With Olympic spots on the line and only a few tenths separating who would get an automatic birth to the games, the stakes at this meet were extremely high. In conjunction with the All Japan Championships earlier last month, the standings from the NHK Cup-All Japan Championships saga was used to decide who Japan would send to the Olympics with the top three all-around getting an automatic spot on the team.
The meet got off to a fantastic start with Hiraiwa drilling a glorious NCAA-style Yurchenko 1.5 to give her a 14.3.
Hiraiwa wasn’t really on Japan’s Olympic team radar until last year. Ill-timed injuries have riddled most of her career, preventing her from being sent to major international competitions. But this year is different, she’s peaking in perfect time to vie for a spot on Japan’s Olympic team.
After a solid first rotation on vault, Murakami Mai struggled on bars, giving us a Svetlana Boginskaya 1996 compulsory reenactment.
However Mai was already so far ahead of the pack, she had enough of a lead to cushion her.
After a bringing back her Rudi and hitting a solid bars set, Asuka hit a clean beam set for a 13.633- the highest beam score of the day.
After rupturing her achilles last year, Teramoto’s Olympic hopes her in doubt. However after the Olympics were postponed for a year Teramoto is once again in contention for the team.
Sugihara Aiko also started the meet off nicely with her relatively new Yurchenko double-full. However she did struggle a little on bars, traditionally her weaker event.
She was able to rebound with a confident beam set showing off ambitious new connections and a nice double pike dismount.
Consistency queen Hatakeda Hitomi also had a fantastic beam routine after showing an upgraded bars set that allowed her to maintain her position in second place.
Murakami also showed a solid beam set, recovering from her bars mishap from the earlier rotation to score a 13.533.
On floor, Teramoto showed off clean tumbling but unfortunately landed short and fell on her final double pike- only scoring an 11.833
Coming into the final rotation with only a 0.02 deficit behind Sugihara, Teramoto needed to do everything in order to make her case for the Olympic team.
Sugihara followed up Teramoto with her charming new J-pop floor routine to solidify her fourth place ranking with a 53.698.
Coming into the final rotation, Hiraiwa needed a hit floor set to guarantee her guaranteed spot on the Olympic team.
With a solid tumbling, beautiful dance elements (the oversplits!), and a captivating performance, Hiraiwa scored a 13.466 to earn her guaranteed Olympic team spot.
Following Hiraiwa was Hatakeda who also only needed a hit set in order to guarantee her spot on the Olympic team. With a solid full-in, 2.5 to punch full, and double pike Hatakeda earned a 13.466 to sail into second place.
Finishing the competition on her strongest event was Murakami Mai. The 2017 floor World Champion easily topped the competition by getting the highest floor score of the day (14.2) to position herself as one of the favorites for an all around medal going into the Tokyo Olympics.
With Murakami, Hatakeda, and Hiraiwa guarenteed Olympic spots there was only one more position left to cap off the four person team.
After the seemingly eternal wait, the Japanese selection committee announced Aiko Sugihara would be the fourth person to represent Japan.
With Murakami Mai, Hatakeda Hitomi, Hiraiwa Yuna, and Sugihara Aiko rounding out the team, every person on this team understands what it’s like to overcome obstacles. Ill-timed injuries, poor competition results, or just bizarre team selection procedures, this Japanese team embodies perseverance and resilience. This summer they will compete in what is likely the biggest competition of their life, showcasing their gymnastics on the biggest stage in the world.
Ou Yushan’s highly anticipated return to competition hasn’t followed the linear trajectory many were expecting. Ou made several mistakes during the first day of competition, falling twice on beam and sitting her watered-down vault.
“It’s been a long time since I have competed, I also have been training a little less so my elements weren’t too consistent so I had a few issues. My coach was correcting me but I was still having problems. Since I haven’t been training enough, it’s been a little bit of a mental problem with some elements.”
Ou’s highlight of the day was on floor, where she achieved the top score of the day and qualified first into the floor final.
“Next time I won’t step out of bounds. Even during training I usually don’t step out of bounds, it could be because this is the competition and be an issue with my experience.”
