Portimao World Cup upsets Rhythmic Gymnastics's status quo

A year after becoming the first Italian woman in a generation to win an individual medal at Rhythmic Worlds, Italy’s Alexandra Agiurgiuculese has continued to write history for her country.

A year after becoming the first Italian woman in a generation to win an individual medal at Rhythmic Worlds, Italy’s Alexandra Agiurgiuculese has continued to write history for her country.

Russia is so dominant in Rhythmic Gymnastics that it’s worth a headline when their athletes don’t win titles at major events, as at this weekend’s World Cup in Portimao, Portugal, the final dress rehearsal before next week’s World Championships in Baku.

Illness to Aleksandra Soldatova -- who nonetheless won the all-around Friday night -- and the absence of Dina and Arina Averina and Ekaterina Selezneva cleared the way for different competitors to occupy the top step of the podiums in event finals. Into these vacancies stepped the stylish Italians Alexandra Agiurguculese and Milena Baldassarri, who split the titles -- Agiurguculese took hoop and clubs, Baldassarri ball and ribbon — in the first competition where at least one Russian didn’t win something in 12 years.

These were golden firsts for Italy, a country that is almost as Rhythmic-mad as Russia -- never before had an Italian gymnast graced the top of a World Challenge Cup podium in any event. Despite her illness, which caused her to faint after the ball final, Soldatova managed a bronze medal in the event, while Belarusians Alina Harnasko and Anastasia Salos, Ukraine’s Yeva Meleshchuk and Camilla Feeley of the United States scooped up the remaining medals. Full results here.

Italy also scored itself a gold in the Group competition with the 5 Balls, while Belarus took gold with the 3 Hoops and 2 Pairs of Clubs. As in the individual competition, however, Russia was not in attendance.

Outlasting Linoy Ashram, Dina Averina takes all-around gold at European Games

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Consistency carried two-time world champion Dina Averina to the European Games all-around title Saturday in Minsk, the 20-year-old’s mastery of the extraordinary difficulty that packs her routines helping her outlast her Israeli rival Linoy Ashram, the only gymnast in the world who has been able to challenge the Averina supremacy in rhythmic gymnastics.

Even without the in-competition support of her identical twin Arina, Dina, a master of apparatus difficulty (a rhythmic vocabulary word that basically means ‘tricks with the apparatus’) glided and shimmied her way through four impressively tough performances to further gild her legacy as the top rhythmic gymnast of the quadrennium.

A stand-in for her sister, who was originally tapped to represent Russia in Minsk, Dina went about the competition with her typical businesslike manner, consistently and unapologetically showing a difficulty level second to none among the world’s elite rhythmic gymnasts and being richly rewarded for it by the judges, employing a code of points that rewards difficulty more than artistic merit.

Her best score of the day, a mammoth 23.6, came for her performance to an orchestral medley with the ball. A dropped club on what is usually her strongest apparatus was the only flaw in an otherwise faultless overall performance where she tallied a total score of 87.75 points.

Ashram, the only gymnast who has proven capable of challenging Averina on a good day, nearly pulled off an upset. The 20-year-old danced effortlessly through her extraordinary difficulty through the first three apparatus to accumulate a 2.3 point lead over Averina, only to give the lead away after a meltdown with the ribbon in her final routine. Her 17.45 — for a total of 84.7 — did assure her the silver, and even earned her the final spot in Sunday’s hoop final.

“I have a mix of satisfaction and disappointment about today’s performance,” said the affable Ashram, whose 23.3 with the clubs was the high score of her meet. The silver, in any case, is “a positive result,” she added.

Belarusan star Katsiaryna Halkina started slowly but built as the day went on, charming with her signature quirky elegance to finish with bronze four years after compatriot Melitina Staniouta achieved the same result at the inaugural European Games in Baku. Halkina’s 79.3 was enough to hold off the surging Alexandra Agiurgiuculese of Italy (77.95), a double bronze medalist from the 2018 World Championships.

Ukraine’s Vlada Nikolchenko, just 16 and right in the thick of the bronze medal race throughout the day, settled for fifth with 77.875 after numerous problems in her last routine with the ribbon, though her 22.4 with the hoop was the top score of the day with that apparatus.

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Israel's Linoy Ashram is the next big thing in Rhythmic Gymnastics

Israel’s Linoy Ashram has impressive difficulty over all the apparatus, but especially with the hoop, where she’s capable of scoring 12.5 in D-score alone.

Israel’s Linoy Ashram has impressive difficulty over all the apparatus, but especially with the hoop, where she’s capable of scoring 12.5 in D-score alone.

The 2019 Rhythmic season is barely underway and Dina Averina is already queen of the carpet -- for now. After ruling the competition at last week’s Moscow Grand Prix, the reigning world all-around champion took her talents to Spain this past weekend, where she casually picked up the all-around title at the Marbella Grand Prix.

Good as Averina was in the general competition, she wasn’t the sole victor in Marbs. In her 2019 debut, rising star Linoy Ashram of Israel came out stronger than ever, claiming the titles with the hoop, clubs and ribbon and confirming what everyone suspected at the end of last year: here finally is a gymnast who will challenge even the best of the Russians.

Who is going to crack the Russian dominance has been the Big Question in Rhythmic gymnastics for years. The Russians are so good in this domain that the last time they didn’t win one of the Olympic gold medals available in the domain was in 1996. They haven’t lost a world title in any event since 2013, the year Ganna Rizatdinova won hoop at home in Kiev.

Ashram is already well established, having collected six medals at the past two world championships, including all-around silver to Averina last fall in Sofia. The key to her success lies in her difficulty and her ability to control it, matching the A-team Russians. That’s important in Rhythmic these days now that the D-score ceiling, previously capped at 10, has been lifted completely, something akin to what happened in artistic gymnastics in 2006. As a result, since the new Olympic cycle began, we’ve been seeing routines jam-packed with difficulty as gymnasts from the top countries fight to outdo each other.

