It’s that time of year again, the time of elite thinking. The 2014 NCAA season is well behind us, and it’s not really healthy to start thinking about the 2015 season in any depth for at least another three or four months (lying). So, it’s once again time for my annual attempt to return my attention to the elite scene, with all its D scores and team selections and switch ring full turns, and dive in feet first. (I’ve never been much of a diver, so headfirst seems inadvisable. Even though that’s the expression, I’m not comfortable with it, and it should change.)
As we enter the second year post-Olympics, we’re starting to move into that meaty area at the center of the quad where things start to get a little more real. In the first year of a quad, we can only learn so much. It’s a year of posturing, where we just sort of quaintly applaud people who have decided to stick around but can’t make any real conclusions about the future. It’s so hard to keep up for a full quad, and what seems like a given in year one is often obsolete by year four. Just ask Ana Porgras and Rebecca Bross about that one.
But as we move into the second year, we start to wonder about who’s actually in this thing, not just to hang around the edge of a Worlds team here or there but to be a major player. Now the ramshackle, debt-ridden Rio venues become a glinting tease shining on the periphery of every conversation. It’s not close enough to be a thing, not nearly, but if you’re a gymnastics fan, you find yourself absentmindedly forming possible World and Olympic teams while chopping vegetables, or taking a shower, or drinking the blood of your enemies, knowing it’s too early and that none of these people will even have working bones anymore by the time 2016 rolls around, but still resculpting and reimagining the picture with the emergence of every new Gowey of the month.
But should we entertain that taunting Rio glint, or shut it out? How much is year 2 really relevant to year 4 of a quad? I don’t have any grand conclusions because every team is different and every quad is different, but it’s worth looking at how the years compare as we progress through a quad, keeping in mind how much things tend to change, or in specific cases, stay the same. In that spirit, I took a look back at 2010 Worlds and compared those teams to the 2012 Olympic teams to get some idea of how things progressed from year 2 to year 4.
For the most part, the top teams returned 2 members from their 2010 Worlds teams to the 2012 Olympics, which was the case for Russia, Romania, Italy, and Germany. The US and Canada returned just one member from their 2010 teams (Aly Raisman for the US and Kristina Vaculik for Canada, with a little Stanford stint thrown in the center there).
So it’s not exactly easy to remain relevant for a team even for three years running. And the people from 2010 who did manage to also make 2012 teams were big stars for their teams. They were the obvious choices who were mega-locks if healthy: Mustafina, Izbasa, Ferrari, Tweddle, Seitz. Of course they’re making the Olympics.
What’s interesting about these gymnasts who were already seniors in 2010 and stuck it out through 2012 is that their difficulty changed very little in the intervening years, putting up nearly identical D Scores in 2010 and 2012. The variation was usually just a tenth or two, nothing big. Mustafina, for instance, stayed very steady with her D Scores, adding a little on bars and shaving off a little on beam. She did have a net loss because she was no longer able to do the Y2.5 after that vault tore her leg off and used it to air-guitar “Another One Bites the Dust” at 2011 Euros, but other than that she was very constant. That’s true of many, many who stayed around: Seitz, Afanasyeva, Chelaru, Tanaka, Chusovitina, obviously. One or two tenths here and there. They didn’t continue pushing the difficulty with any significance between 2010 and 2012. And it’s because they didn’t need to. Either they were pretty maxed out already, like Tweddle on bars (who added two tenths, and what more could she even add after that?), or too touch-and-go with injury to risk upgrading, or able to rest easy in the knowledge that they were team locks and only had to show up to make it without needing to upgrade.
I suppose the lesson from this is not to count too heavily on upgrades in the coming years from people who are already seniors now. Most major players on the international scene didn’t during the last quad. But it did happen, and Aly Raisman is a great example.
Of all the people who made both the 2010 and 2012 teams, she blew everyone out of the water in terms of upgrades. It’s not even close. Like almost laughably. Between 2010 and 2012, Raisman upgraded her D Score a total of 2.0 across the four events, (0.8 on floor, 0.7 on vault, 0.3 on bars, and 0.2 on beam). That’s a ton, and it was probably necessary to make her the lock for the Olympic team she suddenly became. The difference between Raisman and those who didn’t upgrade as much is probably a combination of her sturdy ability to avoid injury and the depth and pressure of the US team, forcing the veterans to keep upgrading to remain in the picture.
There were a few others who upgraded their difficulties between 2010 and 2012, and surprisingly, they were almost all super veterans from the previous quad, the people we think would be least likely to upgrade at that later point in their careers. Ferrari upgraded like crazy on beam and floor for 2012, going up 0.5 or more on both events, Daniele Hypolito stepped it up 0.4 on both bars and beam, and Hannah Whelan jumped up 0.5 on bars to try to give the team a third strong bars score. Koko Tsurumi is another who stepped up her bars composition significantly toward the end of the quad.
Returning to the composition of the teams, even though having 1 or 2 team members stick around was the most likely outcome, it was not the rule. Great Britain brought back 4 members of the 2010 team for the Olympics, and Australia’s whole Olympic team had also competed at 2010 worlds. Both teams had some slight increases in D Scores across the board, but the team makeup and team results remained pretty constant, with Great Britain performing about the same in 2010 as 2012 and Australia struggling more with the execution. Neither team improved its finish from 2010 to 2012, which is to be expected when the team remains the same.
It has been a fairly common trend to see the same gymnasts competing at international events year after year for countries like Great Britain and Australia because they haven’t had the depth to push people off the teams. If you have the difficulty, you’re there and you’re staying. It would then seem more realistic to use the 2014 seniors as a measuring stick for 2016 for those teams, but Great Britain is an interesting case right now because of the unprecedented increase in quality and depth over the last couple of years in their junior ranks. It’s getting considerably harder for the seniors to stay. Is the era ending when a stalwart like Hannah Whelan can stick around for a few quads making team after team after team? Will she still be the favored choice for Team GB once Generation Art turns senior? It’s something to watch.
The other interesting case I haven’t yet mentioned is China because 2012 was such an anomaly, both internationally and in China’s team history. Like the British, the Chinese team also returned 4 members of the 2010 team to the 2012 Olympics, but that’s much more unusual for a country where we tend to expect a very high turnover of gymnasts and a very young team. Who would have thought that China would be the country trotting out the same gymnasts year after year? Where were those sudden beam workers that no one had ever heard of popping up and being amazing for a day and then disappearing?
China is also anomalous because those 4 returning members all dropped difficulty. While all the other teams that qualified to the 2012 Olympics remained steady or increased their D Scores (all of them), these same Chinese gymnasts regressed, particularly Huang Qiushuang, who dropped multiple tenths on bars and beam, and Sui Lu, who dropped several tenths on floor from 2010 to 2012. It’s no surprise, then, that they also performed much better in 2010 compared to the ragged show they put on in 2012. Huang and Sui can be added to that large group of seniors who did not increase difficulty as the quad progressed, but that’s far from being the norm or the expectation for a Chinese team.