UPDATE: Check the bottom of the post for my explanation of my podium prediction
Note: Upon a reader's suggestion, I am changing my blog title to Polished Gymnastics 101, as to not create any confusion of my blog being about Polish gymnasts (yeah then I would have nothing to write about LOL). My site URL will remain the same, however.
I opened up this blog with a post on the women's Olympic AA final to take place at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China on August 15th, 2008. Three months after my original post on the outlook of the top all-around women for these Olympic Games, the landscape of this competition now has a very different look. Interestingly enough, it appears that a USA vs. China showdown will not be exclusive to just the women's team final. Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Jiang Yuyuan, and Yang Yilin look to be the top four contenders for this most prestigious title that they have trained their entire lives for. However, every gymnast is looking to capture their 15 minutes of fame on this night of nights. The anticipation is growing, the clock is ticking, and the drama is building. With just two weeks to go until the Olympics and everyone's final preparations for the biggest event of all falling into place, it is now time to crown the best gymnast in the world.
Note: The gymnasts' A-scores I have listed are of routines that have been credited successfully in competition. I do remark on any theoretical upgrades that either the gymnasts have said to be doing or have been rumored to be planning for the Games beside their current A-score total.
Shawn Johnson (USA)
Total A-score: (6.5 6.4 6.9 6.6) 26.4 (Note: Could be a 7.0 BB set if her full-turn is credited, according to the reports it was credited at the selection camp)
Pros: Shawn won both the U.S. Nationals and Olympic Trials with room to spare over what is predicted to be one of her top rivals in Beijing, Nastia Liukin. Upgrades to an Amanar on vault, a 6.4 A-score on uneven bars, and a 6.6 A-score on floor (believed to be the highest in the world at the moment) have not degraded her status as the favorite for Olympic AA gold in the least. Her consistency is admirable in the fact that she has only fallen once in a major competition this year, which was of course her Amanar vault at the Scam Cup.
Cons: International judges have been stingy all year long in international meets with execution deductions and downgrades on underotated skills, the latter of which has the potential to kill any hope for Shawn to win the AA. Questionable rotation on her Amanar vault and her whip+triple twist on floor, among other skills, could cost Shawn above a full point in start value, not to mention deductions for incomplete revolutions of the twists. USAG judges wouldn't have downgraded any of these major elements if their life depended on it, but the Olympic international judges are not likely to be even remotely lenient when it comes to these types of errors.
Outlook: I think Shawn's AA medal chances do not rely on any of the obvious things like mental toughness or being healthy, she has been all of that and more all year long and one shouldn't expect her to be any different in Beijing. However, Shawn's AA medal chances come down to far more technical details, that if not addressed now could have serious consequences on her medal chances at the games, and not just in the AA. However, it is definitely worth noting that despite USAG's inability to be harsh when necessary with these types of issues, Shawn and her coaches make for a very intelligent team and should be able to fix some of these potential problems in time for the arrival of the Games.
Jiang Yuyuan (China)
Total A-score: (6.5 7.3 6.5 6.3) 26.6
Pros: Jiang has an excellent Amanar on vault, and very formidable start values on bars and floor. Winning the AA title at the Chinese Nationals back in May should bode well for Jiang's confidence and political favor heading into the games. It also doesn't hurt that Jiang competed in the Beijing arena at the Olympic Test Event in November 2007, and won the AA gold there as well. Jiang gained valuable experience while competing at last year's worlds, yet won't have to deal with the same kind of pressure that is being thrown at Johnson and Liukin, who have been analyzed as Olympic AA gold possibilities by the unrelenting USA media for quite a bit longer than Jiang has back in China. Among all of the AA medal contenders, Jiang's A-score is the highest when it comes to successfully credited routines.
