After Day 1 of Qualifications – What We Saw, What We Loved, What We Anticipate

By Christy Sandmaier and Ashlee Buhler

Seven Down. Three to Go. 

Day 1 is complete, fans are back in the arena – we’ve heard there will be full crowds for finals – and we’re starting to see who’s here to play (and win!) and who just might be feeling understandably fatigued after an exceptionally long road to these World Championships in Kitakyushu. 

We say it all the time, but for all of these gymnasts, just being here truly is an incredible accomplishment. 

And it’s not very often that an Olympic Games and World Championships are held just months apart (1992 and 1996 were the last time), but with many Tokyo favorites retired or taking a break after the Games, or only competing in a couple of events, the door is wide open for new faces to shine and new champions to emerge in Kitakyushu. 

We’ve made our Top 10 List of who and what to watch, now it’s time to see how it all plays out!

So far… for the U.S. Women, Leanne Wong (55.749) and Kayla DiCello (55.700) went 1-2 in the All-Around after Subdivision 3 and held that place through seven rounds of ten. Hatakeda Hitomi (JPN) currently sits third with a 53.798.

After being named to the team just nine days ago (not so cool, USAG – if you’re all about athletes gaining experience here as you’ve said, why not give your less-experienced athletes a minute to mentally prepare for the World Championships) and arriving in Japan with only a day of practice before a somewhat tough go in podium training, when the lights went up, the 2020 Olympic alternates proved they came to play and looked strong, confident and completely in control of their competition from start to finish. They’re veterans now and looked every bit the part, making the adjustments to perform at their best when the light turned green.

When Wong is on, she can challenge the world’s best, and that’s exactly what she’s done here so far. On bars, she performed a very pretty Maloney to Pak salto, though she missed her feet on the bar and couldn’t connect directly to the Maloney half. She showed great height and finesse on the Jaeger – a move she missed during the selection event – and showed an excellent stuck double layout to finish the routine. Beam was beautiful, including the side aerial combination she missed in podium training. Floor is where Wong shines brightest and today the tumbling was right there with her trademark technique, grace and artistry – (beautiful whip triple full, Leanne!) Wong is also one of those rare gymnasts who can perform – feel every note of music and still hit her tumbling. Today, her 14.0 on the event held first place through five subdivisions until sentimental favorite and Olympic floor bronze medalist Murakami Mai (JPN), who is more than hinting this her final competition, took the lead with a 14.166.

DiCello also proved she’s in the running for the top spot on the All-Around podium. Her confidence looks to be at an all-time high and her skills are as strong as ever. She has all of the difficulty she needs on bars – here, she did a Stalder full to Maloney, Tkatchev, piked Jaeger, Church, Pak salto to van Leeuwen, and finished with a double twisting double tuck. She was short on her handstands which cut into her E score, so she’s got room to improve on the 13.9 she scored if she can focus there. Beam was solid and confident and we’re becoming accustomed to seeing her hit that routine now. And she has a wolf turn we don’t mind watching! Floor is where we saw her greatest improvement and we loved it! Her personality is coming through and it’s a definite boost to the routine since we last saw it in St.Louis. Most wonderful about DiCello though, is that she looks and performs like a leader now. It’s a role that suits her well.

Making their World Championships debut, eMjae Frazier and Konnor McClain showed nerves along with some powerful skills and huge potential. On her first event, Frazier fell off on her toe-on piked Tkatchev – she was way too close to the bar – perhaps compensating for being way too far and missing the bar completely in warmups. Her floor was stronger, but she was short on both her double double and double layout. Frazier is a great interview and thrilled to be part of Team USA here, and we’re certain there is much more in store for her, if not in Kitakyushu, then in her very near future.

McClain has been a question mark all year since moving gyms and withdrawing last minute from the 2021 U.S. Championships. Her beam technique is outstanding and all of her skills are right there. She nailed her standing full – she just needs to believe in herself when the time is right and we could see amazing things for her in her senior career. She was two-per-countried out of beam finals (13.466) behind Wong (13.7) and DiCello (13.5) but hopefully being that close isn’t a setback for McClain, rather an incentive and confidence booster to push forward. Time will tell of course how many podium finishes are in her future, but McClain should be a force to be reckoned with and could well be the one we’re looking to lead Team USA in Paris, if that’s the path she chooses.

2019 Stuttgart world silver medalist on bars Becky Downie (GBR) had a mostly up day routine-wise, though it’s easy to see the toll the last year and not making the team to Tokyo has taken mentally. She hit both of her events – we loved seeing her on beam (13.333) – and bars (14.000) where she currently sits sixth on that event and in danger of being out of finals. We  know she truly wants to perform in finals again and we’d love to see her find redemption if that truly is such a thing for her here…

Downie told the media in the Mixed Zone following Qualifications that, “People won’t understand what it’s taken just to get here” adding she’s proud of herself given the mental and physical rollercoaster of the last year. And… she says she can build on today’s pared-back performance. She also noted she felt tired before her bar routine today but proud of what she’s done. Still heartbroken after not making the Olympics when she felt like she was in the best shape of her life, Downie said she’s “never been this burnt out before a major competition.” She’s not sure her bars’ score will hold to make finals. And if not, is looking forward to a break, she says. Downie has so much to be proud of and if nothing else in Kitakyushu and throughout her career, has inspired us all. Look for more on Downie coming soon!

Romanian talent Maria Ceplinschi competed in Subdivision 7 and currently sits sixth on floor with a 13.300. Keep an eye out for her. We have a feeling she may just be getting started. #paris2024

To close out Qualifications, we’ll see Brazil’s Olympic gold and silver medalist Rebeca Andrade competing on three events (she’s sitting out floor) in Subdivision 9 and Russian Olympic gold medalists Angelina Melnikova and Vladislava Urazova in Subdivision 10. 

Melnikova is a strong favorite here and it seems all she has to do is hit and she’ll win. But this is gymnastics afterall, and Melnikova’s teammate Urazova, who originally wasn’t slated to do the All-Around is now currently listed to do all four events in Qualifications! With Andrade and Murakami not competing in all events, the All-Around competition could come down to four gymnasts: Melnikova, Urazova, Wong and DiCello for the three spots on the podium. 

But first, Subdivisions 8,9, and 10… See you tonight (or tomorrow, wherever in the world you are!)

FIG Start List and Results

Note: The Women’s All-Around Final begins Thursday, October 21 at 5am ET and will air live on the Olympic Channel.

Photos by Volker Minkus/FIG; Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics

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