Today: France and China
1. Youna Dufournet
This girl is France’s biggest hope at the beginning of the new quad. She wound up third in the all-around at this year’s Europeans, but she could have easily won silver. She went on to win bars and vault with a silver on floor. Actually, Dufournet’s a major threat on beam with an A-score (in 2008) of 6.9, including an Arabian, which observers wouldn’t have noticed at Europeans because she wound up with a fall in EF. But her score of 15.700 in qualifications led the rankings, and she probably would have wound up with an even higher score in EFs without the fall. (She took third in BB in EFs in France, competing against seniors, as early as 2006.) Beam is probably her weakest event though, as she competes tough skills but with a lot of balance checks and some flexibility issues (also true on floor). Dufournet’s vaults are right up there: a DTY and a piked Omelianchik, although her scores were actually low despite her victory on that apparatus. On UB, she’s very solid. She has the occasional form breaks (in her Jaeger particularly) and randomly does two Shapashnikovas. She’s not the most graceful bar worker, but she’s strong and consistent, somewhat like a Chellsie Memmel (not a useful comparison if you’re one of those who doesn’t like Memmel, which I do). In addition to the Jaeger, she does a good Geinger and a double-layout dismount. Her EF score was an impressive 15.625. On FX, I think Dufournet is suffering from a choreography problem more than anything — put simply, it sucks, and she could probably handle much more sophisticated stuff. Otherwise, she has kind of a Vanessa Ferrari feel, and does a nice piked full in and an Arabian, plus a 5/2 twist. Let me be clear: this girl is a major threat. She wins absolutely everything she competes in in France, including the “Coupes,” or junior championships, and the Championnats, which are for the top two age groups of juniors. Except the one time she didn’t compete earlier this year (just before Europeans), she won all of these in 2007 and 2008, including recently in June, and placed 6th in the Championnats in 2006. In the May championships by team, her Avoine team placed third, but Dufournet had the highest score of any competitor, including Laetitia Dugain, Marine Petit, Pauline Morel and Marine Debauve (all Olympians). She had the highest score on VT, UB and FX. What I’m saying is that at 14, Dufournet is better — or soon to be better — than all of her country’s 2008 Olympians. Watch out!
I enjoy Stanic, but we are now moving into a more expected level of French gymnastics. Stanic finished 13th overall at this year’s Europeans and finished second at Coupes in 2007 and third at this year’s Championnats in June. In the same team meet mentioned above where Dufournet placed ahead of all the current seniors, Stanic placed a very respectable 7th (no junior besides Dufournet placed higher). Stanic’s other international experience is pretty limited, though she placed a respectable fourth in a France/Switzerland/Germany/Netherlands meet in early 2008 (Dufournet, unsurprisingly, took first there). On FX, Stanic has a decent Arabian, but otherwise she has Nistor-like splits (feet flexed … not a fan) and not enough difficulty. Her vault is probably her weakest event right now, as she’s competing only a Podkopaeva, as far as I can tell. She is pretty shaky and labored on BB, although she does have what I think is supposed to be a combination of a standing back pike to back tuck, which is interesting. Her bars are just alright, though she has a high Tkatchev and a decent straddled Jaeger. At Europeans, she fell on her dismount — otherwise, she would have easily qualified to EFs. However, I’m not sure whether there’s tremendous potential for growth in her bar set, but she does have room to at least tidy things up.
3. Aurélie Malausséna
Malausséna has oddly been given very little international experience by the French powers-that-be, which is curious because she regularly places second or third in national competitions, alternating with Stanic. She placed third in the 2007 and 2008 Coupes, and second in this year’s Championnats (she was ninth in 2006). Her only international experience has been a France/Switzerland match, in which she placed third, and a small international tournament before she reached elite. The likely problem is that Malausséna so far does not shine on any particular event, though she is consistent across all four. She has a Chellsie-Memmel like quality in some ways, though she appears to lack the extreme flexibility. She would also have a decent FX if someone would change her choreography, and if she upgraded a few passes — the most interesting one is a double pike. On BB, she throws some decent skills — a punch front and a standing tuck — but otherwise it’s kind of a yawner. Her key to success might be UB, on which she has thrown a piked Jaeger, if she could add some difficulty (right now she’s in the mid fives).