Cons: Jiang is especially weak on balance beam, boasting a comparatively weaker 6.5 A-score on that event and is generally wobbly and cautious on that piece of apparatus. Execution deductions await Jiang on UB (missed handstands, occasional dead hangs, bent arms, typical Chinese UB errors) and also on FX (sometimes uncontrolled landings and occasional OOBs). Not competing AA at last year's worlds could hurt Jiang in terms of being able to withstand the pressure of such a tough competition, and also her reputation standpoint from judges who tend to favor gymnasts who have been out on the scene longer.
Outlook: Jiang is a great three-event athlete, but as long as she gets past beam she should do very well in the AA. Being at home in China should lessen any political backstabbing from biased judges, though the way the scoring has been going this year Jiang's UB execution could take a significant blow with the deductions she tends to incur that I previously mentioned. A weakness on beam aside, Jiang is more than up to par with the rest of the gymnasts when it comes to consistency, difficulty, and execution and it would be most surprising to not see her as a top AA medal threat come August 15th, 2008.
Nastia Liukin (USA)
Total A-score: (5.5 7.7 6.7 6.2) 26.1 (Note: Has only been credited with a 6.7 on BB once, otherwise she gets a 6.6 because her front aerial to scale isn't held long enough)
Pros: Nastia has improved her FX and VT scores to go along with her world-class work on UB and BB. Victories at the American Cup and the Pacific Rim earlier this year have no doubt helped Liukin's statement to be a top Olympic AA contender, and second-place finishes at this year's Nats (which without an FX fall on night one might have won the competition) and Olympic Trials (while battling a case of the flu) have also proven that Liukin has the goods to go for gold in Beijing. Liukin is also known for her excellent execution marks for hit routines on events like vault and beam.
Cons: Liukin has several built-in deductions on UB (cowboyed/inconsistent double front 1/2 dismount, low tkatchev, off handstand on Ono 1.5 pirouette) and FX (crossed legs on twisting passes/cowboyed double front) that will most definitely be taken by the presumably strict international judging panel in August. Liukin has yet to put together a really flawless meet this year, with mistakes big and small always creeping in somewhere. Her double front 1/2 dismount off bars is of particular concern because of its generally low landings and poor form.
Outlook: Liukin's rumored upgrades like a DTY and a triple full on beam did not materialize, and in both cases it was likely a smart decision to favor execution and consistency over more difficulty. Liukin has looked excellent on beam all year and appears to be getting it together on vault and floor where she has had issues in the past. Ironically it is her strongest event, uneven bars, which could look to be her downfall. A weaker A-score on vault means that Liukin needs to take full advantage of strength on bars, and that sometimes doesn't materialize as the Olympic Trials, among other meets, showed us. While Liukin has yet to put everything together in an AA competition this year, she could just peak at the right time in Beijing and surprise all, or in a worse-case scenario even miss AA finals if Memmel and Johnson put strong performances and Liukin commits errors that will keep her out of the running entirely.
Yang Yilin (China)
Total A-score: (5.8 7.7 6.7 6.2) 26.4 (Note: Could have as high as a 6.9 BB set if she puts in all of her connections, but 6.7 is the highest she has received thus far)
Pros: Those that have not followed gymnastics in recent months should be in for a huge shocker at these Olympics, as the 6th place finisher from last year's worlds has a legitimate shot at the Olympic AA gold medal. Upgrades on every event that are for the most part consistent, including a DTY vault and a 7.7 A-score UB routine, put Yilin firmly in the AA mix. Also helping her case are the facts that Yang does not have any weak event and is generally a consistent and cool competitor under pressure.
Cons: Yang lost the Chinese National AA title to Yuyuan with a fall after her pak salto transition on the uenven bars. Yang doesn't quite the international name that Johnson and Liukin have and was scored a bit tightly at last year's worlds, which likely had a bit to do with her not having the international reputation that some of the other top contenders have. Also, competing at home will bring upon great pressure to this young lady who is arguably China's best hope for an AA gold medal.
