Russia will soldier on, but the news that Aliya Mustafina is unlikely to be part of the team for the upcoming World Championships in Stuttgart is bound to give the world’s number two team some pause.
Mustafina, the two-time Olympic uneven bars champion and the dominant figure in Russian women’s team for nearly a decade now, announced at this weekend’s Russian Cup in Penza that she was “most likely” out for October’s Worlds in Stuttgart due to a calf rupture sustained earlier this year. Mustafina, who turns 25 at the end of September, will be taking some time to regroup before attacking the home stretch of her third Olympic run with “a brand new energy.”
Though you never really know with Russia, this development is in keeping with Mustafina’s career trajectory. Injury has always kept her from Worlds in the year before the Olympics, and she’s always come through the next summer with some of the best performances of her career. She’ll be missed in Germany, but Mustafina understands that it’s better to sit out Worlds and go to the Olympics than vice-versa, and so will her many admirers.
For the Russian team, meanwhile, this poses something of a problem. Mustafina was a key part of Russia’s silver medal performance at the 2018 Worlds, contributing on everything but vault as Russia slotted themselves ahead of China and behind the United States. Her absence, and the lack of truly sturdy scores across the board to replace her and 2018 World team member Irina Alexeeva, who is no longer competing elite, opens the door for a host of hungry teams -- Canada, Brazil, Japan, Great Britain, Germany -- to potentially land on the podium.
Fortunately for Russia, the seeds of change are already sprouting in the form of elegant juniors Vladislava Urazova and Elena Gersaimova, who came through to win gold and bronze, respectively, at the Russian Cup. Urazova was particularly impressive, unseating defending champion Angelina Melnikova by almost two points (57.732-55.932), and that 57.732 is the third-best all-around score in the world so far this year. Gersaimova finished in bronze medal position, but within striking distance of the leaders, tallying 54.165.
2018 World team members Lilia Akhaimova, European Youth Olympic Festival bronze medalist Yana Vorona, also still a junior, and national champion Angelina Simakova rounded out the top six. Indications from this competition logically point to a world team composed of Melnikova, vault/floor specialist Akhaimova, Simakova, bars specialist Anastasia Ilyankova and two-time Olympic vault medalist Maria Paseka, with Varvara Zubova, Ksenia Klimenko and/or Tatiana Nabieva standing by as alternates. This makes for a team strongest on vault and floor, which are not generally Russia’s best events, so Worlds for them could be odd indeed.
Urazova, Gersaimova, and Vorona, though technically juniors, were allowed to compete in the senior division at the Russian Cup thanks to a clause that allows juniors who will be seniors in the Olympic year to get some necessary experience at this domestic competition. While a smart move, that isn’t going to help the Russians in Stuttgart. It could end up as a competition where Russia underperforms, only to come back and reestablish the status quo next year as Urazova and Gersaimova officially enter the senior arena.
For now, it’s still unofficial. A star was born when Urazova captured all-around silver and uneven bars gold at the Junior World Championships in June, but an Olympic hopeful emerged at the Russian Cup.