The State of the Russian Team Address

Qualification and all-around finals are complete at the Russian Cup, and so even though event finals are still to come, two days of competition provide a clear enough picture to examine where things stand with the Russian team. Or, if you’re Valentina, a clear enough picture to just outright name the team before the end of the competition. Imagine asking Valentina about petition selection procedures. She would put a cigar out on your tooth.

The Russian women are currently facing an even more dramatic version of the Big Three Problem that currently consumes discussion of the US women. Viktoria Listunova, Vladislava Urazova, and Angelina Melnikova are so far out in front of the rest that putting those three up on every event in the Olympic team final would be a completely viable and understandable approach.

At the Russian Cup, it was Melnikova who led after qualification when everyone had some degree of nightmare on beam and Listunova fell both there and on floor. In the all-around final, however, Listunova resolved her life, while Melnikova fell on beam, allowing Listunova to take gold, Urazova silver, and Melnikova bronze. The order at this point is insignificant because all three are locks for the Olympic team, but it will be significant at the Olympics when someone gets Wiebered.

In contrast to the US fourth-spot mess heading into trials, at this point there are pretty much only two viable choices for Russia’s remaining spot: Elena Gerasimova and Lilia Akhaimova. (We had all entertained the potential of Yana Vorona for a moment, but she has not had a nice time at this competition.)

Discussion of who best fits for that fourth spot is basically moot because Valentina announced that she already picked the team and you’re not on it, saying, “For girls, it’s Melnikova, Listunova, Urazova and, likely, Gerasimova. The choice is between Gerasimova and Akhaimova but Gerasimova is a bit more reliable.”

The fanciful proclamation about Gerasimova’s reliability notwithstanding, the scores from Russian Cup would support this team.

Using both the best score over the two days…

And average score over the two days…

The team with Gerasimova in the 4th spot comes out on top by a clear margin.

The issue with this Gerasimova team is that it’s largely based on Melnikova struggling on beam—with a fall on day 2 and a dismount race-walk on day 1—which means that the squad needs a beam score from someone else. If Melnikova starts hitting beam, Gerasimova doesn’t end up adding a whole lot, and we potentially return to that scenario where the top three just do all the events in the team final.

Akhaimova has the potential to add to this team, but unfortunately for her, she has been clattering all over the place on her handspring rudi, meaning it has scored lower than the DTYs from the big three. Her floor, meanwhile, has only been scoring about equivalently to Urazova’s, with both of them enduring some landing adventures.

If you imagine a scenario in which Melnikova hits beam and Akhaimova gets her vault landing under control, then we’re looking at a team where Akhaimova makes the most sense, but it sounds like Beam Fear is the strongest determining factor right now given the favoring of Gerasimova for the final position.

A team with Gerasimova on it would leave a pretty straightforward selection for Russia’s +2 individuals, as Akhaimova could go into one of the spots to try to do something on vault and floor, while Anastasia Iliankova seems an obvious choice for her bars ability.

Part B…how might this Russian team stack up at the Olympics? Let’s do a little comparison between Russian Cup, US Nationals, and Chinese Nationals, with all caveats about comparing domestically inflated scores with different judging assumed.

If we take best-score-of-the-meet teams, that Gerasimova squad for Russia is at 173.697, compared to the best-score team from Chinese Nationals, which came in at 173.428, and the best-score teams from US Nationals, where 9 different combinations all came in within a half point of each other, ranging from 176.500 to 176.950.

By average scores, the Gerasimova team is at 171.530, compared to the best average-score Chinese team at 171.029, and the average-score US teams, where the 9 combinations range from 174.800 to 175.125.

So very very roughly, what we have is an extremely tight race between Russia and China that could go either way based who hits on the day, with the US enjoying about a 3-fall buffer over both.

And what of Valentina’s favorite talking point, that without Biles the Russian team would obviously be superior to the US? Well no, but competitive? Absolutely. Without Biles’ scores, the US team would be right in the midst of the Chinese and Russian scores by each metric, 173s by best score and 171s by average score.

20 thoughts on “The State of the Russian Team Address”

  1. Laughing at Valentina’s talking point being about how Russia would beat the US without Simone. First of all, as Spencer pointed out, it would be incredibly close (much like the 2008, 2012 quads). However, that would be like saying that Russia take out their top gymnast and then China would be the clear superior team. Like obviously Simone is fab, but she’s also American so why talk about taking her out? Sounds like an E-X-C-U-S-E.

