above: Shawn Johnson, the defending World AA champion and favorite for AA gold at the Olympics
The Olympic AA final in women's gymnastics is set to take place on August 15th, 2008, just 120 days away. This, along with the team final, could potentially be one of the most exciting and dramatic contests of the games. Assuming there will not be any boycotts, gymnasts from the USA, China, Romania, Russia, Italy, Great Britain, Brazil, Australia and even North Korea have legitimate chances of meddling or winning this competition and becoming the new darling of their country. As history has proven, AA finals in the Olympics are a recipe for drama. Whether it be a judging scandal, a stripped title due to a cold remedy, or a vault set too low, this is a competition not to be missed.
Shawn Johnson (USA)
Results: 2007 World AA champion, 2007 National AA champion, 2007 Pan American Games champion, 2008 American Cup-2nd place
Pros: Shawn Johnson boasts huge starting scores on vault, beam, and floor. She mixes incredible power and difficulty with generally clean lines and consistency. While dominating the world in 2007, many considered her untouchable for the Olympic AA crown because of her potential to consistently score well on every event. Her loss at the 2008 American cup was also said by some as a blessing in disguise, as it enabled her to not be as pressured to win. If she gets her Amanar vault consistent by the Olympics, Shawn could be unbeatable.
Cons: Shawn's starting score on the uneven bars is only a 6.3 (as of the Italy meet) and she is 1.4 behind Nastia Liukin on this event. Shawn also showed some nerves at the Worlds, where she fell in 3 out of 14 routines. As the past has proven, media favorites prior to the Olympics (i.e. Kim Zmeskal) will often fall under the immense pressure. Only one defending world champion has gone on to defend their Olympic title (Lilia Podkopayeva) in the last eight Olympics.
Outlook: Shawn's starting score, with or without the Amanar, should be formidable to any competitor. Her execution scores are usually good as well. Shawn's training regimen of 4-5 hours a day has kept her remarkably healthy despite all the competitions she has been to, and this bodes very well toward her health at the Olympics. Though a strong favorite, one shouldn't expect her to just walk away with the gold.
Steliana Nistor (Romania)
Results: 2007 Worlds-2nd place, 2007 Europeans-4th place, 2006 Worlds-4th place
Pros: Steliana is a consistent gymnast who usually performs well under pressure. She has high difficulty scores and is a favorite of the European judges who lobby to get her high scores despite often dreadful form and execution in order to have a Romanian challenge for a medal. (this should continue, as the 2004 Olympics were the 1st time since 1972 where no Romanian won an AA medal). Nistor is strong on all four apparatus and has upgraded on bars and beam since worlds.
Cons: Steliana's form, no matter how much the European judges want to ignore it, is some of the worst amongst the top AAers. As of late, Stela has suffered from falls on beam at Europeans and at Cottbus Cup and as well as bars at the latter. Bars and beam are her money events, as these are the events where she takes the most risk. Steliana will also have to deal with the pressure of being Romania's lead AA gymnast.
Outlook: A news article entitled "Comaneci no longer inspires Romanian gymnasts" reported that Nistor had an injury preventing her from vaulting, although she was vaulting just fine at Europeans and won the AA in both qualifying and team finals, though there was no AA competition contested. Steliana's political favor, difficulty, and general consistency could easily lead her to a medal, but winning seems a bit unrealistic.
Jade Barbosa (Brazil)
Results: 2007 Worlds-3rd place, 2007 Pan Ams-4th place
Pros: A beautiful Amanar vault, and potentially strong scores on beam and floor can provide a strong statement for an AA medal or win. She was far stronger at last year's worlds than at any other meet during the year, proving that she knows how to peak at the right time. Despite a weakness on uneven bars, her strength on the other events should provide enough cushion for a weak score on that event.
Cons: Jade generally will do very well until the last event where all hell will break loose. At Pan Ams, she had a small lead over Shawn Johnson but completely broke down on the bars and dropped to 4th. At worlds, she was in the lead going into the final rotation until a fall on a piked full-in (she also fell on her last event, floor, during prelims) dropped her to a tie for bronze. She also struggled a bit at the recent Cottbus Cup, her first event of the year.
