The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

State of the National Teams Address

Now that the NCAA season has ended with KJ successfully verbal vogueing Oklahoma to a 4th national title…

..let us (and by us, I mean me) take a moment to get reacclimated to the world of elite gymnastics and the state of the various national teams. Because we need something to occupy the time until things get good again.

Beginning with the US because I know that’s what you’re here for.

United States

The US team gave us an unexpected gift this spring by sending nearly every healthy senior national teamer on an international assignment—like they have money again or something. That means we actually have something to go on rather than the usual prognostication using only cloud shapes and whistles. Over the last two months, we’ve seen everybody—though of course, having actual performances and results to go on has only made things more complicated rather than less.

Taking only the international assignments from 2019, here are the top scores received by each athlete on each event. (So that means the AA total is the sum of those best scores on each piece, not the highest AA score received at a single day’s competition).

Top 3 on each event are in bold.

VT UB BB FX
Simone Biles 15.400 14.300 14.200 14.900 58.800
Sunisa Lee 14.200 14.700 14.150 14.333 57.383
Emma Malabuyo 14.533 13.633 14.400 14.233 56.799
Leanne Wong 14.666 14.100 14.066 13.933 56.765
Grace McCallum 14.566 14.200 13.833 13.866 56.465
Kara Eaker 14.066 14.100 14.666 12.466 55.298
Alyona Shchennikova 14.433 14.633 12.966 13.166 55.198
Morgan Hurd 14.233 14.300 12.933 13.633 55.099
Sloane Blakely 13.633 13.500 13.766 13.566 54.465
Shilese Jones 14.700 11.600 13.033 13.800 53.133
Riley McCusker 13.133 14.400 12.166 13.366 53.065
Aleah Finnegan 14.400 12.866 12.533 12.866 52.665
Gabby Perea 13.567 12.900 12.367 13.333 52.167
Jade Carey 15.066 0.000 0.000 14.600 N/A

So, we’ve got a little bit of a race on our hands.

At least so far. The US women won’t compete again for a while, but the story of June-August will be the clash between those who have been making teams so far this quad (Hurd, McCusker, McCallum, etc) and those new or newly healthy seniors (Lee, Wong, Malabuyo, etc) who have recorded some of the top numbers so far this year. It’s a deep field, and not everyone is going to worlds.

Is the idea that we’ll see the likes of Lee, Wong, and Malabuyo make the world championships team this year simply a case of new-toy syndrome? Every year of this quad has brought the “I’m not sure if Morgan Hurd has the scores to keep up a position on the team…” refrain back out, and every year she’s like, “World all-around medal hi.” Does that happen again? Or do we actually have a new normal this year?

Heads up: If you try to make the highest-scoring team of five in a 3-up, 3-count scenario using those scores above, your team is Biles, Lee, Carey, Eaker, and Shchennikova.

I know. I’m not saying that’s real life, but the fact that people like Lee and Hurd and Wong and Malabuyo can all contribute a realistic 3 events (and sometimes 4 events) in a team final makes things very tough on the rest of the club—and also opens up possibilities for those 1-eventers. If you have Biles taking 4 events and Lee taking 3-4 and Carey taking 2, you can afford a 1-eventer on the team, if not a couple.

That, in turn, sucks for whoever ends up toward the bottom of the pack of those 3-4 eventers. Case in point: Emma Malabuyo has the 3rd-best total scores in the above chart, but because of what Biles, Carey, and Lee can cover, she’s only in bold on beam despite having 3 very TF-ready scores. And if you’re bringing someone solely to cover beam, that’s Kara Eaker—not Malabuyo—despite Malabuyo’s superiority in the all-around. That’s the kind of push-and-pull we’ll be treated to this summer while trying to formulate teams.

Most important to watch: The non-Biles all-around contender with the best floor score. Once we know who that person is, we’ll know what other gaps still need to be filled on a US team. Because there are currently 11 pretty realistic options for a 5-member worlds team.

Keep in mind that this year the Pan American Games run in between US Classic and US Nationals. A team of 8 (5 + 3 alternates) will be named at the conclusion of American Classic in June, and then the 5 team members will be confirmed/named officially at the conclusion of US Classic in July. Many of the top seniors will be aiming for this team—especially those borderline worlds candidates looking for an opportunity to prove their worth—so expect even some of the bigger names to be farther along in their process/actually competing at events like American Classic (for which we still do not have a location—hey guys) to try to get those spots.

China

I encourage you to keep an eye on the race for team spots in China because things are about to get serious. Recently, the story for China has been trying to cobble together three non-horrifying routines on VT/FX, and that quest has almost fully determined team selection. “OK, we have to use these exact three VT/FX gymnasts, so the other two spots will go to the two gymnasts with the best combined UB/BB scores, end of conversation.”

I don’t want to pretend like that problem has gone away, but right now China’s squad enjoys the most depth we’ve seen in a solid four years, if not more, given the scores that newer athletes like Qi Qi, Li Qi, and Tang Xijing have delivered so far this year.