After day one of the men’s competition has wrapped up, Sun Wei has found himself in a disappointing seventh place after making several mistakes. During podium training he commented on adjusting to the new setting:
“The temperature and the humidity in the arena is okay. Chengdu [the host city] is pretty humid and it’s causing me to slip a little. Right now I think most of my events are fine, I had a few issues on pommel horse so I still need to get used to the apparatus. On vault, my first vault was not good, but then I was able to improve my other attempts. Then on parallel bars I had a fall because my hand slipped. However this is just podium training, during the competition I should be okay.”
Expected to make her highly anticipated all-around return, Li Shijia is coming into 2021 National Championships as a veteran. She was a member of the 2019 World Championships squad and is the reigning world bronze medalist on beam. Unfortunately injuries prevented her from competing all-around during 2020 national championships, limiting her only to bars. However the tables have turned this week where Li will be looking to finish towards the top of the all-around standings.
During podium training Li commented on her progress:
“Across all four events everything went well. Back home my vault was lacking a little, but today I could vault a little more easily. I think it’s because I’m really excited, it gives me a lot more confidence.”
On beam and floor Li said “beam was okay, on floor I was also lacking a little bit with some elements. But on bars everything went really well.”
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.
After a disappointing individual finish in Rio nearly five years ago, Lee Chih Kai is looking towards the upcoming Tokyo Olympics not only with a team at his side, but with Olympic gold medal prospects on his specialty, Pommel horse.
Renowned for his crowd-pleasing, flare saturated routine composition, Chih Kai is the first Taiwanese gymnast to ever medal on pommel horse at a World Championships.
“I’m really happy that I can be one of the best in the world, it can help everyone make progress, it’s actually a really good opportunity to make everybody watch me as a model for people to study. Until now I didn’t think about becoming a person like this- it feels really amazing.”
In order to maximize his difficulty, Chih Kai works very closely with his coach, Lin Zexin to construct a routine that maximizes difficulty and execution.
“I’m changing his routine before the Tokyo Olympics,” Zexin said. “I added some new elements, but these are like a weapon. We are working continuously to get his whole set together.”
In a clip from an internal Taiwanese competition last week, Chih Kai showed off new upgrades boosting his already monstrous difficulty score to a 6.7.
Like many athletes, the road to Tokyo hasn’t been easy. The postponement of the Games has been a mental game for everybody involved. The postponement and cancelling of many international competitions has only elevated the stress and uncertainty.
“This more or less has an impact, the process has been really difficult because I don’t know when the Games will happen, or if they could be canceled. I think my mindset is a really important issue,” Chih Kai said.
As of now, the Taiwanese gymnastics federation has opted out of all competitions in February and March, but are expecting to send a team to Hangzhou, China for the Asian Games in May to get back in competition shape before the Olympic Games in July.
The road to the Olympics hasn’t been easy for Chih Kai, but he has shown to persevere even through setbacks and uncertainty.
“On the road from kindergarten to now, we almost broke off from our dreams, however he [Chih Kai] persevered and didn’t give up on his dream,” Coach Zexu said. “On this road we’ve had our ups and downs, but we still got what we wanted. From the establishment of our country fifty years ago, we weren’t even close to touching a team final result and now we have it.”
Whatever happens, Chih Kai is focusing on his training and preparation.
“It’s about returning back to my best form, going to competitions in my best form, exhibiting my best self. Compared to others I feel there is less pressure. Then I can do my best at the meet and the results will follow.”
When I think about Winter Cup one word usually comes to mind: meteorite. Why meteorite?
Because they fall. And well…
We saw that…
But it’s totally understandable. Besides the fact that it’s only February, the athletes competing here have been put through extraordinary circumstances never before seen in gymnastics. The pandemic has thrown the entire Olympic qualification process into the toilet, gyms around the country have been shut down, meets are being cancelled, and Texas is frozen. Many of the athletes who have a shot at making the Olympic team understandably opted out (Sam Mikulak, Akash Modi, Colin Van Wicklen, basically everyone from Stanford just to name a few). Although Winter Cup did have it’s lows, it would be unfair of me to only capitalize on those moments.
Because we also saw beautiful form
and tremendous difficulty
And don’t forget the opportunities for comedy
and incredible saves
At the end of the day Cameron Bock (Universtity of Michigan) was able to find the midpoint for both of those. While others made mistakes, Cameron capitalized on his consistency to finish in the top eight on every event. He combined competitive difficulty with clean execution to earn the 2021 Winter Cup all-around title.
Following closely behind was Riley Loos (the lone Stanford representative) who showed us he was NOT playing around during quarantine. Riley showed off huge upgrades, most notably on vault where he showed his new handspring 5/2.