The good news for Russia: Dina and Arina Averina’s biggest strength is that they’re capable of realizing exceptionally difficult routines. The bad news: Ashram (and a few others) are the same way. The new benchmark for world medal-worthy routines is those with D-scores greater than 12. Ashram’s 12.5 difficulty with the hoop, especially at this point in the season, is remarkable.

Dina Averina generally leads the way in potential difficulty score, and Marbella was no different (46.7 of her 82.95 points came from difficulty), as compared to runner up Aleksandra Soldatova, whose difficulty maxed out at 45.6. Ashram, the reigning world silver medalist in the all-around, would have finished higher but for a blown ball routine, which dropped her to eighth.

Bronze medalist Anastasia Salos of Belarus, a rising star who finished 10th at the 2018 World Championships, sometimes performs like an uncut diamond. But the difficulty she’s capable of -- 46.2 in Marbella -- will stand her in good stead as she continues to improve.

Two-time world champion Dina Averina of Russia (center) collected the all-around title at the Marbella Grand Prix, followed by Aleksandra Soldatova and Belarus’s Anastasia Salos.

Two-time world champion Dina Averina of Russia (center) collected the all-around title at the Marbella Grand Prix, followed by Aleksandra Soldatova and Belarus’s Anastasia Salos.

2019 Marbella Grand Prix - All-around final

1. Dina Averina, Russia, 82.95
2. Aleksandra Soldatova, Russia, 82.
3. Anastasia Salos, Belarus, 79.35
4. Vlada Nikolchenko, Ukraine, 79.0
5. Ekaterina Selezneva, Russia, 77.8
6. Arina Averina, Russia, 76.85
7. Daria Trubnikova, Russia, 76.5
8. Linoy Ashram, Israel, 74.85
9. Anastasia Guzenkova, Russia, 73.8
10. Irina Annenkova, Russia, 72.9

Hoop final

1. Linoy Ashram, Israel, 21.05
2. Dina Averina, Russia, 21.0
3. Vlada Nikolchenko, Ukraine, 20.8
4. Aleksandra Soldatova, Russia, 20.15
5. Nicol Voronkov, Israel, 18.85
6. Viktoria Onopriienko, Ukraine, 18.6
7. Maria Ano, Spain, 17.6
8. Anastasia Salos, Belarus, 16.6

Ball final

1. Dina Averina, Russia 21.45
2. Katsiaryna Halkina, Belarus, 20.800 ️
3. Arina Averina, Russia, 20.600 ️
4. Viktoria Onoprienko, Ukraine 18.850
5. Sara Llana, Spain, 18.650
6. Anastasia Salos, Belarus, 18.100
7. Alina Adilkhanova, Kazakhstan, 17.650
8. Vlada Nikolchenko, Ukraine, 16.750

Clubs final

1. Linoy Ashram, Israel, 21.650
2. Arina Averina, Russia, 21.650
3. Dina Averina, Russia, 21.000 ️
4. Katsiaryna Halkina, Belarus, 20.100
5. Anastasia Salos, Belarus, 18.850
6. Maria Ano, Spain, 18.200
7. Vlada Nikolchenko, Ukraine, 17.400
8. Jelizaveta Polstjanaja, Latvia, 17.100

Ribbon final

1. Linoy Ashram, Israel, 20.700
2. Dina Averina, Russia, 20.600
3. Aleksandra Soldatova, Russia, 19.100
4. Anastasia Salos, Belarus, 19.000
5. Viktoria Onoprienko, Ukraine, 17.750
6. Vlada Nikolchenko, Ukraine, 17.500
7. Maria Ano, Spain, 17.150
8. Kim Chaewoon, South Korea, 16.400

Must-sees from the Moscow Grand Prix

With four routines per competitor and 60 competitors in the field, any Grand Prix or World Cup competition in Rhythmic Gymnastics is always a drawn-out affair. That being said, a few routines that stand out in memory long after the awards ceremonies have concluded. Here are 10 picks that should be watched over and over again.

Salome Pazhava, Georgia, Clubs:

It will be hard to top her iconic “Joker” routine of the past two years, but Pazhava just might with this exercise. This routine goes in a completely different, very soft direction, but it’s brilliant nonetheless. Passionate and fluttering with emotion, it’s so smooth Pazhava almost seems to be gliding over ice rather than dancing on a carpet. In short, a new classic from rhythmic’s greatest chameleon.

Anastasia Guzenkova, Russia, Hoop

Like most Russians, she seems predisposed to handle big music well. Mireille Mathieu’s “Padam, Padam” is admittedly a little mature for her, but she pulls it off with aplomb. Quick work, reminiscent of Kudryavtseva. Great ending pose, too.

Irina Annenkova, Russia, Ball

The 2014 Youth Olympic champion is a very different performer than she was five years ago -- and for the better, too. So expressive with whole body, but especially with her hands. Terrific turn sequence that ends with her leg above her head, giving the ball a tiny little kick off her toe. A most entertaining.

Kaho Minagawa, Japan, Hoop

Sheer, floating-on-clouds elegance is what we’ve come to expect from Kaho Minagawa over the years, and she delivers with this new hoop routine, a symphony of softness and light. Beautiful.

Ekaterina Selezneva, Russia, Clubs

Some wickedly original masteries in this routine, including one right off the bat where she does half a back walkover, catch the clubs on the ball of her foot, kicks them back into the air and then stands up as though from a front walkover. Love the routine’s funky, kind-of-Asian choice of music, her uninhabited choreo, the big smile on her face.

Dina Averina, Russia, Ribbon

This new routine to “Une Vie d’Amour” by Charles Aznavour and Mireille Mathieu represents a big jump in elegance for Dina. Elegance is not something that has been associated with the Averina twins to this point, but it’s not something they’ve gone for much, either. With this routine, Dina signals the opening of a new chapter in her artistic evolution.