Just as a biographical refresher, Qi Qi’s performance at Jesolo earned her the highest vault and floor scores for China in 2019 (with an actual floor D over 5 and reliable DTY on vault). She’s making a case as the new Wang Yan, although original recipe Wang Yan is also slated to return from her break-tirement at next week’s Chinese nationals, which will be fascinating.

Li Qi is next in line as China’s new beam queen, winning Doha with a 14.333. We’ve seen her compete only beam this year, but when she burst onto the scene as a junior in 2017, it was with strong vault and floor scores in addition to beam. One of the things I’ll be looking for from her next week is whether she has those other scores back. With Fan Yilin already locked in as China’s most valuable 1-eventer, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone else to make teams with 1 event. China doesn’t have as many high-scoring 3-4 event contributors in a TF scenario as the US does.

That’s where the all-arounders come in. When you start to put together Chinese teams considering these top-scoring specialists, you have Liu Tingting, whom you absolutely want on UB/BB, and Zhang Jin, whom you can use on VT/BB/FX, and Qi Qi as your current VT/FX heir, and Fan Yilin with her huge UB, and Li Qi with her BB score—but it doesn’t work. There are too many holes on too many events, and three compete routines on almost no events. That means China will expect to have to replace some of these specialist scores with slightly lower scores from all-arounders who are more necessary because they can cover more events.

That’s potentially a role for Tang Xijing, who burst onto the scene with a pretty strong showing at Youth Olympic Games last year. She has the competitive composition on bars and beam—even if the scores aren’t always going to be huge 14s—but can also deliver something at least semi-reasonable on floor. But the de facto occupant of that all-around position is still last year’s star Chen Yile. We haven’t seen Chen yet in 2019, so she will need to use her performance at Chinese nationals to reassert herself and prove that she is still the most compelling of the “I can cover at least 3 events” options.

Nationals will also be a critical benchmark for someone else we haven’t seen yet in 2019, Luo Huan. Luo typically performs quite well at nationals, and she’ll need to again this year because she may be in danger of getting pushed out of the first tier. Luo’s best piece is bars, but it’s China and bars, and if you have Fan YL and Liu TT and Chen YL and Tang XJ, Luo might be seen as simply extra there. Luo also valiantly filled in on vault and floor in the worlds team final last year, but that was sort of a “we have literally no other choice” situation, and with someone like Qi Qi providing more depth this year, that kind of fill-in routine becomes less necessary.

To mimic what I did with the US, here’s the scoring chart for China’s senior performances on international assignments this year.

VT UB BB FX
Liu Tingting 13.567 14.500 14.967 12.867 55.901
Tang Xijing 13.800 14.350 13.267 12.900 54.317
Zhang Jin 13.867 12.733 14.050 13.450 54.100
Liu Jingxing 13.367 13.667 13.600 13.000 53.634
Qi Qi 14.500 12.733 12.033 13.550 52.816
Liu Yufei 13.233 13.300 12.566 12.600 51.699
Liu Jieyu 13.033 11.666 12.200 12.700 49.599
Zhao Shiting 0.000 0.000 13.566 12.766 N/A
Fan Yilin 0.000 14.933 0.000 0.000 N/A
Lyu Jiaqi 0.000 14.366 0.000 0.000 N/A
Li Qi 0.000 0.000 14.333 0.000 N/A
Yu Linmin 14.233 0.000 0.000 0.000 N/A

Russia

How do you solve a problem like Angelina Simakova? That’s issue #1 (and also issues #2-#10) for Russia in 2019, because if you were to take the performances Simakova put together to win the all-around championship at Russian nationals as the expectation, then you could start to put together a fairly straightforward squad for Russia that fulfills the necessary requirements on each event.

It would allow for using vital routines like Paseka’s vault (which is going to provide a solid 0.8-1.0 over a replacement option) and Iliankova’s bars (which is going to provide a solid 0.7 over a replacement option), because the trio of Melnikova, Mustafina, and Simakova would suffice for all the other routines in a team final. Like so.

VT UB BB FX
Angelina Simakova X X
Angelina Melnikova X X X X
Aliya Mustafina X X X X
Maria Paseka X
Anastasia Iliankova X

If, however, you have even the slightest worry that Angelina Simakova will score a 10 on floor again like she did at Euros, then this team is absolutely non-viable because there’s no backup floor routine. There’s not even a qualification floor routine to begin with.

And if you can’t use Simakova on floor, then things get really messy. You wouldn’t mind Akhaimova for vault and floor like at worlds last year, but Akhaimova can’t contribute UB or BB, so who would she even replace in this team of five? Simakova? And then Iliankova has to do beam, where she hasn’t competed in 2019 and hasn’t broken 13 in over a year? Or does she replace Iliankova, and you lose those critical tenths on bars? No ideal solution.

Based on scores from international assignment in 2019, the best replacement choice for Simakova on beam and floor would be Zubova, which is the best possible illustration of how messy this would get without a reliable Simakova. I’m presenting the notion of Varvara Zubova for a beam and floor hit at worlds.

That’s why it is so essential, despite Simakova’s recent inconsistency, that Russia not play the old throw-her-on-the-scrap-heap game. They need to find a way to get her hitting because she presents necessary scores on the exact events Russia needs right now.