Outlook: Though not perhaps as well-known as an AA threat as Johnson, Liukin, or Yuyuan, Yang Yilin could steal the show if she maintains her trademark consistency on this all important of nights. A strong DTY, outstanding bars, and good beam and floor make her arguably the best definition of an AA athlete competing in Beijing, but it remains to be seen whether she can avoid major error and hold off her top rivals in the process.
Other Potential Medalists
Steliana Nistor (Romania)
Total A-score: (5.8 7.3 6.9 6.1) 26.1
Cons: Nistor was reportedly spotted with a back brace at the recent ITA vs. ROM vs. BRA meet, where she only competed bars. Nistor receives basic execution errors in the form and artistry department right off the bat and thus doesn't have the scoring potential of the presumed top four contenders mentioned above. Dealing with the pressure of being Romania's best hope for getting back an Olympic AA medal that they lost in 2004 could prove to be immense.
Outlook: Assuming that she is healthy and Stelina only competing bars at the recent ITA vs. ROM vs. BRA meet was merely precautionary, Nistor is Europe's best hope for an AA medal. Don't be surprised if Nistor gets generous marks from European judges who lobby to score her favorably a la 2007 World Championships, though it is no question that Nistor does not have the scoring potential that the top four gymnasts have. Nistor could easily sneak onto the AA medal podium if other gymnasts' mistakes present Steliana opportunities to do so, but if everyone is to hit (particularly the four mentioned above) Nistor's chances of medaling become much slimmer.
Jade Barbosa (Brazil)
Total A-score: (6.5 6.6 6.7 6.3) 26.1
Cons: Jade has been remarkably inconsistent throughout the entirety of this year. Losing the Brazillian AA title to lesser-known gymnast Ana Claudia Silva will no doubt put yet another damper on Barbosa's often wavering confidence level. One of her main weapons, an Amanar vault, has yet to be landed this year and Barbosa has only attempted that vault once, and very unsuccessfully, since last year's Worlds. Balance beam has also given Jade issues all year long, with her acro series giving her particular trouble. Even Oleg Ostepanko, one of Brazil's top coaches, has stated that he would be surprised to see Barbosa challenge for medals at this summer's Olympics.
Outlook: With Barbosa the potential really is there, but her consistency is always a big question mark and her confidence has likely taken several shots this year, especially with losing the Brazillian AA title recently. Getting her Amanar vault consistent in time for the Olympics will be especially crucial for Barbosa, who will rely heavily on that one element to get herself up to the level of the top gymnasts contending for medals. Though Jade's inconsistency this year has made her look anything but a realistic AA medal prospect, we must remember that not many were expecting her to challenge for the podium last year and ended up surprising all by doing so.
Daria Joura (Australia)
Total A-score: (5.8 6.3 6.3 6.3) 24.7
Pros: Joura has exhibited much-improved confidence and consistency this year and Peggy Liddick's decision to send the stylish Dasha to world cup meets and the Pacific Rim championships should enable Joura to do much better at this year's Olympics than last year's Worlds where she had lackluster performances throughout the competition. Joura does not have a glaringly weak event and has very nice execution and artistry to possibly vie for a medal.
Cons: Not having an Amanar vault will put a significant damper on Joura's AA medal prospects and will give away .7 to the medal contenders that do. The only event where Joura is capable to potentially score one of the highest marks of the competition is on floor exercise, with lower start values on the other three ultimately meaning that Joura will likely need a significant error from a top contender or two to realistically wind up on the medals stand.
Outlook: Strong performances at the Pacific Rim and especially the Australian Nationals have signaled to the rest of the field that, while maybe not everyone's first choice for a medal, Dasha cannot be excluded from the list of very realistic AA medal threats come Beijing. Dasha's good execution and unique artistry have won over judges and fans alike, however it is without a doubt that Joura will be need to be at the absolute top of her game if she wishes to become the first Australian gymnast in history to win an Olympic medal. Joura appears to be really going after the B-scores to her bid of becoming an AA medalist, as her total A-score is far behind that of the other top contenders.
