The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Chinese Nationals and Worlds Team Chaos

This week, China held its national championship (rescheduled from May), which primarily served to upend everything we thought we knew and complicate the worlds team picture in several delectable ways. We’d have it no other way.

In the results department, 2019 world silver medalist Tang Xijing took the two-day all-around title by what was ultimately a comfortable margin of 1.100 over Olympian Ou Yushan in second place and He Licheng in bronze. Perhaps the biggest stir, however, was made by junior Qiu Qiyuan, who led the all-around after qualification with a 55.350 (the highest single-day score for anyone).

Things fell apart for Qiu on bars and beam (her best events) in the all-around final to drop her all the way to 7th overall, but her first-day performance served as official notification for next year when she’s senior eligible that you should be bursting into rooms with, “Just want to say everyone’s sleeping on Qiu Qiyuan” before disappearing in a cloud of smoke.

On the events, perennial vault specialist Yu Linmin won that title facing relatively little challenge (Qi Qi has not been able to bring back her competitive difficulty), while Luo Rui and Wei Xiaoyuan tied for first on bars but the title went to Luo on the execution tiebreak. Qiu Qiyuan returned from her all-around struggles to win the beam title, and underdog Xiang Lulu leaped her way to an upset win on floor when Tang Xijing, Ou Yushan, and He Licheng all faltered on the last day.

So let’s get into what all this means for China’s prospective world championships team, which is shaping up to be one of the most unsettled selection processes with a month and a half to go before worlds, with a solid 8+ athletes still presenting logical cases for spots on the team.

Taking the entire year into account (so that means including the Asian Championships and Asian Championships trial in addition to nationals), the national championship semi-misleadingly brought no movement in the highest-scoring team, which would still be Zhang Jin, Tang Xijing, Wu Ran, Wei Xiaoyuan, and Luo Rui. Here’s how that team breaks down using the average of each athlete’s top 2 scores on each event this year:

Zhang Jin13.80013.43314.18313.600
Tang Xijing13.066514.60014.38313.5835
Wu Ran12.96613.57514.63313.8465
Wei Xiaoyuan13.00014.98313.40012.750
Luo Rui11.53314.90814.491513.133
39.866544.491043.507541.0330168.898

For reference, this total would currently rank #3 in the world among all nations using the same method, behind the US and Italy and just head of Brazil.

This seemingly stable team of five was undercut by several developments at nationals. First, the injury to Wu Ran is a real bummer. She produced China’s highest beam and floor scores at the Asian Championship, an absolutely necessary combination of strengths in trying to put together an ideal team of five.

Wu remains on the athlete list for China’s final worlds selection competition, which is encouraging, but we’ll have to see how she fares at that event in deciding whether her spot on the worlds team will actually be hers. And after the debacle that was the Olympic team final, how will China feel about taking a “you’d definitely be on this team at your best, but you’re still kind of injured right now” athlete?

Similarly complicating matters at nationals was the performance of Olympian Zhang Jin. This spring and early summer, Zhang was on a roll, winning the the all-around title at the Asian Championship by a huge margin over Tang Xijing. Several months ago, she looked like a lock for worlds, but she had a weak national championship, finishing 8th in the all-around (she was 10th after qualification) and advancing to zero event finals. Going by only the scores at nationals, Zhang would not be on the highest-scoring team of five.

So what would that team look like?

Using the average of each athlete’s top 2 scores at nationals (so mimicking the team above, but just with nationals), we’d have this five:

Ou Yushan13.00013.82514.12513.200
Tang Xijing13.00014.37513.52513.525
Sun Xinyi13.150014.691512.900
Wei Xiaoyuan12.85014.93313.25012.725
Luo Rui014.90813.9580
39.15044.21642.774539.625165.7655

In this setup, Sun Xinyi comes onto the team, primarily for her sublime and reliable beam routine but also to contribute vault and floor on a squad where those events are…not the deepest. That’s the crux of the conundrum from nationals—those whose vault and floor scores seem necessary, like Zhang Jin and He Licheng, did not consistently bring high enough scores on other events to get on a team.