Daria Trubnikova, Russia, Ball

The 2018 Youth Olympic champion is a rising star. In her first foray into the senior ranks here, she finished fifth among the Russians in the all-around, which probably doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment but is. Supreme elegance and great facial expressions in this wonderfully delivered “There Was A Boy” from Moulin Rouge.

Neviana Vladinova, Bulgaria, Clubs:

This is a routine that should serve the Bulgarian firecracker very well in the coming year. It has everything: feisty Spanish choreography and deeply interesting and original throws and catches.

Anastastia Salos, Belarus, Hoop:

A folksy, Flamenco version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a perfect fit for this emerging personality. Salos has been given the moniker “Belarus’s Little Princess,” and this routine belies both her youth and charm. Salos seems capable of routines that are far more avant-garde and envelope-pushing than she’s currently showing, but at the same time it will be a delight to watch her continue to mature.

Arina Averina, Russia, Hoop

An absolutely classic piece of Russian rhythmic with huge throws and confident catches. Leading with this is sure to get her competitions off to a good start.

Dina Averina, Russians reign over Moscow Rhythmic Grand Prix

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Led by two-time world all-around champion Dina Averina, Russia’s top rhythmic gymnasts monopolized the top of the podiums as the international season opened this past weekend at the Moscow Grand Prix.

The first Grand Prix of the year is the grand unveiling of new exercises by all competitors, and while certain foreign guest stars, notably rising Belarusian Anastasia Salos and Bulgarian Olympian Neviana Vladinova impressed, it was representatives of the host nation who held the crowd -- and the 75,000 or so who tuned in to watch the live stream -- rapt from beginning to end.

Home rule

Russia’s mighty rhythmic system has turned out champion after champion, and if Dina Averina is queen for today, no fewer than six of her teammates stand poised to assume her mantle. Trailing behind the younger Averina was her identical twin sister Arina, second; Aleksandra Soldatova, third; Ekaterina Selezneva, fourth; Daria Trubnikova, sixth; Irina Annenkova, eighth; and newcomer Anastasia Guzenkova ninth. This kind of court intrigue typically makes for fascinating competitions, but the main conclusion that emerged from Saturday’s all-around final is that Queen Dina’s throne is secure, at least for now.

The 20-year-old was astonishingly good for so early in the season, recording the highest scores of the day (including a pair of 22-somethings) for everything but ball. Her all-around total was a whopping 84.2 points, nearly three points higher than she scored to take her second world title in Sofia last September. Trailing in her wake was Arina, the 2018 European all-around champion, who scored 79.95 for second place. And this is where the plot starts to get interesting: although it was Averina 1-2 as usual, just 0.05 behind Arina came Soldatova, who has upset their plans of world domination more than once.

Soldatova as spoiler

It was Soldatova, whose glorious exhibition of virtuoso with the ribbon last fall (and not Arina’s widely publicized meltdown with the same apparatus) bumped Arina Averina out of the all-around final, and it is Soldatova who despite everything seems the most likely candidate to play spoiler again in 2019. The 20-year-old’s style, in contrast to the magic-trick dexterity of the twins, is a phenomenal, mature elegance -- so much so it’s hard to remember that she and the Averinas were born in the same year -- and while it may not be as well adapted to the current code of points in which difficulty is everything, Soldatova has found ways to play the game to her advantage. In Moscow, her lowest score of the day came with the ribbon, arguably her best event. While Dina and Arina didn’t look like they could get much better, Soldatova could be just warming up.

Soldatova’s achilles heel has always been consistency, and that too was on display last fall in Sofia, when, having wrested the coveted place in the all-around final from Arina Averina and even secured her first world title with the ribbon, she dropped the apparatus twice in the first 15 seconds of her first routine in the all-around final. It thereby being established that she would not actually challenge Dina Averina for gold, she settled down and hit for the rest of the night to earn bronze.

It’s not necessarily the big three, either. Just behind Soldatova is Selezneva, who has been quietly working her way up the reserves bench during the past few years. Her breakthrough Saturday was finishing fourth, just 0.2 behind Soldatova. With must-see, extremely well-planned exercises with the hoop, ball and clubs, Selezneva looks prepared for almost anything, provided she can just deliver the routines she planned. But for a few mistakes here and there Saturday, she would have been on the podium over Soldatova.

Best of the rest

With a top-five finish in Moscow, rising star Anastasia Salos of Belarus continued to prove herself as the next big star from her country, one of the only ones to really challenge Russia’s absolute domination. Salos had the third-best score of the day with the hoop (21.35), an impressive feat in this field. Bulgaria’s Neviana Vladinova, seventh, rebounded from disappointment at the Sofia Worlds and looked focused and strong in Moscow. A pair of fan favorites, 2016 Olympians Salome Pazhava of Georgia and Kaho Minagawa of Japan, finished 10th and 11th respectively, each showing a flash of brilliance (for Pazhava, it was her new hoop routine to Woodkid’s “Run Boy Run,” while Minagawa was magisterial with the ball) and one blown routine (Pazhava: ball, Minagawa: ribbon).

Group love

Though Russia’s group appeared less prepared than its individuals, it still managed to carry away the all-around title. This was less due to prowess on Russia’s part -- though the group’s new 3+2 was carried off quite well -- than the fact that every team had at least one botched performance. Japan, Uzbekistan, Israel and Azerbaijan finished below them in the standings, while several Russian regional teams, including an impressive group from Omsk, put up technically sound and highly entertaining performances.

The problems Russia suppressed to win the overall title surfaced in Sunday’s Grand Prix final, where the top team in the world couldn’t get any higher than the bottom step of the podium. Honors went instead to Japan for both 5 Ball and 3+2, with Israel finishing second with both apparatus. It’s early days yet, but the biggest threats to Russia’s supremacy at the world and Olympic level now appear to come from the land of the rising sun, which stages its own Olympic Games in just 18 months.