I should probably start with Marine Brevet, who charmed a number of observers at this year’s Europeans. From afar, she looks not unlike Nastia Liukin, which might be one of the reasons. Up close, I don’t really see it, though she does have long lines. She has absolutely terrible bars — even beyond the more complex skills, she cannot do a kip without major leg separation. Internally, she has had somewhat of a meteoric rise. She is a 1994 kid, and was ranked fourth in her age group in 2007, during which time she placed sixth at Coupes and second at the Championnats in the category below junior elite. This year at Championnats, she placed sixth. Her best event right now may be BB (she qualified to EFs at Europeans, though she placed last), but there her most interesting skill is a split jump to arabesque. On FX, she just doesn’t have the difficulty yet, and one of her four passes is a 1/1 twist. Ultimately, she seems to have the form to improve upon, but we’ll have to wait and see if she does it.
The only two other French gymnasts I’ll mention are Marie Gaffino and Léa Kemayou. Gaffino placed fifth at this year’s Championnats, and eighth in 2007. She placed first in 2007 at one of her only international events, the Tournoi International du Pas de Calais, and was a member of the 2008 Europeans team. Right now her two best events are BB and FX, where she uses a modified version of Daria Joura’s music. She does some good twisting and is reasonably expressive. On BB she does a nice standing back pike (and a back tuck, like Stanic). Finally, Kemayou is France’s current power gymnast. She’s a strong vaulter and a decent bars worker, though she sometimes looks a bit clumsy. She’s one of the most aggressive beam workers the French have, and she seems confident. I think she actually has serious potential on BB (maybe a la Alicia Sacramone?).
The French team:
What we’re looking at here is Italy in 2006 — an assortment of fairly talented, but not internationally competitive, girls — plus a stand-out who pulls off pretty impressive showings in international competitions. Though I don’t think Dufournet will get the same form criticisms Ferrari got. She’s actually downright impressive. Otherwise, I don’t see much change in the potential standings of the French team. In addition to some form issues, the real problem is difficulty level. Few of their girls are even doing Yurchenko vaults, much less the type you need to stay competitive. They have a handful of good releases on bars, but nothing fancy. Same problem on beam. On floor, their choreography is very hit-or-miss. Overall, we’re still waiting for a team breakthrough. (Incidentally, the French run their program very much like the Americans, though their best gyms are state-run: they have decentralized training with occasional verifications. The difference being, of course, that there are around six times more people in the United States than in France ….)
1. Cui Jie
Cui Jie is the obvious choice for the next big thing coming out of China. Though she looks young — whatever that might mean about her — she is 14 and will be able to compete as a senior in 2010. Her biggest meet to date was the 2008 Pacific Rim Championships, in which she placed seventh AA. She would likely have placed much higher, however, if it hadn’t been for a fall on her dismount on bars leading to a score of under 13. She qualified to two EFs and placed sixth on vault and first on beam with a score of 16.025 (a tie with Rebecca Bross). At the Chinese Junior Nationals that took place last week in Yunnan province, Cui took second in the AA to the little-known Chen Chuyan. More importantly, at last year’s nationals, competing against seniors — including the eventual 2008 Olympic team — Cui took seventh on BB on fifth on FX, placing 11th AA. Already in 2007, Cui tied for sixth on FX and qualified 13th to the AA. FX is widely considered to be Cui’s best event. She has a good routine, despite a needed choreography upgrade, and sells it well. She performs an Arabian double front, a Rudi, and nice twists overall. She also does a nice twist to layout punch front and has very precise landings. She also does a double leg-up turn. On BB she general scores very high (see above), and does some big skills: punch front to Rueda, Korbut, double tuck dismount. She also performed a 1 1/2 turn at Intercity Games in 2007 instead of the ubiquitous leg-up turn, but had switched to the latter by Pacific Rim. Would be great to see her do a double turn in the future. Cui could stand to upgrade her UB, although she generally speaking has nice lines and good form. She does a nice Tkatchev and a decent Jaeger, and also has a lovely Pak. Had she not fallen on her double front at Pacific Rim, she likely would have received a respectable score. VT is Cui’s weakest event, as she still competes a Yurchenko full regularly, but I assume she is planning to upgrade. Overall, I think this gymnast is currently the best junior in China. She has good form, nice presentation, and is solid on three events.