If Simakova is not hitting come this fall, you kind of have to start blowing things up and might not be able to bring all the ideal routines in the other four team spots. You start saying, “OK, you could bring Akhaimova for floor, and then you could bring Klimenko for bars instead of Iliankova because even though you drop some tenths on bars and an EF medal possibility, she might give you a beam score…” And we don’t want to play that game.

Japan

The All-Japan Championships just concluded, where the big news for the women was less in the emergence of new characters and more in Asuka Teramoto upsetting Mai Murakami for the all-around title.

In terms of Japanese team scenarios, Teramoto and Murakami are both as locked as a lock could ever lock. Japan desperately needs both of them, and both are very realistic options to contribute the all-around in a team final scenario—as they did last year along with Hitomi Hatakeda. Hatakeda has a necessary bars score for Japan right now, and is pretty much as likely as any of the other contenders (if not more likely) to hit 13 on beam and floor, so her position continues looking pretty solid.

What I’d like to see from Japan as we move through 2019 is a little more risk or experimentation in team selection. Japan tends to be very conservative in picking its squads for major meets, sort of just going with the next best all-arounders and the people we’ve seen before. It resulted in an inefficient use of team spots at worlds last year in that 2 of the 5 members didn’t compete any routines in the team final (Aiko Sugihara was not able to compete the entire meet and was not replaced in the five).

That meant Japan had to use Hitomi Hatakeda’s 1.5 on vault despite having DTYs who’ve barely had an international assignment before sitting at home. Instead, they brought Nagi Kajita to worlds, who has a bit more difficulty on bars than the main group but is not necessarily consistent or clean enough to outscore the “just get through with a solid hit” routine from Murakami. Kajita ultimately sat for the team final.

That’s why I say more can be done with those remaining positions. At All-Japans, Akari Matsumura placed 3rd on vault with a DTY, just ahead of Kiko Kuwajima (the one who got that huge beam score at the 2018 WOGA Classic) also with a DTY—and a 5.8 BB and 5.4 FX. I’d hope Japan would use this year to send out someone like that who can pump up the team score, even if just on one event. We’ve also seen Mana Oguchi perform well on beam at world cups, and new senior Azuki Kokufugata received a huge floor score at Gymnix this year, so it will be worth watching whether Japan decides to break out of the bubble this year or just go with the typical group of all-arounders again.

Brazil

I want to include Brazil in this post because Brazil really should be considered a team on the level of these other contenders, though there’s not a ton to break down in terms of the Brazilian team right now because there isn’t as much parity among the senior options. You have a pretty clear group that’s better than the rest of them.

That default team right now is Andrade, Saraiva, Barbosa, Fidelis, and Oliveira, and while we’ve seen athletes like Carolyne Pedro get opportunities this year, I don’t really anticipate the scores from those second-tier gymnasts breaking into the default group. Daniele Hypolito will be a contender until the end of time, but she has an uphill climb in that she’s not going to be able to contribute the bars score that this default team most sorely needs (why Oliveira is a more likely team member—she has a possible bars score so that Saraiva doesn’t have to go). Hypolito would therefore have to prove more necessary and reliable on beam and floor than Fidelis, which is not easy to do.

Canada

What the performances of Ellie Black and Ana Padurariu have done this year is provide Canada the opportunity to be very discerning in its use of specialists to round out a team.

Of course, you’re always happy to use Ellie Black on all four pieces in a team final, and you need Ana Padurariu on bars and beam at minimum, but Padurariu also has the highest floor score among all Canadians in 2019. That’s the biggest development so far this year, and we’ll have to watch and see if it upsets the floor picture for team selection as we go through the next 5 months. Because there are some options. Canada still absolutely needs vaults, so Shallon Olsen remains a necessity on any major team. But Brooklyn Moors really should outscore that Olsen floor routine by enough to remain a necessary contributor for that event. They both have big tumbling, but if Moors isn’t outscoring Olsen by 5 tenths on floor as she did at worlds last year, then something is wrong.

But will Canada feel that including Black, Padurariu, Olsen, and Moors is overloading floor too much—to the detriment of other events? That (and with an eye toward a four-member team 2020) is a reason Moors must keep developing those other pieces, so that she’s more than just a floor routine it would be nice to have.

Moors provided an important beam set at worlds last year, which absolutely helps her—or has Dana Duckworth turned Shallon Olsen into enough of a beamer now that she can cover that position as well? For this year’s purposes, Canada still needs a third vault and a third bars routine. The bars issue is the most pressing, but I’m not sure the mythical bars specialist who can round out the team with a 14 on bars…exists. She didn’t exist last year, which is why Canada selected Sophie Marois’s vault to fill out the worlds team and just threw up Brooklyn Moors on bars because someone had to do it.

Canada could go with the same strategy again (and actually the exact same team wouldn’t be weird at all), but if Canada decides that it needs Marois as a third vault, and someone else as a third bars routine, does that shove out a member of the presumed four? Or is it not worth it?

Canadian nationals are coming up in about three weeks, and I’ll be watching whether vaults and bars routines emerge that make enough sense to elbow their way into the picture.

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