    1. Because Simone is a one of a kind talent that is impossible to reproduce and has single-handedly created USA’s huge victory margins since 2014. At 2019 Junior Worlds, USA got team bronze and no AA medal without even a bad meet. The talk about Simone not being there absolutely needs to happen between the Americans because living under the delusion that everything will stay the same without her WILL come back to haunt them.

      1. that’s actually part of US strategy. Not peaking their JRs until late in their sr careers. you don’t want to be a Ballie Key

      2. I would disagree about the US team at Worlds. Due to a bad team trials, McClain was left off the team. She was arguably the best/ second best gymnast in the US at the time. Also, Skye Blakely had a rough beam performance with multiple wobbles and several large steps on the double pike dismount before sitting it down. Her 11.933 had to be dropped which meant that Sydney Barros’ shaky beam with 12.966 had to count, which was about 1.0 difference in team score. If you give you that back the US is in silver medal position. If you replace Barros with McClain the gap shrinks even further.

    2. We all know what Valentina is, and it’s unprintable. We also all know she is the antithesis of a good coach. However, that said, USA Gym will have to stop leaning on the everlasting arms (oops I mean scores, LOL!) of Biles sometime. She cannot be replaced but they can do better than they have, at least. They’ll have to.

  2. With only a couple exceptions, I don’t feel that any national team or individual has reached their full potential during this pandemic. Not even Simone has done her best work across the AA. We had an alarming number of gymnasts stuck in the 54s and low 55s at the US nationals when we know that many more US women are capable of 56s or higher.

    Still, the US women have a track record of consistency at world and Olympic events. The 2019 was considered an anomaly in that we actually had falls in team final, but they were still the most consistent team in the final. I can see the US women going 12/12 in Tokyo. I can’t see any other team not having at least one fall.

    I still see consistency as one of the USA’s strength in a post-Simone era. We simply won’t have the same mathematical advantage as before, but can still get our multiple-fall margins of victory as consistency returns to where it was pre-pandemic.

    Regarding the Russian selection, they pretty much have the flexibility to wait until the last minute to decide their 4th team member and it should come down to who’s doing the best gymnastics right before the start of the Olympics. I think both Gerasimova and Akhaimova are interchangeable at this moment. Akhaimova brings the bigger scoring potential but the bigger risk of not having a countable score. Gerasimova at her best would certainly contribute on beam, but like Spencer said, not as much if Melnikova can pull beam together.

    1. While I agree in general, I do not think we have enough data to support US consistency at this point. After watching Classics and Nationals, the number of falls seems to have increased dramatically since the Martha days… She’s awful, but I feel like consistency has suffered (beam in particular) since her departure. But then again, the pandemic and lack of competitions probably have an impact as well… so who knows.

      I think we need to gather some more data to say that US consistency is where it was in the past. I believe Spencer quoted one of the gymnasts recently in the podcast saying that since although she was atrocious, Martha was able to create intense pressure just by her mere presence, the athletes were able to get used to that atmosphere therefore ensuring that the pressure at big events (ie Olympics, Worlds) didn’t affect their performances (as much). I think it was in last weeks podcast? Maybe 2 weeks ago?

      1. Exactly. Marta’s tyranny was vile, but must we choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of former East-Bloc mental/physical abuse or error-filled routines? The Karolyis used absolutely mindless and physically damaging repetition to turn gymnasts into terrorized robots, which is absolutely not the only way to get good performances (I know this as a coach and teacher.) However, it is much more difficult to encourage rather than brutalize; look at the roll of DIShonor of abominable US coaches (most) and then try to find ‘successful’ elite coaches who don’t trash their athletes. I would say Kelli Hill (*maybe*), Laurent and Cecile Landi, and Aimee Boorman. It’s no accident that two of the three have been Simone Biles’ coaches; she was not about to put up with the standard regime of torture, and she was talented enough and very soon famous enough to negotiate her own terms (that is also probably one of the main reasons she has seldom suffered serious injuries.) That is not the case for other gymnasts, and suspending creatures like Maggie Haney is only the beginning of work on this problem. There used to be great coaches like Stormy Eaton who truly nourished their athletes; now we have things like Kim Zmeskal running her own little Karolyi concentration camp redux, and the results are permanently broken gymnasts like Bailie Key. This ain’t working.