Vanessa Ferrari (Italy)
Total A-score: (5.8 6.8 6.7 6.3) 25.6 (Note: Has not been credited with those BB and FX A-scores (6.7/6.3) so far this year)
Pros: Ferrari is known for her high start values, good political favor, and incomparable mental toughness. Ferrari won the 2006 World AA title with a fall also won the 2007 European AA title. Ferrari followed that up those wins with a bronze in the AA at the 2007 Worlds while nursing a nagging foot injury. Another example of Ferrari's immense determination was displayed at the 2007 Worlds when Ferrari had not done a single full floor routine in training because of her injury and went on to hit three 15+ routines (under tough scoring as well) during the competition.
Cons: Ferrari will need all that mental toughness and more to win an AA medal after what has seemed like a never-ending battle with Tendonitis. (which if I am not mistaken was what developed to prior to last year's Worlds and has given her issues ever since) Even Ferrari has been pessimistic with her Olympic chances, confirming that she won't be at full speed and healthy when the Olympics arrive. Healthy or not, Ferrari's overall inconsistency, especially on bars and beam, has lost the Italian diva several individual titles in the past.
Outlook: Vanessa's need to wait until the last minute to add back in some of her big tricks she has yet to compete this year (notably her double-double and triple full on floor) could definitely backfire on Ferrari, who hasn't competed these elements in a full routine for nearly a year. If last year's Worlds are any indication, Vanessa will press on to vie for a medal, but time is running out. However, Ferrari's fierce competitive nature should mean that one shouldn't ever count her out, but as of now her AA medal chances do not look at all good.
Sandra Izbasa (Romania)
Total A-score: (5.8 5.8 6.9 6.5) 25.0 (Note: Potentially 25.2 if 6.7 A FX materializes)
Pros: Izbasa's upgrades on vault (DTY), beam (6.9 A) and floor (6.5, rumored 6.7 A) will help out her AA medal case greatly. A generally consistent gymnast, Izbasa has the experience of two world championships, one of which she won the bronze medal in the AA. Izbasa also won't have to deal with much of the pressure being put on compatriot Steliana Nistor's shoulders and could wind up being the surprise of the competition if everything goes according to plan.
Cons: Great work on three events comes with a potentially fatal price to Izbasa's AA medal chances, a weakness on the uneven bars. Romania's weakness on bars has been in full force for the last 15 years (Nistor being an exception), and Izbasa's meager A-score of 5.8 (she was only credited with a 5.5 at the recent Mediterranean Gym Cup) and consistently splatted double front dismount make her AA medal chances go down dramatically because of just one event.
Outlook: Izbasa is not expected by many to be touching an AA medal podium come August 15th, and certainly won't be doing so if her UB (dismount especially) continues to give her issues. However, if she can get her bars work at least somewhat together prior to the arrival of the Games while maintaining her strength on the other three apparatus, an AA medal will not be out of the question for Izbasa. Her chances would ultimately rise if top challengers with far more pressure falter and Izbasa's experience and consistency paves her a path to the podium.
Anna Pavlova (Russia)
Total A-score (6.5 5.7 6.8 5.9) 24.9 (Note: Amanar is questionable, 24.2 w/o it, has shown a triple full off beam in training, which looked fully rotated, and connecting back her front aerial+side somi+Kolesnikova series could bumb her total A-score up to as high as 25.3)
Cons: Pavlova has not competed her Amanar once since splatting at the European Championship vault event finals in April in both warm-up and competition. Low A-scores on floor (5.9) and bars (5.7, has ZERO connection bonus on this event) will make Pavlova have an extremely difficult time reaching the AA medals stand. Also combine that with the facts of her questionable Amanar vault and her fluctuating beam start value (has varied from 6.4 to 6.8, and could go as high as 7.2) make Pavlova a definite longshot for an AA medal of any color.