In addition to Sun, Ou Yushan also drops into the national championships five thanks to floor return, and because he can provide one of the best beam options on her day, an event where she took bronze.

There’s a lot to like and a lot to be worried about with this group of five, but my main question is whether this group is unnecessarily stacked on the middle events (Tang Xijing’s beam score isn’t even counting here because she missed in qualification, but she’s sort of the Olympic silver medalist). Would it be more advantageous to chuck out one of the bars or beam specialists in favor of someone who could provide a vault and floor score—should that person exist?

Which brings us to the highest-scoring team using only each athlete’s top score from nationals.

Ou Yushan13.05014.30014.40013.350
Tang Xijing13.10014.40014.00013.700
Sun Xinyi13.150014.85012.900
He Licheng13.60014.25013.75013.200
Luo Rui014.96614.6500
39.85043.66643.90040.250167.666

This team gets He Licheng in the mix to contribute vault and floor scores. If she’s reliably landing it on her feet, hers is a vault you’d want to put up at worlds because even with form aplenty, she has a full point D-score advantage over the Yurchenko fulls.

After a strong qualification result on floor, He Licheng missed in both the all-around final and the event final, which is not ideal for someone looking to contribute a floor score for the worlds team. It’s an undeniable risk, one I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable dropping Wei Xiaoyuan’s bars routine for, which is the case in the team above. Wei’s bars has been a sure-thing for high 14s all year, while in this setup you’d end up using a bars routine from Ou Yushan or He Licheng in a team final instead, which is definitely not a sure thing.

So where does that leave us? Chaos town, basically.

Basically the only 100% gymnast on this worlds team is the national champion Tang Xijing. You’d happily put her on bars, beam, and floor in the team final—and even if she’s still just vaulting the Yfull, you may have to use that as well.

One thing China does have right now is a very clear top 3 on bars with Tang alongside Luo Rui and Wei Xiaoyuan. We have a tendency to take bars and beam for granted with China and focus (perhaps over-focus?) on how to squeeze enough competitive vault and floor scores into the five while just assuming that bars and beam will be there. But as the Olympics taught us in harsh fashion, bars should not be taken for granted as a big score. For me, having Tang, Luo, and Wei all on that worlds team is a top priority.

That brings us to the Wu Ran issue, which may dictate how everything plays out. If Wu is in form, not only would that deliver a necessary floor score, but you’d also then have Tang, Luo, and Wu pretty much covering beam. That would be bad news for Sun Xinyi’s hopes since beam is what she brings. Meanwhile, it would be good news for those who bring vault because a team with Tang, Luo, Wei, and Wu on it would be desperately, desperately in need of a vault score.

That’s why there’s absolutely still an opening for Zhang Jin despite nationals (or He Licheng) as long as she can hit vault and show 13s on floor at the final selection. Ou Yushan hasn’t shown the vault difficulty this year (and the track record for last minute re-upgrades is not ideal), which would be a major concern on that team. But, she is starting to look like one of the best floor options again, perhaps better than Zhang or He, and a third floor routine is something else a Tang, Luo, Wei, and Wu team would need.

And what if Wu Ran can’t go? Then you still need a beam routine, and Sun Xinyi is the best bet there, with a solid argument that her single huge beam score delivers more than those who can give you a few tenths across a couple events. Still, it’s one event, and if you’re looking for multiple events, Ou Yushan theoretically gives a beam, as well as floor, and bars on a good day, which would make her a very compelling option. You could pair either Sun or Ou with the vault/floor from Zhang or He (or with each other if everyone continues to fall apart on floor) to round out a senisble team without Wu.

Circles and circles forever, but there’s a reason that team at the top remained the highest-scoring team for China even after nationals. That distribution of strengths is probably the best bet, and only if they are not performing or healthy—which may well continue to be the case—do you start to look for what combination of other athletes makes up for it the most efficiently.

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