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Big Four Post Rio: The Fate of Russia from the Perspective of Elizabeth @ Rewriting Russian Gymnastics

Since the last quad, Women's Artistic Gymnastics has experienced huge changes. With a more diverse pool of international talents, the t...

Since the last quad, Women's Artistic Gymnastics has experienced huge changes. With a more diverse pool of international talents, the traditional "Big Four" of the sport, namely China, Romania, Russia and the United States of America seem less relevant today. We are honoured to have gymnastics experts of each of the "Big Four" members to share their views on what to expect of these countries in the coming quad, what the situation is like for these teams, and whether or not they can sustain their legacies. 

For Russia, we are delighted to have veteran gymnastics blogger Elizabeth of Rewriting Russian Gymnastics to discuss the prospects of the Russian WAG team.
Team Russia for the 2017 Montreal World Championships. (Photo @ Angelina Melnikova's instagram)
On Expectations of the Coming Worlds
I am expecting the new format of the Olympic Games (four all arounders in the team event) to be a great leveller in world gymnastics over the coming years. Hopefully, this change in format will be a steadying influence, reinforcing the need for good execution and consistency across all apparatus and, perhaps, stemming the flow of the reckless hyper difficulty that so often wrecks the rhythm and aesthetic of the sport. The fact that Simone Biles is resting this year will also make the forthcoming World Championships one of the most open in many years for women’s gymnastics. It is an AA and EF only World Championships with no team event, so we will have a chance to see how individuals are progressing.

On Team Dynamics
The women’s team is full of talent and promise, but does not have the same cohesion and impetus as before. Without the unifying, talismanic force of Mustafina, things seem to have fragmented somewhat; there isn’t really a team leader. I (perhaps sentimentally) hope that the kind, lion-hearted Tutkhalyan will be well enough to take on this role – she is the one they all seem to turn to for support and friendship – but a foot injury that took her out of Europeans is still in recovery. Competition is tough, and without a strong leader (coach, gymnast, whatever) the team will flounder on the podium.
Will Angelina Melnikova deliver for Russia?
(Photo @ Silvia Vatteroni)
On the Successors
Melnikova should be able to compete for gold in the all around. She is hugely talented and ambitious and deserves a good competition in Montreal, having made great progress since the Olympics. She is the only gymnast in a long time to attempt to combine difficult tumbling with consummate choreography in the floor exercise. But will she cope on an emotional level? The Russian girls are very nice to each other, but Melnikova seems to need to take herself out on a limb to compete for gold. Winning is difficult enough as it is, without competing from a position of isolation. Montreal will be a crunch time for her as she fights to find a balance between being the leader, or being led. Of the first year seniors, I like Eremina and Ilyankova best: Eremina for application (see how well turned out, carefully prepared and serious she always is at any competition) and Ilyankova for innate talent. I would like to see them both on the team, given an opportunity to prove themselves, and I would be happy to see Eremina medal anywhere, and Ilyankova to take gold on bars. Perhaps somewhere in that mix of diligence and flair, the Russians will find their pathway to Tokyo. Paseka and Spiridonova are strong specialists, but will they both find a place in a team that must emphasise the development of all arounders? In general, however, it’s a real pepper-pot of a team this time round, with lots of potential but not much concrete to recommend individuals. According to an interview in International Gymnast this week, veteran Daria Elizarova will prepare for Worlds, contingent upon a good performance at the University games. This has an ominous ring of plausibility to it given Elizarova’s strength in the power events and the lack of strong floor workers on the Russian team. Perhaps Perebinisova will have a role to play there. Maria Kharenkova is back in training but looks to be an entirely different gymnast, long and elegant, from the tiny stick of dynamite who did so well on floor and beam in the 2012 European Juniors. I hope to see her at the University Games, but will she have enough for Worlds? No, I am not mentioning Komova – she has yet to convince me that she will make it back to full fitness physically and mentally.

On the Coaching
The head coach remains Evgeny Grebyonkin – he is the one who leads the technical effort of coaching, is hands-on and hardworking, calm, kind and popular with the girls. Valentina Rodionenko is more of a spokesperson or figure head whose ‘national coach’ label is recognition for the important support role she has played for years to husband Andrei Rodionenko, and she plays this role across both men and women. This year the coaching leadership team has been strengthened by the addition of a younger generation of coaching and PR specialists, for example Zamolodchikova and Garibov. Valery Alfosov has already cemented his authority over the men’s team. With the Rodionenko couple receiving important Presidential (‘Order of Friendship’) awards for their work, this all seems to signal a subtle, gradual changing of the guard. The Rodionenkos will probably remain for years as a ‘steadying hand’ during the transition period to new head coaches, but it would be good to see a leader as strong as Alfosov at the helm of the women’s team, too. It can’t be easy for the girls to have to dance to two different conductors.
Russia was delighted to clinch silver in the 2016 Rio Olympics Team Competition. 20 years ago Team Russia was left in tears when they had to settle with silver (Photo @ Seda Tutkhalian's instagram)
On Sustaining the Legacy
Komova’s potential return, and the revival of new mothers Mustafina and Afanasyeva are all far too unsure to factor into this discussion. Actually, it is somewhat depressing to think that the team relies on hopes based on past glories quite so much. The Russians need to begin to look forward and to make it difficult for old-timers to make such comebacks. There are many others who bring specialist talent to the team – but few who consistently impress. My instinct is that selection will favour the young gymnasts in an attempt to ‘bring through’ talent to season for the coming four years. I do not feel a strong sense of direction for the Russian women at present, however, and at Worlds I think we will see a finely balanced battle between established and emerging nations, with many different gymnasts medalling. Their men may be sizzling with well-channelled ambition, but I sense a luke warm quality to the women’s preparations this time round.

Interviewed by Valerie Theodora Ko

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