Outlook: Pavlova would need to be at the top of her game and more to vie for an AA medal, and since we have yet to see her reach her full potential on her two money events, vault and beam, it seems unlikely that we will see her in reach of an AA medal podium. However, a top 10 finish for Pavlova is very realistic, as are possible medal finishes with her team and individually on balance beam.
Ksenia Afanasyeva (Russia)
Total A-score: (5.8 6.2 6.7 6.0) 24.7
Cons: Afanasyeva's lack of experience will definitely not help her quest for finishing on the AA medal podium, nor will her comparatively lower A-scores on bars (6.2) and floor (6.0). Afanasyeva being a relative unknown won't do well with her AA medal status either, with judges known to favor gymnasts who have won major international meets in the AA, something Afanasyeva has yet to do.
Outlook: Afanasyeva is without a doubt a relative long shot for finishing on the AA podium, however her consistency, good execution, and good strength across all apparatus should provide her a strong case for a top 10 finish if in peak form for the games. Though surprises have happened in the past in this event with top contenders faltering, Afanasyeva would need a stockpile of errors from the aforementioned contenders to finish the night with a medal around her neck.
Elizabeth Tweddle (GBR)
Total A-score: (5.5 7.6 6.2 6.4) 25.7 (Note: Could go to 25.9 with 7.8 A-score UB routine she has apparently showed in training sessions at the British Nationals)
Cons: Any hopes of an AA medal at the last two world championships were dashed for Tweddle at the last two world championships with falls on bars (2006) and beam (2007). Tweddle's relatively low A-scores on vault (5.5) and beam (6.2) do not bode well for her AA medal chances. Beth has always seemed to be cursed with injuries or lackluster performances at big meets, and with that said is coming to Beijing off an injured ankle that kept her out of the British Nationals.
Outlook: Tweddle's AA finishes at the last two world championships, 8th in 2006 and 11th in 2007, don't suggest this experienced gymnast to be capable of contending for an AA medal. However, upgraded start values on bars (7.6, reports have even said she is training a bar routine with a 7.8 A-score) and on floor (6.4) are added bonuses to Tweddle's AA chances and could result in a medal if Tweddle has the night of her life and others falter. Still, the likelihood of Beth medaling in this event is low and will have better chances of medaling in the uneven bars and floor exercise finals.
The Big Question Mark
Chellsie Memmel (USA)
Total A-score: (5.8 7.0 6.9 6.2) 25.9 (Note: Could wind up as high as 26.4 (though I'd say 26.1/26.2 is more realistic), if her double arabian and split jump 1.5 are credited on floor, allowing for a 6.5 A-score there, and if she gets her UB A-score up to 7.2 like she has said she will)
Cons: Chellsie's DTY is still a big question mark, and the 14.65 at the selection camp meet was lower than all of the scores handed out for 1.5 Yurchenkos. Her improvement on that event between now and Beijing is critical for Memmel's AA chances, with everything boiling down to if Martha K. wants to let Bridget Sloan and Samantha Peszek compete their comparatively better DTY's over Chellsie. A decision like that would ultimately mean Chellsie wouldn't do vault in prelims and her AA bid would be over before the competition were to even start. Chellsie's recent "whiplash" on floor at the selection camp meet will also mean that Olympic prelims will be the first competition where she will add back in her double arabian and compete it in her full routine.
Outlook: Shawn's questionable Amanar rotation and Nastia's inconsistent uneven bars could ultimately pave the way for Chellsie to not only make AA finals, but to even win a medal. However, Chellsie will need to improve her DTY vault fast if she is to truly solidify her position to compete all four events in prelims. As I see it, Memmel's AA bid could go either way. Her chances could realistically be washed away before she even competes her first routine of the competition, or Memmel's AA bid might ultimately culminate with a medal. Knowing Chellsie's immense toughness, I believe the latter scenario will be more likely to take place.