2019 Grand Prix Moscow Play-by-Play/Results: Apparatus Finals

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Hoop final:

Kaho Minagawa, Japan: Sheer, floating-on-clouds elegance is what we’ve come to expect from Kaho Minagawa over the years, and she delivers! Her new hoop routine is a symphony of softness and light. Beautiful. 19.4.

Anastasia Salos, Belarus: Loses the hoop briefly twice during a folksy, Spanish guitarified version of Vivaldi’s “Spring”. A bit overexcited after her fifth place AA finish yesterday, perhaps. You can’t win ‘em all. 18.0.

Neviana Vladinova, Bulgaria: High drama with the music and very quick work with the hoop. A couple of awkward moments in this performance, though. Neviana looks a tad sheepish saluting the judges. 18.35.

Salome Pazhava, Georgia: Nobody does theatricality better. This new routine to Woodkid’s “Run Boy Run” is a winner. Finishes a little behind the music, but nobody but the judges will care. 19.3.

Dina Averina, Russia: And the crowd goes wild! People have been commenting all week on the improved quality of her execution, and it’s evident in this jazzy new routine. Perhaps the tricks are always going to take precedence with the Averina twins, but you can’t deny the difficulty or the quality of this set. 21.8.

Arina Averina, Russia: “Don Quixote” this year for Arina with the hoop. Like her twin, execution-wise she’s improved greatly during the past few months. Not a perfect routine -- had to improvise in two places, it seemed -- but a nice one all the same. 21.45.

Nicol Voronkov, Israel: Had an excellent routine going until the last 20 seconds when she overcast a throw that she had to chase out of bounds, then dropped the hoop. The first 70 seconds were terrific, however. 16.25.

Yuliana Telegina, Israel: Sleek, dramatic routine, well done. Does not suffer the same misfortunes as her teammate. 18.25.

Results:

GOLD - Dina Averina, RUS
SILVER - Arina Averina, RUS
BRONZE - Kaho Minagawa, JPN
4. Salome Pazhava, GEO
5. Neviana Vladinova, BUL
6. Yuliana Telegina, ISR
7. Anastasia Salos, BLR
8. Nicol Voronkov, ISR

Ball:

Anastasia Salos, Belarus: Spends the second half of the routine chasing the ball around the carpet. Oh dear...having some trouble controlling her difficulty today. 13.4.

Sabina Tashkenbaeva, Uzbekistan: Pretty work but several control errors in this routine to Pink Martini’s “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love.” 14.8.

Rebecca Gergalo, Finland: Most gymnasts opt for soft and pretty with the ball, but Gergalo goes for a far more aggressive, sultry approach to “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Best routine so far. 17.85.

Nicol Voronkov, Israel: Beautiful routine from a gymnast developing a style all her own. Much better than her effort with the hoop. 18.05.

Kaho Minagawa, Japan: More signature loveliness. Too bad about losing the ball on her very first element. 17.85.

Neviana Vladinova, Bulgaria: “In the Army Now” -- her one holdover from 2018. A thoroughly enjoyable, highly entertaining routine, punctuated by Vladinova’s quick acrobatics and showmanship. 19.6.

Ekaterina Selezneva, Russia: A big moment for her if she can manage to hold her opening pose. (Takes two tries -- granted, her leg is above her head and the ball is perched on her foot. And she’s on tiptoe.) That done, she delivers an enchanting routine. A gymnast to watch. 20.23.

Dina Averina, Russia: More magic from Dina on an event that’s proven to be her most artistic apparatus. After last year’s Stravinsky, this year’s effort is less in-your-face but no less lovely. 21.0.

GOLD - Dina Averina, RUS
SILVER - Ekaterina Selezneva, RUS
BRONZE - Neviana Vladinova, BUL
4. Nicol Voronkov, ISR
5. Kaho Minagawa, JPN
6. Rebecca Gergalo, FIN
7. Sabina Tashkenbaeva, UZB
8. Anastasia Salos, BLR

Clubs:

Aleksandra Soldatova, Russia: One thing about Soldatova is that unlike some of the others, she’s not too adept at covering up her errors -- when she makes one, as she did on her first backspin, it’s obvious. Not her best effort, perhaps, but the judges reward it with 19.7 all the same.

Neviana Vladinova, Bulgaria: Two dropped clubs in this routine, but this fast-paced Spanish number has so much potential! Everyone’s been performing so well that it’s hard to remember it’s February. 17.45.

Nicol Voronkov, Israel: Another very capable set from Voronkov, 11th in the AA yesterday. 18.45.

Kaho Minagawa, Japan: With “McCavity” from Cats, Kaho goes cabaret. 18.4.

Ekaterina Vedeneeva, Slovenia: The former Russian national team member returns to Moscow to show off her Russian training. Enjoyable performance for 16.7.

Anastasia Salos, Belarus: Several drops in this routine to “Rebel Just For Kicks.” It’s really not her day. 14.3.

Dina Averina, Russia: Seven routines in, Dina finally makes a couple of palpable mistakes, but like at last year’s Worlds in this event, she has so much difficulty packed into this exercise it basically doesn’t matter. This routine, to Azerbaijani singer Arash’s “Temptation” (a nod to Worlds being in Baku this year), is most likely to become the her 2019 routine. 19.3.

Salome Pazhava, Georgia: Speaking of iconic routines, after two years as the Joker with the clubs, Pazhava has gone in an entirely different direction. Her new clubs set is to a melodic, almost melancholic duet to “California Dreaming” and it’s so smooth she almost seems to be ice skating rather than dancing on a carpet. Judges love it too: 19.2.

GOLD - Aleksandra Soldatova, RUS
SILVER - Dina Averina, RUS
BRONZE - Salome Pazhava, GEO
4. Nicol Voronkov, ISR
5. Kaho Minagawa, JPN
6. Neviana Vladinova, BUL
7. Ekaterina Selezneeva, SLO
8. Anastasia Salos, BLR

Ribbon:

Yuliana Telegina, Israel: A routine out of a fairy tale, right down to the rainbow ribbon. 16.8.