Outlook: Jade has the goods to go for the gold, but her nerves always take control of her during the last event. The Amanar vault may not help her as much as she will need, with Johnson having one in her arsenal and possibly Ferrari and others. Jade will need to keep her mental and physical game solid on the day of the AA final, but has the potential to become the first Brazillian gymnast to medal, or even win, an Olympic AA competition.
Vanessa Ferrari (Italy)
Results: 2007 Worlds-3rd place, 2007 European AA champion, 2006 World AA champion
Pros: The blog "Gymnicestics? Seriously?" reported that with a rumored Amanar, Ferrari would have the highest A-score of the competition. Ferrari's potential for high scores on all 4 events and political favor from Bruno Grandi, FIG president who's also Italian, could be the right mix of ingredients to get her gold. She won the AA at the 2006 worlds WITH a fall ahead of four competitors who did not fall.
Cons: Ferrari developed a foot injury before worlds but was forced to compete to assure the Italian team of qualifying a full team for the Olympics. In her early 2008 performances, the injury had taken a noticeable toll on her gymnastics. Ferrari will have to carry the weight of Italy's expectations, as she is the only member of their team with a shot at an AA or individual medal.
Outlook: Though Ferrari has not looked strong since 2007 Worlds, she just might be able to peak at the right time for the Olympics. She is a tough competitor and the strength of her gymnastics at top form could be tough to beat. However, if she remains more injured than expected,many gymnasts waiting in the wings will be ready to snatch her spot on the podium.
Nastia Liukin (USA)
Results: 2006/2008 Pacific Rim AA champion 2008 American Cup AA champion 2007 Worlds-5th place, 2005/2006 National AA champion
Pros: Gorgeous lines and artistry make for high execution marks. Upgrades on every event, notably a DTY vault and a whooping 7.7 A-score on bars, prove that Nastia wants the AA gold. She is a world champion on uneven bars and balance beam and routinely earns 16+ scores on those events. When all the upgrades said and done, Nastia could have an overall A-score equal or even slightly higher than that of her top U.S. rival, Shawn Johnson. So far in 2008, Nastia has looked in great shape.
Cons: Nastia has been labeled as a "two-event gymnast" because she's considerably weaker on the power events, vault and floor than she is on bars and beam. Nastia's stamina tends to fade as a competition goes and one has to have a long memory to remember the last time Nastia didn't step out of bounds on the floor.
Outlook: Though people would've hated to have admitted this in 2007, there's a realistic chance Nastia might end up being the United States' best hope for gold, not Shawn Johnson. Liukin beat Johnson at Scam and posted a score over a point higher at Pacific Rim than Johnson did at the Italy meet (though Shawn didn't compete the Amanar). Plus, Liukin won't have to deal with the same pressure Johnson will as a defending world champion. Some minor errors aside, Liukin looks ready to challenge for the gold.
Other Potential Medalists
Jiang Yuyaun (China)
Results: 2007 olympic test event AA champion
Pros: After only competing 3 events at the 2007 Worlds, Jiang looked like a seasoned all-around competitor at the Olympic test event two months later by winning the AA with a score that would've been good enough for the silver medal at worlds. She is especially strong on China's weaker events, vault and floor.
Cons: Jiang has limited experience with competing the AA, and may not have enough difficulty (though there are rumors of an Amanar UPDATE: She successfully landed an Amanar at the Chinese Internal Test Event) of competing with some of the other top gymnasts. Also, Jiang was not sent to Cottbus Cup in favor of other Chinese a-listers, which may mean that she is not as healthy as she would like.
Outlook: The one weak event for the Chinese women is actually the AA, although at top form Jiang can be a top challenger in the event. Performing in her first big AA competition and winning against some good gymnasts at home bodes well for her chances of doing well in the Olympics.
Yang Yilin (China)
Results: 2007 Worlds-6th place, 2007 Chinese national AA champion
Pros: Yang is world-class on the uneven bars and doesn't have a noticeably weak event. She is very consistent and has proved herself at both her nationals and at worlds, two pressure-packed events.
