The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Chinese Nationals Day 1

Qualification is complete at Chinese Nationals, and as is tradition, we now know far less about this team than we did to start the competition because everything is [upside down face emoji x13].

Here’s a rundown of how the major team contenders (and also Shang Chunsong) looked today as China tries to come up with a team of four and a +1 to go to the Olympics along with the already-qualified Fan Yilin (who got the top bars score because of course she did).

Who had a good day?

Li Shijia – The darling of the Chinese program heading into 2019 worlds—who then sort of got overshadowed when Tang Xijing went “IT ME THOUGH” in the all-around final—had an excellent first day of competition and leads by a pretty comfortable margin heading into the AA final. Her stellar beam routine (6.7 D) earned the top score of the day, and her nearly-as-excellent bars has her in third position.

Li was also among the few top athletes to pull out a DTY today, though it was not her strongest with a short landing and a lunge forward.

Heading into this meet, I would have characterized Li’s position in the team hierarchy as borderline and in need a big nationals performance to show that she’s an actual necessity. So, Stage One complete. If she keeps this same level up through the AA and event finals, it would make an extremely compelling case for her as a team member with must-have scores on bars and beam who can also give you any event at any stage of the Olympics as needed.

Lu Yufei – Veteran Lu Yufei has been the revelation of the last six months in Chinese gymnastics. For the first four years of her senior elite career, she had settled into an “and also Lu Yufei” position where she would show plenty of talent but not the biggest D scores and then get a 52.300 and settle into the middle of the pack, not a major contender for team selection.

At last fall’s national championship, however, Lu busted out with “I’m having a pandemic to REMEMBIC” routines on bars, beam, and (probably most importantly) floor that made us all take notice. She expanded upon that thesis with today’s performance, looking stylish and composed in her difficulty on bars, beam, and floor—on a day when several significant people weren’t—and snatching a bunch of 2nd-place qualification spots in the AA as well as on bars and floor.

Zhang Jin – Not to be ignored. Lately, I had sort of written off Zhang Jin in terms of Olympic team chances because 1) she hadn’t looked quite as good as she did in 2018 when she was an essential part of the worlds team and 2) the relative strength of the newer seniors on vault and floor was dampening her necessity as the go-to, non-bad VT/FX score.

It’s still definitely an uphill battle for Zhang, but pulling out a DTT for one of the better vault scores of the day and qualifying top-3 into floor final and beam final (it was one of her good beam days) was really everything she could have done to keep herself in the mix.

Who had a medium day?

Guan Chenchen – Guan Chenchen finished 4th today, and 4th will always be a good AA result for her because doesn’t have much of a bars score. Offer me that placement for Guan going into today, and I would have taken it in a second. She also did manage to advance to the beam final with a 14.766, and for everyone else, that’s a great beam score. But for Guan, that meant a fall onto the apparatus on an attempted back handspring in combination, as well as another large break. (None of us know how she still got up to 14.766, but don’t worry about it).

Because Guan’s best argument for the Olympics may be in a +1 capacity to try to get a beam medal, any time she isn’t THE BEST on beam, it doesn’t help her case. She’s going to need to come back in the event final with a big one.

Then again, GCC was also among the rarefied few who pulled out a more difficult vault today, and her DTY was the strongest I saw. If a lot of these other contenders continue showing FTYs instead of DTYs this summer (as they did today), vault could begin to provide an argument for Guan.

Tang Xijing – It was a mixed bag for the world silver AA medalist. Bars and beam were both clean enough—though still somewhat tentative on beam—to get her into the event finals for an additional opportunity to make her case (which is important because, based on today, she wouldn’t be on China’s highest-scoring team).

On floor, Tang nearly fell on a double tuck and had a million stumbles to stay upright, so that was not a great result (and by that, I mean she scored nearly what she did for her best routines at 2019 worlds because floor scoring was off the rails today). On vault, she performed just a Yfull. At her healthiest ideal, Tang has one of the better DTYs in the bunch, and she’s going to need to be able to upgrade back to that pretty soon. If she does, it would help her case quite significantly as someone who can fill most roles on a small team—exactly the way Li Shijia showed today, and the way Tang did in 2019.

Qi Qi – I mean…it wasn’t bad? She didn’t have a disaster. She made the floor final with a 13.566. But that floor score put Qi just 5th on that event, and she vaulted only a Yfull despite posting the number for a DTY. For someone who makes her case for an Olympic team thanks to her vault and floor ability, today’s performance didn’t feature any routine that you need on a team. The vault difficulty must be there for her to have a chance this summer, and outscoring people like Lu Yufei and Zhang Jin on floor wouldn’t hurt.

Liu Tingting – Liu Tingting competed only bars today. Her routine was quite strong, certainly among the cleanest-looking work we saw from anyone, and will see her advance to the bars final. But…she only did bars. That’s not enough to make a case for a Chinese team, and she’ll have to make a late push to add more events at the selection competitions to find a place at the Olympics.

Chen Yile – Chen Yile really did all she could do today. She managed to advance to the floor final, which was somewhat unexpected and excellent, and posted a competitive 14.566 on beam to place 9th and nearly make the final. She did not, however, compete bars, and it’s…just really hard to find a spot for her anywhere near a four-person team.

Shang Chunsong – Shang is continuing to compete for Hubei like a star, and once again she had a solid floor result to advance to that final. Shang also successfully got through a low-content but clean bars routine, and nearly had a big beam score coming (featuring her hit tuck full in combination) until she missed her foot on her dismount and had to improvise a full that nearlllly worked. We’ll see her again in the AA final.

Who had a waking nightmare?

Ou Yushan – Sigh. At her best, Ou Yushan is the most talented athlete among this entire group, but today was mostly a disaster. In her potentially world-beating beam routine, she fell twice (though did debut her candle 1/2 mount), once on her fhs + front tuck series and then again on a Korbut-slip. She went on to plop backwards on a Yfull on vault to send her AA ranking all the way down to 12th—which will see her miss the all-around final because of two-per-province.

Even on floor, Ou stepped OOB but nonetheless managed the top score of the day at 14.133, which will make floor her only final—and also proved the saving grace of her competition. Despite the general disaster, that floor number would still put her on China’s highest-scoring team of four based solely on today’s action, along with Li Shijia, Lu Yufei, and Zhang Jin. (Imagine if that were actually China’s team…) That’s why I’m not closing the coffin lid on Ou Yushan’s Olympic hopes just yet, even after today. She can have a pretty terrible competition and still be necessary. If she had hit beam today, we would be singing the praises of this team lock.

At the same time, we’re getting to the point where potential is not enough. We’re too close to the Olympics, so Ou really will have to hit some major gymnastics at the final tests to justify her placement on a team.

Wei Xiaoyuan – Joining the two-falls-on-beam club was Wei Xiaoyuan, Ou Yushan’s partner in “THEY ARE THE FUTURE” potential from 2019 junior worlds. That beam miss put her all the way down into 13th AA, just behind Ou, but fortunately for Wei she is the top gymnast from her province and will get to compete in the AA final. Unfortunately for Wei, she doesn’t really have the floor score to buoy her position on a prospective Olympic team despite mistakes the way Ou does.

Wei did look excellent on bars for one of the top scores of the day to advance to that final, but a high bars score isn’t essential for China in the way a top floor score is. There are other people who can do that. When you have Li Shijia and Lu Yufei scoring the way they did today, plus Tang Xijing and Ou Yushan, you’re not saying “oh we must take Wei for bars.” Basically, if anyone needs a comeback performance in the AA final to get back in the mix, it’s Wei.

Let’s check in again after the AA when all of this will surely be…opposite.

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