Salome Pazhava, Georgia: Classic Pazhava -- a wonderfully constructed routine pulled off with her special aplomb, but two drops of the apparatus.The day Pazhava puts it all together, as she did several times in 2015, the year she was fourth in the world in the all-around, will be a great day indeed. 14.55.

Arina Averina, Russia: Arina looks none too joyous after this dramatic, rather heavy piano piece with the ribbon, but the judges liked it. 20.3.

Anastasia Salos, Belarus: The most serious routine in Salos’s repertoire is also the one she’s performed best in her four finals today. Watching it is like fast-forwarding to the competitor she’ll be in a few years. 17.95.

Sabina Tashkenbaeva, Uzbekistan: A beat-driven ribbon routine closes out Tashkenbaeva’s day here. Essentially one drop. 16.4.

Kaho Minagawa, Japan: The apparatus best suited to her expression and movement, this routine (a holdover from last year) is as enchanting as ever. When she does it well, it’s transportive. Unfortunately this time there was a knot in the ribbon at the beginning and a drop toward the end. Even so, it barely detracted from the performance quality. 16.8.

Neviana Vladinova, Bulgaria: Dramatic presentation. 16.75.

Dina Averina, Russia: This new routine to “Une Vie d’Amour” by Charles Aznavour and Mireille Mathieu represents a big jump in elegance for Dina. Elegance is not something that has been associated with the Averina twins to this point, but it’s not something they’ve gone for much, either. As noted, Dina’s been making presentation strides. 19.45.

GOLD - Arina Averina, RUS
SILVER - Dina Averina, RUS
BRONZE - Anastasia Salos, BLR
4. Yuliana Telegina, ISR
4. Kaho Minagawa, JPN
6. Neviana Vladinova, BUL
7. Sabina Tashkenbaeva, UZB
8. Salome Pazhava, GEO

2019 Gazprom Cup Play-by-Play/Results: All-around

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Play-By-Play: Subdivision 3 - The heavy hitters

Neviana Vladinova, BUL, clubs: This is a routine that should serve Vladinova very well in the coming year. It has everything: fiery Spanish choreography and deeply interesting and original throws and catches. She biffs it at the end, kicking a club several yards away from her on a misfired back walkover throw, then hits her ending pose like nothing happened. 18.95.

Alina Chamzina, CZE, ball: Graceful work from the young Czech in white. Just one concentration error. 16.35.

Kaho Minagawa, JPN, ribbon: The last time we saw Kaho do this routine was in world finals, where she dropped the ribbon literally like seven times and scored sub-12. Thing is that when she does it well, it’s such a good piece. Here it was mediocre, thanks to a knot in the ribbon right before the big crescendo caused her to have to stop everything and fix it. Pity for that, but still better than it was in the Sofia finals, thank goodness. 16.0.

Nicol Voronkov, ISR, hoop: Casual greatness from one of Israel’s rising young stars here. Her work is so clean and precise it’s almost no-nonsense. A slip after a leap, but she carried on well. 17.75.

Seo Goeun, KOR, ball: Capable and pretty performance to a rendition of “California Dreaming.” The next Son Yeon Jae? 15.3.

Ekaterina Vedeneeva, SLO, hoop: So-so beginning for Vedeneeva as she has to reach far back on a catch to save it. 17.15.

Arina Averina, RUS, ball: Huge ovation from the pro-Russian, pro-Averina crowd here. Italian opera this year. Whoops! Ball gets away from her briefly after a leg throw. And twice more just before the end of her routine. Arina makes no attempt to hide her displeasure. 18.65.

Anastasia Salos, BLR, clubs: The promising young Belarusian continues to develop her own style, which in a word might be characterized as playful. Fun routine to “Rebel Just for Kicks.” 19.25.

Valerie Romenski, FRA, ribbon: Strong start for the young Frenchwoman whose music sounds like something from one of the castle levels in Super Mario World. 14.75.

Aleksandra Soldatova, RUS, hoop: Soldatova is concentrating really hard, and clutching the hoop with firm fingers. A good start for her, especially given that she appears to have improvised or taken out an element about a minute in (think Sofia World finals with the ribbon and you get an idea.) 21.3.

Salome Pazhava, GEO, hoop: A huge effort from the talented Pazhava with this new routine to Woodkid’s “Run Boy Run.” Technically quite sound, artistically enchanting. Finishes just behind the music. 20.2.

Sabina Tashkenbaeva, UZB, ribbon: Good start for Tashkenbaeva to Indian music. Intricate work throughout. 17.55.

Neviana Vladinova, BUL, ribbon: Pretty routine to “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” a song full of soul. Comes right after Alina Chamzina’s clubs performance to “Daddy Cool.” 17.95.

Kaho Minagawa, JPN, hoop: A soft, pretty exercise, classic Kaho. 19.2.

Ekaterina Vedeneeva, SLO, ball: Lovely classical work but a loss of the ball on a mastery 30 seconds before the end will deflate her score. 16.4.

Arina Averina, RUS, clubs: Russian folk music (and leotard) -- but drops the clubs twice in the first 30 seconds of her routine! One on a concentration error, one actually a hard skill. Arina looks less prepared than her twin so far, though this is the beginning of the season and Dina’s quite superhuman. 20.0.

Salome Pazhava, GEO, ball: Wonderful drama and expression, less wonderful control. You should get bonus points if you manage to make running after the ball that’s gotten away from you look like part of your choreography. A routine to watch to the end though: her final movements are lovely. 16.15.

Anastasia Salos, BLR, ribbon: Pretty work to a rather melancholic piece of music. One drop about 10 seconds into the routine, otherwise very good. 17.7.

Valerie Romenski, FRA, hoop: Lots of potential but a boatload of mistakes in this performance. It will be great when she puts it all together. This is going to be a low score though. 7.3.

