2021 Russia: A Team Hungry for Success

While watching the qualification round of the 2021 Russian Championships, what I found particularly noticeable was how young their women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) program has now become. Gymnasts born in either 2004 or 2005 have dominated the qualification round. Had medals been awarded for qualification scores, this age group would have taken 10 of 15 individual medals (66%).

That doesn’t seem all that surprising considering Vladislava Urazova (Born 2004) and Viktoria Listunova (Born 2005) have long been touted as the future of Russian WAG. But three of those placements were also delivered by Yana Vorona and Elena Gerasimova who were each born in 2004. Of the 32 spots available in Event Finals (EF), 17 of those spots went to a 2004 or 2005 WAG (53%).

Furthermore, there were six WAGs whole qualified to EF on multiple apparatuses, four of them were 2004/2005 gymnasts. This includes Listunova who was the only gymnast to qualify on every event. As for the All-Around (AA), 2004/2005 born gymnasts accounted for the three highest qualification scores.

At this point, the 2004/2005 gymnasts aren’t just part of the Russian WAG program, they are now its backbone. This coming from a generation of gymnasts who weren’t eligible for senior competition prior to 2020 and have been unable to attend most of the competitions held in the past year due to COVID-19.

The 2004/2005 generation is an interesting bunch because they are going to dominate the Russian Olympic team selection process. In the American program it is likely no more than two or three gymnasts from this age group even make it to U.S. Olympic Trials. And as for actually winning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, none of them can be described as a “lock.”

In the Russian program the opposite is true. Urazova and Listunova are Russia’s top medal hopes and as the data at the beginning of this article shows, their contemporaries make up roughly half of Russia’s top performing WAGs. Besides all the previously mentioned names, there’s Maria Minaeva (2005) who was among those to qualify on multiple apparatuses.

Between Listunova, Minaeva, Urazova, Vorona, and Gerasimova, the current state of the Russian program is not whether the young juniors who have recently turned senior can dislodge the returning Russian veterans, but how many of those veterans will become causalities of this junior class. That’s factoring in the five members of this class who are performing well. There were two more WAGs from this age group who didn’t perform well at the 2021 National Championships, but I wouldn’t write them off just yet.

The first is Irina Komnova who has been a well known Russian junior for years and one I wouldn’t bet against simply because she has so much experience in junior competition. Then on the other end of the spectrum there’s Arina Semukhina who is the opposite of Komnova in every way. Semukhina has no experience in high level competition and was a complete unknown up until a month or two ago. Her rapid rise from out of nowhere provokes intrigue as to what Russian coaches see in this gymnast to grant her such unprecedented opportunity despite being a complete unknown.

Even under the best of circumstances this 2004/2005 generation would have been described as “young and hungry for success” owing to their status as first year seniors. But COVID-19 provided us with the worst of circumstances as this 2004/2005 generation has been denied their debut in senior level competition. So they have had to wait a little while longer. Furthering their drive to break out on the senior level and start their careers off with a bang.

Due to a combination of a strong junior class coupled with COVID-19 limiting their exposure to pre-Olympic test events, the 2021 Russian Olympic team could end up being the most inexperienced lineup a major WAG power has ever deployed.

Now let’s talk about the veterans…

Unlike the American program which has produced a strong lineup of seniors who have already experienced sustained success at the senior level, the same can’t be said for the Russian program.

American gymnast Kara Eaker has two appearances at the World Championships, two team gold medals, and has two appearances in EF. Then there’s Grace McCallum who also has two appearances at the World Championships, two team gold medals and proven AA results as well. She finished 5th in 2019 qualifications only to be eliminated from finals due to country limits. Lastly there’s Riley McCusker whose 2018 World Championships resulted in a team gold medal, but also an 8th place finish in AA qualifications, again only being eliminated because country limits.

For these three Americans, their Russian contemporaries who serve a similar supporting role on the Russian team would be Anastasia Agafonova, Angelina Simakova, and Aleksandra Shchekoldina. But all of them have only a lone appearance at the World Championships with a team silver medal. And none of them ever established themselves as high scoring All-Arounders in a World Championships qualifications or legitimate medal threats in event finals.

For Agafonova, Simakova, and Shchekoldina, they didn’t rise to the top of Russian WAG only to go down in gymnastics history as someone who appeared in a lineup on just one occasion, or someone who was a member of the team but didn’t seriously contend for a spot in EF. They want the kind of legacy Kaker, McCallum, and McCusker have. And I expect them to fight for it. I don’t see any of these three Russians as the type to go down easy and let a younger gymnast simply take their spot that quickly.

