After finishing second in the team final at the 2016 Olympic Games following a lackluster performance in Glasgow where they were left off the team podium, Russian gymnasts were back into competition at the National Championships taking place in Kazan from March 1st through to March 5th and featuring some new faces hoping to prove their worth in the absence of some older players.
As in previous years, the all-around standings were obtained from the two-day total after qualifications and all-around finals, in an attempt to reward the most consistent gymnasts and lower the impact of possible mistakes. And because this is Russia we’re talking about, everyone had issues at some point and the clear front runners for the title and the podium didn’t finish exactly where you’d expected them to.
In the end, the title went to 16-year-old Olympic alternate Natalia Kapitonova with a total of 108.231 simply because she managed to stay afloat while everyone else drowned in a sea of falls and errors. On vault she performed a simple FTY scoring in the mid-13s both days, while bars were, as usual, her highlight event combining difficulty and execution to score in the mid-14s for a routine that included a Komova II to pak, inbar full to Tkachev and toe-on full to full-in dismount landed a bit low in finals. Next on beam she presented some original work such as an interesting sissone to front tuck connection and a GORGEOUS double Y turn, as well as a solid BHS to BHS to layout series and a stuck double tuck dismount during AA finals to receive a 13.700, improving on her qualifications score by over a full point. Finally on floor, she hit her routine without any major problems, performing a full-in piked, 2.5 twists to front layout (with a hop out-of-bounds), double tuck and double pike as her tumbling passes for a score in the low-13s, mostly due to her low difficulty (5.2). As a Junior and a first year Senior, Natalia was never among the top choices for the team but she was always quietly in the background winning a few medals here and there when she managed to sneak in. Once again, when everyone had mistakes, she stayed on and did her job and for that she totally deserves this national championships title. Nonetheless, her future is uncertain when it comes to making big international meets like Euros and Worlds because there’s not much more she can do, while others can greatly improve on their results if they hit their routines when it counts.
About half a point behind Kapitonova, in silver medal position was 2016 Junior European Champion Elena Eremina with 107.732. After being hyped as the next big star for the Russian program and actually qualifying in first place for this final with a huge score of 55.366, Eremina had mistakes in the final and could not maintain her leading position. On vault she went for the DTY in qualifications scoring 14, but downgraded again to her Yurchenko 1.5 for finals taking a big step back on the landing for a high-13. Bars was never her best event but she’s shown upgrades lately with the huge Nabieva to pak connection the most popular. She has a solid routine on Wednesday for a 13.900 but unfortunately had to count a fall in finals after losing form on her inbar half and eventually hopping off to lose a full point in her score. Sadly, this was not her biggest mistake. While in qualifications she performed beam to her usual standards, hitting a brand new LOSO mount, as well as a BHS to LOSO to LOSO series, a front aerial to scale and a split jump full to receive a score just above 14, in finals she started off on the wrong foot, falling on her mount and then again on her side aerial posting just 11.800. At last, she was able to finish her competition on a high note, sticking her full-in and hitting her triple twist dismount not as underrotated as before to score in the high-13s, after getting 13.400 the day before. Even though her first competition as a Senior didn’t exactly go as she expected, Eremina still put up a very good performance on day one, proving she can contend with the top gymnasts both domestically and internationally. With event finals still to go (she qualified into all but vault), she has yet another chance to show her routines and hopefully secure her position as one of the best gymnasts in her country.
Surprisingly, the bronze medal went to Evgenia Shelgunova, also an Olympic alternate for the 2016 Rio team with a total of 106.597. On vault, she showed a messy DTY landing out-of-bounds in finals for a score in the mid-13s after posting 14 the previous day, while on bars she seems to have improved quite a bit (no more sheep pak!) but her van Leeuwen still has some form issues and she unfortunately counted a fall in qualifications for a 12.733 but managed to recover from that with a low 13 in finals. Beam was actually her best event in finals posting a 13.866 for the highest beam score of the day after successfully hitting her routine which features two daring acro series with a side aerial to LOSO to LOSO and a round-off to layout, after having some mishaps on Wednesday. Surprisingly, despite super low landings on most of her passes, her floor has definitely become a fan favorite as she wholeheartedly performs her routine instead of just going through the motion like some of her teammates. She ended up receiving scores around 13 on both days, mostly due to her execution problems. While Shelgunova has been around for quite some time and has had her fair share of international assignments, she’s not part of the top Russian team and this result probably won’t change that. She’ll still be a great backup gymnast but I’m afraid her execution and form will never allow her to move on from there.
Just outside the podium in fourth place was 2016 Olympian Seda Tutkhalyan after once again falling apart in finals after a considerably successful qualification round, counting falls on beam and bars and having some seriously shaky landings on floor. 19-year-old Lilia Akhaimova was fifth after very similar performances on both days, followed by new Senior Viktoria Trykina in sixth with her DTY making vault her highest scoring event. Bars specialist Daria Spiridonova was seventh after scores in the 12s and 13s all-around (yes, even on bars!) and 26-year-old Daria Elizarova was eighth after a great performance in finals that got her the third highest all-around total of the day.
Well bellow the top 8 finishers was Olympian Angelina Melnikova, who had been hyped as the next big star of the program in the absence of Aliya Mustafina but who once again couldn’t handle all the pressure. Despite finishing in a respectable fourth place in qualifications after counting falls on beam and bars, Melnikova was unable to improve or even maintain her performance and vault was her only successful event in finals, resulting in an eleventh place finish after both days. Even though she’s just 16, Melnikova is always a seasoned gymnast and should put forward stronger performances that what she managed here. While one bad competition won’t ruin her career (plus the Rodionenko’s love her), if this inconsistency starts being a trend for her and with other gymnasts proving to be more trustworthy in a pressure situation, she could find herself off the team in the future. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that.
On the men’s side, with top players Nikita Nagornyy and David Belyavskiy opting not to compete on all six events, Artur Dalaloyan managed to grab the title with a total of 167.930 despite mistakes on pommels and rings. Right behind him, after topping the standings in finals, was Nikita Ignatyev with 166.495 after issues on floor, vault and especially high bar. The bronze medal eventually went to Vladislav Polyashov with 165.697 after some errors on vault but generally consisted performances. This was an unusually young field of gymnasts as most of the older competitors were absent from the meet or easing back into the way of things with just a few events at this meet.While it might give us a slightly off perception of the current state of the Russian men’s program with so many of these young players not actually factoring into teams later on in the season, this competition was a great opportunity for many of them to compete on a bigger stage and show what their capable of in a pressure filled environment. Hopefully some of them will go on to improve their gymnastics and join the top team in the near future.
Overall, this competition was the perfect example of Russian gymnastics: lots of potential and interesting skills but terrible issues with consistency. While they have managed to win medals internationally with this recipe on several instances, it has also been their downfalls countless other times and with more and more programs evolving and reaching the top levels, Russia might not be able to eternally rely on their higher difficulty to make up for their falls and errors. These are all amazing gymnasts with enormous talent but winning takes more than that and the Russian program needs to work on that department so that they can continue with their History of one of the best teams in the sport of gymnastics.