Aleksandra Soldatova, RUS, ball: Soldatova is really at her best with a routine like this, which allows her to pour her soul and various emotional facial expressions out. Lovely work, plenty of backspins and needle scale pivots and such, but she lacks confidence in herself and occasionally bails on her big elements, improvising and hoping nobody notices. One drop. 19.0.

Salome Pazhava, GEO, clubs: Hard to top her “Joker” routine of the past two years, but Pazhava possibly does. This routine goes in a completely different, very soft direction, but it’s brilliant nonetheless. Passionate and infused with emotion, a new classic from rhythmic’s greatest chameleon. 18.6.

Dina Averina, RUS, clubs: In her quest for a third world title, Dina and her coaches have carefully and wisely chosen an Azerbaijani singer for her clubs routine. (Dina is best at clubs, and this year’s worlds will be held in Baku.) A fun, fast-paced, magical routine, filled with Dina’s signature difficulty. One tiny mistake that was hard to notice. Whatever. Bravo. 22.25.

Nicol Voronkov, ISR, clubs: Understated Spanish piece. Voronkov does everything right, but the routine lacks a bit of fire and soul. Still, 19.0.

Neviana Vladinova, BUL, hoop: Big, dramatic new routine for her here. Hoop gets away from her once. 19.15.

Anastastia Salos, BLR, hoop: A folksy, Flamenco version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” if that makes sense. Salos has been given the moniker “Belarus’s Little Princess,” and this routine belies both her youth and charm. Well done. 21.35.

Arina Averina, RUS, ribbon: Very dramatic look from Arina for the second year in a row. Quite a departure from the fun folksy routine that made her world champion with the ribbon in 2017, but as with Dina, indicative of a new maturity in her work. 18.9.

Sabina Tashkenbaeva, UZB, hoop: Lovely work! A lyrical, flowing hoop routine for UZB’s bright new hope. 18.3.

Dina Averina, RUS, ribbon: An Averina twin’s first foray into really exquisite elegance, this piece to Charles Aznavour’s “Une Vie d’Amour” duet with Mireille Mathieu lands well, and opens up a whole new chapter in her artistic evolution. Lovely. 19.2.

Valerie Romenski, FRA, ball: A far, far better performance than she gave with the hoop, showcasing her potential. Music: “There Was a Boy” from Moulin Rouge. 15.65.

Salome Pazhava, GEO, ribbon: A return to her roots with this beautiful routine to Georgian folk music. The first 10 seconds are the best, but the whole thing is great. 18.3.

Dina Averina, RUS, hoop: A masterful new routine from one of the wizards of hoop. Orchestral and well-delivered. Dina thought so too, judging by the fist pump she gave at the end. 22.5.

Sabina Tashkenbaeva, UZB, ball: Stylish routine to Pink Martini’s “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love,” her best performance of day, possibly. 17.55.

Kaho Minagawa, JPN, clubs: “McCavity” from Cats is Minagawa’s only departure from her soft signature style of her four routines this year. She does showbiz (complete with some clawing of the air) just as well as she does the lyrical stuff. Great routine. 18.6.

Arina Averina, RUS, hoop: Absolutely classic Russian work with the hoop to a big symphonic piece with huge throws and confident catches. Good for her. 22.4.

Anastasia Salos, BLR, ball: Though classically trained, there’s a lot of character and quirkiness in Salos’s movements and expressions, and I can’t help thinking that her choreographers have yet to find something that really fits her to a T -- and that she’s capable of a lot more edgy, avant-garde work than she’s showing. There are glimmers of it in this routine, but her whole artistic expression still feels like a work in progress, somehow. One thing is clear: she’s not going to be your typical rhythmic gymnast. 20.1.

Aleksandra Soldatova, RUS, ribbon: Starts with a smile, finishes with a very intense look. This routine is a departure from the soft style she showed last year in winning the world title with this apparatus. 18.4 is far off her mark, however.

Dina Averina, RUS, ball: Intriguing new routine for Dina, who performed a far more modern number to Stravinsky with this apparatus last year. This signals more of a return to her roots. 20.25.

Neviana Vladinova, BUL, ball: She’s kept her “In the Army Now” routine from 2018, a real-crowd pleaser. Terrific skills throughout, a well-placed pirouette sequence, and a stunner of an ending. What more could you want? 19.9.

Aleksandra Soldatova, RUS, clubs: No question, with this routine Soldatova makes it clear that she still belongs among the ranks of the Russian greats. A fast-paced, jazzy, blink-and-you’ll-miss something performance worthy of one of the country’s best. 18.4.

Subdivision 2:

Celia Joseph-Noel, FRA, hoop: A little out of control at times, but a most interesting senior debut from France’s most highly anticipated young rhythmic gymnast. 15.2.

Iasmina Agagulian, ARM, ball: Playful routine to “Summertime” from this young Armenian. 16.5.

Denisa Mailat, ROM, clubs: Bruno Mars! This young gymnast has great rhythm and stage presence but needs to work on her pirouettes.

Daria Trubnikova, RUS, hoop: Wearing a leotard that Kudryavetseva wore at the 2013 Worlds marks her out as one of the chosen ones. Gisele a very classical choice of music. Beautifully delivered but not particularly innovative choreography. Technically however, Trubnikova is very sound. 19.7.

Ekaterina Selezneva, RUS, hoop: Loses the hoop and makes a couple other little errors in this routine to Dario Marianelli’s “Rescue Me” in which she seems to be portraying love. 21.3 is a huge score given the mistake.

Viktoria Bogdanova, EST, hoop: One drop for the Estonian veteran. 15.8.

Daria Trubnikova, RUS, ball: Supreme elegance and even facial expressions to a wonderfully delivered “There Was A Boy” from Moulin Rouge.

Alina Adilkhankova, KAZ, hoop: Sends the hoop flying away from her during the first three seconds of what was otherwise a very nice routine to a yearning “I Will Survive.”

