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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.