular on this one event, where she has the potential to become Olympic champion. The same can be said for Daria Skrypnik and maybe even Angelina Melnikova if she upgrades, but Spiridonova has more experience. If you want an uneven bars specialist for your team, and you have three girls with similar scoring potential, it makes sense to choose the one who has proven herself in the sport’s biggest stage, and Spiridonova has done that. Because of that, I believe that one of the current juniors could only challenge her if they show great progress on another event. Maria Kharenkova’s and Seda Tutkhalyan’s chances don’t seem to be that great, at least for the time being. Masha was one of Russia’s biggest hopes back in 2012, but she really is team finals worthy on only one event, the balance beam. Seda is very promising on vault, beam and floor and she has great All Around potential, but it’s hard to consider her a contender when she has fallen more times than she has hit during the year. I definitely don’t count Alla Sosnitskaya out yet. She is not the strongest athlete of the team, but she has competed a Cheng in the past and she never fails to surprise us, so I expect her to be part of the discussion and at least challenge for an alternate spot.
The fact that four out of the five members of the 2012 Olympic team are expected to be top contenders for Rio is amazing. And the most amazing thing about it is that it does not have to do with lack of depth. Russia does not have as many athletes as USA, but they definitely have a respectable number of talented gymnasts who turned senior during this quad. And yet, it’s their veterans who still run the show, qualify into finals and win world medals, and even world titles for Russia. And none of those girls has had an easy time during this quad. They have all been plagued with injuries but despite their health problems and their age, they stuck around and the somehow managed to come back to show world class gymnastics. I know that we like to joke about how the Russian team “does not give a fuck” anymore but Komova, Paseka, Afanasyeva and Mustafina are BADASS for staying and succeeding in the sport for so long despite having plenty of reasons to retire. (gif credit: mustafinesse)
The same can be said for Anastasia Grishina. She has obviously not been nearly as successful as any of her teammates, but she has been through so many injuries and so many disappointments and yet, she continues to try to reach her goals. If I were in her position, I would probably have retired ten times by now, so I just have so much admiration for her. It’s probably unrealistic, but I still hope to see her coming back strong next year. I’m not saying I expect her to be a contender for the Olympic team, but I would love to see world class bars and beam routines from her.
So, what can we expect from the Russian team in 2016? I have absolutely no idea! They do have the talent, they do have the depth but we have said that before. In 2012, they did not look particularly promising until just a few months before the Olympics. Mustafina was making her comeback, Komova was having ankle problems and needed a minor surgery, Afanasyeva, Dementyeva, Belokobylskaya and Sidorova were also struggling with injuries, Grishina was falling over and over and Paseka… oh well, let’s just say that she was not the gymnast she is today. It looked like most of the country’s top gymnasts were fighting to regain or maintain their 2011 difficulty instead of actually upgrading their routines. And yet, when it was time to get in a plane for London, they taped themselves together and appeared with more upgrades than anyone expected them too. They miraculously found two amanars, along with excellent routines on bars and beam and difficult tumbling on floor. Of course, things didn’t exactly go as planned when it was time to compete, but they did have some very competitive start values at London. I think that 2016 will be similar. I have no doubt the will have problems, injuries, downgrades and falls but hopefully, they will be able to succeed despite of that.
In 2012, every Russian gymnast with a half decent double twisting yurchenko was training amanars and I don’t expect this year to be any different. I don’t necessarily think that Melnikova or Skrypnik should be trying to add this extra half twist to their vaults, but I do think that they will. Bars will certainly not be an issue. With Mustafina, Komova, Paseka, Melnikova, Grishina (please let me dream), Kapitonova, Spiridonova and Skrypnik, Russia will probably have more world class uneven bars workers than any other country in the world. Beam will always be a problem, due to lack of consistency but no matter how bad things are, the country’s Olympic line up is unlikely to be Tutkhalyan – Kharenkova – Komova, so it will probably be an improvement from this year. Angelina Melnikova is quite promising on this event, Sokova is already a world class beam worker and hopefully Mustafina will be back to save us a couple of heart attacks. Afanasyeva will also have been training beam for more than a couple of months and will not have kidney infections, so she will be another reliable option. After all, she has been a two times Olympic finalist on this event. Floor does not look exactly fabulous, but it should definitely be improved. Maria Paseka is actually an absolutely decent floor worker, who has successfully competed difficult skills and combinations such as a double layout, two whips into a triple twist and 2.5 + front full. I don’t expect her to magically become the best floor worker in the world (but again, I didn’t expect her to become a contender for the worlds bars finals either) but if she manages to stay healthy she could have a competitive routine on this event. Ekaterina Sokova, who has performed a huge double arabian and an 1.5 + double front twist combination, Aliya Mustafina and Alla Sosnitskaya should have strong routines. It’s needless to say that not all of those gymnasts will make the Olympic team, but at least the Russian Cup floor silver medalist is going to be capable of a tumbling pass rated higher than a D. I’m also hoping to see at lest some choreography from the Russian athletes. They really do have the potential to be artistic, but no matter how graceful and charismatic you are, you’re never going to captivate the audience if your choreography is only comprised by poses and arm waving. Skrypnik, Kharenkova, Komova and every other athlete on that team could be absolutely stunning to watch and I hope that they will have better choreography and enough endurance to show some actual dance in their routines. (gif credit: aly126)
I am sure that 2016 will be full of ups and downs and I’m sure that there won’t be any less injuries, problems, falls and disappointment than usually. I just hope that when it’s time for Russia to compete at the Olympic team finals, they will actually be able to show that they really are one of the best teams in the world.
gif credit: sparklesandchalk
photo credit: Yelena Mikhailova/Russian gymnastics