Cons: Yang's 6th place finish at the 2007 Worlds could actually be seen as a disappointment because she finished behind three competitors who suffered falls, whereas Yang performed cleanly throughout the entire competition. Yang's comparatively lower A-scores will not help her quest for an AA medal, nor will her recent injury at the Cottbus Cup.
Outlook: Yang's consistency and textbook form are assets for doing well in the AA, but she will need to sizably bump up her difficulty for a medal. This may not be able to happen because of her recent injury, but Yang has proven to be a tough competitor under pressure.
Sandra Izbasa (Romania)
Results: 2007 Worlds-9th place, 2007 Europeans-2nd place, 2006 Worlds-3rd place
Pros: Though she only competed three events (all except bars), Sandra looked like a re-invented and much healthier athlete at the Europeans just a few weeks ago. Much like Jade Barbosa, strong scores on three events can cushion for a weaker score on bars. At top form, Sandra is a strong competitor who gets the job done.
Cons: Not competing bars at Europeans does not point any positive signs toward her current condition on that apparatus. Sandra's form tends to lag behind on bars and beam, and she may struggle to keep up with the skyrocketing A-scores of the top tier of gymnasts.
Outlook: Sandra has looked strong so far this year, especially on the floor exercise. Bars, and even vault, could hold her back from the podium. However, her consistency and mental toughness should make her fellow competitors raise an eyebrow or two when she is out on the floor.
Daria Joura (Australia)
Results: 2007 Olympic test event-2nd place, 2007 Worlds-10th place, 2006 Worlds-5th place, 2006/2007 Australian national AA champion
Pros: With strong, polished gymnastics and lots of style, Joura is a favorite among judges and fans alike. She doesn't have a noticeably weak event, and has performed well since worlds with medal finishes at the 2007 Olympic test event (silver) and the 2008 pacific rim champs (bronze). Potential upgrades on vault (Amanar) and floor (Double Layout) could increase Daria's AA medal chances significantly.
Cons: Daria had one of her worst competitions at the 2007 worlds, with numerous falls in preliminaries and AA finals. Succumbing to the pressure at a huge event like that may mean that she is not prepared for all the pressure surrounding the Olympics. She has also shown some inconsistency on beam and, as of now, lags behind the others on her A-score.
Outlook: Daria will need a great night, on her part and also by the mistakes of others, to get a medal. It could happen, though, if her rumored upgrades materialize and if she rises above the pressure and just let the flair of her gymnastics speak for itself.
The Dark horses
Elizabeth Tweddle (GBR)
Results: 2007 Worlds-11th place, 2006 Worlds-8th place, 2oo5 Worlds-4th place, 2002-2007 British national AA champion
Pros: At the prelims of the 2007 Worlds, Beth was 4th AA, ahead of both Ferrari and Barbosa. She is an exceptional bar worker and is great on the floor exercise as well. She is also one of the only potential top AA competitors to have competed in an Olympic games, and will bring lots of experience to Beijing.
Cons: Beth generally does much better in the preliminaries than in the finals of a world championship competition. Her weaker scores on vault and beam allow Beth no room for error in order to get a medal. She also seems to be jinked with getting injured or giving subpar performances in big competitions.
Outlook: On a lucky night, Beth could get a medal. Her potentially formidable scores on bars and floor are great, but she will need to hit 4 for 4 and hope that other top gymnasts fall and open the door. An AA medal for Beth would be a huge milestone for British gymnastics.
Anna Pavlova (Russia)
Results: 2008 Russian nationals-2nd place, 2006 Worlds-19th place, 2005 Worlds-7th place, 2005 Europeans-2nd place, 2004 olympics-4th place
Pros: Admired for her beautiful, classical technique and an actual sense of artistry in her routines, Pavlova is a sentimental favorite in the AA. She successfully attempted an Amanar at the 2008 Russian nationals en route to a silver medal, and is looking good so far this year. Despite her inconsistency, one cannot forget that Pavlova's best competition to date was probably the 2004 olympics, where she likely should've gotten an AA medal.
Cons: Pavlova is somewhat sluggish on the uneven bars and doesn't have a formidably high start value on really any event besides vault. Her Amanar can help her out quite a bit, but it won't if she splats it like she did at Europeans. Not winning her country's championship proves that she has a little ways to go before being capable of challenging for an AA medal again.