Overall the men’s performance was a true testament to the strength and resilience of these athletes. 2020 has not been easy- the pandemic, the lack of competitions, the general uncertainty of the Olympics even happening that has uncomfortably been circulating in the air for a while. Not to mention the total dumpster fire situation going on with USA Gymnastics and the downfall of NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Programs. But for these athletes to still show up, adapt to the adversities, and compete to the best of their abilities, even when the world seems to be falling apart, shows the true qualities these athletes exemplify to the umpteenth degree.
Note: this interview took place on November 11, 2008
Jiang Yuyuan’s teammates were yelling at her, “put it in the bucket! Put it in the bucket!” Yuyuan was holding a squid she plucked from the beach. Smiling, she dropped the squid into a small blue bucket and filled it with seawater. The national gymnastics team was taking a beach trip to the seaside town Qingdao for a relaxing trip to recover from the Olympics.
In her training group, Yuyuan wasn’t the biggest kid; she always ended up with the responsibility to run errands or buy things. However, her bubbly personality made her stand out from everyone else and led people to make many nicknames for her.
“Which is more cheerful: little monkey or little rabbit? These are cheerful. Some people call me little rabbit, but some people think I look more like a little monkey,” Yuyuan giggled.
Because of her bright personality, her infectious smile, and her lively character, Yuyuan made a lasting impression upon the audience when she did her floor routine. “Sometimes when I see the people, I like to smile.”
When beginning her gymnastics career, Yuyuan’s strongest events were bars and beam, however, her expressiveness lead her coach to realize her potential on floor.
“There’s a little difference in the difficulty between me and my international competitors. But my expressions are my strength.”
A combination of her talent and hard work helped floor become one of Yuyuan’s stand out events. Because she was already strong across the other three events, Yuyuan became a very strong all-around gymnast. At the National Championships leading up to the Olympics, Yuyuan became the national all-around champion, solidifying her position on the 2008 Olympic team.
Unfortunately, a nagging elbow injury followed Yuyuan up through the 2008 Olympic Games. It severely impacted her ability to block off the vault table to compete her new vault, the Amanar. During the qualifications and all-around final of the Games Yuyuan crashed both of her Amanars. “I messed up and didn’t know what to do. All I could do was move on and do better on the next event. I believe confidence and faith are very important. Even if you don’t feel good about something, you should still try your best to feel good to change your mentality.”
In addition to helping the Chinese team qualify to the team final comfortably into first place, Yuyuan also secured spots in the all-around final and in the floor final.
During the team final, Yuyuan contributed on bars and floor. “As long as my first event went well, then everything would go well. That whole bar routine was my best at the Olympics. I did what I wanted and finished well.”
The final event was floor, all the Chinese team had to do was hit their routines and the gold was theirs. “They [the American team] finished already, we went after them. I told myself we weren’t behind, I told myself to feel that we are definitely better than them, those were my thoughts. I told myself I don’t believe I am not as good as you are.
Yuyuan was the second gymnast to compete in the Chinese floor lineup, where she charmed the crowd for her cheerful routine to “Lift your Veil,” and received a 15.200.
“I didn’t think too much, but I tried to express myself the best. I shouldn’t think too much or else I’ll be too stressed. I just breathed- when I started I just thought if I did an okay routine, it would be enough. Everyone was very supportive of me, I can definitely be successful. I believe in myself.”
The Chinese team finished the competition with a 188.900, finishing more than two points ahead of the silver-winning American team.
“When I was little I asked myself why do I do gymnastics? To become a world champion? To become Olympic Champion? Everybody says this. But you need to check your work ethic. Now that I got it [Olympic gold] I am so happy. I have so much more confidence now and feel like I need to continue working hard.”
Known for her playful character, 2020 Chinese Beam Champion Guan Chenchen took a more serious note in a CCTV Sports interview, sharing her ambitions and inspirations in gymnastics that sparked her desire to be a part of the mix for the upcoming 2021 Olympic Games.
“To me, the Olympics are a dream- when I was young and had not yet started gymnastics I remember watching big sister Cheng Fei compete floor at the Olympics on TV. I thought ‘wow, big sister can do these big skills and make them look so easy, she looks like she’s having fun.’ I want to make it to that level of competition so I can also show off myself.”
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