The Russian program has had significant success since winning the team gold medal in 2010, but virtually all of their success in the past decade has come from gymnasts who have since retired. The most recent departures being Aliya Mustafina, Daria Spiridonova, Maria Paseka, and Tatiana Nabieva.

If it feels strange to hear me say that practically no one on the Russian national team has achieved significant levels of success, it is because the gymnasts who were responsible for the bulk of its previous success are now gone. And the gymnasts who replaced them have not yet enjoyed the same level of results. Most noticeably, Russian WAG failed to win an individual medal at the 2018 World Championships.

While the recent Russian Championships did feature Elena Eremina who has an AA medal from 2017, this is a gymnast who is recovering from three years of injuries and still isn’t at full strength. That leaves Angelina Melnikova as the only gymnast with individual medals at the World Championships who is currently a contender for a spot on the 2021 Olympic team.

But this article isn’t about how good or how bad the Russian national team is, but how hungry they are for success. And I’d say Melnikova is as hungry as anyone. Melnikova appeared at the 2016 Olympics as a young prospect who was expected to be the future star of Russian gymnastics. But at the 2016 Rio Olympics she underperformed, was unexpectedly eliminated from the AA due to country limits, and images of Melnikova in tears were widely circulated.

Melnikova’s Olympic moment was being an Olympic sob story. The story of the highly sought out junior prospect was further eroded with a disastrous performance at the 2017 World Championships. In 2018 Melnikova improved significantly, but came up just short and finished with zero individual medals for the third time in her career. When Melnikova won a pair of bronze medals in 2019, it meant she finally had the “monkey off her back.”

But for Melnikova, considering all the hype she had as a junior and her status as the unquestioned leader of Team Russia for the current Olympic cycle, there is a lot of pressure on her to win more than a pair of bronze medals. And Melnikova seems up to the challenge. Whereas most gymnasts in Melnikova’s age group would be winding down their careers by this point in time, Melnikova is just getting started.

Angelina Melnikova is the rare example of a gymnast who is only getting better as her senior career has progressed. Entering 2020 it seemed as if Melnikova had all the answers figured out and was as strong as she had ever been. Only to watch helplessly as COVID-19 has not only delayed her Olympic return by a full year, but has disrupted her regular rhythm by halting high level competition. Does Angelina Melnikova appear to be the type to come so far only to let a pandemic ruin it all? I would say no.

And finally, there is the 23 year old Lilia Akhaimova, the oldest WAG on the team with viable prospects to make an Olympic lineup. Akhaimova is the prototypical veteran who has spent years being a marginalized, low ranking member of the program, only to unexpectedly rise to the top of the Russian program shortly before COVID-19 put everything on hold. Like Melnikova, COVID-19 impacted Akhaimova right as her career was taking off. This is a gymnast who has already stuck it out for eight years, and like every other WAG I have profiled in this article, I don’t see her as the type to give up easily.

It must be remembered that the American program is considering gymnasts like Jade Carey who has achieved medal winning results in individual competition every year since 2017 and Morgan Hurd who has multiple AA medals. Each American gymnast has individually accumulated more points in my points ranking system than the combined total of the entire Russian delegation who participated at the 2021 Russian Championships. That’s not including Sunisa Lee who despite having only one year of high-level competition due to COVID-19, has the same point total as Elena Eremina (3) and more points than Melnikova (2).

It isn’t my intention to tear down these Russian gymnasts by highlighting those low point totals, but rather to point out that few gymnasts on the Russian team have tasted true victory at the senior level and they are hungry for it. A few months ago I wrote about how Romanian gymnast Larisa Iordache has unfinished business. But when it comes to Russia, it’s as if every gymnast in their WAG program has unfinished business.

The Russian program is dealing with an unprecedented surge of young newly minted seniors who are dominating the program standings. All while there are numerous veterans who have only just started to enjoy success of their own at the senior level and aren’t ready to hand over the reins just yet.

Every gymnast competing for a spot on the 2021 Olympic team wants to be the next Paseka on vault, the next Spiridonova on bars, and the next Mustafina in the All-Around. But all of them have to get through the bottleneck that is the 2021 Olympics where only a few of them will be awarded team spots.

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