The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

What’s Happening in China?

Now that the entirety of the Chinese national championship is behind us, let’s examine all the major developments, who’s in the mix for worlds and Asian Games selection this year, and how competitive China looks internationally.

A. The emergence of Zhang Jin

Up until about 8 weeks ago, Zhang was squarely in China’s second tier of elites—she had a vault sometimes, but didn’t have bars, and was probably going to get 12s on beam and floor. Get on the pile with the others.

Starting with her all-around victory in Stuttgart in March, Zhang began to move into the first tier of options, particularly because China is in fairly extreme need of vault and floor scores at the moment and doesn’t have that many internationally competitive options to choose from. Zhang is now one of those options after the 14.850 (which includes .3 internal bonus to explain it…kind of) she scored for her DTT in the all-around final and the 13.300 she received on floor, which puts her currently #1 among China’s vault scores and #2 among China’s floor scores. There were internal bonuses here and there at this meet, which explain some of the crazy numbers you’ll see, but not all of them.

Even repeated at worlds, a 13.300 on floor in a team final is going to dig China quite a hole compared to the likes of the US, Russia, and Japan, who will be expecting to go high 13s and into the 14s for each floor score, but it’s probably as well as China can do right now and is better than things have looked.

Critically, Zhang also recorded two scores over 14 on beam during the course of the competition (Qual and EF) for what was probably her most impressive event of the four at this meet. When looking forward to potential five-member teams at worlds this year, there isn’t room for three VT/FXs and three UB/BBs, so crossover between the strength groups is important when it appears.

With new senior and potential future hope Li Qi currently injured, Zhang Jin is stepping directly into that same role as a realistic VT/BB/FX three-eventer, who ultimately finished second in the AA final despite not having much of a bars routine, which speaks to her success on the other pieces.

B. Chen Yile is China’s best all-arounder

This much is clear. Chen dominated AA qualification and was the highest-scoring all-arounder in the team final—though she pulled out of the subsequent AA final just to give you a heart attack. She did, however, return the following days to compete in the bars and beam finals—winning bronze on bars and silver on beam—so you’re probably going to be fine.

Chen is exciting because she — like Liu Tingting circa 2016, back when we were young and full of hope — has typically lovely Chinese bars and beam that can score mid-14s, as well as a floor routine that can go comfortably into the 13s and a DTY. The bars, beam, and floor carried her in this competition and ensured that even though she showed only an FTY this time around, she was still the best four-eventer in the meet by a comfortable margin. Fully healthy, Chen is your biggest lock for China right now and would be likely to go on all four pieces in a major team final.

Still, getting her vault difficulty back up is not an insignificant factor, even though she could still make teams while vaulting a handspring nothing.

With a DTY from Chen, China could put up Liu Jinru/Chen Yile/Zhang Jin as its three on vault in a worlds TF and at least tread water and allowing bars and beam to do the talking as usual, even if giving up a chunk of tenths to the better power teams. Without any one of those three vaults, however, China would likely be faced with putting up an FTY on vault in a team final since it has very few realistic backup options, which would be medal-suicide at worlds. Watch that space.

C. Liu Jinru for vault and floor

Liu Jinru has been pecking around the conversation for Chinese teams for a while now (even emerging as the lone alternate to the Olympic team after everyone else broke) because she has high difficulty vaults and often attempts a higher difficulty on floor.

In the past, her chance for team spots has been jeopardized by the presence of Wang Yan—a stronger, more proven vault and floor threat with the added bonus of occasional beam hits. With Wang Yan gravitating toward retirement, this year is LJR’s opportunity to force her way into “we can’t not take her with these scores” territory. She did exactly that by becoming co-vault champion with junior Qi Qi (wait another year) with her rudi for 14.867 (.5 internal bonus) and by winning floor with 13.733 (.2 internal bonus), a score more than .600 higher than any other senior.

It can all get a little Raggedy Ann, but these are still “we can’t not take her” scores. They’re too much higher than what anyone else is doing, even if they won’t be repeated in real circumstances.

Now, Liu has developed a bit of a reputation for Sae Miyakawa-itis, where she shows flashes of great floor at times, but it all turns out of be sort of 11 when she shows up to international competitions. That’s partially why we’re all so terrified by her DLO + front tuck floor upgrade. It did look a little better in the event final, though. I’m not saying she’s Melissanidis now, but she might not die. Which is progress.

D) Two-time Chinese AA champion, Luo Huan

With Chen Yile resting for the AA final, the door was open for Luo Huan to take the title for a second straight year. Luo is more or less a bars and beam specialist, but when she hits those events, she can use those scores to carry her more pedestrian difficulty on vault and floor to AA totals in the 54s.

Still, Luo makes teams for bars and beam rather than because of AA prowess, and she made a good case for herself as the current UB/BBer of choice by hitting 4/4 on bars and 3/4 on beam across this behemoth of a competition, going on to win beam in a bit of a surprise and take silver on bars in the EF. She’s right in the mix once again this year and didn’t even display much of a tendency toward beautiful-disaster syndrome, which is a win.

I do also want to talk about her roller-coaster floor story at this meet. Luo is not known as much of a floor worker. She doesn’t compete floor at the event world cups, and she didn’t do floor at worlds last year. This not-much-of-a-floor-worker reputation was reinforced on the first day of nationals, when Luo opened with a double tuck and fell on it. Womp. But, it got markedly better as the competition went on, with her score peaking at 13.150 in the AA final, just .150 lower than Zhang (someone who’s supposed to be one of the floor workers for China this year).

