The stars of Russian gymnastics - including World all-around medallists Angelina Melnikova and Artur Dalaloyan - are set to compete in their first major competition of 2021 this week at the Russian Championships in Penza. The event, which awards team, all-around, and apparatus titles begins Wednesday and runs through Sunday.
Ahead of the action in Penza, here are the story lines to keep an eye on.
Can Melnikova continue to improve?
Melnikova, the 2019 World all-around bronze medallist and star of the Olympic Channel series All Around, competed just twice in 2020: first in late January at an Italian competition, and then at the Friendship and Solidarity competition in November in Japan.
That friendly in Japan showed that the 20-year-old hadn’t missed a step since the World Championships, despite a months long layoff caused by the coronavirus pandemic. She earned an all-around total at that competition of 56.700, highlighted by a 14.700 on vault, a 14.500 on the uneven bars, and a 14.100 on the balance beam, an event on which she had once struggled to find consistency.
Now, she heads to the Russian Championships after an intense two weeks of training.
“Last week was quite hard, because we were focusing on volume. The Russian Championships will happen in two weeks, so we had to go through the combinations, and the amount of those is always the most difficult thing,” said Melnikova in a recent interview for All Around.
The 2016 Olympic silver medallist was slightly hampered in her preparation, however. Laser eye surgery at the start of the year kept her out of training for about 10 days. Yet, the experienced gymnast feels like it’s nothing she can’t overcome.
“I am not that confident with regards to my form right now. But I think that after a week, everything will be clearer and everything will be as usual,” Melnikova explained. “In fact, I am always confident in what I will and will not do, so if I am not confident [in it], I will never do it. I always approach competitions with confidence.
The Nagornyy and Dalaloyan battle will have to wait
The best two men’s gymnasts in the world, reigning World and European champion Nikita Nagornyy and 2018 World all-around champion Dalaloyan, were expected to once again face off in Penza. But, Nagornyy announced Tuesday via Instagram that he was sick and withdrawing from competition.
"Today, I spent the whole day with a temperature of 39," Nagornyy wrote, "and tomorrow is the first day of the competition We made the decision, together with the coaching staff of the national team, to skip this Russian championship. It's a shame, but health is more important!"
After finishing third in the all-around at the 2018 World Championships, Nagornyy has firmly established himself as the world’s no. 1 male gymnast: winning the European and World titles easily in 2019. Dalaloyan finished second at both events.
But with Nagornyy's withdrawal, the field is clear for Dalaloyan to return to the top of the podium this week in Penza.
New faces get their chance
A trio of young Russians took the gymnastics world by storm at the 2019 World Junior Championships, winning the event’s inaugural team gold medal. They also combined to win four of the available five individual gold medals.
Now, Elena Gerasimova, Viktoria Listunova and Vladislava Urazova look to make good on that junior success months before the Tokyo 2020 Games. Listunova, who won all-around and floor gold at those junior Worlds, would not have been eligible for the Games had they been held in 2020.
“It is such an opportunity, it is such a big chance,” Listunova told Olympic Channel last year. “I should try not to miss out. It is every athlete's dream.”
Her first step toward that dream happens this week.
Mustafina, Spiridonova and Stretovich will not compete
Three Russians who have been part of recent international success for the nation will not compete in Penza: two-time Olympic uneven bars champion Aliya Mustafina, 2015 World uneven bars co-champion Daria Spiridonova, and 2019 World team champion Ivan Stretovich will not be in the field this week. All three represented Russia at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio when both Russia's men's and women's team won silver.
Mustafina recently took on a role as the acting head coach of the Russian junior women. Despite that new position, Mustafina has not indicated what it might mean for her competitive future. She had, as recently as last July, told Olympic Channel she was still focused on the Tokyo Olympics, despite their postponement.
“It hasn't affected me a great deal,” Mustafina said of the delayed Games. “Thinking about Tokyo, it may even be an advantage in my case. Whether I go or not... time will tell. I will not say anything yet.”