Gymnastics is my favorite summer sport and I can’t wait for gymnastics competition to start on August 6 in Rio Olympics. I am not going to Rio but last weekend I got pretty close to Olympics in Hartford, CT as I watched team USA contenders start the official selection process for team RIO – at US Classic (women) and P&G US Championships (men) on June 3-5.
Blog Photographer Vit received a photo accreditation to bring you the exclusive photo coverage from Hartford!
American women gymnastics program is currently THE strongest in the world and with the team and individual all around titles in 2012 London Olympics as well as in the last three World Championships it is NOT an overstatement. There are currently only five spots on the Olympic gymnastics team and at least twice as many very strong contenders.
All three latest consecutive World all-around titles belong to 19-year old Simone Biles who has not lost a competition in almost three years. London golden girls Gabby Douglas (all-around) and Aly Raisman (floor) are also on the national team striving for their second golden Olympics. In total, there are nine Olympic and World gold medalists on the team aiming for the five team spots for Rio.
From Hartford to Rio?
All top national team contenders were present in Hartford (except Maggie Nichols, Worlds 2015 floor medalist, who is recovering from an injury). Aly Raisman won the all-around gold (as well as floor and vault event golds). Rachel Gowey and Alyssa Bauman were second and third in the all-around. Ashton Locklear secured uneven bars gold with the highest score of the meet (15.850), and Biles won beam gold. (It is important to note that Biles and Douglas were “spared” by national team coordinator Martha Karolyi from participating in all four events thus not completing in the all-around). The team is expected to start peaking in time for the US Championships at the end of the month.
“3 up 3 count”
Olympic gymnastics team count went down from seven to five spots with only three gymnasts competing on each event in the team competition calling for a “three up three count” formula for success. The five gymnasts to be picked for the team shall be able to produce strong scores in several events. So even the girls who excel in US’s weakest event- the uneven bars – (Ashton Locklear and Madison Kocian) need to add a second strong event to be Rio contenders. In Hartford, Locklear added a strong beam performance to her highest bars score while Kocian suffered a fall on the beam.
Based on Hartford alone, Biles, Raisman, Douglas, Locklear, and Baumann, (with Rachel Gowey as first alternate) might have been selected for the team. But it isn’t over yet and performances at the US Championships on June 23-26 and Olympic Trials on July 8-10 will determine US Olympic team (only the all-around winner from the Trials is guaranteed a spot on the team, with the rest of the team being determined by the selection committee following the Trials).
What about Russia?
Having been born in the former Soviet Union, I will always remain interested in Russian (and other former Soviet republics’) gymnastics teams. Russia was second to the US in 2012 Olympics in team competition, but came in fourth at the Worlds 2015. European championships were unfolding at the same time as US Classic in Hartford: Russia won, followed by the British ladies. The truth is, the Russians lost their dominance in the sport with the break-up of the Soviet Union (they recovered for a brief period in 2010). While many of their routines are still very beautiful to watch and their participation often makes for an exciting competition (remember London Olympics epic all-around battle between US’s Gabby Douglas and Russia’s Victoria Komova?), they are currently far behind the US in difficulty. Russia’s staple Aliya Mustafina is famous for being spectacular under pressure but it will be very difficult to make up the missing difficulty.
Can Anyone Beat Biles?
The three most recent individual World all-around titles belong to 19 year old Simone Biles, who is considered by many the best gymnast ever and a heavy favorite to win in Rio. Her difficulty (and the scores!) are so ahead of everybody else that the specialists say that she can afford to fall and would still win. She has won four gold medals (team, all around, floor and beam) at the Worlds 2015 and could win as many as five gold medals in Rio.
So why does difficulty matter so much?
Current scoring system rewards higher difficulty. The old scoring system (which awarded Romania’s Nadia Comaneci the first ever 10 in the sport 40 years ago at the Montreal Olympics 1976) was replaced in 2006 with a new scoring made up of the sum of D (difficulty) and E (execution) scores minus “neutral deductions” (like stepping out of bounds). While the E score is your “old” 10 minus the execution and artistry deductions, D score which counts exercise difficulty is theoretically open-ended (only eight most difficult skills are counted but the value of each skill – as outlined in Code of Points – is not “ceiled”).
What is considered a high score? At the US Classic, the highest score was 15.8 for Ashton Locklear’s bar routine (6,4 for difficulty and 9,450 for execution). Aly received 15,7 for her vault (D 6.3 and E 9.4); Simone received 15,650 (6,7 and 8,950) for her balance beam.
How about those pointed toes?
There are currently two distinct styles of women’s gymnastics: the classically “lined” and well choreographed “Russian” or “European” style and the more athletic American style. With Americans leading at the world competitive scene, the critics say that the difficulty in American gymnastics comes at the expense of artistry and grace.
Personally, while I admire the beautiful lines of Russian gymnastics, I am also amazed at how far American gymnastics has pushed the human body.
ALL OF US could the be the judges watching Olympic gymnastics from Rio!
UPDATE/July 10, 2016: Following step 2 and 3 of the Olympic selection process, Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, and Madison Kocian have been named to US women’s olympic gymnastics team with Ragan Smith, MyKayla Skinner and Ashton Locklear as alternates.
To read my article about team USA Rio selection process in Russian sports daily sovsport.ru click here.
A Word about the Men’s P&G Championships.
Following Hartford’s US Championships, 18-member national team was announced. With 11 worlds and US medalists on the list, competition for the final five spots will be fierce at the Men’s Olympic Trials on June 23-26 in St. Louis. In Hartford, Sam Mikulak won his forth consecutive all-around US Title with Chris Brooks and Jacob Dalton coming second and third. A number of teams is capable of winning Olympic team gold (China won the last Olympics and Japan took the last Worlds; US men’s team was third in 2008 Olympics but fifth in 2012).