      2. This is random, but you mentioned someone that I was extremely impressed by: Stormy Eaton, perhaps the pioneer of Nice, Effective Coaching. I was younger, but i was still there. I wish he had been given the opportunity to share his gift with more athletes. He was held back by The Karolyis and then held back with his untimely death. I coach a different sport but it’s the same snake, different rock. That’s a sh*t show in swimming, too.

      3. I fully agree that the extreme repetition and training environment of the Karolyis was not healthy. And we have to remember that this level of training caused injuries in Olympic athletes such as Maroney and Wieber in 2012 and Kocian and Hernandez in 2016.

        What we have now is far better mentally for gymnasts, but I’d argue that Tom’s laser focus on the all around has caused it’s own set of problems. For all her faults, Marta would actually guide gymnasts and coaches to focus on certain events since she had an idea for what she wanted on a team. In some ways, this prevented some of the misguided difficulty and mistakes we’re seeing now. Currently, none of the event specialists have any idea if they’ll even be considered for Tokyo, so they’ve been pushing their all-around to the limit to the detriment of their consistency and even their health. Part of this is due to the team being reduced to 4 people but a lot of this does fall on Tom. I cannot believe he is not telling gymnasts like Skinner to focus solely on vault and floor and McCusker to focus on bars and beam when there is a real use for a 3rd strong score on each event. Instead, we’re watching Skinner kill herself with clear hip fulls and illusion turns and McCusker kill herself with Silivases and Chusovitinas.

        There is a point where you are so hands off that you actually do harm and I think that’s where Tom is now.

      4. GymFan777–Yes, that is true about Forster’s incompetence re AA –particularly given that this is the opposite of a team desperate for strong AA gymnasts or a team which is in any sort of fight for the gold medal…this is a team whose concern is winning as many total medals as possible, period. This team, and its proprietors, should be concerned with how to get two medals on both bars and beam.

        However, I recall considerable bad publicity on Forster before he was given his current job, including an unflattering video of him behaving badly with one of his gymnasts at a competition; I would argue he is just another part of the MUCH greater problem my last post explored, and that problem is lousy, damaging coaches. It is also most certainly the *job* of every gymnast’s personal coaches to emphasize the strengths that might make those athletes desirable for the team, and to keep their athletes healthy in the lead-up period to Tokyo; McCusker’s coach, although of course smelling like a rose compared to Maggie Haney, has done neither. Where would McCusker be now without the injury possibly incurred by Chuso and Silivas attempts? Better placed, that’s for sure. It appears that Skinner’s coaches have never stressed execution with her (instead just having her do harder and harder skills) and her bad form has been the downfall of her Olympic and World hopes time after time. The stunning rise of Chiles from talented also-ran to Olympic team lock in the past couple of years (particularly this year, of course) is contemporaneous with her change of gyms and coaches.

        Forster’s ineptitude doesn’t exonerate coaches from responsibility for their own mistakes. But I’d argue, also, that he is not ‘hands off’ but extremely passive-aggressive; he has tried to keep the athletes (and coaches, who really should know better at this point!) in the dark about specific team selection criteria and has been particularly bad re event specialists. This is Marta all over again (don’t tell the gymnasts they’re on the team until they compete the first day, and that is a direct quote from Maroney) but without the dictatorial, draconian control which allowed Marta to keep winning–and with even less impressive coaching/managerial skills. This is not ‘far better mentally’ for gymnasts; it’s a marginal improvement at best.

      5. to coachalex8183969 : I’m so glad you said that! couldn’t agree more on all of your comments. and yes, swimming is a total shitshow now as well. Barta (my name for their collective vileness) loathed Stormy Eaton and did everything they could to screw him over–like so many other good coaches and gymnasts.) Let me know if you’d like to continue talking somewhere else–the new regime here is that comments close permanently after a week, so we’d need another venue.

  3. I do think that the U.S. women’s team selection should focus less on peak team score than most other team selection processes, because that’s not the position they are in. They need to protect against a bad day more than gamble on a good one.