Ekaterina Selezneva, RUS, ball: Another difficulty packed exercise, and this one went decidedly better than her hoop performance. 20.7.

Rebecca Gergalo, FIN, ribbon: Stylish work from Finland’s best. 15.65.

Darya Sorokina, AZE, hoop: The Russians aren’t the only ones who recycle leotards. It’s like deja-vu watching Sorokina, who resembles a young Marina Durunda, perform her hoop exercise in that familiar blue leotard and executing some of the same masteries.

Celia Joseph-Noel, FRA, clubs: A learning experience for her with three drops of the clubs.

Viktoria Bogdanova, EST, ball: Lovely performance to “Together” by The xx. 16.4.

Daria Trubnikova, RUS, clubs: A fast-paced performance with plenty of conga drums. Kind of exotic, carried off well with her polished style. 20.3.

Ekaterina Selezneva, RUS, clubs: Some wickedly original masteries in this routine, including one right off the bat where she does half a back walkover, catch the clubs on the ball of her foot, kicks them back into the air and then stands up as though from a front walkover. Love the routine’s funky, kind-of-Asian choice of music, her uninhabited choreo, the big smile on her face. Never mind the dropped club toward the end. 19.8.

Daria Trubnikova, RUS, ribbon: Italian opera by Pavarotti. Some lovely moments in this routine, but for the most part she looks like she’s thinking more about her masteries than interpreting the music. Camera pans to coach Amina Zaripova looking thrilled at the close of this performance. 16.4.

Ekaterina Selezneva, RUS, ribbon: “Sex and the City.” Compared to her others, this routine is a little more standard, but still enjoyable.

Subdivision 1:

Anastasia Grazenkova, RUS, clubs: As the race to fill the place of Yulia Bravikova and the rest of the reserves bench begins, young Grazenkova looks like a promising candidate -- until she drops her clubs twice to this sweet rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. Well, she’s young. 15.55.

Elizaveta Iampolskaia, MDA, ribbon: A fast-paced routine to a variation of “I Will Survive.” Has to stop for a good 10 seconds to unknot her rope half a minute in. Love the butterfly jumps, however. 11.8.

Kamelya Tuncel, TUR, clubs: A cute routine from a cute young gymnast, and the song lyrics are about murder. No, seriously -- “I’m going to wring his neck/I’m going to take my guns and shoot him down.” Well.

Irina Annenkova, RUS, ribbon: Very nice presentation to “O Fortuna” by the 2014 Youth Olympic champion. Really has to cheat a pivot at one point but overall a pleasure to watch.

Ingrid Bratsberg, NOR, clubs: Clean and pretty routine to “Mascara” by Violet right up to the last second when she pulls a Kudryavtseva and drops a club. Sigh. 13.95.

Anastasia Grazenkova, RUS, ribbon: Charming and difficult ribbon routine to Russian folk music that just gets faster and faster and faster -- hats off to her for keeping up with it. Fashion note: her leotard has no skirt in front, and a little ruffle in the back. The coming thing? 18.4.

Karolina Mizune, Latvia, ball: Nice interpretation of “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica.

Irina Annenkova, RUS, hoop: After several years of not being in the conversation, Annenkova’s developed into quite a passionate performer -- and one who’s not bad about covering up her little errors (as she did once in this routine). Impressive work from her so far. 18.4.

Aisha Izabekova, KGZ, clubs: Shimmies her way through an Indian-themed routine.

Anastasia Guzenkova, RUS, hoop: Like most Russians, she seems predisposed to handle big music well. Mireille Mathieu’s “Padam, Padam” is admittedly a little mature for her, but she pulls it off with aplomb. Quick work, reminiscent of Kudryavtseva. Great ending pose, too. 20.5. Whoa.

Kamelya Tuncel, TUR, hoop: The young hope from Turkey has 15.95.

Irina Annenkova, RUS, ball: The more I see of her the more I like her. So expressive with whole body, but especially with her hands. Terrific turn sequence that ends with her leg above her head, giving the ball a tiny little kick off her toe. Entertaining routine, well worth watching. 19.8.

Aisha Izabekova, KGZ, ribbon: Ribbon in a hopeless knot halfway through, has to change it out and promptly loses the replacement. Rhythmic is hard, guys.

Anastasia Guzenkova, RUS, ball: 19.65. A star is born.

Irina Annenkova, RUS, clubs: A big smile on her face for the first time today as the closing bars of Edvin Marton’s “Godfather” sound through the Pluski Olympic Center. Certainly there are more successful Russians to come in this field, but she has done very well for herself here. Bravo. 19.95.

Ingrid Bratsberg, NOR, ball: When you lose control of your ball at the end of your routine but the music and choreo almost makes it look like you meant to do it that way. 12.8.

Who's who in Rhythmic Gymnastics in 2019

So, you’re interested in Rhythmic Gymnastics but don’t have any idea which names to watch? Totally understandable. As the 2019 World Cup and Grand Prix seasons heats up, this helpful cheat sheet will bring you up to speed.

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The Russians

The who’s-who of Rhythmic Gymnastics begins and ends with Russians. (That’s both literally and figuratively true -- read on and it will become more evident why.) No matter what measuring stick is used to determine greatness in Rhythmic, Russians come out on top every time. The country has won every Olympic gold medal up for grabs in Rhythmic since the year 2000, and that does not look like it’s going to change anytime soon.

Russian gymnasts not only dominate the Olympics, they dominate on the World and European level as well. The last time a non-Russian won any world title in Rhythmic was back in 2013. The country’s best ever, two-time Olympic champion Evgenia Kanaeva, won every single gold medal at every world championships between 2008 and 2012. Russian rhythmic gymnasts are not merely good -- they are sublime.

Russian greats usually occur in pairs. Kanaeva’s most persistent challenger was teammate Daria Dmitrieva, who took silver behind her at the 2012 Olympics. Throughout her career Yana Kudryavtseva, the golden-haired star of the last Olympic cycle, lived out one of the great competitive rivalries in sport with her friend and teammate Margarita Mamun. Kudryavtseva may have won the lion’s share of their duels at world championships, but Mamun had the last laugh when she surpassed her to take the Rio Olympic crown.