It still starts with a double tuck, though. It’s not an “OMG let’s use it in the team final at worlds” routine (nor is a 13.15 a super high floor score), but performed like this, Luo’s floor is a “you could count this routine if absolutely necessary” set. With so many potentially important bars workers not competing floor at all, that becomes critical when trying to assign roles on a team of five.

E) Liu Tingting and Shang Chunsong

It started well. Liu scored very competitively on bars and beam on the first two days of competition, so that even with just an FTY and no floor routine, she looked to be establishing herself among the UB/BB specialists and challenging the likes of Luo Huan, as well as Du Siyu. Coming back for the event finals, Liu struggled on both routines and did not medal, but she still looks like a legitimate contender for teams once again, even if she doesn’t have vault and floor scores to make her case.

Shang showed beam and floor at this competition—one floor routine in qualification and two beam routines, one in qualification and one in the event final. Shang hit beam in qualification for 14.000, but missed in the event final for 12.733 and went 12.600 on her only floor routine. She doesn’t seem to be eyeing international assignments right now and is probably not in the mix for those spots anyway.

F) Upcoming competitions

While worlds is still quite a long way away, meaning there will be many more twists and turns in this journey, China is first looking toward Asian Games in three months time. If China and Japan both elect to send full-strength teams, it’ll be a fascinating, very close competition and potential preview of the bronze medal fight at worlds. (August is going to be a goooooood month as a whole with Euros going right into US Nationals going right into Asian Games.)

In 2014, the Asian Games gymnastics competition had a 6-5-4 team format, which benefits China because it allows for the use of more specialists. Remember, however, that worlds this year is 5-3-3 in the team final, so things will have to be cut down.

As I see it, here are the major contenders for spots on the big Chinese teams right now, with rough classifications of whether they should be doing that event in a team final, just qualification, or not at all — based on what we’re seeing right now or should see at full strength.

Vault Bars Beam Floor
Chen Yile TF TF TF TF
Zhang Jin TF Q TF TF
Liu Jinru TF Q X TF
Liu Tingting Q TF TF X
Luo Huan Q TF TF Q
Lyu Jiaqi X TF Q X
Du Siyu Q TF Q Q
Li Qi TF Q TF TF

Included here are the major suspects mentioned above (Chen, Zhang, Liu Jinru, Liu Tingting, and Luo), as well as the currently injured but competitive Li Qi, then Du Siyu who should have the bars routine to be competitive and should have challenged here in the AA but hasn’t really put it together, and Lyu Jiaqi who is the new national bars champion and has the highest Chinese bars score so far this year, but is very much a bars-only specialist in terms of team contribution.

I have an X next to Tingting for floor right now. She may bring it back, but hasn’t yet, and is that a good idea anyway?

Right now, for vault and floor, you want Chen Yile, Zhang Jin, and Liu Jinru on a team. The only thing that might alter that is if Li Qi comes back successfully this year, which could jeopardize Zhang Jin’s spot on a five-person worlds team. Otherwise, those three VT/FX gymnasts are close to locks. Beyong them, China sort of has its pick of bars and beam specialists to take the remaining spots to fill out a worlds team.

You could very reasonably scratch out the bottom three rows on the above list and go with this:

Vault Bars Beam Floor
Chen Yile TF TF TF TF
Zhang Jin TF Q TF/Q TF
Liu Jinru TF X X TF
Liu Tingting X TF TF X
Luo Huan Q TF TF/Q Q

But, if you feel good about using Zhang Jin for beam in TF, you could replace Luo Huan on this team with Lyu Jiaqi and her potentially higher bars score. (Or even replace Liu Tingting.) To me, that team wouldn’t gain enough on a Luo Huan team to be worth the added risk of bringing a one-eventer, but it’s worth considering.

On a six-person Asian Games team with 6-5-4, you could have all of them to test out how it goes.

Vault Bars Beam Floor
Chen Yile Y Y Y Y
Zhang Jin Y Y Y Y
Liu Jinru Y N N Y
Liu Tingting Y Y Y N
Luo Huan Y Y Y Y
Lyu Jiaqi N Y Y N

I don’t love that team for floor because there’s no buffer if Liu isn’t doing it, and there would be some real “PLEASE DROP” 5th scores going up all over the place.

Instead, Asian Games could be an opportunity to test out Du Siyu, who does the AA and therefore provides a little more backup, though I would say the majority of the second-tier elites who might have challenged for Asian Games (like Wang Cenyu, Guo Fanting, Liu Jieyu, and Lu Yufei) didn’t use this competition to make great arguments for themselves, as least as long as China is trying for the win.

China a small shred of choice right now when to comes to bars and beam, and would have some real decisions to make on the leg events if Li Qi comes back. Though if not, those decisions are made by necessity. A lot of my thought process has revolved around how China puts together a competitive team of just five for worlds this year, but a full-strength Chen Yile allows the remaining four team spots to go to two UB/BBs and two VT/FXs, which is very fairly straightforward and doable for China as long as the VT/FXs remain healthy. Chen’s AA is the force that keeps everything together.

The Chinese seniors of 2018 will give up signifcant ground on floor and likely on vault to the best teams, but we knew that going in. Each of the top Chinese floor workers right now is scoring around five tenths lower than each of the top floor workers the US/Russia/Japan are hoping to bring. That’s just the way it is, and it’s an old story for China, as is trying to use bars and beam to make up the deficit.

The most important thing is to get by on vault and floor by ensuring that the chosen VT/FXers complete their evolutions into reliable, first-tier contributors. There isn’t a Wang Yan 2016 right now whom you’d count on so save the scores on those events, so some more tenuous choices have to jump into those roles right now. But if someone like Liu Jinru does rise to the occasion, China can retain its medal status as the challenge from Japan ramps up.

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