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.
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).
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.