Chengdu: the city renowned for its panda everything, will host the 2021 Chinese National Championships. Looking around the London 2012-esque hot pink arena adorned with panda caricatures, it’s very clear the event organizers were definitely obligated to incorporate panda symbolism into the venue (and I’m obsessed)
In contrast to any old ordinary year, the stakes at this year’s national championships are very high. National Championships are just milestone one in a grueling Olympic selection process to find the perfect team permutation to send to Tokyo for the Olympic Games this summer. Those who can make a name for themselves by finishing in the top 8 all-around here will be considered for the “big list,” essentially the select group of gymnasts from which the Olympic Team will be selected from. From there, gymnasts on the “big list” will compete in two internal training camps and the Olympic Team (4 for the team and 1 individual spot for both the men and women) will be selected.
I think it’s safe to say there are three locks for this Olympic Team: Xiao Ruoteng, Sun Wei, and Zou Jingyuan. The four-person team format emphasizes the need for gymnasts to compete all-around, Xiao and Sun are capable of bringing very competitive scores on all six events to compete with Russia and Japan for the team gold. Although Zou doesn’t carry the same all-around potential as Xiao or Sun, he punches his ticket to Tokyo for his godly parallel bar work that gives me flashbacks to the 2008 quad when scores above 16 were commonplace. Zou easily surpasses the 16.0 barrier regularly and has scored as high as 16.433 in international competition. He’s also fantastic on pommel horse and rings and will be expected to bring in a large number there as well. I’ve heard some murmuring of a potential all-around debut for him which could potentially throw the Olympic team final lineup strategy into a tizzy.
Fighting for the last spot will be a battle between Lin Chaopan, Deng Shudi, and interestingly, Zhang Boheng. Zhang, one of the surprise newcomers, recently won the all-around at a recent internal test competition over Deng, Lin, Sun, AND Xiao. Zhang doesn’t have a particular “weak” event which gives him a leg up in the conversation of being a member of that four-person team.
The individual spots will be a little bit of a toss-up. As of now, Liu Yang and Weng Hao are leading rings and pommel horse apparatus world cup rankings respectively. Liu Yang’s spot will depend on whether the Doha World Cup happens (which is a conversation for another post), and Weng Hao’s ticket to Tokyo will depend on whether Liu Yang wins or not. For the second individual spot (the country spot), Huang Mingqi has put himself in the selection pool with his spectacular vaults reminiscent of the 2012 Olympic Champion, Yang Hak-Seon. Although he has never competed at a World Championships, he has several world apparatus cup medals on vault and if he shows upgrades, could be a potential Olympic medal contender.
All eyes will be on Ou Yushan, who will make her senior debut at these championships. We’ve seen small snippets of her immaculate beam work, floaty tumbling, and ballerina-like toe point in small video clips online, but this will be our first time seeing her compete full routines. Although she’s not planning on doing her full difficulty here, she’s coming into these championships as a favorite to win the all-around title. However it won’t be easy- the sudden rise of Lu Yufei, one of the veterans of the team, could make an upset. Lu recently won the all-around title at a recent internal competition, bringing back her Kaz full on vault, and showing new beam upgrades.
Liu Tingting, the defending National Champion, is slated to only be doing uneven bars and will not be in the running to defend her title. Liu is already one of the favorites to make the Olympic team so her performance here isn’t as important as it may be for someone like Guan Chenchen or Wei Xiaoyuan, but she still will want to show she can bring in a large uneven bar number (especially after her 2019 team final catastrophe).
Speaking of Guan Chenchen and Wei Xiaoyuan, I’m very excited to see potential upgrades from them. Wei Xiaoyuan made a name for herself at 2020 nationals when she finished just behind Liu in the all-around competition, proving she is in the hunt for an Olympic team position. With such a deep field of strong all-around gymnasts, Guan Chenchen really needs to capitalize on her vault, beam, and floor strengths to factor into the Olympic team conversation. Her astronomical 7.1 beam d-score will provide her with quite a cushion and help her case to be part of the group.
Be on the lookout for Tang Xijing and Li Shijia, both veterans of the 2019 Worlds team. Tang, the reigning world all-around silver medalist, will be looking to make her mark in the all-around and will be expected to finish among the top eight. For Li Shijia, this is going to be her comeback meet. Li suffered from injuries during the 2020 season and was only able to compete on bars during nationals. Li will be looking to show off her fairly new uneven bar construction, and her new full-in on floor to prove her versatility across all four events.
This brings me to Qi Qi. Qi is an interesting case because we traditionally think of her as a vault and floor specialist. But she finished as high as third at last year’s National Games in the all-around. Even if she isn’t able to replicate that here, I do think Qi Qi is a shoo-in for the Olympic Team. Although her bars and beam may not be ideal to use in qualifications, the numbers she’s capable of bringing on vault and floor may be too good not to take (especially if her Amanar/Cheng combo ever makes a debut).
I also want to talk about Chen Yile for a little bit. Chen has been battling injuries for a while, inhibiting her from competing vault and floor. As of right now, I think it will be an uphill battle for Chen to factor into the four-person Olympic squad. Even attaining a specialist spot for beam could be very difficult as there are already so many outstanding gymnasts on the event that have even higher chances at making the team. For Chen to factor into the team conversation, she needs to regain her vault and floor abilities from 2017 that caught our attention and allowed her to clench the National Games title four years ago.
Speaking of specialist spots, Fan Yilin has mathematically guaranteed herself a spot for the Olympic Games. To be honest, she doesn’t even need to compete here to prove anything, but because she’s a queen she will grace us with her extraordinary uneven bar set and then proceed to singlehandedly win gold, silver, and bronze in event finals. Probably. Yu Linmin has been flying under the radar to potentially grab the second individual spot. Yu’s DTY + Cheng combination can score well and easily has the potential to make an event final, but with Qi Qi already taking an unofficial “vault-floor specialist” type role, I’m interested to see if Yu can still factor in.
These championships are going to be a very good indicator of what the Olympic teams will look like and who will factor into medals come the Olympics. For athletes and team selection officials, the pressure starts now.
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