Outlook: International gymnast magazine, oddly enough, put Anna as one of the candidates for their poll on who would win the 2008 Olympics despite not competing at all at the 2007 worlds. Anna is a sentimental favorite for the Olympics and her chances of medaling as of now appear slim. But hardly anyone expected her to medal in 2004, and she ended up coming extremely close to medaling and probably should have. She may just have the night of her life at the right time.
Yulia Lozechko (Russia)
Results: 2008 Russian national AA champion, 2007 Worlds-8th place
Pros: The European beam champion has proved that she can be competitive in the AA as well. Eighth at last year's worlds, she went against her coaches' orders in the prelims regarding what beam dismount to throw. She ended up doing, and falling, on her double arabian and the Russian coaches banned her from training camps. It seemed to motivate her, as she easily won the Russian national title in February.
Cons: Yulia is much stronger on balance beam than she is on the other three events, and this is partly due to lower A-scores, which have seemed to become the name of the game in this event. She is also inconsistent and made several mistakes at worlds in all phases of the competition, including that fateful balance beam dismount.
Outlook: It would be surprising to see Yulia on the medal podium on Beijing; she is certainly no Svetlana Khorkina. She will need to close the gap on her competitors on vault and bars in particular, in terms of both difficulty and execution. She does appear to improve from competition to competition, and we'll see where her gymnastics will be at come Beijing.
Hong Su Jong (North Korea)
Results: 2007 Worlds-12th place, 2006 Asian Games-3rd place, 2006 Worlds-23rd place
Pros: Hong Su Jong made dramatic improvement between the 2006 and 2007 worlds, moving up 11 places. She is world-class on vault, competing a very consistent Amanar, and is very strong now on uneven bars as well.
Cons: Despite her obvious improvement between Aarhus and Stuttgart, Hong is still relatively weak on beam and failed to even break 14 on the floor at worlds. Unlike Nastia Liukin, Hong's two best events don't provide her enough breathing room for weak scores on beam and floor because her A-scores are much lower on those two events. Also, North Korean gymnasts are usually not favored politically in the judging.
Outlook: The new code does not emphasize form enough and this will hurt the comparative advantage of Su Jong, who generally has stronger form than many of the top contenders. Though North Korean gymnastics training, much less its entire country, is clouded in mystery, the coaches and Su Jong have obviously done something right. Su Jong's improvement should continue barring injury and she might just be able to contend for a medal on a perfect night. If Su Jong were to climb 11 places again, she'd have herself a gold medal, although this is extremely unlikely.
I did not include any contenders beyond the allowed 2 per-country. While this is not a problem for most countries, the USA and China have some other contenders that would also like to get their 15 minutes of fame.
USA- Chellsie Memmel, Jana Bieger, Shayla Worley
China- Pang Pan Pan, Xiao Sha, UPDATE: Deng Linlin
- It is crucial for all medal contenders to qualify into the top group of 6 gymnasts. Much like figure skating, the top group of gymnasts generally get slightly higher scores comparative to the other gymnasts, regardless of the actual execution of their routines. Many judges do this to ensure that they know exactly what mark each gymnast needs on the floor, the last event, and how the medals will play out right in front of them, thus preventing any surprise gymnasts spoiling the competition on other events.
- Despite people saying Shawn Johnson will just walk away with the title, I must disagree. So far this year, Liukin is looking very competitive. Nistor, Ferrari, and Barbosa will be formidable challengers as well if on call. Johnson herself dropped to 3rd at the 2007 worlds prelims with a fall on her bars dismount. It should come down to who is the best on that day.
Gold: Shawn Johnson (USA)
Silver: Nastia Liukin (USA)
Bronze: Jiang Yuyuan (China)
LOL sorry I'm so biased for the Americans.
Gold: Nastia Liukin (USA)
Silver: Vanessa Ferrari (Italy)
Bronze: Shawn Johnson (USA)
I believe Ferrari will recover and be good as ever come Beijing. (though I hope I'm wrong LOL)
That is all.