The Russians du jour are linked in a special way: they’re identical twins. Dina and Arina Averina, the top juniors in Russia during the Kudry/Mamun empire, have now risen to take their place at the summit of the sport. Though evidence points to 2017 and 2018 world all-around champion Dina as the more talented of the two, Arina is poised to swoop in and win should Dina have an off day, like she did at last year’s European Championships.

The Averinas are likely to go all the way to Tokyo and then some, but just in case that’s not so, there are a dozen or so viable candidates waiting in the wings. Keep an eye on young Lala Kramarenko, an up-and-coming junior (and also one with a twin sister) who seems poised to become the next Russian star.

The Israelis

Israel’s number one is Linoy Ashram, an athletic competitor whose difficulty is off the charts -- that is to say, it matches the Russians’, which is enough to put Ashram near the top of the standings provided she doesn’t make too many errors. Ashram made international headlines last year when she scored 20.65 with the clubs at the Minsk World Cup, which briefly stood as the highest mark given out this quad.

One big change in Rhythmic since 2016 is that difficulty scoring has become open-ended, whereas before it was capped at 10 points. (Dina Averina’s clubs routine begins around 10.8.) This change has been great for the Averinas, who are more tricksters than anything else, but it’s elevated Ashram as well for the same reason. At just 19, Ashram is already considered the greatest gymnast Israel has ever produced. This is due to her accolades: in 2017, she became the first Israeli gymnast to earn a world medal in the all-around, a bronze. She did herself one better last year by taking silver and medaling in three of the four apparatus finals.

Though Ashram is the first name that pops to mind when considering Israeli rhythmic gymnastics, Nicol Zelikman had a banner year in 2018 as well, securing top five finishes with the ball and the hoop at the Sofia Worlds and could prove one of the big surprises of 2018.


The Belarusians

Challenges to Russia’s rhythmic dominance in recent years have most consistently come from Belarus, whose gymnasts set themselves apart in elegance and thoughtful choreography. With the retirement of the great Melitina Staniouta after Rio, the torch was passed to Katsiaryna Halkina, an endearing performer and livewire. Halkina in turn is mentoring a new crop of Belarusian greats, including Alina Harnasko and Anastasia Salos, who made a name for herself at last year’s Worlds in Sofia with her 10th place finish.

The Ukrainians

With a program as storied (though not as well funded) as that of the Russians, Ukraine’s storied history of producing excellent rhythmic gymnasts lives on. For the past 20 years, the wealth of talent of Ukraine has passed through the Diriugina School in Kiev, a gym housed in a cinema and run by four-time world gold medalist Irina Deriugina and her 86-year-old mother Albina.

The latest promise is 16-year-old Vlada Nikolchenko, whose breakout performances at the 2018 World Championships, where she finished fourth all-around, marked her as the next great Ukrainian hope, along with 2018 Youth Olympic silver medalist Krystyna Pohranychna, one of the year’s most anticipated new seniors, and Olena Diachenko.

The Italians

Italians love rhythmic gymnastics, and their devotion was rewarded when they hosted the World Championships in Pesaro in 2017, where upstart Alexandra Agiurgiuculese won the Longines Prize for Elegance. Agiurgiuculese and Milena Baldassarri have been leading the Italian Renaissance ever since. The Pink Floyd-loving gymnast followed up with bronzes with the ball and in the team competition in 2018, while Baldassarri took silver with the ribbon, the first medals in world competition for Italian individuals since Samantha Ferrari’s clubs bronze in 1991.

Italy’s group, affectionately known as the Farfalle (“Butterflies”) is well established as one of the top groups in the world, and the individuals, including Youth Olympic bronze medalist Talisa Torretti, are quickly catching up.

The Bulgarians

The biggest challenge to Soviet dominance up to the dissolution of the Soviet empire, Bulgaria has been relatively quiet in terms of individual medals during the last twenty years, but the country’s devotion to the sport is unwavering. The Bulgarian group has won ten world all-around titles, and more recently individuals Neviana Vladinova, Katrin Taseva and Boryana Kaleyn have been winning titles and pushing Bulgaria back toward the center of the rhythmic galaxy. As far as the heavily pro-Bulgarian crowd was concerned at last fall’s World Championships, they were incomparable.

The best of the rest

In a nutshell: The fate of Russia’s Aleksandra Soldatova, who played third fiddle first to Kudryavtseva and Mamun last quad and to the Averina twins today, is an open question. Soldatova’s gorgeous ribbon performance in qualifications in Sofia knocked Arina Averina out of the two-per-country all-around final, but two drops of the same ribbon in her first performance of said final did her no favors with the Russian powers that select teams. Soldatova rallied bravely to take all-around bronze, but the damage to her already shaky reputation as a performer to be counted on was done.

With best-ever finishes for her country at the 2015 and 2017 Worlds, the USA’s Laura Zeng has taken the American program to new heights. A six-month suspension for mistakenly ingesting a banned substance to combat altitude sickness in Peru last fall means Zeng is down until the middle of the spring, but don’t count her out.

Incomparable in expression but inconsistent in performance, Georgia’s Salome Pazhava nevertheless remains one of the most beloved characters in all of rhythmic gymnastics. Japan’s Kaho Minagawa is elegance personified, and the 2017 world medalist is a much improved Japanese team’s best hope for success this year.

Meanwhile, French flame Ksenia Moustafaeva has battled knee injuries, but remains a top eight contender when fully healthy. Finally, if you want to know what sophisticated rhythmic looks like, check out 2016 Olympian Nicol Ruprecht of Austria, whose clubs routine to Liza Minelli’s “Mein Herr” stands as one of the best examples of why music with lyrics works in rhythmic gymnastics.