    If I was selecting the team, I would be thinking about protecting against a bad TF and also about individual medals. I’d probably start by choosing the highest-scoring team using (0.) average scores from both days of Trials, and then potentially adjust if needed based on (1.) average scores from all four days of nationals + Trials, (2.) medal-winning potential, and (3.) internal redundancy. Spencer covers (0 & 1) frequently, so I thought I’d take a quick look at the other two.

    2. Medal-winning potential. This is super crude, but I looked at who scored higher either day of Nationals than the bronze medalist from the lower-scoring of 2018 & 2019 Worlds. While imperfect, that seems like a decent benchmark for medal-winning potential, and it would be so cool if we could bring 2-3 people with the potential to medal on every event (the third being a spare essentially, since only 2 can actually medal). An argument can be made to use only 2019 Worlds as the scores were much higher generally than 2018, but here’s what you get using the lower of 2018 & 2019:

    AA: (2018 bronze medal score, 2019 bronze medal score: 55.732, 56.399): Biles, S. Lee, Chiles, Malabayu
    Almost (within 0.3) Blakely, Carey
    VT: (14.508, 14.816) Biles, Skinner, Chiles
    Almost (within 0.1) Carey
    UB: (14.6, 14.8) S. Lee, McCusker, Biles, Chiles
    BB: (13.6, 14.3): Biles, S. Lee, McCallum, Chiles, Eaker, Malabayu, E. Lee, Blakely, Alipio, Wong, Memmel
    Close (within 0.1) Carey, K. Morgan, Finnegan
    FX: (13.866, 14.066): Biles, DiCello, Wong, Chiles
    Close: Several others within 0.2 but no one within 0.1. 

    3. Built-in redundancy. It is reasonably common for an athlete to not be able to compete all their intended events due to injury, illness, etc. Sometimes this is known early enough that they can decide whether to bring in an alternate (e.g. Maroney 2012), but sometimes it isn’t (Kupets 2004), and the U.S. hasn’t brought in an alternate at the Olympics since the Morgan White incident of 2000. This will be less common than it used to be, I hope, due to less over-training and such, but it is still going to happen with some frequency. So if you care about preventing bad results rather than gambling on extra-good, you really want a 4th person on every event who can put up a usable score. This unfortunately argues a bit towards the ‘just take the top 4 all arounders’ approach, which I think is overkill. But, I think it is very useful to look at what the “worst 3” on the team on each event would score and see if that’s still remotely competitive before choosing the team.

    1. I love your reasoning/line of thoughts. I, too, was thinking you should always be prepared for the scenario if someone on the team got injured, even Simone. Matching up 3/4 best and “worst” scores seems like a reasonable approach.
      In a recent interview, MF stressed the importance of “the leg events”, which also suggests that they are probably considering how injury-prone someone is.

      1. They did have the team in 2018 lined up for a non-Simone scenario according to Toms facebook blog. Good for them that they did think about it at least sometime.

  4. National meets are notoriously overscored, but it’s not like it’s consistent per nation, per athlete. I mean comparing Chiles’ 57ish to Listunova’s 57ish to Lu Yufei’s 57ish is a fool’s game. Multiple those silly calculations for team scenarios and it’s kind of a joke.

    I’m not nearly as confident as others that USA’s dominance is anywhere near what it was at ’19 worlds.

    1. I don’t think we’ll see 2019 levels of dominance, but I also don’t think any team is even close to USA. We are losing Carey’s 2019 vault and floor but are very likely to replace those with comparable scores from Chiles. Sunisa’s floor is several tenths lower than her 2019 best but her bars and beam have the potential to be several tenths better than 2019. And we have to consider that outside the Biles, Chiles, Sunisa Lee trio, there is still a fourth team member who can provide a score boost to one or two events (i.e. a 15 on vault from Skinner, a 15 and high 14 on bars and beam (possibly) from Riley, or a 14 on floor from Wong/DiCello/possibly Skinner.)

      Despite their immense talent, I don’t have confidence in the Chinese and Russian teams not to have at least 2 falls in the team final. I don’t think any other national team really has much hope for a medal. I think a 6 or 7 point margin of victory is very much possible for USA.

    2. This a thousand times, and it is only going to worsen when Biles becomes a vault-floor ‘specialist’ which is what IS going to happen if she continues at all.

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