2. Huang Ying
It says something about the low visibility of the Chinese juniors that I have put second a gymnast who has placed in recent competition only in EFs at Pacific Rim (she has not placed in any Chinese national competition that I know of, except perhaps at the most recent Junior Nationals, for which I do not yet have full results). In the Pacific Rim format, teams compete in a 6-5-4 format, and Huang was used only on beam and floor. However, she eventually placed 3rd on BB, with a score of 15.925 (15.750 in team competition), and 5th on FX. I’m actually not at all familiar with Huang on other events, but she is excellent on these two (as opposed to Wenli Guan, below, who is reasonably solid on all four but a stand-out on none). Huang has beautiful dance and high leaps on floor, and also does a 5/2 twist and a 1 1/2 punch front full. Her best event is BB, where she starts with two flip-flops to layout to Korbut, and an Onodi back tuck. Her dismount is a decent double pike. I can see this gymnast becoming an excellent specialist.
3. Wenli Guan
I’m going to take a risk here and put Wenli here despite the fact that we have not seen her since Pacific Rim, including at the Chinese Nationals that took place in June and the Chinese Junior Nationals that just concluded. I was unable to find any information about why that may be. Wenli, until Chen (see above), is the only junior who has beaten Cui in competition. She took sixth at this year’s Pacific Rim, also placing fifth in UB event finals. So far, Guan has not stood out on any particular event, though she does do a standing Arabian, a flip-flop to back tuck and a double full dismount on BB, and looks able to upgrade other skills on that event. She has long lines on UB, and placed a respectable 5th in EFs at Pacific Rim, but needs to seriously upgrade. Same problem on FX and on VT (Yurchenko full). I’m not in love with this gymnast, but she seems solid enough, though I think she has trouble with power skills. Although actually that may not be so bad with the new CoP.
The data on Chinese juniors is scant at best, but I’ll mention a few more to look for. First, I suppose, is Chen Chuyan, who took the all-around over Cui in Chinese Junior Nationals. I unfortunately know basically nothing about this heretofore larely unknown gymnast, though she did place 16th in the AA at last year’s nationals (behind Cui).
Of more interest, to me at least, is Li Lijun, who placed third at the most recent Chinese Junior Nationals, behind Chen and Cui. She is already reasonably solid on three events, particularly FX and UB. Before this competition, Li was only vaguely known, as a pretty gymnast not unlike Fan Ye. She is extremely poised on FX, and does some nice, controlled tumbling, although it is largely twists. She seems relatively tentative on BB, and doesn’t do any superbly challenging skills, and has the same problem on VT, where she does a Yurchenko full. So far her best event is likely UB, where she has nice lines and does a strong Jaeger and Tkatchev, a nice Pak, and a good double layout dismount.
The Chinese team:
The Chinese juniors really have not seen enough international competition for us to be able to rank many of them with any consistency. This on top of the fact that reports of the outcomes of national competitions are extremely hard to come by. Cui is by far the most interesting of the upcoming juniors, but there are a few others who will be good specialists at the very least. Among them, however, my main concern is that there are no powerful gymnasts to replace people like Cheng Fei. (On the other hand, the relatively small Jiang Yuyuan can do an Amanar, which was not always the case, so there’s nothing to say the others won’t upgrade. Especially because vault comes last for a lot of juniors.) Perhaps the best thing for the Chinese team is that a number of gymnasts from the 2008 Olympic team — including the great Cheng Fei, who has suggested she will continue through 2009 and has not ruled out 2012 — are likely to continue, including He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan, and Yang Yilin (the last of whom has a shot at gold at Worlds in 2009). This does not even include a number of other gymnasts, including Li Shanshan, Xiao Sha and Sui Lu, who were all contenders for the team but did not make it for various reasons. There’s also Huang Quishuang, a new senior who competed well at Pacific Rim, placing fifth in the AA, second on BB and fourth on FX (though her vaults need serious upgrading). That is to say, China remains deep on the senior level, and likely has plenty of juniors waiting in the wings (even just demographically speaking!). This gold was not a flash in the pan.
Up next: Italy and Great Britain