Top 10 Stars and Storylines to Follow in Kitakyushu 

By Ashlee Buhler; with Christy Sandmaier

It’s almost showtime in Kitakyushu, Japan and the stage is set for what should be another thrilling World Championships! It’s not very often that an Olympic Games and World Championships are held just months apart, but with many Tokyo favorites retired or taking a break after the Games, or only competing a couple of events, the door is wide open for new faces to shine and new champions to emerge in Kitakyushu. 

Here are some of the top stars and storylines to be on the watch for this week at the 2021 World Championships. Click here for the full competition and broadcast schedule. 

1. New Look for Team USA

For the past eight years, Simone Biles and Sam Mikulak have been the face of gymnastics in the United States. However, with Biles currently touring the country with no further competition plans announced, and Mikulak recently retired, some fresh faces will have the opportunity to step up in Kitakyushu—setting the pace for the next Olympic cycle and the next generation of Team USA. The women’s team features four first-time World team members loaded with talent and potential. 2020 Olympic alternates Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello will lead the pack as the most experienced members on the women’s side and perhaps the U.S.’s best hope for an All-Around medal.

Both Wong and DiCello have high scoring potential if they can put together four events. DiCello is the 2019 Junior National All-Around Champion as well as the 2019 Junior World Champion on vault, while Wong is the 2018 Junior National All-Around Champion and 2019 American Cup Champion. DiCello in particular looked strong in the selection camp earning the automatic berth after day one as well as in podium training here, while Wong has the potential for one of the top-scoring floor routines if she hits and performs the way we know she can. They will be joined by Konnor McClain, who is a two-time junior national champion on beam, and eMjae Frazier who was a part of the gold medal winning team at the 2020 Friendship and Solidarity meet. McClain could be the U.S. team’s best hope for a medal on beam while Frazier will strive to get into the floor final and bring home a medal there. With a mixed level of international experience, selection camp results, and a bit of a rough go in podium training for McClain and Frazier in particular, it will be interesting to say the least to see the lineup high-performance coordinator Tom Forster puts together for Qualifications.

On the men’s side, 2020 Olympian Yul Moldauer and two-time World team member Donnell Whittenburg both just so happen to be individual World bronze medalists (Moldauer on floor in 2017 and Whittenburg on vault in 2015) and have a great opportunity to do it again in 2021. There is no shortage of talent for the U.S. men with three Olympians on the team, including 2021 U.S. All-Around Champion Brody Malone and 2020 Olympic pommel horse finalist Alec Yoder. Malone, along with Moldauer, have great potential to win an All-Around medal, which hasn’t happened for the U.S. men since Jonathan Horton won bronze in 2010. Pommel horse is where Yoder comes in. The horse has long been thought of as a weak event for the U.S. men, but with Yoder, who was sixth in the pommel horse final in Tokyo, and 2021 U.S. pommel horse champion Stephen Nedoroscik, the U.S. could put up a good fight for a medal on that event. Rounding out the team is 2020 Olympic alternate Alex Diab who is the reigning U.S. still rings national champion and could contend for a medal there. 

2. The Return of Becky Downie  

After being left off the 2020 British Olympic Team, a move that shocked fans around the world, Becky Downie is ready to get redemption and return to the world podium. Downie is absolute world class on the uneven bars and comes in as the reigning World silver medalist on the event. With one of the most difficult sets being done in the world right now (she trained a 6.6 D score routine in podium training), she certainly is a favorite to take home the title in Kitakyushu. And what a statement and storyline that would be! 

3. Uchimura Looking for Strong Finish

Falling off the high bar in his home Olympics and failing to advance to the event finals is not how King Kohei Uchimura wanted to finish off his gymnastics career. For the seven-time Olympic medalist and 21-time World medalist, this competition may be his last. And what better way to go out than with a medal—one more time—in his home country! 

4. Japan’s New King 

In Tokyo the torch was passed! Hashimoto Daiki picked off where Uchimura left off and continued the golden legacy for the Japanese men with his All-Around and high bar gold medals in Tokyo. Hashimoto will have a rare opportunity to bring home two major All-Around titles in one year if he can medal in Kitakyushu as well. Will Hashimoto solidify himself as the new king of men’s gymnastics? 

5. Urazova’s Time to Shine 

With Olympic gold in her back pocket from the team competition in Tokyo, Vladislava Urazova is primed to bring home some individual medals in Kitakyushu. Although she’s not expected to do the All-Around, Urazova’s clean form and technique make her a favorite for a medal on bars, where she won gold at the Junior World Championships in 2019, as well as on beam where she was an Olympic finalist in Tokyo. With a strong showing here, Urazova could set herself up as one of the favorites as the Road to Paris begins its climb.

6. All-Around Battle

The All-Around title is up for grabs in Kitakyushu with several fan favorites not planning to compete all four events. Most notably missing from the All-Around competition will be Olympic All-Around silver medalist Rebeca Andrade, Vladislava Urazova who finished fourth in Tokyo, and Murakami Mai, who was fifth. This opens the door for athletes like Angelina Melnikova to upgrade her All-Around bronze from the 2019 World Championships and Tokyo Olympics and make it gold. If Melnikova were to win the title, she would snap an over decades-long U.S. golden streak and become the first non-American to win the World All-Around title since Aliya Mustafina won gold in 2010. However, her fate in Kitakyushu is not a given as this is gymnastics afterall.  Kayla Dicello will likely be Melnikova’s biggest competition and has a shot at gold if she’s steady. If she’s having a consistent day—Leanne Wong could challenge as well. 

7. Redemption for Rhys

Fan-favorite and new social media sensation Rhys McClenaghan will be looking for redemption in Kitakyushu after a disappointing performance in Tokyo left him seventh in the pommel horse final. McClenaghan made history for his country when he won bronze on the event at Worlds in 2019, but with his usual tight form and high difficulty, he has the goods (and the motivation) to make it gold in 2021. 

8. Comeback Queen

An unfortunately timed injury kept her off the Chinese Olympic team in Tokyo, but Li Shijia is ready to shine in Kitakyushu. Watch for her on bars and beam (she’s the reigning bronze world bronze medalist on the latter) as she is state of the art and will be in the mix for medals on these events. 

9. One Last Time? 

She has achieved everything she has set out to do in her career: Four Japanese All-Around National titles, World Champion on floor in 2017, and a bronze medalist on floor in Tokyo. Now Murakami Mai says Kitakyushu just may be her final bow. In podium training she only showed beam and floor, but certainly is a favorite for the title on the latter. Winning a medal one more time in front of her home crowd would be the perfect way to end her storied career.  

10. History Continued 

Rebeca Andrade may be out of All-Around and floor, but there is still potential for her to reach more historic milestones at these World Championships. Andrade made history in Tokyo by becoming the first Brazilian female gymnast to win an Olympic medal with her silver in the All-Around and gold on vault. Now she hopes to bring that same magic to Kitakyushu and become a World Champion. The reigning Olympic champ on vault warmed up a sky-high Cheng and a Yurchenko double twist in podium training (both done with her typical power and amplitude) and is heading for gold if she lands on her feet in Kitakyushu. A medal on bars or beam isn’t out of the question either for this incredible athlete who continues to inspire us all!

Photos by Ricardo Bufolin and Grace Chiu for Inside Gymnastics

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