The Russian Junior Championships concluded last weekend (April 4) in the city of Penza. Divided into two competitive categories—Master of Sport and Candidate Master of Sport—the former included a handful of young athletes who should be making serious senior bids soon. Showing themselves to be competitive especially with the younger senior athletes on the National Team (those born in 1997, 98, or 99), these juniors proved their talent under pressure, providing an exciting competition and perhaps even exceeding some expectations. Where they might fit into the overall picture as the Russian Team shakes out for Rio remains to be seen, but they certainly made it clear that they should be part of that discussion.
Solid performances were given by several young gymnasts: Natalya Kapitonova won silver in the Uneven Bars Event Final with a 14.633, Elizaveta Kotchetkova won silver in the Vault Event Final with an average score of 13.650, and Inga Galeeva won bronze in the Vault Event Final with an average score of 13.533.
With no disregard to their good work, there are four other names to remember first, however, especially if you’re like me and have limited filing space. The first three will turn senior in 2016, just in time for the Rio Olympics…
** 1.** **Darya Skrypnik**: With a total score of 58.333, Skrypnik was crowned Russian Junior All-Around Champion, taking the top score on uneven bars (a 15.433), the second highest score on vault (14.667) and balance beam (14.133), and the third highest score on floor exercise (14.100). In the Event Finals, she won gold on uneven bars and bronze on floor exercise.
With all-around scores never dipping below the 14.000 mark, inching past the reigning Junior European All-Around Champion, Skrypnik announced her candidacy for an all-around spot on Russia’s squad (and, I might add, with the current Russian style: a massive uneven bars routine, complimented by balance beam beauty and a solid vault).
Although video hasn’t surfaced of the champ’s winning bar routine, if it’s anything like her winning performance from the 2014 Junior European Championships, there will have been lots of inbar work, including a Komova II transition, a piked jaeger, and a full-twisting double dismount. The timing will have been good and her lines long.
Floor exercise and balance beam are definitely events-in-the-making, but they are well executed nevertheless. On floor, she gives an honest attempt at a Memmel turn, completes a nice triple twist, and dismounts with a double tuck. Tall and lean, she’s not a power gymnast and the tumbling is understated compared with the rest of her all-around program, but that’s clearly inconsequential at this point in her career.
On balance beam her leaps aren’t so refined, but a round-off to layout, a free cartwheel to illusion turn, and an onodi to front aerial to full turn offer a little magic and suggest future shades of brilliance.
Check out her beam routine from the All Around competition below. She didn’t get her connections but you get the idea…
2. Angelina Melnikova: Ultimately missing out on the title but making up for it elsewhere, the reigning Junior European Champion certainly did herself a favor in Penza. Finishing with an all-around score of 57.332, she nabbed the highest scores on vault (15.133, which means she must have thrown a DTY) and balance beam (a 14.533), won the Balance Beam Event Final (improving on her previous score with a 14.767), and placed second in the Floor Exercise Final.
Usually a very good bar-worker, Melnikova’s downfall in both the All-Around Final and Event Final came on the uneven bars. In the All-Around, she completely missed the catch on her piked jaeger; getting back on the bar, she attempted it again, this time catching but doing so very closely, clearly overcompensating for her previous mistake. The big problem aside, however, she still worked this apparatus very well, with good inbar work, two Shaposh-style transitions, and a good full-twisting double dismount. It’s clear that her problems at this competition didn’t stem from massive technique issues. She’s actually quite strong in that area.
Putting aside the bar disappointment, the European Champ showed her real colors on floor exercise and especially on balance beam. On floor, she performed a very well executed routine, balancing acrobatics and dance, completing a nice double spin with leg horizontal and wolf spin, opening with a piked full-in and using a couple of whips before a BHS and double tuck. She shows real maturity here, connecting instead of simply hitting the poses and surreptitiously covering up mistakes. (You know, the stuff that’s hard to teach!)
Beam is where she really made you watch, however. Her BHS to BHS step-out to layout is beautiful. She just floats it. I imagine the seniors on the National Team (especially the “beamers,” cough-cough, Maria Kharenkova) probably watched it with a combination of awe and dread.
Perhaps it’s because she was anticipating losing sight of the beam, but her front aerial to sheep jump was the first sign of nerves. That being said, it was the only real bobble, and the rest of the routine was smoother and more confident than anything I’ve seen from her elder teammates lately. She’s a real gem here, and I imagine she will only get better.
3. Ekaterina Sokova: Finishing the All-Around competition with a score of 57.134, the only podium-finisher not to have competed at last year’s Junior European Championships nabbed the bronze medal, placing her highest scores on floor exercise (a 14.567, also the highest of the competition) and uneven bars (a 14.500). She also won gold in the Floor Exercise Final and placed third in the Balance Beam Final despite a fall.
Despite her high score (inflated), Sokova’s bar work most closely reveals a junior gymnast still trying to find her rhythm. At first glance she has a pleasing look with long lines (for a shorty!) and an easy swing, but watch a little longer and you see she hasn’t quite made those qualities work for her yet. Rushed turns, arched handstands, catches that aren’t at arms length are a few places for improvement. I also noticed she looks as if she’s about to fly off the bar, literally. That can be a good thing if you master the suggestion of flying away without posing the real risk, but until then it’s a little nerve-racking to watch. Viktoria Komova pulled it off, and perhaps with a little time and grooming, little Sokova will manage it, too.
If her uneven bars routine reveals a gymnast still in the making, however, Sokova’s floor routine reveals a gymnast who has arrived, and that’s very exciting for a Russian team that has been struggling to put together a high scoring floor line-up. Winning the gold medal with a 14.633, Sokova matched Melnikova’s maturity and exceeded her in tumbling, opening with a double Arabian, completing a 1.5 to full twist before a 2.5 to punch front, and dismounting with a big double pike. Her spins are controlled (including a Memmel and a nicely done double spin with leg horizontal), her movements executed with ease, and her tumbling is inexplicably dynamic for such an athlete in such a small package. It will be fun to see what she can do with even more power.
4. Elena Eremina: Last but not least, this lovely fourth-place All-Arounder and podium-finisher in three Event Finals (vault gold, balance beam silver, and uneven bars bronze) made a mark in Penza. Born in 2001, she will miss the chance to compete in Rio and will have to reckon with an unfortunate birthday in the gymnastics world, but her performances here suggest she is still one to watch. To me, her balance beam routine is the most noteworthy. She struggled in the All Around Final, completing a BHS to LOSO to LOSO series but with a sloppy leg on the second LOSO, and her foot slid right off the beam resulting in a scary fall after her cartwheel to layout, but she improved significantly during the Event Final. Her second LOSO was cleaner (still not perfect, but better) and she wisely took out the round-off to layout. She clearly didn’t need it to finish on the podium, and after a bad outing it was likely to cause her some unnecessary anxiety.
Problems aside, what’s really enjoyable and admirable about this 13-year-old is her poise. You simply don’t realize she’s nervous until a major break catches you by surprise. She performs with ease and well beyond her years.
All in all, these juniors proved that the Russian team goes a bit deeper than most realized heading into Rio. They’ve had to wait a long time to make their mark in this cycle, but they’re ready now. Moving forward, I think the main question will be how they can fill out the problem areas. Each has one event that would already add to a three-up and three-count competition, replacing those who have held the third coveted spot on each for the last couple of years, but whether they get the call will largely depend on how the veterans continue to recover. Time will tell.
Many thanks to Yulia Razheva for the competition footage and to Alyssia Spaan for posting it on youtube for all of us to enjoy! You can check out all of her videos here.
Article: Sara Dorrien