Other Gymnasts Looking for a Top 10-Top 15 Finish
Hong Su Jong (PRK)
Alina Kozich (Ukaraine)
Deng Linlin (China-If for some reason Yuyuan or Yilin wouldn't qualify or wouldn't be able to compete)
Pauline Morel (France)
Marine Petit (France)
Ana Claudia Silva (Brazil)
Koko Tsurumi (Japan)
Polish 101 Olympic AA Predicted Podium
Gold: Nastia Liukin (USA)
Silver: Yang Yilin (China)
Bronze: Shawn Johnson (USA)
4th: Jiang Yuyuan (China)-Weakness on beam could keep her out of the top 3, as can a lower B-score on bars.
5th: Steliana Nistor (Romania)-The typical consistent Romanian who is solid on every event, but sluggish form and artistry and little mistakes here and there look to keep her out of the medals.
6th: Vanessa Ferrari (Italy)-Is an incredible fighter, Giulyx14 reports of upgrades on UB and FX if she puts her double-double back in. Just not in the shape to vie for a medal, but don't count her out yet.
7th: Jade Barbosa (Brazil)-Inconsistent as all get out but peaked at last year's Worlds and could do the very same in Beijing. Has all the goods to be a top contender, but her mental game is her downfall and something she has to get together for the biggest meet of her life.
8th: Daria Joura (Australia)- Consistent gymnast with good execution who looks to be peaking at the right time, but that lower A-score is going to kill her.
9th: Sandra Izbasa (Romania)- UB is a nightmare for her, but solid work on the other three should definitely keep Izbasa in the top 10.
10th: Hong Su Jong (PRK): We haven't seen her all year, and was quite lackluster at the Olympic Test Event in November 2007, her last major comp to date. However, North Korea is known for busting out all of the big tricks at the biggest competitions; they NEVER play it safe. So one should expect some upgrades (likely on UB where she is a possible contender an EF birth on) from Su Jong provided that she is healthy. Not seeing Su Jong compete all year does not bode well for her consistency at the Games, but she could be the ultimate darkhorse threat if she is in peak form. That, or she won't factor in at all.
Update: Reasoning for my podium prediction
As for Shawn's Amanar, the code states that the feet are the do or die factor when it comes to crediting the full rotation of the twists, and Shawn's feet have been short of the complete 2.5 twists throughout Nationals and Olympic Trials. Granted, she isn't that short of getting the full rotation on vault, but the judges at nationals and trials were USAG judges and would not have devalued the vault if their life depended on it. There have even been reports that judges were pressured to give certain gymnasts (Shawn and Nastia in particular) high marks for certain routines and would be reprimanded if they failed to comply. I don't necessarily know if that is true, but USAG judges are known to be extremely generous with top gymnasts' scores in domestic meets. So the fact that one can just say Shawn's Amanar (and whip+triple full for that matter, though at Trials it was much improved from Nationals) will get credited at the Olympics because it got credited at Nationals and Olympic Trials is not a reliable statement. The reason I am still skeptical for Shawn to win is because she is playing fire with a lot more elements (A-score wise) than Nastia is, though with that said Nastia's UB routine is a routine many will be nervous when watching because of its many potential problems.
As for Jiang Yuyuan's Amanar, TCO left a comment and made a good point that Jiang's crossed legs will be reason for deduction, and also the fact that to my knowledge Jiang has only competed this vault twice. (Johnson has done it successfully five times, fully-rotated or not). The video is too low quality, however, for me to determine whether she makes it all the way around (I am not the biggest expert on Amanar landings, as you probably have already figured out LOL). However, from what I can tell Yuyuan's looks clean, but I won't go to town saying it will be fully-rotated in the Olympics or anything like that.
All of these potential downgrades and inconsistency could pave the way for Yang Yilin, who looks to be pretty consistent while not gambling with the credit on a lot of her skills. However, I will still predict Nastia Liukin to win. It may not seem all that logical, but I am going to trust my first instinct. And we all should know by now how unpredictable the Olympics can be.
That is all.