The highly anticipated women’s all-around competition in London has been somewhat incorrectly billed as a rematch between 2011 World champion Jordyn Wieber and runner-up Viktoria Komova of Russia. That is one of the big storylines, but it’s not the only one.
The American press has also been exploring the possibility of a showdown between Wieber and Gabrielle Douglas for the top two rungs on the podium, while the Russians believe that 2010 World champion Aliya Mustafina and Komova are most viable for gold.
While those four are definitely favored, they are by no means not the only people in the game. In the U.S., Russia, China and Romania — as ever the Big Four of women’s gymnastics — there is at least one gymnast who is a potential all-around medalist who won’t even get a chance to compete in the overall final due to the two-per-country rule.
Here are five people who could pop in and surprise the favorites:
5. Yao Jinnan, China: One of the unexpected stars of the 2011 World Championships, tiny Yao surprised a lot of people by finishing third in the women’s all-around in spite of falling off the balance beam in the third rotation. Even more interesting is to consider that she would have won the competition outright if she had stayed on.
Whether Yao has been able to upgrade her vault to an Amanar for the Olympics is questionable because she had a knee injury a few months ago. That kept her out of the Chinese Championships, which were won by her teammate Deng Linlin, another viable all-around candidate who, like Raisman and Grishina, is unlikely to make finals simply because she is ranked third on her team.
4. Huang Qiushuang, China: The 20-year-old standout from Hubei province has a new Amanar vault and the potential for amazing scores on the other three events. As with so many great Chinese gymnasts of the past, Huang’s weakness is not any one event but simply her ability to get through a four-event competition without falling off one of them at some point, which has proved questionable. If she were to go cleanly through the competition, I feel she too could win it all.
3. Anastasia Grishina, Russia: Sixteen-year-old Grishina is one of the darlings of the gymnastics world, and she earned it with her incredible form and ballerina-like execution. She’s simply stunning to watch, and as a result of being such a gymnast’s gymnast is capable of very high execution marks. Don’t see Grishina as viable for a podium spot? Remember that she beat Iordache’s all-around score on one of the days of the European Championships in May.
Like Raisman, Grishina is blocked by having better-known gymnasts with more difficulty on her own national team. Komova is a given for the all-around final, and Mustafina seems to have a good claim to the second spot, though that’s more by dint of her reputation than recent work. There’s also reigning World floor champion Ksenia Afanasyeva, a true all-around gymnast who is likely to do all four events in team prelims. More to Grishina’s disadvantage in the all-around, however, is that she doesn’t do an Amanar vault. It takes an awful lot of great form to make up for that.
2. Aly Raisman, USA: Aly Raisman, Olympic champion? It could happen. Raisman has finished fourth at the past two World Championships, and both times she was that low only because she had a fall on uneven bars. Raisman comes to the Olympics with an added 0.7 in start value thanks to having upgraded her vault to an Amanar, and her bars are improved, even if she’ll never be great on the event.
More than that, Raisman has proven over and over that she is a steady gymnast, that she’s not going to make mistakes when the pressure is on, and that she can out-tumble the rest of the world on floor. The only time she has ever shown weakness is in individual all-around competitions at World Championships.
So how does that bode for the Olympics? Well, it’s interesting. To get to the all-around final, however, Raisman will have to defeat either Gabrielle Douglas or Jordyn Wieber in the team prelims. That seems unlikely, even if Douglas has some nervous moments on beam. Raisman will likely need to hit everything on the first day of competition and get some help in the form of big mistakes from either Douglas or Wieber to get into the final.
1. Larisa Iordache, Romania: The incredibly talented young Romanian star seems poised to have a Nadia-like breakout in London. Iordache has one of the hardest beam routines in the world, in addition to being one of the favorites to win gold on floor. She’s also the best of the Romanians on bars, and has reportedly upgraded to an Amanar vault just in time for the Olympics.
Romanian-style preparation, which has in part led U.S. athletes to the success they’ve enjoyed for the past dozen years, should not be underestimated. Nor should youth, health, gutsiness and confidence. Iordache possesses all of the above. Wieber vs. Komova is the official storyline, but many feel Iordache could win the whole thing.
Finally, anyone who does an Amanar in competition has a shot at the gold medal. The International Gymnastics Federation might consider re-naming the Olympic all-around final the Amanar final, and the reason is that the code of points so favors this uber-difficult vault that everyone who manages to stand one up is looking at a score in the high 15s, giving them a nice bump in the standings over anyone who does any other vault. A good double-twisting Yurchenko will score around 15.0. Anything less will cap out around 14.5.
(Ironically, the sole exception to this rule is American McKayla Maroney, who is not viable as an all-around gymnast in spite of having the best Amanar ever done by anyone, anywhere. Maroney finished in 12th place in the all-around at the 2011 World Championships wholly because her vault gave her such a boost that it eradicated her placement on the other events: In the qualifying round, Maroney was first on vault but 33rd on bars, 62nd on beam and 22nd on floor, and yet the overall placement was just outside the top 10. (Note: I don’t mean to pick on Maroney — she is a delight to watch on floor, and her beam is much improved this year — but her vaulting ability bought her ticket to London. And there’s nothing wrong with that!)
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